Mary MacSwiney: The mourning sister who turned to politics

An uncompromising stance on the Treaty negotiations was indelibly formed by the experience of watching her brother, Terence MacSwiney, die on hunger strike

By her own admission Mary MacSwiney was no longer a young woman when her brother, Terence, died in Brixton prison on October 25th, 1920.

Yet it was from this period onwards that she began to assume a progressively more important role in Irish politics; tentatively at first, as many of the male politicians saw her only as a mourning sister, while others, such as Éamon de Valera, were circumspect about the merits of women in the political arena.

A somewhat hyperbolic report on her reception in the US during the period of her 1920-1921 tour read: "Miss MacSwiney has risen during the few months she has been in America from comparative obscurity to one of the most widely known women in the count[r]y and has been accorded receptions in nearly a hundred American cities that can be compared only with those given great world leaders." Taking de Valera's place "in leading the bond drive" was at his special request, as MacSwiney reminded him in July 1921. Recalling the request, she stated that she "obeyed" as a "soldier of Ireland, though only a woman".

While in the US, MacSwiney was elected unopposed to the Second Dáil, one of four representatives for Cork city. On August 16th, 1921 the first meeting was held in the Mansion House in Dawson Street. In that same week the Talbot Press issued Principles of Freedom, a collection of essays by Terence MacSwiney dedicated to the "soldiers of freedom in every land".

MacSwiney’s death for his political principles informed his sister’s response to the instructions given to the plenipotentiaries, the guarantees demanded and the Treaty that ensued. MacSwiney returned repeatedly to his writings, and his words permeated and suffused hers as she stood – often to male ridicule and sniggering – resolutely and indefatigably for “a Republic that cannot die”. Ireland would not, she declared at a speech in Cork in September 1921, “lower the flag for which our martyrs have died”.

Rather than just dismiss her as one-dimensional in her opposition to the Treaty and in her continued political intractability, it is necessary to understand why MacSwiney was increasingly viewed as, in the words of Sean McConville, a “termagant”. The effects of the trauma MacSwiney suffered as a witness to her brother’s death can be gleaned from the rare outbursts of emotion she exhibited in the Dáil chamber.

Speaking for more than three hours on December 22nd, MacSwiney was aware of the growing mood of frustration within the chamber but she defied the irritation of her audience: "I care not … if I take more of your time than you are willing to give." Her anguish was palpable when she appealed to the House "against the sneers" of Arthur Griffith, claiming her right to speak at length on the basis of what she "went through for 74 days at Brixton".

Her distress was also patently evident in her correspondence with de Valera. In the last week of his hunger strike Terence MacSwiney’s family watched as he became “quite unlike himself”. On his last Wednesday he was, she recorded, “on the verge of delirium”, constantly struggling against the fear that he would be at the doctors’ “mercy” and given sustenance if unconscious. The family witnessed him “striking out” at those who came near to him.

It was “agonising”, Annie MacSwiney wrote, “to see all the pain and struggle … to see him … being subject to such torture”. Her declaration that “none of us will ever forget the horror of that place [Brixton jail]” is vital in understanding the response of Mary MacSwiney to the Treaty. She was not merely a cipher for the extreme element within republicanism during the Treaty debates; she was a woman who had suffered extreme loss and witnessed, in the words of her sister Annie, scenes that were “agonising beyond anything I could describe”.

‘I only laughed at her’

MacSwiney was concerned to strengthen the resolve of those she addressed in her homecoming speeches to an understanding of the real likelihood that the war with Britain would recommence. For MacSwiney the "value" of the peace talks was, as she declared during the debate in December 1921, at the level of propaganda. It was a victory that Michael Collins, "a man called the head of murder gang could sit at the same table with Lloyd George as representative of the Irish people". A further merit was to "show the world that we were a reasonable people".

In the debate on the ratification of the plenipotentiaries on September 14th, MacSwiney declared: "If there were people who did believe in compromise let them now say what they had to say or for evermore hold their peace." There were those who adopted a dismissive tone towards her. Ernest Blythe recalled that following her speech she "wound up pointing her finger directly at me … I only laughed at her".

In her reference to an “uncompromising minority” in the September debate and the necessity to suffer to bring forth the Republic, MacSwiney was not just drawing on her own experience of trauma at watching her brother endure a protracted and agonising death; she was also bearing witness to his beliefs. Terence MacSwiney wrote of “the men who held the breach” who “knew they stood for the truth, against which nothing can prevail, and if they had to endure struggle, suffering and pain, they had the finer knowledge born of these things”.

As the talks began, the Abbey Theatre staged Terence MacSwiney's The Revolutionist published and set in 1914. Prophetically the play's central theme was the necessity for individual self-sacrifice in the form of death to bring about national unity. On the first day of the Peace Conference crowds of Irish sympathisers assembled at the end of Downing Street approached by the Irish delegates. Hymns were sung, the rosary recited and flags waved in "scenes of wild enthusiasm". As the crowd shouted out the names of "prominent Irishmen", Terence MacSwiney was "spoken of reverently".

In letters – pages long – to de Valera, Mary MacSwiney betrayed her emotional response. Adopting a supplicatory tone, she requested “that he would not be angry with her for writing to him in the way she has”. She implored him for guarantees: “Don’t you think it would be nice of you to show me you are magnanimous by sending me a line of assurance – just for me – that our Envoys will not come back with any plan of Ireland inside the Empire”.

She enclosed poems written by her brother and Principles of Freedom with marked passages which she implored him to read. She recalled the “agony” of her family “this time 12 months”. They had to “face and count the cost daily and hourly. There was time for searching analysis – time to explore every avenue of compromise and having rejected them, time to pray that sacrifice might give strength to all others to endure to the end and give our Cause final triumph”.

Her brother's "agony" would never, as MacSwiney wrote to de Valera, "have been endured to the end for anything less than absolute and entire Separation". Elizabeth Brennan, secretary to Art O' Brien, underestimated MacSwiney's strength of conviction: "I know that Mary McSwiney [sic] spent several hours with him and I would imagine that he poisoned her mind against it." No one "poisoned" MacSwiney's mind. Rather, it had narrowed itself around the trauma of her brother's hunger strike. She engaged in a "repetition compulsion"; her need to repeat and find meaning in "the tale" of Brixton 1920 meant that her response to the Treaty was pre-determined.

‘Evils worse than war’

ech during the debate on the Treaty, MacSwiney stated that she spoke as “a woman … who realises, as only a woman can, the evils of war and the suffering of war”. There were, however, “evils worse than war”. With “every sense of deep responsibility”, she declared, “let us take war”. In her speech she offered herself to the “other side” of the House as “one of the first and most deliberate and irreconcilable rebels” if “this country should be so false to itself to adopt the so-called Treaty”. Her speech was based on principle.

She denounced those who argued that they would accept the Treaty but would not take the oath. This, she argued, was "cowardice", a defilement of the "noble and spiritual ideal" of the republic. A person could not, she stated, be "at the same time faithful and unfaithful". Moreover, England would not allow any such prevarications. She exhorted deputies not to think they could "get the better of that wizard trickster in Downing Street".

MacSwiney refused to accept that she was “either a fool or wilfully blind” in not considering the very act of negotiation a compromise. Michael Collins, she contended, declared to her that he was no “compromiser”. Having previously trusted the delegates “too much”, she moved in December to indict them for betrayal. Childers allowed the propaganda victory that was implicit in bringing England to the negotiating table to “be given away by the English Press”. She queried why Art O’Brien, “the representative of our Government in London”, was not “consulted”, “as to whether it was a bluff or not” when Lloyd George threatened war.

The issue of the will of the people was integral to MacSwiney’s speech. Her constituents knew what she “stood for” when she was elected. She had “not changed” nor would she. Invoking her brother’s writing, MacSwiney declared that it was “not those who can inflict most but those who can endure most will conquer”. Appealing to the legitimacy of republican martyrs she stated that if Sean MacKeon, who seconded the “abominable document”, were her brother “I would rather he was with Kevin Barry”.

In her rejection of the Treaty MacSwiney echoed her brother’s concept of working for, as he wrote, “a future that only other generations will enjoy”. Denouncing the “flippancy” of Kevin O’Higgins, she stated, “I should like to be as young as Deputy O’Higgins is now to carry on the fight for posterity”. As she wrote privately to de Valera, “I claim that the daily torture of unspeakable suffering gives me a claim to speak … That agony would never have been endured to the end for anything less than absolute and entire Separation”.

MacSwiney’s avowal of an uncompromising stance on the evils of compromise in the Treaty negotiations was indelibly formed by the experience of watching her brother die on hunger strike, and the trauma which resulted from it. She witnessed an intimate act of self-sacrifice which bound her to a belief that her task was to continue her brother’s fidelity to a separatist republic. Betrayal of the republic, for her, would have meant betrayal of a brother she loved and admired, and it would have been almost impossible for her to think and feel in any other way.

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