Emotional scenes in Ireland as patriot’s body returned home

Dave Hannigan recalls the scenes in Ireland when the body of Terence MacSwiney was returned home
Emotional scenes in Ireland as patriot’s body returned home

Terence MacSwiney

ON Thursday, October 28, 1920, Mark Sturgis, a senior English civil servant at Dublin Castle, made a worried note in his diary, having just learned that the British government was refusing to allow Terence MacSwiney’s corpse to be delivered to Dublin.

“Still ‘The Funeral’,” wrote Sturgis. “…Body is to be put on a special boat at Holyhead and sent direct to Cork. Seems to be the right course but a pity decided so late. ‘London’ has declined to inform the relatives of this change or make it public in London so we are not able to put anything in the evening papers here — the result will be that stacks of people will be assembled before they read the morning papers and I should think a row may ensue.”

Ireland awoke the next morning to grim reports of what had transpired in Holyhead late the previous night. There, a combination of police, soldiers from the Cheshire regiment and Black and Tans, had physically manhandled the MacSwiney family away from their brother’s coffin so that it could be paced upon the steamer Rathmore and sailed directly to Queenstown (now Cobh). The instruction from London was that Dublin was to be deprived the chance to honour the body of Terence MacSwiney at all costs.

The Irish response was typically belligerent. It was decided that the Dublin leg of the funeral would still go ahead as planned. Dail Éireann had called for a day of mourning and almost every business in the capital had complied with this request. The trams stopped running at ten, the butchers shut down for the day shortly after. The city was so eerily quiet and remarkably still that very often the only traffic noise that morning came from the motor lorries full of ‘Black and Tans’ prowling the streets with menace.

At 11am, the Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough Street was filled to overflowing for the Requiem Mass. Having arrived in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) just hours earlier, the siblings, Mary, Annie, Sean and Peter MacSwiney, fresh from their traumatic experience in Holyhead, took their seats in front of the high altar that had been draped in black.

Archbishop William Walsh presided, and, in a sign of the troubled times, one of his assistants, Fr Augustine Hayden, had rushed to the church direct from visiting death row inmate Kevin Barry. The 18-year-old Volunteer, who was a medical student at UCD, was in Mountjoy Prison waiting to be hanged for his part in an ambush of British soldiers back in September. Within three days, he would be dead too.

After the mass had ended, the mourners gathered behind a hearse drawn by four black horses. In lieu of a coffin, it was piled high with wreaths. Behind it came carriages drawing the family and the clergy, followed by the members of Dail Eireann marching in twos, and then a procession of tens of thousands of people from all walks of life. The cortege extended back so far that reporters estimated it took half an hour to pass by huge crowds of spectators who’d gathered at all points to doff their caps and to kneel in solemn prayer. There was no body but there was still reverence.

“The dockers marched in their dirty working clothes, unwashed and collarless, just as if they had come from unloading ships,” wrote The Manchester Guardian. 

“The newsboys left their papers, and in a ragged group, with bare feet and exposing many inches of shirts in unusual places, formed fours and took their place. As a revelation of democratic sympathies, one could have found nothing outside Ireland to compare with these marching thousands, the majority of whom wore Sinn Féin colours and walked with quick, martial step and erect bearing.”

Their route to Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Train Station took them along Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), across O’Connell Bridge and then down the quays, their every step tracked by a military plane flying overhead, monitoring the proceedings. The affair did not quite pass without incident, however. Near Grattan Bridge, two lorries of soldiers tried to drive straight through a part of the parade made up mostly of members of Cumann na mBan. It was a poor decision. They were turned back by the women. With gusto.

At the station itself, where thousands had gathered in anticipation of the arrival of the empty hearse, many were appalled at the presence of an armoured car. Its sights were trained on the crowd, machine-gun turrets at the front, and, at the back, men with their revolvers pointing out through slits in the armour.

Shortly before 2pm, the MacSwiney family and all those travelling on to Cork with them boarded a train for the final leg of their awful journey home. Almost at that very moment, the Rathmore was pulling up to the dock in Queenstown.

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