Issue 3-2023-200dpi

18 February 2021 Edition

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Beneath a Rebel flag in the heart of the Empire

Terence MacSwiney, the London-Irish, and the Politics of Commemoration

• Terence MacSwiney

On 25 October 2020, one hundred years after his death, a small gathering of London-based Irish republicans assembled outside Brixton Prison to remember, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney.

The gathering was compliant with the latest Covid-19 guidelines. Masks were worn. Social distance was kept. Temperatures were recorded and contact details collected. A piper played, a wreath was laid, and a few words were said. It was simple, dignified, and concluded within a half-hour.

In any event, it was always going to be the case that MacSwiney would be remembered - in one form or another – on that day in London. The city where his life came to an early end. The city that was home to many an exiled fellow Irish citizen down through the decades following his death.

Among those in attendance was Terry Brugha, Terence MacSwiney’s grandson, who was accompanied by his two sons Rossa and Cathal, as well as Nigel Blakelock, the grandson of Terence’s wife Muriel MacSwiney from her second partner, and Ty Galvin, the great-nephew of the cork republican Tadhg Barry.

As the well-known 'Irish Post' journalist, Frank Dolan, wrote in 1986: 

“The reason why MacSwiney’s name and memory is of special significance in London is that he is the only major figure in modern Irish history to have died in London.” 

Outside of Cork, the London-Irish are the probably the most notable community to have adopted the legacy of MacSwiney. A communal memory of his death - and famous funeral procession through the streets of London - has long been held onto dearly.

It is arguable that MacSwiney’s story, and in particular its end, resonates with the exile experience. Dying as he did, far removed the land he loved, in a foreign land is a familiar motif of the diaspora tale. The ballad ‘Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland’, written in MacSwiney’s memory, encapsulates the final wish of many of the ‘forgotten Irish’ who ended their time in any number of other English cities.

In the days that followed his death on hunger strike, MacSwiney’s close friend and colleague, Professor Daniel Corkery, wrote to Mary MacSwiney, reflecting: “What you say of his longing to be in Ireland only shows how much greater his sacrifice was than the average mind would or could conceive.”


The body of Terence MacSwiney in Brixton Prison. The death of Terence MacSwiney made headlines across the world

The body of Terence MacSwiney in Brixton Prison. The death of Terence MacSwiney made headlines across the world

The Hunger-Strike

MacSwiney was arrested on 12 August 1920 in Cork City Hall. At the time of his arrest, he was a member of Dáil Éireann, Commandant of Cork No. 1 Brigade IRA, Lord Mayor of Cork, and President of the local branches of the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin. 

The Lord Mayor immediately commenced a hunger-strike in solidarity with eleven hunger-striking republican prisoners in Cork Gaol. On 16 August, MacSwiney was tried for possession of seditious documents by a court-martial and sentenced to two years imprisonment. He immediately was taken by boat from Cork to Pembroke, Wales and, from there, was transferred to Brixton Prison.

Besides his high-profile status as both a Lord Mayor and an abstentionist MP, MacSwiney’s presence in London was a key driver for the worldwide attention that his case received. It was not long before his prison protest became something of an international cause célèbre.

Daily press conferences on MacSwiney’s condition were held in the Sinn Féin London Office at No. 3 Adam Street. Art O’Brien, the Envoy of the Irish Republic to London, was fluent in both French and Spanish and was thus able to keep international journalists fully abreast on the progress of MacSwiney’s strike. Much to the annoyance of the British Foreign Office.

The principal pro-Irish independence organisation in Britain at the time, the Irish Self-Determination League (ISDL), organised daily prayer vigils outside Brixton Prison for the Lord Mayor’s release. The attendance steadily grew as the strike continued.

On 25 August, the 13th day of the hunger-strike, MacSwiney’s health rapidly declined and a rumour spread that he was very near death. A ‘Labour Rally’ was quickly organised, outside the Prison, by George Lansbury, editor of the pro-labour newspaper the Daily Herald. From a small-platform down a side street, speakers publicly lambasted the British Government’s treatment of MacSwiney to reported cries of ‘Up Sinn Féin’ and ‘Up the Rebels’ from the crowd. The demonstration soon turned into a riot as a squadron of mounted police riders were dispatched to prevent the crowd turning the rally into a formal procession, especially with their many pro-Sinn Féin banners in tow.

With police batons drawn, it was not long before stones and loose bricks travelled through the air. Neighbouring windows were shattered and garden railings torn out of the ground. In the melee, one police officer was knocked down by a blow to the skull, while another was reportedly “unhorsed”. Once reinforcements arrived on the scene, the crowd was soon divided into small groups and ushered into nearby side-streets. Despite the injuries and damage, no arrests followed.

Gatherings, rallies, and protests in support of the imprisoned Corkman continued throughout September and October. On 10 October, day 59 of his strike, a widely-attended ‘Hands-off Ireland!’ protest was held in Trafalgar Square. 

The following day, a man entered St Paul’s Cathedral and struck William Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’ which hung within. When the police later questioned the vandal, he asserted that he had felt compelled to attack the painting in support of MacSwiney as it portrayed salvation coming to rescue a sinful world. The plight of MacSwiney showed that such salvation was not always as forthcoming as it needed to be.

As the days passed, the anger and outpouring of emotion for the Lord Mayor across London was palpable. By the third week of October, MacSwiney’s condition deteriorated severely. By now, there were rumours that the authorities were about to force-feed him or that he had come off his strike early or that the British were planning to quickly dispose of his body if he succumbed. Only the daily bulletins of the ISDL provided an accurate account of what was taking place behind the walls of Brixton Prison.

As the week progressed, MacSwiney went in and out of a deep sleep. There were, however, some brief intervals of lucidity. On 21 October, Terence awoke and asked his sister Annie, who was at his bedside, where he was and why he was there. She answered that he was in Brixton Prison and that he was there “for the Republic.” His face lit up on hearing the news and he replied: “So it is established?” She answered, “Yes.” Following a pause, he turned and said: “Oh, we did grand marching in the night.”

In the early hours of 25 October 1920, having fallen into a comatose state, Terence MacSwiney died after 74 days on hunger-strike.

The Daily Herald recorded, “He has won immortality. His name will remain an inspiration to all that come after him.” The same article branded the British Government “liars” and “brutes” and predicted that “the children’s children will remember them with horror”.

The Irish republican, Seán McGrath, later remarked that MacSwiney’s death was the first time he had seen Michael Collins “really upset” and that Collins had immediately “talked then about shooting in England.” It was no coincidence that the hunger-strike protest had resulted in the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, being issued with a personal bodyguard for the first time. As he confided to his wife, “[the] police are convinced that if he dies the Irish will try to kill me.”


Huge crowds attended the funeral procession through London

Huge crowds attended the funeral procession through London

The ‘Funeral’

Art O’Brien and the leadership of the ISDL were fully aware of the significant impact that a carefully managed and choreographed funeral procession could have. The sight of a republican funeral in the belly of the beast itself – London – offered additional prospect and potential for international propaganda.

When MacSwiney’s body was eventually released, on the evening of 27 October, it was taken to St George’s Cathedral in Southwark. For four hours, until the cathedral doors closed at eleven, hundreds of mourners filed past the Lord Mayor’s open casket.

When the doors re-opened, at seven the next morning, the throng continued to pass by. In total, an estimated 30,000 people saw the Lord Mayor lying-in-state in London. A guard of honour around his coffin was maintained throughout the day and night, maned by relays of Irish Volunteers from Cork, Dublin, and London Battalions.

At around ten o’clock, the Requiem Mass commenced. Admittance was ticket only and the police outside had to link arms to hold back the immense crowd. In attendance were dignitaries from Dáil Éireann, Cork Corporation, Dublin Corporation, the British Trades Union Congress, the British Labour Party, and representatives of nearly every Irish association and organisation across Britain. The Mayors of Fulham, Battersea, Camberwell, Southwark, and Stepney were also present. The Mayor of Stepney was none other than future British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who was dressed in his British Army Major uniform. As the Irish republican and international statesman Seán MacBride later lamented, “I’m only sorry that the impression didn’t alter his politics when it came to dealing with Ireland later on.”

The size and stature of the Requiem Mass in St George’s was so impressive that newspapers could only draw a comparison to the funeral of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, eight years prior in 1912.

Following the Mass, the funeral cavalcade set off for Euston Station. Once underway, the procession stretched for more than a mile. ‘The Daily Herald’ described the scene accordingly:

The vast throng of marchers, Irish residents in England, first women of Cumann na mBan, of all classes, but one spirit… After them were members, hundreds after hundreds, of the Irish Self-Determination League. Each of the 27 London branches had their banner… Thousands of ordinary men and women, most of them very poor… And the English crowd that poured out of the sordid streets of South London were quiet too. Sight-seeing perhaps, but not in a sight-seeing mood, moved by death, moved by heroism, and moved by the spectacle of those many marches. And nowhere a sneer or a laugh; for these were the Commons of England and not the House of Commons.

Once the procession reached Blackfriars Bridge, spectators were packed five rows deep on either side. Many had been waiting for an hour just to see the march pass by. Policemen stewarding the crowds along the route wore black gloves as a sign of respect and some were even reported to have formally saluted the cortège as it passed.

Foreign correspondents would later report amazement that the flag and uniform of a revolutionary army at war with Britain openly paraded through the city centre of London. As Gladys Ní Eidhin of the London branch of the Gaelic League later wrote, “it was strange to feel that we were following our dead through the enemy city.” One London paper later summarised the spectacle as “a funeral under a Rebel flag in the heart of the Empire.”


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The legacy

The memory of MacSwiney would become an enduring rallying cry for republicans in London. On 23 October 1921, as an Anglo-Irish Treaty was being negotiated down the road in Downing Street, 20,000 rallied in Trafalgar Square to recall how, as Art O’Brien articulated, “in the history of the world there was no human sacrifice equal to that made by him for his country.”

On the second anniversary in 1922, having taken the anti-Treaty side of the split, O’Brien organised a commemoration in the Essex Hall attended by around 1,000 people. Mary MacSwiney later wrote to express her thanks for O’Brien’s efforts and for standing by the Republic. She noted the irony that, while Terence was being remembered and honoured in the city that murdered him, his name was not even mentioned in Cork, due to the ongoing Civil War.

The anniversary of Terence MacSwiney remained an annual mainstay in the republican calendar for the Irish in London over subsequent decades.

Its significance was perhaps most keenly felt in 1970 on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary. For the first time since the 1920s, Brixton Prison was once again home to a comparatively high number of Irishmen held for ‘political offences’. Their numbers within were such that an anniversary mass was observed inside the Prison on 25 October 1970 in his honour. As Ruán O’Donnell notes, “the political and secular traditions of republicanism transcended denominational affiliations on such occasions.”

Four years later, MacSwiney’s memory was again invoked when London once again witnessed a funeral procession for an IRA hunger striker. 

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Michael Gaughan’s funeral in London

On 2 June 1974, the Mayo-born IRA Volunteer, Michael Gaughan, who had lived in England since 1966, died in Parkhurst Prison after 64 days of a hunger-strike protesting for political status. The Gaughan family would later maintain that Michael’s lung had been punctured during the force-feeding process and that this was the ultimate cause of his death.

Almost immediately, the National Graves Association sent across the very tricolour that had shrouded Terence MacSwiney’s coffin, fifty-four years previously, to be placed over the coffin of Gaughan. The same flag was also later used to cover the coffin of Volunteer James McDade, who died in a premature explosion in Coventry on 14 November 1974.

Gaughan’s funeral procession may not have reached the same scale as MacSwiney’s, but it is was nonetheless a similar show of strength and a propaganda coup for republicans in London. An estimated number of 3,000 accompanied the coffin on its two hour journey from Cricklewood to Kilburn and finally into the Sacred Heart Church on the Quex Road. The procession was watched by the many thousands who lined the Kilburn High Road. As the 'Times' later reported, Michael Gaughan’s funeral procession through Kilburn amounted to “an impressive display of IRA sympathy.”

As the conflict in the North waged on, and as the IRA’s bombing campaign was increasingly brought to Britain itself, large overtly republican rallies and gatherings became harder to sustain and organise. From 1972 onwards, any and all ‘Irish demonstrations’ were banned from taking place in Trafalgar Square. The ban that was only lifted in 2001, when the Wolfe Tone Society held a commemoration to remember 30 years since the 1981 H-Block Hunger-strike.


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Professor Terry S Brugha - grandson of Terence MacSwiney, speaking outside Brixton Prison in October 2020 

The Present

While it was small in number, and unavoidably so due to current health guidance, the gathering on 25 October 2020 outside Brixton Prison stood in this noble tradition of London-Irish republicanism. It was probably the first such occasion where people were actively discouraged from turning out and asked to stay at home. It was certainly not the largescale commemoration that many London-based activists had envisioned when planning first began.

However, despite the obstacles and challenges, Terence MacSwiney was remembered fittingly and appropriately – and in a safe manner – outside Brixton Prison on the centenary of his death. 

MacSwiney is perhaps best remembered for his observation that: “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will conquer.” It is certainly the case that the present Covid-19 pandemic can be considered a time of particular endurance. However, if republicans hold true to MacSwiney’s teachings and example, this challenging period can be endured and we can even look forward, in confidence, to a time that it will be conquered.

Joe Dwyer is the Sinn Féin Political Organiser for Britain


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