100 YEARS AGO: Terence MacSwiney dies on hunger strike

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Volume 28

By Joseph E.A. Connell Jr.

In 1920 the tone of the War of Independence changed drastically. The Dublin execution of an eighteen-year-old medical student, Kevin Barry, for killing a British soldier, the shooting of the lord mayor of Cork, Thomas MacCurtain, in front of his wife and children, and the arrest and death on hunger strike of the succeeding lord mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, were events that made the British position in Ireland ever more untenable. Ireland went into mourning when MacSwiney died on the 74th day of his fast in Brixton Prison. He had become a symbol of a new nation—disciplined, hard, clear, unsentimental, uncompromising, a conscious using of vigour to build up strength.

MacSwiney had been second-in-command of the Cork Brigade of the Volunteers at the time of the 1916 Rising. He was arrested on 3 May and imprisoned in Wakefield Prison, then in Frongoch, where he was the O/C Dormitory No. 4, and then in Reading Gaol. His sister Annie said later: ‘The torment of that week [Easter Week 1916] to Terry was appeased only by the sacrifice in Brixton’.

Elected to the First Dáil, he succeeded MacCurtain as lord mayor of Cork in March 1920 and was arrested on 12 August. He said: ‘If only a few are faithful found, they must be the more steadfast for being but a few’.

Throughout his time in Brixton Prison his good friend, Fr Dominic OFM, aided MacSwiney. Fr Dominic wrote extensively about his time with him, and was constant in his praise:

‘Add to all that the continued mental strain of seeing his wife, sisters and brothers daily. This, while a comfort in one way, was a great distress in another, for it made him see and think of the sorrow of parting from them, and the suffering they were themselves undergoing. … But he never complained, never flinched. He knew he was risking a slow, lingering death, and he was ready for it. He even thanked God for giving him the chance of a long preparation for death. … I joined him, in Brixton Jail, as a friend, as his chaplain. But ’twas as a brother, a fellow-child of St Francis that I bade farewell to him and sent him to meet Thomas [MacCurtain] and Eoghan Ruadh and Joan of Arc, in the company of the saint and soldier, the gentle Francis of Assisi.’

Fr Dominic also commented on the actions of the British doctors and nurses who cared for MacSwiney:

‘The doctors and nurses did all they could for him. But the doctors, though forced to admire his heroic fortitude and extraordinary will-power, were unsympathetic, and even hostile as far as the hunger-strike was concerned. They looked on it as a fool’s game. They were frequently a cause of great distress to the Lord Mayor by their lecturing him on the foolishness of his act, and by placing before him the sorrow he would inflict on his wife and family as well as by endeavouring to show him how much more useful he would be “alive and strong after two years to work for Ireland”. “No one”, they used to say, “can see any use or benefit coming from your present act”. This they felt to be their duty.’

Terence MacSwiney expired on the morning of 25 October 1920.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of The shadow war: Michael Collins and the politics of violence (Eastwood Books).

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