This week marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Cork’s Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney, after 74 days on hunger strike. He was the second Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork to die in what would become a tumultuous year in Irish history.
After his predecessor, Tomás Mac Curtain, was murdered at his home in Blackpool, Cork on 20 March,1920 – those implicated in his killing were members of the RIC – Terence MacSwiney knew that as the new mayor and commander of the IRA in Cork, he ran the same risk.
Mac Curtain had been the city’s first Republican Lord Mayor and MacSwiney the second.
At that time, Cork had become a place where policemen and soldiers were regularly attacked by a well-resourced, well-organised IRA. On 10 March 1920, a senior RIC officer was shot and seriously wounded in the city. On 12 March, a constable was shot dead in Glanmire and another was murdered at Pope’s Quay.
In this febrile atmosphere, it was to be expected that retaliations would be just as brutal. Mac Curtain’s death was one example.
Born on North Main Street in Cork City, Terence MacSwiney was a poet, dramatist and musician but also a committed revolutionary who believed in “the glory of making sacrifices and achieving great results”.
The electoral wind had filled Sinn Féin’s sails and guerrilla warfare – urban and rural – was the campaign of choice for his and the IRA’s ambitions to make Ireland independent.
MacSwiney, on being elected mayor, saw himself “more as a soldier stepping into the breach, than as an administrator to fill the first post in the municipality”.
His ambitions were therefore unambiguous. Attacks on RIC barracks and police and military personnel could scarcely have happened without Mac Curtain’s knowledge or approval.
However much he may have expected to become a target like Mac Curtain, MacSwiney’s final months began with yet another arrest – he had previously been interned after the 1916 Rising – this time at Cork City Hall.
This is where he and other senior IRA figures were meeting on 12 August, 1920. After the others were also arrested but released, MacSwiney was charged with being in possession of a police cipher and incriminating documents.
At the time, a large group of other men, who had effectively been interned, were on hunger strike at Cork Prison. MacSwiney joined them before he was transferred to Brixton Prison in London.
Although he would die in Brixton 74 days after he began his hunger strike, the 11 who remained on hunger strike would be eclipsed by the attention paid to MacSwiney. Two of them, Mick Fitzgerald and Joe Murphy, died. Fitzgerald was aged 34 and Murphy was 25.
Conor Kenny, who has written a book called ‘The Nine Survivors’ – due to be published shortly – said their names have been forgotten but men like his grandfather, Joe Kenny, paid a very high price in terms of their long-term health. “They were ordinary men who did extraordinary things and stayed on hunger strike for 94 days,” he said.
MacSwiney continued to refuse food in Brixton and his death in October sparked protests in cities around the world, like New York. As the second Cork Lord Mayor to die, his death also hardened attitudes of people in Cork and elsewhere in Ireland.
It was a huge propaganda coup for Sinn Féin. MacSwiney was 41 when he died and his name would become central to the narrative of Irish independence.
His family had wanted his coffin brought back to Cork via Dublin, but the authorities decided to send it directly to Cork rather than allow a procession in Dublin to further inflame public opinion. His remains went directly to Cobh and then into Cork city, where thousands lined the streets.
MacSwiney’s widow, Muriel, herself a determined nationalist, set out on a propaganda tour of the United States. Their only child, Máire, was left at home until Muriel returned to Ireland and then effectively emigrated to France.
Máire was placed in a German boarding school at the age of eight, with no knowledge of German and no family figure within reach.
Before his death, MacSwiney, alert to his wife’s mental fragility, had appointed his sister, Mary, as Máire’s joint guardian. It was Mary who mounted what was effectively a kidnap mission in Germany to return Máire to her family in Cork when she was 13.
The estrangement of mother and daughter lasted throughout Muriel’s life, despite a plea to her daughter to join her in Paris. Máire, who married Ruairi Brugha, described in later years how she had no family attachment and how she feared her mother’s unpredictability.
Muriel, who came from an affluent background in Cork (her family were renowned and commercially successful brewers), remained committed to various causes.
She had another child, Alex, with a Jewish communist, Pierre Kaan, who died in May 1945 from his mistreatment at a concentration camp.
Muriel MacSwiney died in 1982 in a hospital in Kent, England aged 100.