Arrested 10 weeks earlier by forces of the Royal Irish Constabulary for suspected IRA membership, MacSwiney immediately commenced a hunger strike. As he wasted away toward a martyr’s death, he drew international attention — and sympathy to the plight of Ireland then in the midst of a bloody War for Independence against the British.
Terence MacSwiney was born in 1879 in Cork and, following his parent’s direction, became an accountant. But coming of age during Ireland’s cultural renaissance known as the Gaelic Revival, his real love was literature and the arts. In 1901 at the age of 21m he co-founded the Cork Literary Society and began studying philosophy. Six years later, he published his first book, a single, long poem, “The Music of Freedom,” a title that reflected his growing commitment to the Irish nationalist cause. In 1908, he helped found the Cork Dramatic Society, for which he wrote several plays, most suffused with nationalist themes.
By 1913, in the context of intensified nationalist sentiment brought on by the final (and futile) effort to achieve home rule, MacSwiney put down his pen and took up the gun. He was a principal organizer of the Cork Volunteers, a local branch of Eoin MacNeill’s nationalist paramilitary force, the Irish Volunteers. A year later, he began publishing called Fianna Fail, a weekly nationalist paper quickly suppressed by British authorities.
Recognized as a leading figure in the nationalist movement by the fateful year of 1916, MacSwiney was arrested in January that year for delivering a “seditious” speech. Months later, as a small an zealous faction of the Irish Volunteers staged the ill-fated Easter Rising, MacSwiney was not among them. Like most members of the Irish Volunteers, he had obeyed commander Eoin MacNeill’s order to suspend the uprising. As a consequence, he lived to play a significant role in the nationalist struggle that followed. He served two short prison terms in 1916 and 1917, won election to the First Dail in 1918, and became a commandant in the emerging Irish Republican Army.
But what catapulted him to the international spotlight was his election as lord mayor of Cork in March 1920. By then the War for Independence was well under way and the brutal tactics of the RIC and British security forces had begun to show. MacSwiney’s predecessor as lord mayor, a close friend and fellow IRA commandant named Tomas MacCurtain, had been assassinated in his bed by security forces in February. MacSwiney won the special election to fill MacCurtain’s seat and boldly declared at his inauguration: “This contest on our side is not one of rivalry or vengeance, but of endurance. It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most, who will conquer.”
Five months later, as the War for Independence entered its bloodiest phase, MacSwiney was given an opportunity to put his courageous words to the test. Arrested for possessing a “seditious” document, he declared his intent to go on a hunger strike unless immediately released. “I have decided that I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month,” he said.
MacSwiney underestimated his ability to endure the slow trauma of self-starvation and, perhaps, the willingness of British authorities to let it happen. Prime Minister Lloyd George refused to give in and with every passing day MacSwiney inched toward death. It was an agonizing process that made headlines and prompted protests around the world. Longshoremen in New York threatened to boycott British ships while more than 200,000 Catholics in South America petitioned the pope to intervene.
But these and other efforts came to no avail and as MacSwiney’s struggle neared its end, he issued an inspirational message to his fellow nationalists then fighting a war against a formidable foe. “I offer my pain for Ireland,” he said. “I offer my suffering here for our martyred people, beseeching Thee, oh God, to grant them the nerve and strength and grace to withstand the present terror in Ireland.”
MacSwiney’s comrades doubtless drew the strength to endure from their faith in God, but they also did so from his extraordinary example of commitment and sacrifice. After 74 days, the lord mayor breathed his last. A few days later he was sent to his rest after a huge funeral attended by thousands and covered in newspapers around the world.
MacSwiney’s sympathizers nailed a sign over Cork’s City Hall that read, “Terence MacSwiney, murdered by the Foreign Enemy, in the Fourth Year of the Republic.”
The memory of MacSwiney, not to mention Kevin Barry and other nationalist martyrs, sustained the IRA in the dark days that lay ahead, but by the spring of 1921 it was clear that the lord mayor had been right. Victory went not to the mightiest or cruelest, but rather to those willing, in his words, “to suffer the most.”
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
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