The arrest and court-martial of Cork Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney
Updated: Sep 8
Thursday 12 August 1920 dawned with the promise of sunny intervals and light winds, and for one Cork man, his last day of freedom.
Terence MacSwiney, born on 28 March 1879, became Lord Mayor of Cork on 30 March 1920, ten days after the murder of the incumbent, Tomas MacCurtain. MacSwiney’s acceptance speech was prophetic, ‘this contest of ours is not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance - it is not they who can inflict most but they who can suffer most will conquer.’
The Lord Mayor awoke alone on that fateful morning as was the usual scenario at that time. His wife Muriel recounts that ‘we were not openly together because I was a mark by which the English Imperialists and there [sic] allies Irish Imperialists and Redmonites would find Terry and kill him’. Muriel and baby daughter Máire were ‘at a tiny place on the sea coast near Youghal’ that day waiting for the Lord Mayor who was ‘going to come to stay with us’.
Terence MacSwiney went about the day working out the various pressing matters which were the nature of his position, both as Lord Mayor and O/C of Cork No. 1 Brigade. He was due to meet Liam Lynch later that day. Lynch was driven south to Cork by Patrick McCarthy and on their arrival to the outskirts of the city, Lynch called into ‘Concubhair Toomey’s, Dublin Hill’. Patrick McCarthy continued on to the city to contact Terence MacSwiney. He eventually located the Lord Mayor at ‘Scoil Ita (his sister’s school) and he arranged to meet Liam Lynch at the City Hall at 7 p.m. or 7.30 p.m.’
Later in the afternoon, at about 5.30 p.m., Terence MacSwiney called to 4 Belgrave Place, home to his sisters, Annie and Mary. Shortly after six, he got up from the table and set off for the City Hall, a mere ten-minute walk away. Cork City that night, ‘was to all appearances as peaceable a place as there was on the face of the earth.’
However, as the Lord Mayor entered the City Hall, ‘fully-armed British Troops’ left Victoria Barracks, with one aim in mind. The City Hall was a hive of activity that night as he made his way to his desk. Downstairs, a Dail Court was in session and upstairs the Brigade meeting was due to take place with several kingpins of the Volunteers; Liam Lynch, Dan Sando O’Donovan and Sean Hegarty, who would become O/C of the Brigade on MacSwiney’s arrest, present.
Private Secretary to MacSwiney, Con Harrington, became aware that the civic offices were being surrounded by enemy troops and ‘raced along the corridor at the end of which I met the Lord Mayor’ who was ‘maintaining those qualities of calm and nonchalance which were his outstanding characteristics.’ At this point Harrington and MacSwiney ‘proceeded down the back stairs on that eastern side of the building’ where they were confronted by a soldier with rifle and fixed bayonet who ordered the pair to halt, but he did not recognise the Lord Mayor. Harrington attempted to divert the soldier’s attention by walking towards the vestibule while the Lord Mayor went towards the back door.  MacSwiney managed to make his way out of the building and towards the Corporation yard, but he had no keys so was unable to make his escape.
At about 9 p.m. MacSwiney and his fellow Army colleagues had been arrested. This is corroborated by Ted O’Sullivan of Cork No. 3 Brigade, who had been due to attend a meeting at 9 p.m. in the Courthouse, however ‘when we arrived at the meeting place we were met by Donal Óg O’Callaghan who informed us that a mistake in our notices had been made, as the meeting was to be held at the City Hall.’ As O’Sullivan accompanied by Liam Deasy and Mossy Donegan made the short journey to their destination they observed a number of prisoners including MacSwiney, Lynch and O’Hegarty being placed in enemy lorries. The prisoners were brought to Victoria Barracks where some time later MacSwiney was charged with possession of a cipher key.
The Brigade Officer, Florrie O’Donoghue ‘normally had custody of the secret cipher’ but he was absent from the City Hall that night, so it was Joe O’Connor who had possession of the key at this particular time. Harrington recounts that a second raid was made on the City Hall subsequent to MacSwiney’s arrest where the cipher was discovered ‘in the Lord Mayor’s desk, where it had been planted to make a charge against him.’ O’Donoghue notes that the raid on the City Hall took place as a result of the notice of the meeting being intercepted following ‘a British raid on local mails … on 9th August’. O’Donoghue also supports Con Harrington’s insistence that MacSwiney did not have possession of the cipher. In addition, corroborating the claim was an IRA source for Michael Collins, who said he gave the key to one of the Brigade Officers who on arrest ‘hid it outside at the back of a partition’ but he was observed by one of the soldiers who alerted the Officer in charge.
Also found during the second raid, were ‘seditious documents’, one being MacSwiney’s speech on acceptance of the office of Lord Mayor. Following his arrest, Terence MacSwiney went on hunger strike. Four days later, 16 August 1920 he was court-martialled, found guilty and transported to England for imprisonment. However, during that time and over the next three months he remained true to his words by showing himself ‘unterrified, cool and inflexible for the … establishment of the independence and integrity of our country’.
Following their arrest, Terence MacSwiney and his comrades were taken by lorry to Victoria Barracks where in protest they joined the hunger strike that republican prisoners in Cork prison had commenced the previous day. They were held overnight, and the following day they were ‘removed to Cork Gaol. However, with the exception of Terry MacSwiney … we were all released.’ Volunteer, Michael Murphy recalls that he was amazed as it seemed that the ‘military authorities did not realise the importance of the capture they had made … in the absence of any identification’ showing how vital local knowledge provided by the Royal Irish Constabulary was.
Nevertheless, the Lord Mayor was now in custody and on hunger strike, and the situation was reported in newspapers from North to South, ‘Arrest of Cork’s Lord Mayor: Scene at Council Meeting.’ On 16 August 1920, Civil Servant, Mark Sturgis, noted in his diary that ‘the big hunger strike in Cork Gaol is awfully ticklish’. Well, things were to get even more precarious.
Terence MacSwiney was brought before a Military Court in Victoria Barracks on 16 August 1920, as the charges he was facing were so ‘flimsy … that Sir John Anderson, joint under-secretary for Ireland, admitted that the slight evidence would not even justify a civil court conviction.’ However, British authorities managed to cobble together four charges:
1. Being in possession of a cipher on August 12th, without lawful authority or excuse, which cipher was the numerical cipher issued to the R.I.C.;
2. Having this under his control;
3. Being in possession of a document containing statements likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty. (This document was a resolution passed by Cork Corporation, acknowledging the authority of and pledging allegiance to Dail Eireann);
4. Being in possession of a copy of a speech he made when elected as successor to Lord Mayor MacCurtain.
When Terence MacSwiney was asked by the President of the Court, Lieutenant Colonel James Smith of the Staffordshire Regiment if he was represented by counsel, he replied ‘I declare this court illegal, and that all taking part in it are liable to arrest under the Irish Republic.  The politics of the newspaper, Belfast Newsletter, are clear to see as the paper commented that the Lord Mayor ‘made no defence, except some tomfoolery about the County Inspector being guilty of criminal conspiracy against the Irish Republic.’
The Prosecution set out its arguments, and after deliberation, the President of the Court announced the findings. Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, was found not guilty on the first charge, but guilty on the second, third and fourth. MacSwiney replied confirming he was taking no food and had ‘decided the term of my detention whatever your Government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’ He was sentenced to two years imprisonment without hard labour and deported to Brixton Prison. Another nineteen hunger strikers were deported from Cork Prison to Winchester Jail.
These deportations only served to anger Irish people and Cork Sinn Fein members placed posters bearing the statement ‘Our Lord Mayor and many other Republican soldiers are being slowly murdered in English jails for allegiance to the Irish Republic. Let our answer to this be renewed determination to support the Irish Republic, and rid the country of England’s assassins.’
This anger was to spread far beyond the island of Ireland over the coming days and weeks, and the actions of many caused the plight of the Cork Lord Mayor to hit international headlines.
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 Irish Examiner, 12 August 1920  Cornelius Harrington, ‘Arrest and martyrdom of Terence MacSwiney’ in Rebel Cork’s fighting story: from 1916 to the truce with Britain (Tralee, 195-), p. 87.  Witness Statement of Muriel MacSwiney http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0637.pdf  Witness Statement of Patrick McCarthy http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1163.pdf  Dave Hannigan, The hunger strike that rocked an Empire (Dublin, 2010), p. 14.  Harrington, ‘Arrest and martyrdom of Terence MacSwiney’, p.81.  Witness Statement of Michael Murphy http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1547.pdf  Harrington, ‘Arrest and martyrdom of Terence MacSwiney’, p.83.  Witness Statement of Ted O’Sullivan http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1478.pdf  Florence O’Donoghue, No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin, 1954), p. 89.  Francis J. Costello, Enduring the most: The life and death of Terence MacSwiney (Dingle, 1995), p. 141.  Harrington, ‘Arrest and martyrdom of Terence MacSwiney’, p.87.
 Witness Statement of Patrick McCarthy.  Witness Statement of Michael Murphy.  Belfast Newsletter, 14 August 1920.  Michael Hopkinson (ed.), The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Diaries of Mark Sturgis (Dublin, 1999), p. 22.  John A. Murphy, Cuimhne Dhá Laoch MacCurtain and MacSwiney (Cork, 1995), p. 10.  Freemans Journal, 17 August 1920.  Belfast Newsletter, 17 August 1920.  Irish Examiner, 17 August 1920.  Belfast Newsletter, 20 August 1920.