24 November 2005

Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920)


**Last month marked the 85th anniversary of the death of Terence MacSwiney

Terence MacSwiney, brother of Mary MacSwiney, was born in Cork and educated at the Royal University where he studied accountancy and joined the Gaelic League.

During 1911-1912 he contributed articles to Irish Freedom which became the basis of his book Principles of Freedom published posthumously in 1921.

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In 1913 MacSwiney founded the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers and was President of the Cork Branch of Sinn Féin and the 1st Cork Brigade of Volunteers when he was interned under the Defence of the Realm Act in Reading and Wakefield Gaols from April to December, 1916.

Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920)

In February, 1917 MacSwiney was deported from Ireland and interned in Shrewsbury and Bromyard internment camps until June, 1917. In November, 1917 McSwiney was arrested in Cork for wearing an IRA uniform and was imprisoned in Cork Gaol where he went on a three day hunger-strike before his release. MacSwiney was arrested in Dublin in March, 1918 and imprisoned in Belfast and Dundalk Gaols until September when he was released, re-arrested and imprisoned to Lincoln Gaol. In the same year he published a volume of poetry entitled Battle Cries.

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MacSwiney was released in March, 1919 and following the assassination of Thomas McCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, MacSwiney was elected to the mayorality. He was arrested in Dublin on August 12th, 1920 and charged with making a 'seditious' speech; with possession of a police code and a Cork Corporation resolution recognising Dáil Éireann. MacSwiney immediately commenced a hunger-strike. He was tried by court-martial, found guilty and sentenced to two years imprisonment. In Brixton Prison, MacSwiney continued his hunger-strike for seventy-four days until his death on October 25th, 1920. This was the longest hunger-strike in Irish political history. The young Ho Chi Minh, then a dishwasher in London, said of MacSwiney - 'A Nation which has such citizens will never surrender'.

MacSwiney's body lay in state in Southwark Cathederal, London before removal by sea to Dublin and then by train to Cork. His funeral procession was one of the largest ever seen in Cork City. In 1921 MacSwiney's play The Revolutionist was produced at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

This extract is from MacSwiney's Principles of Freedom (1921)

Why should we fight for freedom? Is it not strange, that it has become necessary to ask and answer this question? We have fought our fight for centuries, and contending parties still continue the struggle, but the real significance of the struggle and its true motive force are hardly at all understood, and there is a curious but logical result. Men technically on the same side are separated by differences wide and deep, both of ideal and plan of action; while, conversely, men technically opposed have perhaps more in common than we realise in a sense deeper than we understand.

This is the question I would discuss. I find in practise everywhere in Ireland - it is worse out of Ireland - the doctrine 'The end justifies the means'.

One party will denounce another for the use of discreditable tactics, but it will have no hesitation in using such itself if it can thereby snatch a discreditable victory. So, clear speaking is needed: a fight that is not clean-handed will make victory more disgraceful than any defeat. I make the point here because we stand for separation from the British Empire, and because I have heard it argued that we ought, if we could, make a foreign alliance to crush English power here, even if our foreign allies were engaged in crushing freedom elsewhere.

When such a question can be proposed it should be answered, though the time is not ripe to test it. If Ireland were to win freedom by helping directly or indirectly to crush another people she would earn the execration she has poured out on tyranny for ages. I have come to see it possible for Ireland to win her independence by base methods.

It is imperative, therefore, that we should declare ourselves and know where we stand. And I stand by this principle: no physical victory can compensate for spiritual surrender. Whatever side denies that is not my side...

A SPIRITUAL necessity makes the true significance of our claim to freedom: the material aspect is only a secondary consideration. A man facing life is gifted with certain powers of soul and body. It is of vital importance to himself and to the community that he be given a full opportunity to develop his powers, and to fill his place worthily. In a free state he is in the natural environment for full self-development. In an enslaved state it is the reverse. When one country holds another in subjection that other suffers materially and morally. It suffers materially, being a prey for plunder. It suffers morally because of the corrupt influences the bigger nation sets at work to maintain its ascendancy. Because of this moral corruption national subjection should be resisted, as a state fostering vice; and as in the case of vice, when we understand it we have no option but to fight. With it we can make no terms. It is the duty of the rightful power to develop the best in its subjects: it is the practise of the usurping power to develop the basest.

Our history affords many examples. When our rulers visit Ireland they bestow favours and titles on the supporters of their regime - but it is always seen that the greatest favours and the highest titles are not for the honest adherent of their power - but for him who has betrayed the national cause that he entered public life to support. Observe the men who might be respected are passed over for him who ought to be despised. In the corrupt politician there was surely a better nature. A free state would have encouraged and developed it. The usurping state titled him for the use of his baser instincts. Such allurement must mean demoralization. We are none of us angels, and under the best circumstances find it hard to do worthy things; when all the temptation is to do unworthy things we are demoralised. Most of us, happily, will not give ourselves over to the evil influence, but we lose faith in the ideal. We are apathetic. We have powers and let them lie fallow. Our minds should be restless for beautiful and noble things; they are hopeless in a land everywhere confined and wasted. In the destruction of spirit lies the deeper significance of our claim to freedom.


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Funeral of Terence MacSwiney - Click to view

'Teach Us How To Die' by Terence MacSwiney

God, we enter our last fight;
Thou dost see our cause is right;
Make us march now in Thy sight
on to victory

All the agony of years,
All the horrors, all the fears.
Martyr's blood, survivors tears,
Now we offer Thee
As an endless holocaust
For the freedom, we have lost,
God restore it tho' the cost
Greater still must be;
Let Thy grace attend our host,
Give us victory

See, we open our own hearts,
Every wrong that in them smarts;
Every secret pain that starts,
We, too, offer Thee;
Every dearest hope's decrease
Every fear that rocks our peace.
Every cross with pain's increase,
Burthened tho' we be;
Sacrifice that shall not cease
Till our land be free.

Thou holdest freedom in Thy hand;
Thou canst liberate our land;
Hear us; yield our one demand-
Ireland's liberty.

We ask not her chains tro rive
And the sacred deed survive,
That we may rejoice alive
In her victory;
We but ask that she shall thrive,
And rest our fate with Thee.

We know not what must befall
Marching at our country's call;
Make us strong who must yield all
That she may not die.

Those who will survive the fight,
Still attend them with Thy Light,
Thou our hope in darkest night
Then our guardian be,

And hold our dear land in Thy sight
Erect, firm and free.

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