Long ordeal of hunger striker who vowed to be free, 'alive or dead'

Confidential British files on the last days of Terence MacSwiney, who died in Brixton prison in 1920 after 74 days on hunger …

Confidential British files on the last days of Terence MacSwiney, who died in Brixton prison in 1920 after 74 days on hunger strike, have now been released. Joe Carroll reports on what new light the files throw on a death that made headlines around the world.

Terence MacSwiney was determined not to serve the two-year sentence he received at his court martial in Cork on August 16th, 1920, for having "seditious" documents. He told the court he had taken no food since his arrest four days earlier. "I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month." MacSwiney, who was Lord Mayor of Cork and also a Commandant of the Cork IRA, was taking a gamble. There was a possibility he would be released after a short period of hunger strike. This had happened to him before. But if he were not released, he believed he would die in about four weeks, which was then believed to be the limit a man could go without solid food.

The British files show that Dublin Castle quickly intervened and sent a telegram to the Home Office in London saying: "This man is not to be released. It is intended to forcibly feed him. You are aware that he is entitled to be treated as a political prisoner." But by this time, MacSwiney had been transferred to Brixton gaol in London and had been examined by the prison doctor who found him in a weakened state after a week on hunger strike and with signs of latent tuberculosis.

The Home Office wired back to Dublin Castle: "It is not intended to feed MacSweeny (sic). Medical officer says that state of health is such that artificial feeding will be unsafe." Thus the stage was set for a tragic death that would drag on over 74 days and be played out before an international audience fascinated at the long-drawn out agony of the latest martyr for the cause of Irish freedom.


There was widespread unease at the prospect, not just in Ireland, but in England itself where MacSwiney's "crime" was not seen as justifying such harsh treatment. Even King George V intervened with the Government for "clemency" but this was kept secret. It was published at the time that the king had been petitioned by the High Sheriff of Cork and many others to intervene but they received a carefully worded reply from Balmoral Castle that "as you are probably aware, the case of the release of the Lord Mayor of Cork is one in which the King's clemency can only be exercised if His Majesty is so advised by his responsible Ministers." Behind the scenes, the king was complaining that the only information he was getting about MacSwiney was from press cuttings. He was especially touched by a petition for release from a nephew of Major John Redmond, who had been killed during the recent war. The king's secretary sent a copy to the Home Office Secretary, Edward Shortt, accompanied by the following telegram: "His Majesty feels sure Government are seriously considering the case of Lord Mayor of Cork. Were he to be allowed to die in prison results would be deplorable from every point of view. His Majesty would be prepared to exercise clemency if you would so advise and believes that would be wise course. Lord Mayor should not return to Ireland but be accommodated in private house under precautionary rule."

The Archbishop of Canterbury also appealed for MacSwiney's release, and even the London Times, not noted for sympathy towards Ireland, urged the same.

However, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamer Greenwood, had warned London, the King was told privately, that the release "would have disastrous results in Ireland and would probably lead to the mutiny of the military and police in South of Ireland." MacSwiney's death was now inevitable unless he himself decided to abandon his hunger strike, and he was determined not to weaken. He told a prison doctor, Dr Higson, that the ethics of his strike had been "fully considered by the Church, and it had been decided that his death would be a 'sacrificial' one and not 'suicidal', otherwise he could not have been given the blessing of the Church and the Sacrament by the Priest." The doctor sent this report to the Home Office.

There was controversy about how MacSwiney was holding up so long. He was taking water and "medicines", which were mainly salt to remove toxins. His family members - wife, sisters and brothers - who were with him throughout the ordeal, as well as Father Dominic, his chaplain, indignantly rejected speculation that they were slipping him nourishment.

The prison staff were suspicious of what they called a "tablet" he received daily from Father Dominic dissolved in water but this was clearly Holy Communion. MacSwiney and his wife, Muriel, had been told early on by a Dr Griffiths that while he would not be forcibly fed, he would be given nourishment whenever he became unconscious. The doctor reported that MacSwiney and his wife agreed that this was a doctor's duty.

But when in his last days, MacSwiney began receiving liquid nourishment while in a delirium, his family described this as "forcible feeding". The prison doctors said that no force was applied and he simply swallowed by reflex action the "Benger's Food, Brandy, orange juice and albulactin (milk albumen) in the drink-water." The doctors' daily reports show, however, that MacSwiney became very upset when, on regaining consciousness, he realised he had been fed. The two MacSwiney sisters, Mary and Annie, were infuriated at what they regarded as a betrayal and the doctors asked that they be kept away from the prisoner.

Dr Higson's report for October 21st includes the following: "When I saw him in the early morning, though distinctly hostile and reiterating his determination not to take anything but his medicines, he seemed fairly clear mentally. On my return I found him delirious and commenced to have him fed with fruit juice and meat juice. He became very restless necessitating the employment of two male officers to keep him in bed." The nourishment seemed to be yielding some results but MacSwiney finally gave up his struggle on October 25th about 5.30 a.m. Dr Griffiths in his final report wrote that "In my opinion on the advent of the scurvy a definite change took place in the patient's already debilitated condition and was probably responsible for the acute mental symptoms. It was in the state of acute delirium that the patient's heart became dilated and the immediate cause of death was heart failure."

Nine years later, when a Dr Wolf requested clinical information about MacSwiney's state during the hunger strike, the Home Office refused to co-operate, and there is a note saying the file is to be closed until 2030. "The time has not yet come when the case of McSwiney (sic), which aroused intense feeling only 8 years ago, can be regarded as a mere matter of history." The file note goes on: "The question, for example, which Dr Wolf puts first, namely, whether McSwiney received any food whatsoever during the first 70 days of his fast, is one which could not be answered in such a way as not to be misleading without incurring the risk, if the answer were made public, of reviving bitter controversy. Political expediency, therefore, combines here with the requirements of professional confidence to enjoin silence." It is clear from other parts of the file, however, that the authorities had no evidence that MacSwiney might have been surreptitiously fed by visitors. Several of his motions were analysed for food content and none was found.

Nevertheless, the medical journal, the Lancet, which also requested clinical details about the effects of prolonged starvation, was refused on the grounds that this case had "no scientific value" as it was "impossible to say whether or not he was receiving food from his friends. They had constant access to him and might have given him food but there is no direct evidence that they did so."

With MacSwiney dead and his ordeal having drawn huge publicity for the Irish cause, the British authorities had yet another problem. They were determined to avoid large demonstrations when the body was handed over to relatives. This issue was being discussed as early as September. Dublin Castle was adamant that the body was not to be paraded through Dublin before going on to Cork for burial.

The files show that the Home Office planned to delay the hand-over to the relatives until the body had been transported to Cork by naval vessel. But following the inquest, Mrs MacSwiney and the Sinn Féin London representative, Art O'Brien, went to the Home Secretary and she demanded the release of the body. He had no legal basis to refuse. If the inquest had returned a verdict of suicide, the coroner could have ordered burial somewhere in England under the then law. Instead the verdict by the English jury had simply given the cause of death.

The body lay in state in Southwark Cathedral overnight and was followed by a huge funeral procession through London with the hearse flanked by uniformed IRA members.

The British authorities were given credit for their sense in avoiding undignified scenes in London but they had one card left. When the body reached Holyhead by train accompanied by the family (and a force of London police hidden behind blinds), it was forcibly taken from the grieving relatives, put on a destroyer and shipped to Queenstown (Cobh). The relatives were given the option of travelling with the body but refused. The seizure of the body flouted the law, as the British files show.

The Manchester Guardian commented in an editorial: "A stroke of work that was in every way good has been marred by some fussy authority's interference at Holyhead. Instead of the invincible English decency of London's citizens and police we now read of a shabby scramble for the Lord Mayor's body and its abduction by special steamer to Cork." Terence MacSwiney also got it wrong. Instead of being "free in a month", it took 74 days of heroic suffering to get him out of prison and back to his native Cork.

  • Joe Carroll acknowledges the help received from researcher Mr Frank Small
  • Over 1,000 pages of British government files on the death of Terence MacSwiney will be handed over to the UCD archives next Wednesday (December 10th) and another set later to the Cork Museum