Terence MacSwiney:
The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hunger Strike

The hunger strike is a weapon which is designed to turn weakness into strength, a political and propaganda tool which has the power to cast the striking prisoners as victims and the government being struck against as the oppressor. The hunger strike has been used particularly often, and taken to deadly extremes, by Republicans[1] seeking freedom for Ireland in the twentieth century. The most prominent and influential hunger strike, and one of the earliest, was that of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork. MacSwiney died on hunger strike in 1920, while a prisoner of the British government. Although the strike failed to achieve its stated aim of MacSwiney’s release, his death was a major blow to the British government, and marked a turning point in the Irish War of Independence. MacSwiney’s sacrifice changed the way the public in Ireland and around the world viewed the struggle for independence: he came to symbolize Ireland itself. MacSwiney’s “martyrdom” was thus a triumph in the struggle for Irish independence, but this triumph could only be achieved through the deaths of MacSwiney and two of his fellow-strikers, who never lived to enjoy the freedom they helped to win. More tragically, MacSwiney’s success inspired generation after generation of Irish Republicans to sacrifice their own lives, but never again with the same triumphant outcome. MacSwiney’s “victory” was a fortuitous result of unique circumstances. MacSwiney was a public servant at a time when the war was reaching its climax, and one of the first to carry a hunger strike through to its conclusion; his cause thus achieved a greater urgency and impact than any other hunger striker.

The struggle for Irish freedom, against British power, had long taken two divergent paths—peaceful and constitutional legislation on the one hand, and violent rebellion on the other. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Constitutional wing coalesced under John Redmond’s Irish Party,[2] which pushed for Home Rule. Meanwhile, a more radical alternative had grown up under the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or I.R.B.,[3] and Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein.[4] During World War I, as England claimed to fight for the right of self-determination for small nations, the physical force proponents grew farther apart from the Home Rulers, and in 1916 a group of radicals staged the Easter Rising in Dublin, taking over key points in the city and holding out for several days against the British Army. After the British executed the leaders of the Rising, making martyrs of them, the tide of public opinion shifted away from peaceful supporters of Home Rule and support for the violent struggle for independence grew.[5] It was in this context that the hunger strike made its first appearance in the 20th century Republican arsenal.

Terence MacSwiney was a thirty-eight-year-old Irish Volunteer,[6] who had been writing essays, articles, and plays in support of Irish independence since the turn of the century.[7] He had been in command of the Irish Volunteers of Cork during the Easter Rising, but had not been informed of the Rising beforehand. By the time he heard the news, he did not believe it practical to “come out” with his men to join the Rising. That decision was to haunt MacSwiney; he wished he had joined his comrades in their glorious martyrdom. In any event, he was arrested and imprisoned by the British numerous times, including in October, 1917, when he was arrested and sentenced to six months penal servitude for illegally wearing a military uniform. Inspired by the example of Thomas Ashe, a Republican who had died on hunger strike in September, MacSwiney and others went on hunger strike on November 17 to protest their imprisonment, but the strike ended quickly. Four days later, the strikers were released.[8] This successful strike likely influenced MacSwiney’s decision to go on hunger strike in 1920. In March 1920, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Irish Republican Tomás MacCurtain, was murdered in his home by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) on the official orders of the British government.[9] Terence MacSwiney, who had been a very close friend and comrade of MacCurtain, was elected Lord Mayor in his place. In his inaugural address, MacSwiney made the remark for which he would be best remembered, and which could be the creed of all Republican hunger strikers: “It is not they who can inflict the most, but they who can suffer the most, who will conquer.”[10]

MacSwiney’s final hunger strike was triggered by his arrest while Lord Mayor and trial in military court, which he felt was an affront to the dignity of his office. On August 12, MacSwiney was presiding over a staff meeting of the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA when it was raided by the British Army, which arrested the participants. MacSwiney was charged with possession of a police cipher. Although he had been arrested many times before, he was now the Lord Mayor of Cork, and in protest of the arrest he immediately went on hunger strike.[11] On August 16, a military court-martial convened to try MacSwiney, and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment. MacSwiney did not recognize the authority of a military tribunal to pass judgment against the head of a city, and before the sentence was read, he stated that “I will put a limit to any term of imprisonment you may impose as a result of the action I will take. I have taken no food since Thursday, therefore I will be free within a month…. I have decided the terms of my detention whatever your government may do. I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.”[12] As a prisoner, MacSwiney was powerless. It was only by denying the government’s right to hold him, by asserting control over his life by throwing it at the government, that MacSwiney could gain power over his enemies as a soldier of the Irish Republic.

MacSwiney had made the decision to undertake a hunger strike to the death, in the belief that either the British government would give in or that he would become a martyr for his cause. Although previous strikes had achieved their goals, most of the leaders of the Republican movement were not in favor of his hunger strike. The consensus was that the British government would eventually cease to give in, for fear of losing its authority.[13] MacSwiney may have had overly high hopes, but he too understood that his hunger strike could turn into a battle of wills which might end with his death, especially because there was no possibility of compromise in a strike for release, instead of for more limited goals. The thought of death did not trouble him: during his strike, he wrote to a friend, “If I die I know the fruit will exceed the cost a thousand fold. The thought makes me happy. I thank God for it. Ah Cathal, the pain of Easter Week is properly dead at last.”[14] He was ready to take his place among the martyrs for the cause.

Although it believed that MacSwiney’s death would be a waste of his talent and skill, the Irish Republican government conducted a concerted P.R. campaign to keep MacSwiney in the public eye, to put pressure on the British government to release him, and, failing that, to make his martyrdom felt worldwide and generate as much support for Irish independence as possible. At the same time that MacSwiney began his hunger strike, eleven Republican prisoners in Cork Gaol undertook a hunger strike of their own for release. Several of the strikers had not been convicted of any crime, but were being held without trial, a fact which gave ammunition to their advocates.[15]

The British government’s position was essentially that to release MacSwiney would be to surrender all control over Ireland, and particularly that it would fatally undermine the recently passed “Coercion Act.” It attempted to frame the War of Independence as an issue of law and order, and would show no more leniency to those who broke the law and who subsequently chose to harm themselves in a bid for sympathy. On August 26, the cabinet declared that “the release of the Lord Mayor would have disastrous results in Ireland and would probably lead to a mutiny of both military and police in South of Ireland.”[16] Despite this hard public face, there was actually considerable dissension within the British government over whether or not to release MacSwiney. British officials based in Ireland, especially, expressed concern that the hunger strike was becoming a public relations disaster for Britain. In the end, nevertheless, the Cabinet determined to stay the course, especially in light of a sharp increase in violence in Ireland over the past months.[17]

The two sides engaged in bitter recriminations about who would be at fault for the hunger strikers’ deaths. Republicans who addressed the press consistently claimed that the government would be responsible for the deaths of the hunger strikers. When Prime Minister David Lloyd George was reported as offering to release MacSwiney only if he could guarantee an end to the murders of RIC men, Arthur Griffith (who later helped found the Free State government)[18] responded that “It is amazing that your Government, having tortured Irish patriots in your prisons for weeks, when they are at the point of death offers to release them if they proclaim themselves murderers and suggests that it will kill them if they do not.”[19] The government, meanwhile, claimed the strikers were bringing harm upon themselves and that the government was not at fault.

The issue of whether or not death by hunger strike was suicide was an especially controversial one for Catholics. Almost all Republican hunger strikers were members of the Catholic Church,[20] which holds that suicide is usually a mortal sin because it asserts absolute ownership of one’s life, an ownership which the Church attributed to God.[21] After MacSwiney’s death, the Sinn Fein Consul General in New York, J. L. Fawsitt, declared that “Terence MacSwiney was a martyr to the Irish Cause. He was not a suicide, and it is an outrage to refer to the charge that he was.”[22] Overall, the Catholic Church, bowing to public opinion, was fairly supportive of MacSwiney, as it would not be of future hunger strikers.

The image of a lone prisoner placing his body against the power of the government served as a uniting force within Ireland. With the aid of the IRA propaganda campaign, even many who were unsupportive of his cause called for MacSwiney’s release. The pro-Republican Freeman’s Journal ran emotional headlines on behalf of MacSwiney: on August 25, “Ireland Unites To Save Cork’s Lord Mayor. Lord Mayor’s ‘Crime’—An Unselfish Love of His Country”[23] and featured cartoons decrying the government’s unresponsiveness, including one of Prime Minister Lloyd George sitting down to a decadent meal, captioned “Who dares to mention hunger-strikes?”[24] Those who had been skeptical were often moved by sympathy for the purity and selflessness of MacSwiney’s protest to view the government as inflexible and heartless. Even many of those who strongly disapproved of the ideal of independence petitioned the British government to release MacSwiney, believing that to keep him in prison would hurt the cause of law and order. Petitions for release flooded the government from Dublin’s Jews[25] and from its Lord Mayor,[26] from the Irish Conciliation Committee, Ireland’s Trade Unions,[27] and from members of the British government in Ireland. The vast majority of prominent Irish people, outside of the Ulster Protestant minority, united in favor of release. They used the language of mercy, rather than of politics, appealing to a greater humanity. Because the government continued to refuse to release MacSwiney, it was thus placed in the position of the oppressor of humanity, and it was a relatively small associational step from anger at the government over MacSwiney and anger at the government’s overall policy in Ireland.

Because strikers were the first the government had not capitulated to after a week or so, and no one knew how long they could survive, the strikes ignited an intense crisis and propaganda war from the very beginning. By late August, large crowds were assembling outside of Brixton prison. Most expected MacSwiney to die at any time. Once it became clear that the government was not going to give in, and once it was clear that MacSwiney was suffering irreparable physical harm, the IRA reduced its efforts to secure MacSwiney’s release and focused on wringing as much sympathy for MacSwiney and outrage at the government out of the situation as possible. One IRA member recalled, “The result was inevitable. We hoped he would not be released when his body was almost used up.”[28] Such an outcome would have been the worst for all involved, as MacSwiney would lose his life, the British government would still have caved but would save little face by releasing a man just for him to die, and the Republicans would lose the propaganda spectacle of MacSwiney dying in prison, and the chance to demonize the British as heartless and cruel. With nothing to gain by giving up at this point, all parties were locked into the wait for death. There was no turning back for anyone, least of all MacSwiney himself.

In the last few days of MacSwiney’s strike, far too late to make any difference, the government began force-feeding MacSwiney. On October 25, MacSwiney died, as did Cork striker Joseph Murphy. Cork striker Michael Fitzgerald had already died, and with these new deaths, the Republican high command and the remaining strikers realized that further sacrifice would be in vain. The Cork men acquiesced to an order from Sinn Fein head Arthur Griffith to come off the strike.[29] MacSwiney himself had already decided that there should be no more hunger strikes—he felt his own sacrifice would be enough.[30] There were no more hunger strikes during the War of Independence, but MacSwiney was naïve to believe he could take his strike to such a dramatic martyrdom and not inspire future generations to emulate his sacrifice.

The Sinn Fein propaganda machine swung quickly into full gear as soon as MacSwiney died. MacSwiney’s body lay in state in Southwark Cathedral, in London, while 30,000 mourners passed by. The British government unexpectedly redirected the body away from Dublin and directly to Cork, in order to prevent a Republican demonstration in Dublin, which occurred anyway. At the funeral in Cork, Arthur Griffith delivered the oration: “He laid down his life to consolidate the establishment of the Irish Republic, willed by the vote of the people of Ireland. His heroic sacrifice has made him in death the victor over the enemies of his county’s independence. He has won over them, because he has gained by his death for Ireland the support and sympathy of all that is humane, noble, and generous in the world.”[31]

The reaction of the Irish and world public to MacSwiney’s death was overwhelming. Tributes poured in from every corner of the country. Even some critics of Republicanism, such as Bishop Cohalan of Cork, hailed MacSwiney’s “heroic sacrifice.”[32] Ireland’s newspapers published editorials about MacSwiney’s sacrifice. The Freeman’s Journal published enthusiastic paeans and poems.[33] The Irish Times countered that “It is one thing … to regret his death, and another to denounce the British government as his executioner.”[34] In general, though, the Republican message of heroic sacrifice prevailed, and shaped the mourning at home and abroad. Republican propagandists sought to tie MacSwiney’s sacrifice, and by extension the Irish independence struggle, to other freedom fighters from history. In America, Eamon de Valera, President of the Irish Republic, issued a statement that “Like Patrick Henry and his comrades, these Irish patriots were forced by the tyranny that would deprive them of liberty to make death the alternative.”[35] Memorial services were held throughout the world, and messages of condolence and support came from all corners.

MacSwiney’s death marked a turning point in the way the public in Ireland and around the world perceived the cause of Irish independence. His suffering came to symbolize the suffering of Ireland, and blotted out the British refrain of “law and order.” It is unlikely that releasing MacSwiney quietly would have done more damage to British control of Ireland than did the spectacle of the Lord Mayor wasting away in a British prison. The month after MacSwiney’s death was the most violent of the war so far, and only a few months later, the British ended the fighting. The subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty established an Irish Free State, granting effective independence to most of Ireland. The limitations of the Treaty, however, divided the country and led to a Civil War. For over sixty years after MacSwiney’s death, Republicans continued to sacrifice themselves on hunger strikes against both the Irish and British governments. The most famous IRA hunger striker after MacSwiney, Bobby Sands, specifically claimed MacSwiney as an influence and an inspiration.[36] Although MacSwiney had helped Ireland finally triumph in its 700-year struggle for independence, he sacrificed his own future to do so, and inspired generations of young men to sacrifice their own lives in the same agonizing way, but never with the same success.
“Ancient Customs: The Ritual of the Hunger Strike.” http://dedanaan.com/2005/11/29/ancient-customs-the-ritual-of-the-hunger-strike/.

This is a web article describing the use of the hunger strike in ancient Ireland, and featuring excerpts from the ancient legal code which enshrined it as a tool of redress. The excerpts themselves are primary sources, but the overall article is a secondary source. The article was useful in understanding the historical background of the hunger strike in Ireland.

Beresford, David. Ten Men Dead: The Story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.
This is a very detailed recounting of the events of the 1981 hunger strike, largely from the point of view of the hunger strikers themselves, and the other participants in the hunger strike. It provided me with some useful overview of twentieth-century Irish hunger strikes, and was helpful in assessing the significance of the 1981 strike in relation to MacSwiney’s strike.

Costello, Francis J. Enduring the Most: The Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney. Dingle, Ireland: Brandon, 1995.
This is a definitive biography of Terence MacSwiney. It delves into both the path he took in life that led him to his involvement in the IRA and his imprisonment, and also in great detail the course of his hunger strike. This was my most useful secondary source, because of the thoroughness with which it documents MacSwiney’s strike as well as some of the previous strikes. It was particularly useful in guiding me to primary sources which would give even more detail.

Hachey, Thomas E., Joseph M. Hernon, Jr., Lawrence J. McCaffrey. The Irish Experience. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989.
This is an overview of Irish history with a heavy emphasis on nineteenth-and twentieth-century Irish politics. It was useful to contextualize MacSwiney’s strike and to understand the events which came after, but it had limited use due to its general focus.

Kee, Robert. The Green Flag, Volume II: The Bold Fenian Men. London, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1972.
This is an account of the Irish independence movement from 1858 to 1916, and was useful for understanding the background to the Irish War of Independence, and the political situation during MacSwiney’s radicalization.

O’Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1990.
This is less a straightforward account of the 1981 hunger strike, as was Ten Men Dead, than it is a complex inquiry into the social and political causes and results of the hunger strikes, as well as the undercurrents of Irish politics and society that the hunger strikes uncovered. For this purpose, it was particularly useful in analyzing the specific influence of MacSwiney on the 1981 strikers, and in understanding the legacy of the hunger strike and its impact on Irish society down to the present day.

“De Valera Calls For Our Support.” New York Times,. Oct. 26, 1920, 6.

This article primarily consists of quotes from De Valera and numerous other Republican representatives who, immediately after MacSwiney’s death, attempted to leverage his death into American support for Irish independence. They provide insights into Republican strategy, as well as American reactions.

“In The Palace Of A King.” Freeman’s Journal. Aug. 21, 1920, 3.
This is a political cartoon critical of PM Lloyd George’s uncompromising stance on MacSwiney’s hunger strike. It is an example of press sympathy for MacSwiney and pressure on the government to give in to his strike.

“Ireland Unites To Save Cork’s Lord Mayor.” Freeman’s Journal. Aug. 25, 1920, 5.
This is an early sampling of efforts by various Irish groups to apply pressure to the British government to release MacSwiney and save his life. It is valuable for what it shows both about Irish public opinion and about the way that opinion was presented by the Freeman’s Journal.

“Lord Mayor of Cork – Fateful Reply to Findings of Courtmartial.” Freeman’s Journal. Aug. 17, 1920, 6.
This is a contemporary account of MacSwiney’s trial, and includes the text of his exchange with the presiding officer in which MacSwiney announced his hunger strike.

“Lord Mayor Of Cork Buried – Impressive Scenes – Funeral Procession Through The Streets – Funeral Oration.” Irish Times. Nov. 1, 1920, 5.
This is a straightforward factual account of MacSwiney’s burial in Cork, and includes the text of Arthur Griffith’s funeral oration. This demonstrates both the public reaction in Cork and the Republican take on MacSwiney’s death.

“Lord Mayor To Die: In Humanity’s Name – Irish Trade Unionists Call for His Release; ‘The Path To Peace’ – Appeal from Irish Peace Conference to King George.” Freeman’s Journal. Aug. 27, 1920, 3.
See annotation for “Ireland Unites To Save Cork’s Lord Mayor.”

“Say MacSwiney Cannot Guarantee End of Murders.” New York Times. Sept. 9, 1920, 1.
This is an American article describing the Republican reaction to an offer by Lloyd George to free MacSwiney if he could guarantee the end of the murder of policemen. It illustrates the tone and points of contention of the debate between Republicans and the British government, and their attempts to frame the public view of the strike.

“Sinn Fein Rioters Shoot a Policeman.” New York Times. Sept. 29, 1917, 3.
This is an American article describing the aftermath of Ashe’s death, including the dramatic public funeral and vengeful acts of violence.

“Suicide.” Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14326b.htm.
This is an article from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917. It is somewhat debatable whether it is a primary or secondary document, because it does not directly deal with the hunger strike. It is, however, a contemporary document which encapsulates the Catholic Church’s attitude toward suicide at the time, an attitude which, at its most doctrinaire, often threatened Irish hunger strikes.

“Terence MacSwiney: He Who Loved Life and Sought Death: The Story of the Martyr.” Freeman’s Journal. Oct. 26, 1920, 3.
This is an article, part of an issue devoted almost exclusively to MacSwiney, which provides a retrospective of MacSwiney’s life and career prior to his tenure as Lord Mayor. It is an early piece in the emerging hagiography of MacSwiney, and is written as a tribute to a martyr. It was also useful for its biographical facts.

“The Lord Mayor of Cork.” Irish Times. Oct. 26, 1920.
This is a very interesting editorial, which lays out the Times’s take on MacSwiney’s strike and death, and of the Republican cause in general. It is important because it represents more or less the bare minimum of support for MacSwiney in mainstream Ireland.

“The Lord Mayor of Cork: Appeal by Dublin Jews.” Irish Times. Sept. 2, 1920, 5.
See annotation for “Ireland Unites To Save Cork’s Lord Mayor.”

“The Victor Comes Home.” Freeman’s Journal. Oct. 29, 1920, 4.
This is an editorial poem which hails MacSwiney’s triumphant, if posthumous, return to his native land, and encapsulates the way MacSwiney’s sacrifice was seen as a triumph and MacSwiney himself as a hero.

1. A Republican, in Irish history, denotes one committed to the establishment of a united Irish Republic, completely independent of Great Britain.

2. In the aftermath of Parnell’s fall in the early 1890s, the Irish Party, which had been pushing for land reform and Home Rule, splintered. In 1900 John Redmond reunited the party and continued to advocate for Home Rule. The party, however, was aging and seen as irrelevant to the young patriots at home.

3. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was a revolutionary organization founded in Ireland in 1858 with the purpose of establishing an independent Irish republic. Its American branch was known as the Fenian Brotherhood, a name which was applied more generally to the whole organization. In 1866 the Fenians launched an unsuccessful invasion of Canada, and in 1867 they led an ill-fated uprising in Ireland.

4. Griffith founded Sinn Fein, which means “We Ourselves” or “Ourselves Alone,” in 1905. The organization initially called for autonomy for Ireland, with its own parliament and courts, and later moved toward advocating independence in all but name.

5. Thomas E. Hachey, Joseph M. Hernon, Jr., Lawrence J. McCaffrey, The Irish Experience (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989), 157–58.

6. The Irish National Volunteers was a paramilitary organization founded in 1913 with the goal of establishing a defense force for Ireland, and to counterbalance the efforts of the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

7. “Terence MacSwiney: He Who Loved Life and Sought Death: The Story of the Martyr,” Freeman’s Journal, Oct. 26, 1920, 3.

8. Costello, 94.

9. Ibid., 117.

10. Ibid., 115.

11. Ibid., 140–41.

12. “Lord Mayor of Cork – Fateful Reply to Findings of Courtmartial,” Freeman’s Journal, Aug. 17, 1920, 6.

13. Costello, 152.

14. Ibid., 150.

15. Ibid., 180.

16. Ibid., 170.

17. Ibid., 169–72.

18. The Irish Free State was formed as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which granted independence to the southern part of Ireland, with official membership in the British Dominion. The country immediately split into pro- and anti-Treaty factions, which fought a bloody Civil War, in which the pro-Treaty Free Staters emerged victorious over the Republican IRA.

19. “Say MacSwiney Cannot Guarantee End of Murders,” New York Times, Sept. 9, 1920, 1.

20. MacSwiney was particularly devout, and used the language of Catholic martyrdom to describe his struggle.

21. “Suicide,” Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14326b.htm.

22. “De Valera Calls For Our Support.” New York Times, Oct. 26, 1920, 6.

23. “Ireland Unites To Save Cork’s Lord Mayor.” Freeman’s Journal. Aug. 25, 1920, 5.

24. “In The Palace Of A King,” Freeman’s Journal, Aug. 21, 1920, 3.

25. “The Lord Mayor of Cork: Appeal by Dublin Jews,” Irish Times, Sept. 2, 1920, 5.

26. “Ireland Unites to Save Cork’s Lord Mayor: In the Name of Humanity,” Freeman’s Journal, Aug. 25, 1920, 5.

27. “Lord Mayor To Die: In Humanity’s Name – Irish Trade Unionists Call for His Release; ‘The Path To Peace’ – Appeal from Irish Peace Conference to King George,” Freeman’s Journal, Aug. 27, 1920, 3.

28. Costello, 187.

29. Ibid., 209.

30. Ibid., 215–16.

31. “Lord Mayor Of Cork Buried – Impressive Scenes – Funeral Procession Through The Streets – Funeral Oration,” Irish Times, Nov. 1, 1920.

32. Costello, 231.

33. “The Victor Comes Home,” Freeman’s Journal, Oct. 29, 1920.

34. “The Lord Mayor of Cork,” Irish Times, Oct. 26, 1920.

35. “De Valera Calls For Our Support,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 1920, 6.

36. Padraig O’Malley, Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1990), 50.