Terence MacSwiney

1879-1920 [occas. err. MacSweeney]; b. 28 March, Cork., ed. Christian Brothers, North Monastery; son a failed businessman who emigrated to Australia in unsuccessful pursuit of work, leaving eight children to be raised by mother and an eldest dg. Mary; left school at 15 to become clerk; active in Celtic Literary Soc. 1901 [var. 1899]; refused to join IRB out of opposition to policy of secrecy; resigned from Celtic Lit. Soc. in dispute over affiliation with Griffith’s dual monarchy programme (Sinn Féin), which he saw as compromising Republicanism; active in Gaelic League, and freq. visitor at Ballingeary;
issued The Music of Freedom (1906), priv. printed pamphlet; Royal Univ., Cork, BA, 1907; with Daniel Corkery fnd. Cork Dram. Soc., 1908, and produced his plays, The Last Warriors of Coole (1910), ‘a hero play in one act’; The Holocaust (1910), The Wooing of Emer (1911), and The Revolutionist (1914), a semi-autobiographical play [var. political drama concerning Hugh O’Neill], produced posthumously by the Abbey in 1921; during 1911-12 he wrote political pieces for Irish Freedom (?1912-1916), later published as Principles of Freedom (1921); taught himself Irish;
played leading role in establishing the Irish Volunteer movement in Cork, serving as second-in-command, 1913; fnd. newspaper, Fianna Fáil, 1914, promptly suppressed; tried and acquitted on charges of sedition, 1915; counselled obedience to MacNeill’s countermand of the Rising orders in 1916, and subsequently regretted it intensely; interned 1916; also a play, The Breamers; MP for Mid-Cork and TD in separatist Dáil Eireann, 1918; m. Muriel [née] Murphy (dg. of the brewing family; d. 1982), during internment;
Sinn Féin control of Cork Corporation established, 1920; succeeded Tomás MacCurtain as Lord Mayor of Cork at the head of the IRA Cork Brigade when the latter was killed, March 1920; worked with Collins on the Dáil Loan; arrested and convicted of security offences, August, 1920; demanded release on the grounds of illegitimacy of British rule in Ireland; embarked on seventy-four day hunger strike in Brixton Prison, along with eleven comrades; professes that ‘it is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer’;
d. 25 Oct. 1920, in Brixton Prison, at the end of a 74-day hunger strike - which he reputedly refused to abandon faced with Michael Collins’s order to give up the hunger strike ‘as you will be ten times a greater asset to the movement alive than dead’; his funeral in Cork was conductd on a day of national mourning declared by Dáil Eireann; a dg., Máire (b.1918), suffered neglect from her mother Muriel (who was politically active as a militant atheist and communist) and eventually found a home with her aunt Mary, following a custody dispute. DIL DIB DIH FDA OCIL

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  • The Revolutionist (Dublin and London: Maunsel 1914).
  • ‘The Last Warriors of Coole’, in George Spelvin’s Theatre, Book 6 (Spring 1984), pp.61-77 [one act].
  • The Music of Freedom (Cork: Risen Gaelhead 1907); Principles of Freedom (Dublin: Talbot; NY: E. P. Dutton 1921).
  • Battle-cries (San Francisco: Rank and File 1916).
  • B. G. MacCarthy, ed., Despite Fools’ Laughter (Dublin: Gill 1944).

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P. S. O’Hegarty, A Short Memoir of Terence MacSwiney (Dublin: Talbot 1922); Moirín Chavasse, Terence MacSwiney (Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds; London: Burns & Oates 1961) [var. 1962; considered hagiographical]; Francis J. Costello, Enduring the Most: The Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney (Dingle: Brandon 1995), 253pp. [using family papers and medical records for the first time].

See also Máire MacSwiney Brugha, History’s Daughter: A Memoir from the Only Child of Terence MacSwiney (Dublin: O’Brien Press 2005), 320pp., and Joanne Mooney Eichacker, Irish Republican Women in America: Lecture Tours, 1916-1925 (Dublin: IAP 2002), xxii, 329pp., ill. [covers Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Mary MacSwiney, Mrs Muriel MacSwiney, Countess Constance Markievicz, and Mrs Margaret Pearse]

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David Cairns & Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture (Manchester 1988), The Last Warriors of Coole, A heroic Play in One Act, produced in April 1910 by the Cork Dramatic Society, it is explicit in its references to the belief that those who practise uncompromising resistance will be rewarded, ‘No land shall ever fail,/Where but a few for freedom stand’ is the message of Lugh delivered to the resistants by Fionn, who was ‘born/To lead my people forth’; the fact that it is ‘the dream of the coming time’ which has empowered the nation-people to await the moment of freedom stands as a warning to the oppressor to ‘Beware the dreamer’. (Lost Plays of the Irish Renaiassance, Vol II, The Cork Dramatic Society (Newark: Proscenium 1984), p.76. [108].

Robert Hogan, R. Burnham, & D. Poteet, Modern Irish Drama: A Documentary History, IV, ‘the Rise of the Realists’ (Dolmen [1980]), notes that during the year [1914] Maunsel published Terence J. MacSwiney’s five act play, The Revolutionist. L.C. reviewed it in the Irish Citizen, ‘earnest, sincere and ambitious ... talent falls short of his aspirations ... [in]sufficient realism in dialogue [and] portraiture of character; his hero Hugh O’Neill ... flat and stilted; theme ... the conflict between the political idealist and the politician of compromise ... of intrigue and of self-seeking ... Dublin is the field of this conflict ... and Irish Nationalism ... the cause ... The fearless and uncompromising “Revolutionist”, attacked on all side,s notably by the Church, wears himself out in the endeavour to keep his flag flying, and dies with his mission unfulfiled ... scenes of keen political controversy ... best in the play; MacSwiney’s vagues, his reluctance to use words like Home Rule, Separation, and the like, keep the puzzled read in a mood of dissatisfactin at needless obscurity; characters of committee men and their varying attitudes ... well drawn ... apparaently from an inside knoweldge [of] political conventicles and ... coteries in Dublin. The “love-interest” to which the author evidently attaches much importance, is the weakest part of the play; he does not understand the modern woman, and his women are mere reproductions of types long antiquated - if they had any existence outside the mind of the “romantic” fictionist [quotes passage to the effect that women are unfit for politics, viz. “they jump at conclusions” and a woman’s rejoinder, viz “the man walks around the conclusion and runs away from it.”] Mr MacSwiney must try again. (p.361; photocopy supplied by Christopher Murray.)

Patrick Maume, review of Francis Costello, Enduring the Most (Brandon 1995) in History Ireland (1996), p.56: ‘The central flaw of this book is its failure to analyse MacSwiney’s intellectual formation. MacSwiney’s life was dominated by a lengthy process of self-fashioning ... 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’; notes also misjudgements and omissions in the political narrative.

See also Brian Maye, “An Irishman’s Diary” [on the centenary publication of Terence MacSwiney’s prophetic play The Revolutionist], in The Irish Times (12 Nov. 2014). Maye quotes Maume's editorial remark that the play is ‘an important statement of MacSwiney’s philosophy of self-sacrifice’.


The play’s main character, Hugh O’Neill (a name that resonates in Irish history), wants to rescue the Irish people from the secret political societies that are widespread in the country as home rule is about to be brought in. He will not align himself with his revolutionary colleagues, who support the secret societies, because he believes they must keep “the fight straight and consistent”. He fears that secrecy will be divisive and stop the people working together against the English.
 Throughout the play, Hugh strives to find a way to reconcile the growing divisions among the people and he comes to the conclusion that his sacrificing of himself may be the best means of uniting them. He takes Robert Emmet as his model and, with Emmet’s famous speech from the dock in mind, asserts: “Emmet’s last words move us more than any possible oration he might have delivered as first president of the Irish Republic.”
 Hugh believes that other men can emulate Emmet and he gives his own life in the service of his country. MacSwiney’s message is that the hero who sacrifices himself can unite a people and galvanise the country into action.

— available online [accessed 12.11.2014].

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Henry Boylan, A Dictionary of Irish Biography [rev. edn.] (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1988), gives bio-data: ed. CBS, North Monastery; joined O’Dwyer & Co. accountants as clerk at 15; studied philosophy at RUI, grad. 1907; published long poem, The Music of Freedom (1907); fnd. Cork Celtic Lit. Soc, 1901; fnd. Cork Dram. Soc. with Corkery, 1907; appointed commercial teacher and organiser in Cork towns by Country Council, 1911; founder-member of the Cork Volunteers, Dec. 1913; resigned from Cork County Comm. of Technical Instruction, 1915; full-time Volunteers organiser; publ. weekly Fianna Fáil, 1914; wrote for Irish Freedom, 1912-16 (publ. 1921); obeyed MacNeill’s countermand in 1916; arrestd Jan. 1916 on charge of seditious speech in Ballymoe, co. Cork; released Feb; travelled to Kerry on British permit to organise surrender of Volunteer arms in Kerry following MacNeill’s countermand; active in setting up Dáil Courts; elected Dáil, 1917; elected Cork Mayor following murder of Tomás MacCurtain, March 1920; arrested 12 Aug; court martialled 16 Aug; attempted force-feeding, 20 Oct.; d. 24 October [sic], on the 74th day of his fast.

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[Shirley Kelly,] ‘Daughter of the Revolution’, feature-article on History’s Daughter, in Books Ireland (Nov. 2005), p.257 [synopsis]: Muriel MacSweeney showed signs of depression before the death of her husband and subsequently travelled to Germany for psychiatric help, while her dg. Máire was placed in the care of Madame O’Rahilly in Dublin, leading a peripatetic existence throughout her childhood thereafter; attended boarding school in Switzerland from the ages of five to ten; afterwards visited family in Cork and later still in Paris, where her mother settled; recalls enjoying those holidays ‘because [her] mother was a very charming, loving person’. Later still, she was sent to school in Heidelberg where her mother received further treatment, remaining on with the Illig family after her mother returned to Paris, but was removed again since her mother feared she was being contaminated by the Catholic Illigs, taking her from thence to Graineau, in S. Bavaria, in the care of a Dr. Kaltenbach, ski-ing daily to the train for Garmisch, the nearest school her mother would let her attend; while she was in Graineau, her aunt Mary MacSwiney began to talk her in charge and, after she refused on her own account to leave with her mother, resulting in a tussle between mother and aunt and a dramatic dash across the border, ending in her escape to Ireland on her aunt’s passport. A custody trial resulting in Máire’s being allowed to decide her own fate, on which custody was granted to her aunt with the proviso that Máire was not to be involved in Republican activities; finished her education at St. Ita’s, Cork, fnd. by Mary MacSwiney and her sister Annie; took over from Mary as German and Irish teacher in 1939, having taken a degree at UCC; met Ruairí Brugha (son of Cathal), on a trip to Dublin, 1942, and m. 1945, with four children; History’s Daughter dictated to her daughter-in-law Catherine. (For further on Ruairí Brugha, see “Notes”, infra.]

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Suffering the most: ‘[... T]he 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.’ Inaugural speech, 1920; cited in Richard Kearney, in Myth and Motherland [Field Day pamphlets, No. 5], Derry: Field Day Co. 1984, p.10; also cited in Gerald Dawe, How’s the Poetry Going (1991), p.75. Cf. variation: ‘I wish to point out again the secret of our strength and the assurance of our final victory. This contest is not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance - it is not they who can inflict the most, but they who can endure the msot, who will conquer ...’. (Quoted in John Devitt, review of Enduring the Most, 1995, in Irish Literary Supplement, 1996, “Brief Notes” [column].)

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Tadhg Ó Murchadha was assisted by MacSwiney in writing his recollections, Sgéal Sheandúin, the second part appearing in The Father Mathew Record, July 1924-April 1925.

Lloyd George remarked: ‘If the Cabinet departed from its decision a complete breakdown of the whole machinery of Law and Government in Ireland inevitably follow [...] Our refusal to release this man is not attributable to any cruelty [...] but to high policy which we cannot depart from without sacrificing the supreme interest of the British Empire.’ (Quoted in Padriag Ó Snodaigh, ‘Past Martyrs’, review of Francis J. Costello, Enduring the Most, 1995, in Books Ireland, April 1996, p.102; presum. quoting from Costello’s book, which is elsewhere commended for new material relating to the hunger-strike.)

AE”: There is a poetical tribute by AE (George Russell), ‘A Prisoner (Brixton Sept 1920) [‘See though the oil be low, more purely still and higher/The flame burns up in the body’s lamp’ [and ends] ‘Farewell, light-bringer, fly to thy fountain again.’

Francis Stuart’s play, Who Fears to Speak (1971), which was cancelled in production at the Abbey, deals with MacSwiney’s hunger strike.

Samuel Beckett cites MacSwiney in Malone Dies: ‘The Lord Mayor of Cork lasted for ages, but he was young, and then he had political convictions, human ones too probably, just plain human convictions. He also allowed himself a sip of water from time to time, sweetened probably.’

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