Terence MacSwiney—playwright and patriot

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

By Fiona Brennan

Above: The December 1920 memorandum of agreement with the National Theatre Society (Abbey Theatre) for the production of MacSwiney’s The Revolutionist. (Cork Public Museum)

On 24 February 1921, four months after his death on hunger strike, Terence MacSwiney’s five-act drama The Revolutionist premiered at the Abbey Theatre. It is based on the premise that Home Rule has become a reality, and its protagonist, Hugh O’Neill, is loath to accept anything less than Ireland’s complete independence. He travels the length and breadth of the country lecturing on the necessity of separatism. A hectic schedule eventually proves too much for him and, true to the play’s all-encompassing themes of duty and sacrifice, O’Neill works himself to death.

MacSwiney began his literary career as a poet by publishing work in Ireland—including his epic poem The Music of Freedom (1907)—and in the United States. His diaries confirm his belief that in becoming a writer he would fulfil his true vocation. A passionate theatre-goer, he attended productions at the Cork Opera House and had long intimated his desire to write plays. He was a member of the Gaelic League during a period of great cultural revivalism, when interest in the Irish language and literature increased significantly. Theatre became identified as a powerful tool by which to transform people’s imaginations, and their hearts and minds, regarding Irish independence.

Subsequently, there was a move in Dublin’s cultural and political circles to identify what an authentic Irish national theatre should entail. It was initially a Dublin-centric movement, with much input from writers and artists, including W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and the poet and playwright Patrick Pearse. Despite the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in 1904, there were misgivings about its ‘peasant-style’ repertoire. MacSwiney, too, was vociferous in his disdain and, like many others, abhorred such Abbey drama as a false depiction of the nation on stage.

Small, independently run theatre companies formed in opposition to the Abbey’s agenda, both in Dublin and in Belfast, as well as in Cork, where the Cork National Theatre Society was established in 1904. MacSwiney, however, never became directly involved in this short-lived endeavour. Rather, in November 1908 he became a co-founder and non-executive director of the Cork Dramatic Society (CDS), which reinvigorated Cork’s opposition to a peasant-style repertoire. The Society was based at An Dún, a Gaelic League Hall off the South Mall. MacSwiney began writing his first play in 1909, and over the next five years he worked alongside Daniel Corkery and others to produce new Irish writing by local authors. By the time of the Society’s demise in January 1913 it had produced an impressive total of eighteen new plays, four of which were by MacSwiney, including the blank-verse drama The Last Warriors of Coole and a promising, tenement-based tragedy, The Holocaust.

MacSwiney’s literary output increased at a frenetic pace. He managed an intensive writing schedule while maintaining his political commitments and his full-time job as a clerk at Dwyer’s accountancy firm. He did so by rising to write at three or four most mornings. In 1912 he accepted a commission to write a series of political articles for the Irish Freedom newspaper; these were published collectively in 1921 as Principles of freedom.

MacSwiney became frustrated at his lack of progress and responded by writing ambitious full-length plays, including The Revolutionist, his eighth and final play. He signed an agreement with the prestigious publishing house Maunsell and Company in December 1913 and its publication followed in March 1914. In a letter written to his sister Peg the following month, MacSwiney wrote confidently of his play’s potential success and his chance of establishing a literary career in America. His political judgement regarding the establishment of Home Rule had, however, proven utterly skewed, and therefore the play’s submission to the independent Irish Theatre Company—which promoted urban-based Irish and European drama to oppose the Abbey Theatre’s ideals—proved futile. Its rejection by the company’s directors, including revolutionary figures like Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh, merely added insult to injury.

Above: The cast and crew of Terence MacSwiney’s The Last Warrior of Coole, produced by the Cork Dramatic Society in April 1911 at the Dún Theatre in Queen Street (now Fr Mathew Street)—seated (L–R): Denis Breen (musical conductor), Terence MacSwiney, Daniel Corkery; standing (L–R): T. O’Hea (in the role of Bascell), J. Scannell (Aenvar), J. Flynn (Fionn), C. O’Leary (Fergor), C.B. Roynayne (Fial) and P.J.K. Lynch (Crimal). (Cork Examiner)

Shortly after MacSwiney’s death in Brixton Prison in October 1920, his widow, Muriel, immersed herself in promoting her husband’s writings. In December she secured an agreement with the Abbey Theatre to produce The Revolutionist. While initially this appeared to be a tremendous start in establishing MacSwiney’s literary reputation, there are reasons to believe that the Abbey might never have optioned the play but for MacSwiney’s recent martyrdom. The motives of Abbey co-founder W.B. Yeats were not entirely altruistic. The theatre faced financial difficulties (not for the first time!), and what better way to increase box-office returns than by staging a drama by a recent Irish martyr?

The production caused its director, Lennox Robinson, untold anxiety and it was always going to be a difficult play to produce. The storyline embraced MacSwiney’s own philosophical ideals, which was detrimental to its dramatic construction. Given the overly elaborate, stilted dialogue, the characters seemed less than credible. Robinson had no choice but to cut the play significantly and reduce its playing time.

Nevertheless, on each night of its two-week run the atmosphere was electric and the auditorium, filled to capacity, was imbued with a palpable sense of exhilaration. With the play’s subsequent revival on the first anniversary of MacSwiney’s death in October 1921, excitement reached fever pitch on the night that Michael Collins was in attendance.

The irony of the play’s Abbey production is undeniable, as MacSwiney had categorically sought its production elsewhere. Had his family been aware of Yeats’s ulterior motive one can only imagine the wrathful reaction. Despite MacSwiney’s political commitment to Irish freedom, he had always craved his personal freedom but had never had sufficient time to devote to his literary ambitions. Undoubtedly, had he lived, MacSwiney would have been at the heart of Cork’s flourishing amateur dramatic movement.

In recognition of MacSwiney’s literary work, ‘Caught in a living flame’, an event that was due to feature in Cork’s World Book Festival in April 2020, will be rescheduled later in 2021. Cork Public Museum’s exhibition ‘Suffering the most—the life and times of Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney’ is open to the public until March 2022.

Fiona Brennan is a theatre historian and independent researcher, and editor of a critical edition of MacSwiney’s collected plays which will be published by Cork University Press in early 2022.

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