By WGT's Joe Gannon

One armed man cannot resist a multitude, nor one army conquer countless legions; but not all the armies of all the empires of earth can crush the spirit of one true man. And that one man will prevail. -- Terence MacSwiney

Probably no man outside of Michael Collins was as responsible for getting England to agree to peace talks in 1921 as Terence MacSwiney, and he accomplished this without an act of violence. MacSwiney, like Ghandi some twenty years later, helped bring English rule in his country to an end by passive resistance; he refused to submit to English law, and by that simple act he brought the harsh glare of a worldwide spotlight to the injustice of England’s colonial regime.

MacSwiney was born in Cork city in 1879, he died on Oct. 25, 1920. He got a degree in philosophy from Royal University in 1907. As time went by, MacSwiney became more and more involved with the Republican movement, helping to form the Cork unit of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and publishing a weekly paper called, Fianna Fáil (soldiers of destiny) in 1914. The paper was suppressed by the English after only eleven issues.

In Jan. 1916 he was jailed for making a seditious speech; he was jailed again later in that year and again in 1917. He was elected to the first Dáil Éireann in 1919 as the representative of Mid-Cork while his friend Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor of Cork. On March 20, 1920, MacCurtain was murdered in his home by several disguised members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, one of whom was later shot dead by the IRA. MacSwiney was then elected Lord Mayor of Cork. Through all this time he had continued his work with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was, in fact, commander of the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA.

On August 12, 1920, MacSwiney and four other Cork IRA leaders, including Cork No. 2 commander, Liam Lynch, were captured by British. Incredibly, not recognizing the others they had captured, the English soon released them, but held on to MacSwiney. On the 16th, MacSwiney was court-martialed and sentenced to two years in prison. But MacSwiney had no intention of submitting to a legal system he believed had no standing in his country. When he was asked if he wished to address the court, he said, “I have decided that I shall be free alive or dead within the month, as I will take no food or drink for the period of my sentence.” Thus began the series of events that would burn the name of Terence MacSwiney deep into the heart of his native land, and contribute so much to the freeing of 26 of her counties. MacSwiney was wrong about one thing though, a month would not be long enough to decide the outcome of his hunger strike; it would continue for an inconceivable 74 days.

The British whisked MacSwiney away to Brixton prison in London, perhaps thinking that they could better control the publicity his hunger strike would generate if he was out of Ireland; they were sadly mistaken. He weakened quickly but hung on, day after day, with the story getting more and more coverage in newspapers around the world. British Prime Minister Lloyd George could ended it by releasing MacSwiney, but he refused; a decision that was fatal to both MacSwiney and England’s hopes of maintaining its stranglehold on all 32 counties in Ireland.

As more and more time went by, with MacSwiney somehow remaining alive, some in England began to speculate that Father Dominic, who was attending MacSwiney, must be smuggling food into him in his voluminous black beard. The government even had the contents of the basin MacSwiney used to clean his teeth sent to a lab for analysis. Prayers must have been offered by many in the English government that MacSwiney either die or end his hunger strike, but, please God, soon. He did neither, however, and soon longshoremen were threatening to strike in protest in New York, French and German papers were hailing his courage, and 30,000 Brazilians were demanding Papal intervention.

James Daly, Connaught Rangers, who was executed for his part in the "India Mutiny."

MacSwiney lapsed into unconsciousness on the same day as the start of the trial of Kevin Barry, a young man whose name would become historically entwined in tragedy with MacSwiney. Barry, only 18, stood accused of murder in the death of a British soldier during an ambush in Dublin. Meanwhile, in India, Irishmen in England’s 88th Regiment of Foot, the Connaught Rangers, had mutinied, protesting the persecution of their families in Ireland by the very government they were serving; fourteen had been sentenced to death.

As the year of 1920 rolled toward its end, events and their own pigheaded intransigence were conspiring against British rule in Ireland . The tactics that had worked so well for them for so many centuries in Ireland and their other colonies -- stripping the native population of all rights, intimidating the people of those lands by demonstrating the absolute power of life and death that they could wield over them with impunity -- were no longer as effective. The increased scrutiny of the press was shining the light of truth on them and removing that impunity. Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike drew continued and ever-growing focus on British oppression and brutality in Ireland.

At 5:40 A.M, Oct. 25, Terence MacSwiney’s body finally gave out and he died. His last words to a priest by his side were, “I want you to bear witness that I die as a soldier of the Irish Republic.” MacSwiney was hailed by people all over the world, even in the land of his oppressors. The Daily Telegraph in London wrote, “The Lord Mayor of Cork condemned himself to death for the sake of a cause in which he passionately believed, and it is impossible for men of decent instincts to think of such an act unmoved.” Irish Volunteers, wearing uniforms which were prohibited by English law, escorted his casket through London as thousands of Irish exiles lined the streets. They attempted to land MacSwiney’s body in Dublin and take it overland to Cork for burial, but British General Macready, fearing the certain outpouring of emotion along the route, sent the police and a force of Black and Tans to meet the boat and, after a scuffle on the docks, with MacSwiney’s sister, Annie, clinging to the coffin, the body was snatched away and loaded back onto the boat. MacSwiney was buried in Cork on the 29th.

Courtesy of Kilmainham Jail Museum
Young Kevin Barry, whose execution followed close on the heels of MacSwiney's death.

Most observers, even in England, felt that after the outrage of the world at MacSwiney’s death, the government would never execute Kevin Barry. On Nov. 1, Barry was hung. The next day, in India, a Connaught Ranger, James Daly, was lined up and shot by a firing squad composed of fellow British soldiers. The English government had learned nothing from their actions in 1916, when they executed the leaders of the failed Easter Uprising and created martyrs that inspired future generations of Irish nationalists. With the deaths of Daly, Barry and MacSwiney, British officials had demonstrated to the world that the English government had only one answer to their colonial subjects who yearned for freedom -- the same answer they had always given: brutal repression and executions.

The IRA had no hope of mobilizing an army large or well equipped enough to defeat one of the strongest armies in the world. Ireland’s only hope lay in making the world, especially America, see the justice of their cause and make it impossible for England to continue to tyrannize them. As hard and long as they fought, as much as they sacrificed, those in the IRA could not accomplish this. One man, Terence MacSwiney, with extraordinary determination and the moral courage of a man who knew he was right, accomplished more than the thousands carrying guns.

Selected Bibliography:

Boylan, Henry: A Dictionary of Irish Biography St. Martins Press - 1988

Bennett, Richard: The Black and Tans Barnes and Noble Books - 1995

Hickey, D.J. and Doherty, J.E.: A Dictionary of Irish History Since 1800 Barnes and Nobles - 1981

Kee, Robert: Ourselves Alone / The Green Flag - Vol. III Penguin Books - 1976

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: IRA, Irish, MacSwiney, Martyr, Terence, War

Comment by michael dunne on May 5, 2017 at 4:41pm

Thank you Joe for this link. Without detracting in the slightest from the memory and supreme sacrifice of Terence McSwiney, Michael Fitzgerald died on the 17th October followed by a seventeen year old Joseph Murphy who died on the same day as Terence, but got little coverage.

Another patriot who seems to be overlooked is Thomas Ashe who died in prison while his goalers botched their attempts at forcible feeding to deny him his wish to continue his hunger strike. Thomas Ashe I think is often in the shadow of Roger Casement and the annals of Kerry's history and the attempted gun running at Banna. No doubt Casements contribution was immense and may have prompted the support of the Brazilians mentioned in this thread. This is the Centenary of the death of Thomas Ashe and I would much like to see his sacrifice and committment to Freedom equally acknowledged nationally and in his beloved Kerry.  

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