Papers of Terence MacSwiney, UCDA P48b and UCDA P48c
Since its inception, UCD Archives has centred its collection policy on a core of political private papers. Private paper collections are invaluable in illustrating the multifaceted nature of the lives of Ireland’s most illustrious sons and daughters and the Terence MacSwiney papers provide one such example. Consisting of his own personal papers and records compiled by his biographers, the collection provides insight into the character of Terence MacSwiney, the martyred lord mayor of Cork, but also sheds light on the other aspects of the Irish political figure including his family life and his literary aspirations.
Terence James MacSwiney (1879–1920) was born in Cork to John MacSwiney and Mary MacSwiney (née Wilkinson). Following the failure of his tobacco factory business, John MacSwiney emigrated to Australia alone in 1885, leaving his wife to care for their seven surviving children. The family portrait featured was taken just prior to John MacSwiney’s departure (UCDA P48b/272). Due to the family’s financial strain, Terence MacSwiney temporarily abandoned his education at the age of fifteen, taking up a job as a clerk to supplement the family income. Fortunately, the hiatus from his academic pursuits was relatively short-lived as he returned to complete a degree in mental and moral science in the Royal University of Cork [now University College Cork], graduating in 1907 (UCDA P48b/278).
During this period, MacSwiney developed his passion for poetry and literature becoming a founding member of the Cork Literary Society and the Cork Dramatic Society. The programme pictured advertises his play The Holocaust showcased alongside a play penned by Daniel Corkery (UCDA P48b/263). He wrote extensively; primarily producing articles, plays and poetry centred on Irish nationalist issues but also writing material with more personal and sensitive themes.
As his interest in cultural nationalism grew, so too did his active involvement in the political element of the Irish struggle for independence. On 14 December 1913, he attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers in Cork and was named a member of the Cork executive in 1914. His papers feature the delegate card he received at a meeting of the Irish Volunteers in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on 19 October 1914, signed by Eoin MacNeill and Bulmer Hobson (UCDA P48b/360).
Prior to the outbreak of the Easter Rising of 1916, MacSwiney, along with Tomás MacCurtain, had been attempting to mobilise troops in Cork. This was in response to a circular letter issued by Eoin MacNeill warning that the British government had plans to move against the Irish Volunteers (UCDA P48b/364). However, the subsequent scuttling of the Aud and the countermanding orders received from Eoin MacNeill caused confusion among the Cork Volunteers. At the behest of the Bishop and the Lord Mayor of Cork, MacSwiney and MacCurtain ordered the Volunteers to surrender their arms to the civil authorities and ensured that no armed insurrection took place.
His prolonged guilt over the failure of the Rising in Cork is evident through correspondence held within the collection; perhaps most notably in a letter sent to Cathal Brugha from Brixton prison shortly before his death in which he states “the pain of Easter Week is properly dead at last” (UCDA P48b/416).
Although he was not involved in the armed insurrection, Terence MacSwiney was nonetheless placed under arrest on 3 May 1916 and sent to Frongoch prison with other Irish prisoners of war. The Welsh internment camp became a breeding ground for Irish nationalism and MacSwiney immediately resumed his activities with the Cork brigade of the Irish Volunteers following his release.
The final years of MacSwiney’s life were marred by frequent bouts of imprisonment including an arrest in November 1917 for wearing a military Irish Volunteer uniform in public (UCDA P48b/365). In a letter to his wife, MacSwiney discusses celebrations held for Éamon de Valera’s birthday, indicating the sense of comradery among Irish prisoners in British jails in the wake of 1916 (UCDA P48b/92). This letter was sent three months prior to de Valera’s notorious escape from the prison.
Despite his incarceration in England, MacSwiney was elected as the Sinn Féin MP for Mid-Cork in the 1918 General Election, becoming a member of the first dáil following his release in early 1919. The following year, MacSwiney took the helm of the Cork No. 1 Brigade and was elected lord mayor of Cork following the assassination of Tomás MacCurtain on 20 March 1920 by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Shortly after his appointment, MacSwiney was arrested while chairing a Sinn Féin court at Cork City Hall. During his trial in August 1920, he signalled the beginning of his hunger strike and has been quoted as saying “whatever your Government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within the month”. MacSwiney was handed down a sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
Due to the longevity of the hunger strike, there were a string of accusations that MacSwiney was secretly taking nourishment but these claims were vehemently disputed by his family members (UCDA P48b/429). MacSwiney’s plight became the focus of increased international attention and the subject of a growing debate involving the Catholic Church on the morality of hunger strikes and self-sacrifice.
Throughout the strike, MacSwiney received letters of support from prominent Irish figures including Daniel Cohalan, Bishop of Cork (UCDA P48b/620) and Alfred O’Rahilly, noted academic and former TD (UCDA P48b/610). Despite his deteriorating condition, MacSwiney continued to express his optimism that Ireland would become a free republic.
MacSwiney eventually succumbed on 25 October 1920 after seventy-four days of hunger strike. His body was removed to St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark (UCDA P48b/673) and was subsequently transported to Dublin for a public memorial service before finally being returned to his native Cork. Thousands came to pay their respects as his body lay in state at Cork City Hall. He was ultimately buried at St Finbarr’s cemetery, Cork.
Terence MacSwiney has been elevated to the position of an iconic martyr for Irish nationalism but his private papers provide a more rounded view of a complex character. As family friend Pauline Henley wrote to one of his biographers in 1928, “I know two Terence MacSwineys – the one I knew prior to 1916 and the tragic figure that finally gave his life for Ireland” (UCDA P48c/62).