Introducing the Internees: Terence MacSwiney

Terence MacSwiney was born on 28th March 1879 in Cork. After leaving school early to support his family, he worked as an accountancy clerk whilst studying at Royal University (now University College Cork); in 1907 he graduated with a degree in Mental and Moral Science.

Terence MacSwiney

Terence MacSwiney

Whilst at university, MacSwiney became interested in literature. Along with literary colleagues, in 1901 he founded the Celtic Literary Society and contributed many poems and pieces of criticism to the society’s journal; several were published under the pseudonym MacEireann (meaning ‘Son of Erin’). Like Figgis, MacSwiney became increasingly interested in the Irish language and culture and attended Gaelic League classes. In 1908, MacSwiney was part of the founding committee for the Cork Dramatic Society; he wrote a number of plays for the society, most of which dealt with Irishness. MacSwiney contributed to the weekly republican paper Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’) before its suppression in December 1914. Despite his nationalist writings, in Principles of Freedom (1921), his posthumously published book of essays, MacSwiney is careful to distinguish between ‘propagandist’ literature and ‘art for art’s sake’. Both, according to MacSwiney, fail to help the cause of Irish freedom: propagandists reduce both heroes and villains to clichéd ‘puppets’ and lack the ability to laugh at their own people, whilst the producers of art for art’s sake focus on form over passion and are afraid to let any strong views shine through in their work. For MacSwiney, the ideal Irish writer will ‘will not be careless of form, but the passion that is in him will make simple words burn and live’.

Like Figgis, MacSwiney was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers. In April 1916, he was supposed to be second in command of the Easter Rising in Cork and Kerry, but by the time news of the Rising reached Cork British forces had already begun to supress the rebels, so MacSwiney’s part in the Rising was smaller than intended. Despite not playing an active role in the Easter Rising, MacSwiney, like Figgis, was arrested under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act. He arrived at Reading Prison from the Frongoch Internment Camp on 11th July 1916. MacSwiney was name-checked, alongside twelve other Reading internees, in the Meath Chronicle on 12th August 1916. According to the reporter, MacSwiney and his fellow internees ate ‘their meals together’ and the ‘food supplied [was] considerably better than ordinary prison fare’. Like Figgis, MacSwiney was released from Reading Prison on 24th December 1916.

In February 1917 MacSwiney was arrested again and interned in Shrewsbury and Bromyard internment camps until his release in June 1917. Whilst interned, MacSwiney got married to Muriel Frances Murphy. In November 1917 he was arrested again and began a hunger strike in protest; he was released after four days. A few months later, in March 1918, MacSwiney was detained for nearly a year.

In December 1918, MacSwiney was elected as a Sinn Féin candidate for Mid-Cork; he became a founding member of the Irish parliament, the Dáil Éireann. In March 1920, he succeeded Tomás MacCurtain as lord mayor of Cork after MacCurtain’s death during the Irish War of Independence. However, MacSwiney’s term in office was cut short when he was arrested yet again on 12th August 1920. He was charged with sedition and possessing a police cipher code. Again, he began a hunger strike; as quoted by P. S. O’Hegarty in A short memoir of Terence MacSwiney (1922), MacSwiney stated: ‘I have taken no food since Thursday’; ‘I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month’.

This time, MacSwiney was not released. He survived seventy-four days, resisting force-feeding, then died on 25 October 1920. His death certificate stated his cause of death as ‘heart failure […] from prolonged refusal to take food’.

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