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CORK LORD MAYOR: Terence MacSwiney - the last days

Updated: Feb 17

Terence MacSwiney, husband, father, politician and revolutionary began the last week of his life in Brixton Prison in October 1920. Monday 18 October, seven days before he died, was his last day of clarity and the 68th day of his hunger strike. He was supported in England by friends and family, who were his protectors in his single minded intention to follow the martyrdom of his fallen comrades, ‘we ask for no mercy, and we will make no compromise.’[1]

His family who had travelled to Brixton included his wife Muriel, siblings Annie, Maire (Mary), Sean who had come from Canada and Peter from New York. Also supporting the family were ‘Mid’ O’Hegarty, wife of Sean O’Hegarty, London-based Art O’Brien, one of the founders of the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain and Father Dominic O’Connor, the Lord Mayor’s private chaplain.

Figure 2: left to right, Wife Muriel, Fr Dominic, his brother Seán and his sisters Mary and Annie IMacSwiney's visitors including (left to right) his wife Muriel; Fr Dominic, his chaplain; his brother Seán; and his sisters Mary and Annie. (Images: Illustrated London News, 4 September 1920.

The presence of MacSwiney’s family were as important as his faith in God in the final days. He was resolute and absolute in his determination to die for Ireland. The very attempt to feed him two teaspoons of meat juice traumatised the Lord Mayor and his greatest fear was that British Prison authorities would feed him whilst unconscious. The last days of Terence MacSwiney were recorded by his sister Annie, her words conveying his agony and determination and her loyalty and love.

On Monday 18 October 1920, ‘Terry was perfectly conscious.’ ‘He was visited by the priests from Cork, who marvelled at his keenness of mind, and at his condition generally after 68 days fast.’[2] Three of the Brixton doctors, Peddard, Griffiths and Hijson visited him and conveyed the news to his family that he was developing scurvy, indicating that his body had consumed its supply of vitamins and minerals. The doctors advised him that he should take lime juice to ‘ward it off’ but ‘Terry told him he was ready for whatever pain God sent.’

Tuesday 19 October saw the Lord Mayor slip into delirium. Annie ‘found him very different from the previous day. His eyes looked excited, and he was evidently very disturbed mentally.’ The reason for his restlessness was an altercation with Doctor G.B. Griffiths, Medical Officer in charge at Brixton, who according to Sean, spoke ‘to Terry in a very brow-beating way’, insisting he would make him take the lime juice. Griffiths recalls how MacSwiney became ‘black angry’ when he attempted to persuade him to take the juice.[3] MacSwiney’s biggest concern, being fed against his wishes, continued to weigh heavily on his mind.

Wednesday 20 October was a pivotal day for Terence MacSwiney and his family. He was slipping deeper into delirium but did have moments of clarity, he admonished Annie when she told him it was ‘quarter past ten’. ‘It is only 13¼ minutes past ten … now I am perfectly conscious, am I not.’ After a few moments of silence, he asked her to ‘witness I’m a soldier dying for the Republic.’ Annie held up the cross of her rosary, she kissed it ‘and then pressed it to his lips.’

MacSwiney became increasing restless and ‘the terror of the doctor’s threat had completely turned his brain. He knew he was at their mercy when he was unconscious, and he felt his consciousness slipping from him.’ In his delirium he would strike out with his hands at anyone who came near, on other occasions he would attempt to get out of bed and other times he would struggle into a sitting posture. ‘It was an easy thing to overcome him in his emaciated condition, after seventy days fast.’

Annie commented how traumatic it was to view the scene, it was a ‘concentrated horror’. What made the situation harsher was the attitude of the prison officials, ‘to whom he was an object of curiosity, and perhaps of amusement.’ Later Doctors Stubbs and Hijson came to see MacSwiney. Annie pleaded with them to ensure Doctor Griffiths be kept away as he was directly responsible for her brother’s anxiety. Both doctors said that ‘Griffiths was senior and had absolute power; they had none.’ However, after a consultation they agreed that MacSwiney would not be fed, as the Home Office had accepted the situation.

Later that evening, Doctor Griffiths made an appearance and told Maire that he was going to feed the patient. She told him it was wrong, and he would only torture her brother. Griffiths retorted that the family were ‘only there on sufferance, and if she or anyone said a word we would all be put outside the prison gates.’ The family wired the British Administration and various key officials ‘saying the doctor was going to prolong his agony by forcible feeding and asking were Englishmen going to see such torture done in their name.’ That Wednesday night saw a further deterioration in MacSwiney’s health, ‘Terry was very bad all night, delirious and struggling.’

Even after his death MacSwiney's hunger strike was questioned. Brigadier-General Sir Ormonde de l'Épée Winter, responsible for intelligence operations in Ireland at the time accused Father Dominic of carrying 'him worldly nourishment concealed in his voluminous beard.'[4]

The next morning, Thursday 21 October, Annie was at the prison early. At 10am, ‘the nurse gave him two teaspoons of Meat Juice in water’. Shortly after MacSwiney cried out that they had tricked him and he retched. Two hours later they gave him brandy and milk, ‘but after a few minutes he had a dreadful fit of vomiting – he vomited more than half a basin full – a green liquid.’ Annie pleaded with the nurse not to be so cruel and refrain from giving him anything apart from water; ‘the drink you have given him for seventy days’. Later that Thursday night, Annie, Sean and Father Dominic remained at the jail. Even though they were not allowed in his room, they took turns standing outside his door.

Friday 22 October, MacSwiney was momentarily conscious and acceded to the nurse’s offer of hot water. ‘After that, he seemed to relapse again, but his did not become delirious.’ Later in the morning, he awoke again, recognised Annie but was unaware of where he was or the date. When Annie explained the situation and told him he was in jail for the Irish Republic, ‘his whole face lit up’ and he exclaimed ‘so it is established’.

On Saturday 23 October a major shift in the attitude of the Prison authorities emerged. Maire was first to arrive early in the morning, but was refused admittance to his see her brother and remained in the waiting room. At the time Sean MacSwiney was in the jail keeping watch over his brother puzzled why Maire had not arrived. Annie arrived later and she too was denied access. Both sisters decided to do without food and sat protesting at the prison. According to the Governor and his deputy, the order for their expulsion had come from the Home Office. Eventually the Police were called and both sisters left.

The pages of Annie’s diary for Sunday and the majority of Monday are missing, Margaret Lucey said she came ‘to the conclusion that that page was missing when I was typing them for Miss McSwiney’.

Figure 4: Bust of Terence MacSwiney, Cork City Hall (Photo: Reading the Signs)

Sunday 24 October saw Annie and Maire once again prevented from visiting their brother. As Sunday turned to Monday 25 October 1920, Father Dominic and Sean MacSwiney were sleeping at Brixton Prison. They ‘were awakened at 4.35 a.m. and told that the Lord Mayor was dying.’[5] Doctor Griffiths prevented Sean from notifying his family so both men stayed with MacSwiney as life left his body. Father Dominic recited prayers for the dying and an hour later the laboured breathing faltered and at 5.40 am on the 74th day of his fast, Cork Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney, ‘completed his sacrifice for Ireland’. [6]

Following a meeting of the Cork City Council, it was agreed to ‘posthumously bestow the Freedom of the City on the late Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney in this, the centenary of 1920 the year of their deaths. This honour would be bestowed upon them for their promotion of the Irish language and culture and the fact that they sacrificed their lives in the struggle for an independent Irish Republic. Given that no commemorations or celebrations could take place in 2020 due to the Covid19 pandemic, the Freedom of the City could be a fitting tribute to honour these two men.’ [7]

Figure 5: Death Certificate - Terence MacSwiney (courtesy of Cork City Council).

[1]Cork Mayoral acceptance speech of Terence MacSwiney 30 March 1920, Cork Examiner, 31 March 1920. [2] Witness testimony of Margaret Lucey, including the witness testimony of Aine MacSwiney. All quotes other than those reference are from this diary which can be found [3] William Murphy ‘Dying, death, and hunger strike : Cork and Brixton, 1920, in James Kelly and Mary Ann Lyons (eds.), Death and dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe: Historical perspectives’ (Dublin, 2013), p. 306. [4] Ormonde Winter, Winter's tale: An autobiography (London, 1955), p. 292.

[5] Moirin Chavasse, Terence MacSwiney (Dublin, 1961), p. 181. [6] Telegram from Father Dominic reprinted in Evening Echo, 25 October 1920. [7]


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