‘I am a soldier, dying for the Irish Republic’

A century ago next week, Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney breathed his last after a hunger strike. GERRY WHITE reveals his final days
‘I am a soldier, dying for the Irish Republic’

Arrival of the body of Terence McSwiney at Cork on the British admiralty tug 'Mary Tavy' in October1920. 

WHEN the British Army arrested Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney in Cork City Hall on August 12, 1920, he declared that he was joining the hunger strike that members of the IRA in Cork Gaol had commenced the day before.

He continued his fast when he was transported to Brixton Prison in London after a court martial in Victoria Barracks found him guilty of sedition, and he was sentenced to two years’ penal servitude.

Within a short time, MacSwiney’s hunger strike had attracted world attention.

In the United States, a boycott of British goods was threatened, several countries appealed for Papal intervention, protests took place in France and Germany, and the matter was raised in the Australian parliament.

However, none of this had any impact on the British government.

As the days passed, MacSwiney’s condition slowly deteriorated. On Monday, October 18, 1920, he entered the 68th day of his fast. That morning, a number of priests from Cork paid him a visit and found him conscious and reasonably well able to converse.

Dr Daniel Cohalan, the Bishop of Cork, also visited MacSwiney a number of times and his chaplain, Fr Dominic O’Connor OFM Cap., remained with him throughout his ordeal.

Terence MacSwiney’s sister Mary at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin during the hunger strike.
Terence MacSwiney’s sister Mary at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin during the hunger strike.

MacSwiney’s wife Muriel and his siblings, Peter Seán, Annie and Mary also spent considerable time at his bedside and divided the day between them to ensure that someone was always close by.

Annie MacSwiney also kept a diary of her brother’s last days. On October 19, she noted that he was extremely agitated as Dr Griffiths, the senior prison medical officer, said he would make him take some lime juice to ward off scurvy. Afterwards, MacSwiney met with the prison governor and insisted he would refuse any type of food.

The following morning, Annie found her brother’s condition had deteriorated further and he was on the verge of delirium. While she was there, MacSwiney turned to Annie and said ‘Now you are my witness, I am a soldier dying for the Irish Republic and I want you to affirm that’.

Annie repeated her brother’s words, then she held up the cross of her rosary beads, kissed them herself and pressed them to her brother’s lips.

Later that day, MacSwiney became delirious and when Dr Griffiths came to see him, he informed the family that he intended to give the Lord Mayor food, and threatened to remove them from the prison if they tried to stop him.

On October 21, Annie noted in her dairy that, when a nurse gave her brother two teaspoons full of meat juice in water while he was semi-conscious, he cried out: ‘They tricked me, how did they do it”?

Then he went off again into delirium, striking out again with his hands at both sides of the bed. As a result, all of the stuff they gave him came up again and it was agonising to see all the pain and struggle.

At about 12 o’clock they gave MacSwiney brandy and milk, but after a few minutes he had a dreadful fit of vomiting — he brought up more than half a basinful of green liquid. The cruelty of it all was, and is, beyond description.

After that, no further attempts were made to feed the Lord Mayor. His condition worsened over the next couple of days and Sunday, October 24, would be his last full day alive.

When Annie, Mary and Muriel arrived at the prison that morning they were not allowed to enter. Muriel was ill at the time and left a short time later, but the two sisters maintained a lonely vigil outside the prison in the cold London fog and only returned to their hotel at 10pm.

Seán and Fr Dominic remained in the prison that night and at 4.35am on October 25, they were called and told that MacSwiney was dying.

The body of Terence McSwiney at Cork City Hall in October, 1920.29/10/1920.
The body of Terence McSwiney at Cork City Hall in October, 1920.29/10/1920.

Seán wanted to use a phone to call the other family members, but his request was refused. Ten minutes later, Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork and Officer Commanding Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, passed away. It was the 74th day of his hunger strike.

The following day, Dónal O’Callaghan, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork, issued the following defiant statement: “The republican hold on the municipal chair of Cork ceases only when the last republican in Cork has followed Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney into the grave. Murder will not terrorise us.”

Terence McSwiney and his family.
Terence McSwiney and his family.

When Muriel MacSwiney attended the inquest into the death of her husband held in London on October 27, the coroner dismissed her statement that his occupation was that of an Irish Volunteer, but she quietly repeated it, pointing out the existence of the Irish Republican Army and his position as a soldier in it.

That evening, Terence MacSwiney’s coffin was covered with a Tricolour and taken to St George’s Cathedral in Southwark, where more than 30,000 people paid their respects.

MacSwiney’s family wished to have his remains brought to Dublin and then taken to Cork by train.

After Mass in St George’s Cathedral on October 28, the coffin was placed on a train bound for Holyhead in Wales. During the journey, a police inspector informed the family that Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, had ordered that the remains were to be taken directly to Cobh.

On arrival at Holyhead, the family and some friends who were with them tried to prevent the police from taking possession of the coffin, but they were overwhelmed by force.

The wedding party at the marriage of Terence MacSwiney and Muriel Murphy in Bromyard, England, in June, 1917, where MacSwiney had been deported in February. Back, from left, Mary MacSwiney, Annie MacSwiney, Fr Augustine Hayden OFM (Capuchin friar), bridesmaid Geraldine O’Sullivan, best man Richard Mulcahy
The wedding party at the marriage of Terence MacSwiney and Muriel Murphy in Bromyard, England, in June, 1917, where MacSwiney had been deported in February. Back, from left, Mary MacSwiney, Annie MacSwiney, Fr Augustine Hayden OFM (Capuchin friar), bridesmaid Geraldine O’Sullivan, best man Richard Mulcahy

The coffin was then put on board the steamer Rathmore and taken to Cobh, accompanied by members of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC. When the ship docked at 1.45 p.m. the following day it was transferred to a tug, the Mary Tavy, which sailed up the river Lee to Custom’s House Quay.

Later that evening, Volunteers from Cork No. 1 Brigade escorted the remains of their commanding officer to City Hall to lay in state, and the following day, thousands of people filed past to pay their respects.

Finally, on Sunday, October 31, after Requiem Mass in the North Cathedral celebrated by Bishop Cohalan, thousands of grieving citizens lined the streets of Cork as MacSwiney’s remains were escorted to the Republican Plot in St Finbarr’s Cemetery, where they were laid to rest alongside those of his friend and comrade Tomás Mac Curtáin.

As Annie noted in her diary: “No hand but a comrade’s touched his grave. Those who had worked and fought with him laid him there; then they covered his coffin with the earth of the land he died for.”

Delivering the oration at MacSwiney’s graveside, Arthur Griffith declared: “Remember forever his words to you, people of Cork... that triumph is not to those who can inflict most, but to those who can endure most. He has exemplified that truth to all mankind. He endured all that the power of England could inflict upon him and in enduring, triumphed over that power. His body lies here — but his soul goes marching through all the ages. He is not dead —he is living forever in the hearts and conscience of mankind.”

During his acceptance speech made when he was elected Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney gave his view of the fight for freedom then taking place in Ireland when he declared: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.”

During his hunger strike, he suffered the most for his beliefs and, true to his word, he died as he lived, as a soldier of the Irish Republic.

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