Enduring the most: the life of Terence MacSwiney, Francis J. Costello. (Brandon, £9.99)

Published in Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 4

The name of Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920), the Lord Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in Brixton prison during the War of Independence, is familiar not only in Ireland but in countries where anti-colonial movements praised his example. Despite his fame, and the continuing resonance of the hunger strike in Irish political culture, there is no recent account of his life and ideas. P.S. O’Hegarty’s contemporary memoir (1920) and Moirin Chevasse’s pious official life (1962) are unsatisfactory by present-day standards. The availability of the MacSwiney family papers since the mid-1980s has produced a revival of scholarly interest in Terence’s eldest sister Mary, a formidable political figure in her own right: now Francis Costello has drawn on them for this best-selling life of Terence.
MacSwiney was one of eight children brought up in poverty by their mother and Mary after their father suffered business failure and emigrated to Australia to search unsuccessfully for work. Despite a brilliant scholastic record, Terence had to leave school at fifteen and become a clerk. His family was strongly nationalist, and from 1899 he was active in local groups such as the Celtic Literary Society which served as IRB front organisations; MacSwiney refused to join the IRB itself because he believed secrecy was demoralising. (Costello could have extended his account by using the Liam de Roiste diaries in the Cork Archives Institute. He also passes over the dispute over affiliation with Griffith’s dual monarchists which caused Terence to resign from the Celtic Literary Society, complaining that its republicanism had been compromised.) Terence was also active in the Gaelic League; he had strong family connections with Ballingeary, in the North Cork Gaeltacht, and visited it as often as possible. (Costello underestimates the strength of his connection with Ballingeary.)
In 1906 he published at his own expense a long poetic political manifesto, The Music of Freedom. (Costello ignores this important source for the development of MacSwiney’s thought.) From 1908 Terence was active with the writer Daniel Corkery in the Cork Dramatic Society, which hoped to become a Cork counterpart of the Abbey; it staged four of his plays. (An account of the Cork Dramatic Society and the Corkery-MacSwiney relationship can be found in my 1993 biography of Corkery, which Costello has not used.) A long semi-autobiographical play, The Revolutionist was published in 1914 but only staged after his death. (Costello ignores this important statement of MacSwiney’s philosophy of self-sacrifice.)
In 1911-12 MacSwiney published a series of articles, later collected as The Principles of Freedom. In 1913 he became second-in-command and organiser of the Cork branch of the Irish Volunteers. On the outbreak of war he started a paper, Fianna Fáil (promptly suppressed by the government). In 1915 he was tried for sedition but acquitted.
Cork did not participate in the Easter Rising due to failures in communication; MacSwiney found this profoundly humiliating. From then until his death his life was dominated by political activity and periods of imprisonment. While interned in England in 1917, he married Muriel Murphy, rebellious daughter of a Cork brewer; their only child, Maire, was born in 1918.
MacSwiney was elected unopposed as TD for Mid-Cork in 1918, and took an active part in the Dáil while remaining prominent in Cork Sinn Féin/IRA. In 1920 Sinn Féin won control of Cork Corporation, and after the assassination of Tomás MacCurtain in March 1920 MacSwiney became Lord Mayor. He was active and effective during his brief term in office, but in August he was arrested and convicted of security offences, and immediately went on hunger strike.
Costello’s book improves after 1916. He gives new material on the relationship between Terence and Muriel, under-emphasised by previous writers due to Muriel’s later career as a Communist and militant atheist and her stormy custody dispute with Mary MacSwiney over Máire. The account of MacSwiney’s political activities is flawed. It is unfair to call his approach to public housing ‘conservative’ because he only initiated one small scheme without mentioning that no council houses had been built in Cork since 1900. There is no account of the local elections; the title of the book is taken from MacSwiney’s famous inaugural speech but there is no account of its delivery.
Costello is at his best in his account of the hunger strike. He uses the MacSwiney papers and new material which he has discovered in British archives to give a moving account of the deathbed in Brixton Prison and the British and Irish political and military responses as the protest attracted world-wide attention. Despite world-wide calls for MacSwiney’s release (privately supported by George V) the British government remained obdurate and he died on 25 October, having significantly influenced world opinion in favour of Sinn Féin.
The central flaw of this book is its failure to analyse MacSwiney’s intellectual formation. Between 1900 and 1914 MacSwiney laboured under difficult circumstances to develop and articulate his position; it is a pity that Costello has not made more effort to understand it. MacSwiney’s life was dominated by a lengthy process of self-fashioning; his hunger strike cannot be fully understood without an adequate account of the making of the hunger-striker. It is a pity that no professional historian had taken notice of the gap which Costello has done something to fill; we still need a definitive biography of Terence MacSwiney.

Patrick Maume

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