(Note: It was intended to post this on the anniversary of MacSwiney’s death but technical problems prevented that.)
(Reading time text: 15 mins.)
Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork died in Brixton Prison, London, on October 25th 1920: it was the 74th day of his hunger strike. His struggle brought international attention not only to his sacrifice but also to an Ireland in the second year of its War of Independence, a political and guerrilla war against the occupying power, the British State.
Between 1917 and 1981, twenty-two Irish people died on hunger strike against the injustice of British occupation of Ireland.1
HEROISM AND SELF-SACRIFICE
MacSwiney exhibited heroism and self-sacrifice in a number of steps he took before he embarked on his fatal hunger-strike. He did so first of all in putting his liberty and very life in jeopardy in opposing the colonial occupation and domination of his land. He took a second step towards endangering his liberty and life by joining the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation dedicated at the time to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland.
Thirdly, he took the trend further still by not only joining the Irish Volunteers in 1913 but by being one of the founders of the Cork Brigade. Fourthly, MacSwiney opposed Redmond’s offer of the Volunteers to the British imperialist Army and stood with the dedicated minority in the subsequent split.
Fifthly, he joined the IRA after the 1916 Rising.
His sixth step was to take the Lord Mayor position in which his predecessor, Tomás Mac Curtain, had recently been murdered by Crown forces. Seventh, he embarked on his hunger-strike to the end.
That trajectory reminds us all that the path of revolution is a dangerous one, requiring courage and sacrifice, though not necessarily always to that same degree.
Because he chose in the end to offer up his life in a hunger-strike to the death, Terence MacSwiney is often held up as the ideal example of pacifism and especially so when a particular phrase of his is quoted: It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will conquer.
Of course, the reality is that both are absolutely necessary. No struggle can be won by endurance alone, no more than a struggle can be won merely by inflicting damage upon the enemy.
There are genuine pacifists and fake ones. I don’t agree with either but I have some respect for those who put their liberty and even their lives at risk in a pacifist struggle. For the others, the social democrats and liberals who enjoin us to have all our resistance be peaceful, while they support the violence of the ruling class and their states at home and abroad, we should have nothing but contempt. It would indeed suit our enemies if we set out to endure every attack and made them pay nothing in return!
Those who remind us only of that quotation from MacSwiney, or of the one from that other hunger-striker and poet Bobby Sands, that “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”, choose to forget – and try to make us forget – a very important fact about Sands and MacSwiney: each was a revolutionary soldier. Each was arrested because he was known to be a member of an armed force of resistance – the IRA.
For some people, internationalist solidarity is almost all, ensuring that they don’t become any danger to the State in which they live or to its ruling class.
For some others, internationalist solidarity is something kind of extra, to be indulged in now and again.
I think both those tendencies are wrong. We need to confront our own ruling class and State, not only for the benefit of our own working class but also as a contribution to the world. But at the same time we need to pay attention to questions of solidarity with other struggles around the world.
And that can serve as a barometer too – for I have noticed in a number of organisations that when the leadership was heading towards giving up on revolution, inconvenient internationalist solidarity was one of the first things they threw out the window.
MacSwiney’s hunger strike drew the eyes of much of the world to his struggle and to that of his people. In India, the Nehru and Gandhi families made contact with MacSwineys and those connections were maintained for decades afterwards. It is said that Ho Chi Minh was working in a hotel in London when he heard of MacSwiney’s death and remarked that with such people as that, Ireland would surely win her freedom. In Catalonia, people fought daily battles with the Spanish police outside the British Legation in Barcelona. The story reached the Basque Country too and the example of Cumann na mBan was taken a little later to create the female section of the Basque Nationalist Party.
Photo Ho Chi Minh
In Britain too, there was great solidarity, a fact not often spoken about; 30,000 people walked in his funeral procession from the jail to St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark. Who were these people? Certainly many were of the Irish diaspora, the longest-established and largest ethnic minority throughout most of Britain’s history. But there were English socialists too.
At that time, the London Borough of Poplar – not far from the area where the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street was fought, the anniversary of which we celebrated recently — was in dispute with the Government, who were expecting the rates to be collected there to be on the rental value, which meant the poor East London borough had to pay more than rich boroughs of West London.
The Councillors were planning to refuse to set the expected rates and were threatened with jail, whereupon their leader, George Lansbury said they would be proud to go to the same jail where MacSwiney was being kept. British socialists of that kind marched in the funeral procession (besides, at least two of the Poplar Councillors bore Irish surnames: Kelly and O’Callaghan).
In my opinion, it is a great pity that the leaders of the Irish struggle for independence did not work on building links with the British working class. In 1920 the British ruling class was in serious trouble – it had thousands of military conscripts wanting demobilisation after WWI but the British didn’t want to let them go as they felt they would need them to suppress risings in many parts of the British Empire. The working class in industry was building a strike movement and in 1919 the Government had sent soldiers to shoot strikers in Liverpool and to threaten strikers in Glasgow. The great coal strike of 1925 was not far off, nor was the General Strike of 1926.
If the leaders of the Irish independence struggle had made those connections, not only might the history of Ireland have turned out differently but that of the very world.
The preceding is a very close approximation to the speech I gave on the 25th October 2020 by the Hunger Strike Memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery at the Terence MacSwiney commemoration organised by Anti-Imperialism Action Ireland.
FUNERALS AND FUNERAL PROCESSIONS IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES
The working class Irish, who had had some scuffles with the police during vigils at the jail, were there in their thousands at the funeral procession in London in their Sunday best, with the middle class represented too. Some of the Irish women could be identified at a distance, wearing their traditional shawls of Irish city and countryside. The Mayor of Poplar was not the only town mayor to walk in the procession. British socialists took part as did visitors from abroad and the world media was well represented. Aside from the procession, huge crowds lined the South London streets as the cortege passed.
World media interest was intense. The funeral procession, the vast majority walking, travelled the 3.5 miles (nearly 6 kilometres) from Brixton jail northwards to the cathedral where McSwiney’s body was to be received for requiem service the following day.
The church where Terence Mc Swiney’s body was laid out under IRA guard of honour, with 30,000 filing past was St. George’s, on the south side of the river, near Southwark Bridge. It had been formally opened in 1848, known as “the year of revolution” in Europe and Ireland had its own contribution with the Young Irelanders’ brief rising. St. George’s was the first Catholic Cathedral of London until the Catholic Westminster Cathedral opened up in 1903. The English Catholics, who were a very small minority in their country had not dared challenge the anti-Catholic restrictions for generations but under the influence of large Irish Catholic congregations became more assertive; however that did not mean that the mostly aristocratic English Catholics were eager to rub shoulders with their largely plebeian Irish brethren and also, north of the river were the main desirable areas. So in 1903 they built the Catholic Cathedral in Westminster and left St. George’s to the Irish plebs on the south side of the Thames.
The Bishop of Westminster in 1920, Cardinal Francis Bourne, head of the Catholic Church of England and Wales, did not comment publicly on the hunger-strike but let it be known in private that he considered it suicide. The London inquest however, at the insistence of his widow Muriel and the evidence of the Governor of Brixton Jail, had recorded the cause of death as heart failure. A week after MacSwiney’s funeral mass in Southwark, Bourne conducted a mass in Westminster for Catholic British Army officers killed in Ireland.
The next day after the removal of the body from Brixton Jail, Bishop William Cotter of Portsmouth gave the Solemn Requiem with Bishop Amigo, Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne, and Archbishop Anselm Kennealy of Simla, India, in attendanc. It was a ticket-only even; six of those who had tickets were a close group of men, all wearing long coats – once inside they stripped these off and revealed their IRA uniforms. After the previous Republican guardians departed, McSwiney’s body was guarded by six men in the uniform of the army to which he had belonged and of which he had co-founded its Cork element. The Bishop of Southwark might or might not have been pleased but it would not be for long.2 Certainly Peter Emmanuel Amigo, originally from Gibraltar, Bishop of Southwark from 1904 to 1949, had pleaded publicly for MacSwiney’s release before he should die, writing to politicians at Westminster petitioning his release. In a telegram to prime minister David Lloyd George on September 5th, Bishop Amigo warned: “Resentment will be very bitter if he is allowed to die.”
After the service a large entourage accompanied the body in its coffin to Euston Station for the train journey to Hollyhead. From there it was to go on to Dublin, to be received by the people of the Irish capital and then onwards to his home city and final resting place. But it was not to be.
The train left Euston station early with many police on board. At Hollyhead the grieving relatives and friends were informed that the boat they had engaged would take them and the body instead to Cork. The funeral party protested, produced their contract of shipment — to no avail. Porters were called to remove the coffin but were resisted and left. The police were summoned and, manhandling the protesting mourners, seized the coffin (sadly it was not the only kidnapping of an Irish rebel’s body in history, one of the other occasions being by the Irish State with Vol. Michael Gaughan’s body in 1974).
The British authorities feared fueling the fire of patriotic fervour already burning in Dublin at the news of MacSwiney’s death and the impending execution by hanging of Volunteer Kevin Barry. The funeral party were determined to travel to Dublin as arranged and had to engage another ship, which they finally succeeded in doing. While McSwiney’s body travelled on to Cork, the reception was held in Dublin, a city in official mourning declared by the First Dáil and in the midst of an urban guerrilla war against a foreign military occupation.
Mourners in Boston, Chicago, Melbourne, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Manchester held symbolic funerals with empty caskets.
When the Rathmore dropped anchor in Cobh harbour, the coffin containing MacSwiney’s body was transferred to the Mary Tave tug to travel on to Cork to deliver the body to a waiting funeral party. The deck was packed with Auxies, murderers of his predecessor, the final indignity.
A special meeting of Cork Corporation was convened where councillors (those not “on the run”) expressed their condolences and raw emotion at losing the City’s Lord Mayor.
The Deputy Lord Mayor Councillor Donal Óg O’Callaghan, revealing that he had received death threats, issue a defiant statement, decrying that despite Terence’s death, the merit of Republicanism would still linger and pass on:
“The only message that I on behalf of the Republicans of Cork give today over the corpse of the late Lord Mayor is that Cork has definitely yielded its allegiance to the Republic, that the people of Cork will continue that allegiance unswervingly and that those of us who man the Municipal Council will attempt as far as in us lies to follow the noble and glorious lead of the two martyred Republican Magistrates.
“The Republican hold on the Municipal Chair of Cork ceases only when the last Republican in Cork has followed Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney into the Grave. Death will not terrorise us”.
After a funeral service in Cork Cathedral a massive crowd accompanied his coffin to the cemetery, with Republican organisations and ordinary citizens in the procession. The occupation authorities had banned marching in uniform or even in military fashion, or display of flags.
Nationalists under colonial occupation of European powers (including nations within Europe) would be taking inspiration from the Irish struggle for decades. The war of resistance in Ireland would continue, with Cork County and City seeing more than its share. The special terrorist units of the British and their regular army would burn the City on the night of 11th-12th December of that same year. Irish Republicans in Britain would concentrate on supplying intelligence and arms to the struggle at home, in addition to organising some prison escapes. Some British socialists would continue solidarity activities on a publicity level and liberals and social democrats would protest the British reprisals on the Irish civilian population.
But the body of Terence McSwiney had come home.
MacSwiney’s Free, composed and performed by Pat Waters, with video footage:
Footage London & Cork funeral processions Terence MacSwiney:
Terence MacSwiney Cork funeral only footage:
1Some, like MacSwiney and the ten in 1981, died of the depletion of the body through the hunger-strike while some were killed by force-feeding, like Thomas Ashe in 1917, Michael Gaughan in 1974 and Frank Stagg in 1976. Others survived hunger strike and force-feeding but their bodies (and sometime their minds) suffered for the rest of their lives, such as the Price sisters (1973-1974).
2Part of that journey was marked in reverse by the Terence MacSwiney Commemoration Committee with a march in 1989. The idea as far as I can recall had been Brendan O’Rourke’s, an Irish solidarity activist and at that time Manager of the Lewisham Irish Community Centre, the Management Committee of which I was Chairperson and with a few others, Brendan and I led that Commemoration Committee.
The march, supported by Irish Republicans and some English socialists, rallied at Kennington Park, on the lookout for National Front or police attack but knowing that in Brixton itself, an area of high Afro-Caribbean settlement, both those misfortunes were unlikely. We were led by a Republican Flute Band from Scotland and applauded by people as we marched past the police station (the State garrison of the area) and through the centre of Brixton. The march proceeded without incident up Brixton Hill to the entrance of the road leading in to the Jail, held a moment’s silence there and marched down to the centre of Brixton Town, ending there for people to proceed to a reception at Fr. Matthew Hall.
It was the last such march as we could not get another band from Scotland to lead us. We were independent of Provisional Sinn Féin and Scottish RFB members told us that the bands had been told, unofficially of course, that participating in our events would adversely affect their chances of being invited to play at annual events in the Six Counties, which for those bands was the high point of their annual calendar.