Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 22 October 2020
Remembering 1920: The Death of Terence MacSwiney
Monday 18 October 1920 coincided with day 67 of Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike in London’s Brixton Prison, and the continued deterioration of his health. The diary of his sister Annie recalls that he was conscious when she was with him from early that morning till lunchtime. Three prison doctors Peddard, Griffith, Hijson visited him at 1pm. They were with him some time, and when they left the room, they spoke to Terence’s wife Muriel. Dr Griffith was adamant that he should take some food. Dr Peddard told her Terence was developing scurvy and should take lime juice to ward it off. Muriel refused to give permission as did other family members.
Over the ensuing days, Terence would waiver in and out of consciousness and become delirious. Sometimes he tried to get out of bed. Sometimes he struggled into sitting posture. In his emaciated condition everything was difficult. Insistence by the doctors to take some food led to further delirium of Terence and anger by his family members (brothers Peter and Seán, and sisters Mary and Annie) who visited him and championed his hunger strike position. Whatever was given was quickly vomited up as his condition faded. Daily British and Irish newspapers such as the Cork Examiner carried news of his ordeal and pictures of family figures and friends of the Republican cause coming and going from the gaol. There is tiredness and concern in their eyes. Further afield public meetings were held as far away such as France and Germany with other countries requesting his release.
At 5.40am on Monday 25 October 1920 or day 74 of Terence’s hunger strike the advent of his expected death occurred. The immediate 48 hours, which followed, were recorded in detail by his sister Annie in her diary account. It provides much detail into the emotion of being present, the grief, the confusion but above all her and her siblings’ reaction to Westminster’s Home Office and the policing authorities.
A short few hours after his death, Terence’s inquest was fixed for 11am. Present were siblings as well as Fr Dominic, Florence McCarthy (Town Clerk of Cork, William Hegarty (Lord Mayor’s secretary), and Donal J Galvin (Cork City Solicitor). Terence’s wife Muriel was served with a notice by the prison authorities to appear to identify the body, but the policing authorities seemed rather anxious that she should not appear. Defiantly but also traumatised she walked past the plethora of photographers at the prison gate, appeared in a dark veil and answered in short sentences to the questions before Coroner Dr G P Wyatt and the sworn in jury from the Brixton area. Muriel became animated in her intervention when she described that Terence was a soldier of the Irish Republican Army and that his occupation was to work for his country. Sometime later, in his summing up to the jury the Coroner asked of the jury three questions – did MacSwiney deliberately take his own life, did refusing food unbalance his mind that he was not clearly thinking or was he hoping that the hunger strike would lead to his release? The verdict of the inquest read; “The deceased died from heart failure consequent upon his refusal to take food”.
When the inquest was over, Mr James Heyman McDonnell, the family solicitor, asked for the certificate that would give Terence’s body into the family’s keeping. This was when further red tape were presented to the family. The Coroner argued that he had no power to give release of the body for burial outside England. Mr McDonnell asked for release to Southwark Cathedral, but that, too, was refused. Eventually, it was decided that Muriel and Art O’Brien should go to the Home Office and ask for an explanation. Art was the envoy of Dáil Éireann in Britain (since 1919) and was also a leading figure in organising campaigns for the release of Irish political prisoners held in Britain and in orchestrating the publicity campaign surrounding the hunger-strike of Terence.
At the home office Mr McDonnell was informed that a government vessel would he placed at the family’s disposal, free of all expense, and every facility offered if they went straight to Cork. Muriel was quiet upset by this political call wishing for her husband to get a national commemoration in Dublin. Going straight to Mr Edward Shortt, English Secretary of State for Home Affairs, she made her case and asked for her husband’s body without restrictions.
A short time late Mr Shortt sent a special message to Muriel expressing his view and regret at any delay, and assuring her that he merely wished to find out how he stood, and expressing the perspective that he was not sure of his legal powers. He had attended the Home Office and got clearance to have Terence’s body handed over to the family without restrictions. Terence’s body was then taken from Brixton Prison to the historic St George’s Southwark Cathedral in Bankside on London’s south of the Thames. At that point thousands of people had come out to line the street as the funeral carriage passed and more were present at the Cathedral. The coffin was shouldered into the church by six members of Cork Corporation. A 21 member delegation had travelled to London with members of the Cork Harbour Board to accompany their mayor home. The coffin on its catafalque was ringed by the Volunteers forming a sentry over their colleague for the night. On the coffin was an Irish inscription, which was translated as “Murdered by the Foreigner in Brixton Prison, London, England on October 25th 1920. The fourth year of the Republic. Aged 40 years. God have mercy on his soul”.
1071a. Terence, Muriel and Máire MacSwiney, c.1920 (source: Cork City Library).
1071b. Terence’s Coffin at Southwark Cathedral, London, 25 October 1920 (source: Cork City Museum).
Douglas Road Councillor Kieran McCarthy has been blogging about the centenary of the War of Independence in Cork in 1920. His website at www.corkheritage.ie contains links to his newspaper articles and pictures. Kieran’s work attempts to provide context to this pivotal moment in Cork’s history. The centenary of Terence MacSwiney’s death after his 74-day is fast approaching on 25 October and Terence also once lived at Eldred Terrace on Douglas Road with his wife Muriel. Kieran notes: “Terence is truly a colossus in Cork history who has attracted many historians, enthusiasts and champions to tell his story. His story is peppered with several aspects – amongst those that shine out are his love of his family, city, country, language comradeship, and hope – all mixed with pure tragedy. In many ways, the end of his 74 day hunger strike changed the future public and collective memory narrative of Cork history forever”.
Continuing Kieran details: “The blog pieces also explore Cork in 1920 and how the cityscape was rapidly becoming a war zone. Risky manoeuvres by the IRA created even riskier manoeuvres as ultimately the IRA took the war to the RIC and Black and Tans. Reading through local newspapers each day for 1920 shows the boiling frustration between all sides of the growing conflict. Tit-for-tat violence became common place”.
Earlier this Kieran released a new book Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás MacCurtain with John O’Mahony. The last time Tomás’s inquest in full was published was in the Cork Examiner between 23 March 1920 and 18 April 1920. Despite the ordeal and daily fallout from the interviews, over time the fourteen hearing sessions have not overly been revisited by scholars of the Irish War of Independence. The verdict has been highlighted on many occasions by many historians, but the information of the inquest has never been overly written about or the narratives within it explored.
17 October 2020, “As development moves into the Docklands, we don’t want to see other buildings of character like it disappear,” historian and city councillor, Kieran McCarthy, said at the time of the Sexant demolition”; “We need to have a bigger conversation about the city’s Docklands, about retaining heritage”. City must keep its maritime heritage within Tivoli project, https://www.echolive.ie/corknews/Opinion-City-must-keep-its-maritime-heritage-within-Tivoli-project-409687fc-2596-4acc-9e47-95122a15ad7c-ds
16 October 2020, “After the iconic Monkey Puzzle Tree in Mahon was blown down, Cork city councillor Kieran McCarthy, UCC’s Dr Eoin Lettice, O’Callaghan Properties and St Michael’s Credit Union joined together to ensure locals with fond memories of the tree could take part of it home”, Cork residents snap up pieces of iconic monkey puzzle tree, https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/munster/arid-40066755.html?fbclid=IwAR10JaNQzs_WdaOmwS8N3QKWSaERlqUQoxK70RBw4Ikqc1QIRDpl1aShjFI
16 October 2020, “Speaking at Monday night’s council meeting, Independent councillor Kieran McCarthy said he had done some research looking back into the early past of the street”, Nostalgia: A look back at one of Cork’s best loved streets, https://www.echolive.ie/corknews/Nostalgia-A-look-back-at-one-of-Corks-best-loved-streets-c8d51ccd-a768-435d-86e7-35c948c16ae2-ds?fbclid=IwAR2zXJuHUNUVdjdtmuVzcvv-DmESEtUdVndi8ZANPtDDYqp11B6CQ12Rad4
15 October 2020, “Kieran McCarthy, Independent Cork City Councillor and Local Historian discusses plans for the tallest building in Ireland to be built in Cork City, and what it means for the redevelopment of the country’s second city”, Plans for Ireland’s Tallest Building Receive Permission, Morning Ireland, RTE Radio 1, https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/21850843
Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article, 15 October 2020
Remembering 1920: The Last Stand of Michael Fitzgerald
The 16 October 2020 coincides with the centenary of the death of Michael Fitzgerald (1881-1920), who was one of the eleven hunger strikers in Cork Gaol in October 1920. Born in Ballyoran in Fermoy, Michael before his arrest lived in Clondulane, where he worked in a local mill. In 1914, he enlisted he joined the Irish Volunteers and was an active member building up the organisation in Fermoy and the wider region in North Cork.
In time Michael became Commandant of the 1st Battalion of Cork, No 2 Brigade and worked closely with Commandant Liam Lynch. Michael was in charge of the small body of Volunteers who captured Araglen police barracks on Easter Sunday 1919. He was arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment in Cork Gaol. He spent the most part of those three months in solitary confinement in Cork Gaol, together with a number of other prisoners. He had been released only about a fortnight after serving this sentence of three months, when he was again arrested on 8 September 1919, in connection with an attack on British soldiers at Fermoy when Private William Jones was shot dead. Since his arrest on 8 September 1919, he has been in prison, principally at Cork Gaol. On 11 August 1920 he went on hunger strike, a cause which Terence MacSwiney also took up, when he was arrested later in August.
The Cork Examiner records that at the time of Michael Fitzgerald’s death on Sunday night 17 October 1920 at 9.45pm, four priests, four nuns, his relatives and friends and the relatives of the other prisoners worn present. Father Forrest (Australia), Fr Fitzgerald (Prison chaplain), Fr Duggan (Assistant Prison Chaplain), and a chaplain from the Cork Detention Camp were present in the cell as were also the dying prisoner’s friends, and four nuns.
Relatives of the other prisoners were kneeling outside the cell in the corridor reciting the Rosary. Two candles, which were on either side of a crucifix, were the only lights in the cell. The singing of hymns by the crowds, who had gathered outside the gaol, were distinctly heard in the quietude of the cell up to about 9.30pm. At this hour, mindful of curfew, the people outside began to leave for home, and the singing ceased. Fr Fitzgerald began reciting the third rosary, in which all fervently joined, and the only sounds heard in the cell were the murmurs of prayers and the slow breathing of Michael, which was becoming more laboured by the minute. Fr Fitzgerald had only gone to the second decade of the Rosary when at 9.45pm, one of the nuns at the bedside turned around. She had no need to speak for all understood that Michael was very near the end. He breathed with more and more difficulty, and soon after passed away.
A constant visitor to the deceased during the hunger strike was a Miss Condon from Fermoy, to whom he had been engaged. About seven days previously they had decided to get married in the prison if possible and they had informed Fr Fitzgerald, the prison chaplain of this intention. The chaplain undertook to do the ceremony on the condition the permission was granted by the gaol authorities. They refused to allow the marriage ceremony. Michael’s friends then wrote to the Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, who granted permission to another priest to perform the ceremony. In early October, the priest accompanied by Miss Cordon and others visited the cell in which Michael lay, and all the preparations for the marriage were complete. Michael had even procured a wedding ring, which he kept under his pillow. The wedding was to have been performed accordingly but at the last moment the prison authorities intimated that if the ceremony was proceeded with, they would prohibit all visits from relatives to the hunger strikers for the future. In order to not rob his comrades of this last privilege Michael accordingly agreed not to proceed with marriage.
From noon on 17 October there was considerable military activity in the vicinity of the gaol. At intervals, lorries, filled with armed soldiers, arrived, and while, some of the military entered the building others took up positions in its precincts. These, lorries went to and from the military barracks to the prison at regular periods. Many friends of the prisoners assembled from an early hour outside the gaol, and their number were assembled by the arrival of relatives of Michael, and people from Fermoy in motor cars and other vehicles. It was learned that the military authorities had decided to hold a Court of Enquiry at Victoria Barracks at 11am that morning into the circumstances surrounding Fitzgerald’s death. During the afternoon, a number of military officers, those who constituted the Court of Inquiry visited the Gaol. and, having viewed the body, gave permission to the relatives for Michael’s removal.
The ensuing funeral in SS Peter and Paul’s Church was enormous with crowds lining Cork City Centre to pay their last respects. The coffin was then conveyed to Kilcrumper Cemetery near Fermoy where it was met by another enormous crowd. On his burial three volleys were fired over Michael’s grave. Looking on throughout the day were policing authorities and the Black and Tans. The tension was rife.
Michael’s death was the first death of a hunger striker in an Irish prison since the death of Thomas Ashe in Mountjoy Prison on 25 September 1917. Michael’s death was to follow in quick succession by Joseph Murphy and Terence MacSwiney.
To be continued…
My new book Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás MacCurtain is now available to purchase online (co-authored with John O’Mahony 2020, Irish Examiner/www.examiner.ie).
1070a. Michael Fitzgerald, c.1920 (picture: Cork City Library).
1070b. Grave of Michael Fitzgerald, Kilcrumper Graveyard Fermoy, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy).
1070c. Monument to Michael Fitzgerald in Fermoy, present day; Michael Fitzgerald Road also exists in Togher, Cork City (picture: Kieran McCarthy).
12 October 2020, “In a question posed by Independent councillor Kieran McCarthy who requested a progress report on the Marina Park, Cork City Council’s Director of Services David Joyce said the contactor is making “excellent progress” despite a seven-week period of being off site from the end of March until mid-May due to Government guidelines”, First phase of Marina Park Project on track for 2021 completion date, https://www.echolive.ie/corknews/First-phase-of-Marina-Park-Project-on-track-for-2021-completion-date-7608fcc9-0216-4a01-97b9-7b8871a6e796-ds