Terence MacSwiney forged a strong Cork link to Catalonia

Terence MacSwiney forged a strong Cork link to Catalonia
Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney

CORK and Catalonia have links going all the back to Terence MacSwiney, who’s self-sacrifice for Ireland helped to inspire the Catalonian independence movement.

Over the weekend, Catalans faced violent resistance from the Spanish authorities as they pressed ahead with an illegal referendum on separating as a separate Republic. With a turnout of more than two million people — 40% of eligible voters —90% backed the region leaving Spain, according to the Catalan government.

The response in Ireland to the referendum and the violence to repress it in has been mixed. It has been condemned by the likes of Solidarity TD Mick Barry, and Sinn Féin held a demonstration of solidarity outside City Hall last night. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has not commented, but his department issued a statement expressing concern at the violence and saying that Ireland has historical links with Spain, but said that the rule of law should prevail and welcomed Prime Minister Marionao Rajoy’s indication that he would seek to quell tensions.

A section of the large gathering taking part in the demonstration outside Cork City Hall in solidarity with voters in Catalonia. Picture: David Keane.
A section of the large gathering taking part in the demonstration outside Cork City Hall in solidarity with voters in Catalonia. Picture: David Keane.

The movement for Catalan independence has similarities to Ireland’s struggle. Both emerged as major political forces following cultural nationalist movements of the 19th and early-20th centuries, and to this day, people on both sides have shown solidarity with each other. But the most notable link was with the Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney in 1920.

On August 16, Mr MacSwiney was sentenced by court-martial to two years in Brixton Prison for charges of possessing seditious articles and documents and a cipher. He began his hunger strike immediately. While the eyes and ears of the world had been turned to Ireland in the years before as it fought for independence, this act put Ireland right in the spotlight as the UK was faced with allowing an elected Lord Mayor to die or caving to his demands in some way.

MacSwiney’s death and the popularisation of his writings would inspire revolutionaries around the world in the decades that followed, but the Catalonians began showing solidarity immediately. In a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George the Autonomous Center of Employees of Commerce and Industry (CADCI) urged the UK to release Mr MacSwiney.

“Our organisation, consisting of 8,000 members engaged in the humble profession of commercial employees, wishes to make its voice heard by you, in order to express the concern of all Catalonia for the heroic, sublime and now tragic gesture of the Lord Mayor of Cork. If there is still time, we, who are also inspired by an ideal, most earnestly request you to grant the freedom of the Lord Mayor of Cork. This remarkable man, who from his prison displayed his unbending will to sacrifice his life on behalf of his ideal of nationhood, a man who possesses such firm spiritual courage and who has attained such admirable sublimity,” it read.

When Mr MacSwiney died two months later, the Catalans rioted in Barcelona. According to writer Dave Hannigan, the region went into mourning: “Women were invited to wear crepe and black ribbons, flags were hung at half-mast, and around midday on 27 October, some 500 protesters arrived at the British Consulate-General in the city. They were waving a Sinn Féin flag and chanting: ‘Viva irlanda, muera Inglaterra [Long live Ireland, die England],” he wrote in his book Terence MacSwiney The Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire

When they were told that the Consulate-General was out, they stoned the building.

People with the estelada, or independence flags, shout slogans on top of parked tractors during a protest by farmers in Barcelona. AP Photo: Francisco Seco
People with the estelada, or independence flags, shout slogans on top of parked tractors during a protest by farmers in Barcelona. AP Photo: Francisco Seco

A few days later, on November 1, the day after MacSwiney’s funeral in Cork, he was commemorated with a mass demonstration in Barcelona. The poet Ventura Gassol reworked the old Catalan folk song La Presó de Llieda [Lleida Prison] and read it before the crowd, who frequently interrupted him to applause.

Translating of the poem, Manus O’Riordan of the International Brigade Memorial Trust, which commemorates those who travelled from Ireland to Spain to fight Franco, said that it spoke of “of how MacSwiney, his pale face frozen in the perspiration of death, has forced an opening through the walls of the great prison in which the heart of Ireland is overshadowed, and of how the spirit of MacSwiney has also inspired the people of Catalunya to open out from their own imprisonment.”

Soon after, Mr MacSwiney’s daughter, Máire, received a doll dressed in Catalan dress as a gift from the Catalan people. She would hold it dear for decades, before entrusting it to the Cork Public Museum.

To this day, the links between Catalonia and Cork have been maintained. Two years ago, speaking to a delegation of Catalonians at a conference in City Hall, Cathal MacSwiney Brugha, the late Lord Mayor’s grandson and UCD professor of business, read from his grandfather’s Principles of Freedom.

Commenting on the current state of Catalonian affairs, he suggested that his grandfather would have favoured a “‘win-win’ strategy that could be seen as good for Spain and good for Catalonia, based on people in Barcelona having more power over their own affairs, instead of having decisions made by bureaucrats from Seville or Oviedo, sitting in offices in Madrid.”

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