ON THIS DAY: 25 OCTOBER 1920: Terence MacSwiney, the Mayor of Cork, dies in a London prison after 74 days on hunger strike

Terence MacSwiney, in a photograph published in a French newspaper entitled: ‘The Lord Mayor of Cork Two Days Before His Death’. Credit: UCD Archives

“If I die I know the fruit will exceed the cost a thousand fold. The thought of it makes me happy. I thank God for it. Ah, Cathal, the pain of Easter week is properly dead at last.”

Terence MacSwiney wrote these words in a letter to Cathal Brugha on September 30, 1920, the 39th day of his hunger strike.

The pain he refers to is that caused by his failure to partake in the 1916 Easter Rising. Contradictory orders from Dublin and the failure of the arms ship, the Aud, to land arms in Tralee left the Volunteers in Cork unprepared for insurrection.

He was born into a staunchly nationalist, Cork Catholic family of 8 children. To help support his family, Terence, left school at 15 and found employment as an accountancy clerk.

In 1899 he joined the Gaelic League and remained an active supporter of the Irish language throughout his life, establishing Irish language classes with Tomás MacCurtain, and co-founding the Cork Celtic Literary Society which adopted a broad nationalist programme, and the Cork Dramatic Society with the writer and academic Daniel Corkery.

MacSwiney was a teacher, poet and playwright, and his play The Revolutionist, was described by historian Patrick Maume as “an important statement of MacSwiney’s philosophy of self-sacrifice”. The Corkman believed that the sacrifice of the few could unite a people and mobilise the nation for freedom. In his collection of political writings, Principles of Freedom, he wrote “It is love of country that inspires us; not hate of the enemy …’”

He was among the founders of the Cork Brigade of the Volunteers in late 1913.  A deeply religious man, during his acceptance speech made when he was elected Lord Mayor of Cork, he said of Ireland’s long fight for freedom: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”

 

MacSwiney immediately began his fateful hunger strike, protesting the authority of the British court in the Republic, and following a long tradition of fasting against injustice prevalent in ancient Ireland. His suffering drew international attention to the cause of Irish freedom and worldwide media attention. Crowds gathered to pray and protest at Brixton prison and King George privately appealed to the British government for clemency. Messages of support poured in from around the world – a telegram sent from the mayor of New York to Lloyd George urged him to end the “the imprisonment of Lord Mayor MacSwiney whose heroic fortitude in representing even unto death the opinions of the citizens who elected him has won the admiration of all the peoples who believe in rule of the people by the people”.

10,000 people protested in Glasgow. The British newspaper The Observer noted “the majority of public opinion and of the press in Great Britain is unquestionably for the Lord Mayor’s release”.

After 74 days without food, Terence MacSwiney died on October 25th. His last words to a priest by his side were, “I want you to bear witness that I die as a soldier of the Irish Republic.”

His last words to a priest by his side were, “I want you to bear witness that I die as a soldier of the Irish Republic.”

On the 28th October, following Requim Mass a procession of 10,000 people marched to Euston Station, led by Archbishop Dr. Mannix of Melbourne, Cork corporation, trade unions, Dáil Éireann representatives, mayors of several English cities and more. The coffin was seized at Hollyhead by Black and Tans, under orders from the Home Office, and put on a special government boat for Cork city. Plans for a day of mourning in Dublin went ahead, without Terrence MacSwiney’s body, and a requim mass at the Pro-cathedral was led by the elderly Archbishop Fr. Walsh.

MacSwiney’s coffin arrived in Cork and escorted it to City hall where it laid in State. On the 31st of October after funeral mass in Cork Cathedral, up to 100,000 lined the streets as MacSwiney was taken to the republican plot and buried beside his friend Tomás MacCurtain.

Protests were held as far away as India and Chicago and widespread condemnation of the death and treatment of Terrence MacSwiney and his colleagues on hunger strike were issued around the world.

 

The cover of Le Petit Journal shows Terrence MacSwiney with his confessor, Fr. Dominic

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