Music for MacSwiney

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

A little-known 1920 piece for string quartet celebrating the sacrifice of revolutionary hero Terence MacSwiney is a musical dedication worth reviving.

By Axel Klein

Above: Swan Hennessy—his second string quartet is one of the very few works of classical music that was written in direct response to the revolutionary events of a century ago. (Roger Viollet)

It was an illustrious crowd that filled the Salle des Fêtes of the Hotel Continental in Paris that Wednesday 25 January 1922. People gathered for a leisurely evening of entertainment after a full day of heated discussions that had brought together prominent Irish men and women from across the globe for the ‘World Congress of the Irish Race’. Imagine, in full evening dress, a group as diverse as Seán T. O’Kelly (shortly to be imprisoned until the end of 1923), his friend Éamon de Valera (who had resigned from the presidency of the first Irish Republic just two weeks earlier), Eoin MacNeill (about to become the first Minister for Education in the provisional Irish government in August), Harry Boland (naturally unaware of his impending death later in the same year during the Civil War), Constance Markievicz (who, like de Valera, resigned as Minister for Labour in protest against the Anglo-Irish Treaty), Mary MacSwiney (another radical opponent of the Treaty) and many others.

The World Congress of the Irish Race, perhaps the most influential of six ‘Irish Race Conventions’ organised internationally between 1916 and 1922, ‘was one of the last occasions when leading Irish politicians—divided by the Treaty split—met together before the end of the civil war and de Valera’s entry into the Dáil in 1927’, as Dermot Keogh described it. It ran from Saturday 21 to Friday 27 January. The hall, with seating for 1,200, saw participants from fifteen countries, the Irish Independent reporting on 4 January 1922 that delegates from ‘New Zealand, Tasmania, and other remote points are already on the ocean’ for what the paper described as ‘the greatest hosting of the Irish race since King Brian’s historic hosting in 1014 AD’. The aim of the congress was to discuss methods to aid in the economic development of an independent Ireland and its reconstruction following the end of the War of Independence.

Swan who?

An extensive cultural programme, some of it in exhibition halls elsewhere in Paris, included lectures on the Irish language (by Douglas Hyde), poetry (W.B. Yeats), art (Jack B. Yeats), athletics (J.J. Walsh) and music (Arthur Darley). Darley’s musical programme included a concert on Wednesday 22nd. According to the Cork Examiner (25 January), ‘one of the principal features of the concert of Irish music’ was ‘a quartette composed by Swan Hennessy, of Rockford, Illinois, and dedicated to the memory of Terence MacSwiney’. If the congress itself has somewhat faded from memory, this is even truer of Swan Hennessy (1866–1929), of his connection to Terence MacSwiney and of the work in question, his String Quartet, Op. 49.

Above: Terence MacSwiney on the day of his wedding to Muriel Murphy in Bromyard, Herefordshire, where he had been interned after the 1916 Rising prior to his release in June 1917. Richard Mulcahy (right) was best man. (Cork Public Museum)

Swan is not your typical first name. He was christened Edward by his parents, Cork-born Michael David Hennessy (1837–1919) and New York native Sarah J., née Swan (c. 1833–80), but by the time he was listed in the Chicago census of 1870 he had adopted his mother’s maiden name as his forename. His father Michael had emigrated as a fifteen-year-old, first to Canada before moving on to Ohio, where he became a US citizen in 1858. He made a fortune as president of Chicago City Railways (the urban tramways organisation) and subsequently as a wise investor of his income as a lawyer. At the age of about 62 he returned to live in Europe, mainly in Paris, and died near Montreux in Switzerland in 1919.

Young Swan was sent to school in Oxford, leaving via New York in 1878, rarely to return. Even though emigration from Ireland to the United States had decreased somewhat since the Famine years, figures were still high. Thus it must have been an extraordinary experience for the teenager to see a ship of emigrants arriving from Ireland and then to board it for the return journey. Hennessy did not stay long in Oxford, probably not more than a year, before moving on to Stuttgart in Germany, whose music academy accepted younger pupils and had an excellent reputation in English-speaking countries. He lived and studied there for seven years, until 1886, with teachers including the American Percy Goetschius for composition and Edmund Alwens on piano.

On completing his studies, Hennessy moved to London, got married and was divorced within five years. A period of ten years of travelling around Europe (including Ireland) followed, in all likelihood accompanying his father on several health-related journeys, with a base in Livorno in Italy. From about 1903 he settled in Paris and—with the exception of the war years—lived there until his death in October 1929. Over the years Hennessy developed a reputation as a ‘Celtic’ composer. He became associated with a group of Breton composers who shared an interest in the cultural heritage of Brittany, Ireland and other Celtic nations. As a ‘Celt by inspiration’ (in the words of fellow composer Paul Ladmirault), he was welcomed into the midst of this group, which provided him with many opportunities for the performance of his music.

‘The glorious future of the new Ireland’

Above: The opening score of Swan Hennessy’s second quartet ‘à la mémoire de Terence McSwiney’.

The Breton cultural community were acutely aware of the political situation in Ireland, seeing it as a potential model for their own struggle for independence, as was the widely read and always well-informed Swan Hennessy. The death of Terence MacSwiney in an English prison on 25 October 1920 must have come as a shock to him, even though the news of his hunger strike had occupied international headlines for weeks. Though it is difficult to prove, Hennessy may have known MacSwiney personally; he may have attended some of MacSwiney’s plays by the Cork Dramatic Society around 1908–9. When Hennessy’s son Patrice was born in Paris in July 1910 there was talk of MacSwiney being his godfather, but that never came to fruition. On hearing the news of MacSwiney’s death, Hennessy immediately sat down to write his string quartet, which was published in Paris within the few remaining weeks of 1920. It is dedicated ‘à la mémoire de Terence McSwiney, Lord Mayor de Cork’.

The World Congress of the Irish Race in January 1922 seemed like an ideal opportunity to have the work performed. The musicians were an ad hoc quartet assembled by the prominent Dublin violinist Arthur Darley and later became known as the Dublin String Quartet. Besides Darley, it included the young Terry O’Connor (later the leader of the Dublin String Orchestra), George H. Brett on viola and Joseph Schofield on cello. After its first performance, the work was characterised quite well in a review in the New York Herald:

‘… [It] begins slowly and sadly in a manner suggestive of the patriot’s long self-imposed martyrdom. His gradual weakening and final death are indicated by a subtle progressive change of rhythmic values. In the three movements which follow the effort is to glorify Ireland, and both the more sombre and the gayer sides of the Celtic genius are indicated. There is a clever counterfeiting of the notes of the bagpipe, the occasional introduction of a bright theme from the popular ballads. The triumphant finale acclaims the glorious future of the new Ireland.’

When the musicians returned from Paris and performed it a week later in Dublin, the general attitude of the Irish critics was that what was good enough for Paris cannot be bad for Dublin. The Freeman’s Journal (3 February 1920) commented: ‘Apart from its own intrinsic value as music, the quartet was heard with pleasure on account of the fact that it had earned much commendation at the recent proceedings in Paris, where its character and scope were sufficiently understood and appreciated’. And the Irish Times critic chimed in, saying, ‘One is so accustomed to go to hear world-famed virtuosos from abroad that it was something of a novelty that these musicians should have returned from a similar welcome in Paris, and doubly gratifying when one heard in this work the impression they made there’.

Late afterlife

Swan Hennessy’s second string quartet is one of the very few works of classical music that was written in direct response to the revolutionary events of a century ago. The work had last been performed in Ireland (in Derry) in 1939 before falling into a deep sleep until its first Cork performance in November 2016. Since then it has been performed in Ireland several times and recorded for a 2019 CD on the RTÉ Lyric FM label ( Long may it flourish!

Axel Klein is a musicologist from Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.


S. Hennessy, Deuxième quatuor, Op. 49 (Paris, 1920; reprinted in score and parts, Munich, 2019).

D. Keogh, ‘The Treaty split and the Paris Irish Race Convention, 1922’, Études irlandaises 12 (2) (1987), 165–70.

A. Klein, Bird of time. The music of Swan Hennessy (Mainz, 2019).


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