An Irishwoman's Diary


BOTH the women in this story lived to old age. Mother and daughter, they parted in Germany in 1931, and although they were sometimes in the same country or even building, from then until the death of the mother, Muriel Murphy MacSwiney who died in 1982, they didn’t meet again.

Muriel’s daughter Máire MacSwiney Brugha died last May. She recalls in her memoir the several efforts she had made as an adult to make contact with her mother: first to tell her of her impending marriage to Ruairi Brugha, and subsequently to tell her of the birth of their first child. Both letters were ignored. “History”, she writes, “deprived me of my father. My mother deprived me of herself.”

I had heard some of this story before. I had met Máire Brugha when she visited Cork some years ago and we talked about the possibility of an interview for publication. We were in the Crawford Gallery cafe, the atmosphere warming our introduction so that quite soon we were on friendly terms. So I had asked her if that time in Germany, at the railway station in Garmish-Partenkirchen in 1931, had really been the last time she saw her mother. Well, it was the last time they met, Máire said. And then she paused: she had seen her again, at a distance in the National Library in Dublin; she had heard her voice. “I sidled past her,” she writes in her memoir. But to me, in the Crawford Gallery, she conjured up the image of the Dublin enfilades, of a voice last heard in the hiss and smoke of a village station and now caught under the arcades as the aura of a remembered presence.

What was this obduracy, this rejection by Muriel of her daughter Máire and her children? How could such a character have attracted the love of so visionary and charismatic a personality as Máire’s father Terence MacSwiney, scholar, dramatist, revolutionary, described somewhat hysterically by Daniel Corkery as “almost superhumanly perfect” after his death on hunger-strike in 1920?

Muriel must have been charismatic in her own way, purposeful, original and fearless.

MacSwiney himself, having earlier renounced marriage on the grounds that his path in life would make him a difficult husband and father, admitted to his sisters Mary and Annie that “the girl I was coming to love so intensely could match my mind . ..” The possibility of this match dismayed Muriel’s family. The Murphys of Montenotte and Blackrock were a force in Cork city, wealthy brewers, distillers and merchants.

At Carrigmore in Montenotte, Muriel’s parents were on the distilling side and such distinguished Catholics that Muriel’s widowed mother persuaded Daniel Coholan, Bishop of Cork, to intervene by at least asking the couple to delay their marriage. The couple waited only until Muriel could become financially independent on her 25th birthday and their wedding took place in Bromyard in Herefordshire in 1917 during MacSwiney’s internment at the open prison in Frongoch.

Three years later, MacSwiney was known around the world as he starved to death in Brixton jail; Muriel kept vigil with his sisters. Whatever the effect of this long public ordeal on her fragile stability, could it also have been MacSwiney’s atonement for his famous delay in committing the Cork Volunteers to involvement in the Easter Rising? How else to explain his willingness to abandon his wife and child?

I didn’t think of it, that day in the Crawford Gallery. From the memoir, however, and given that MacSwiney’s will shared the guardianship of his daughter Máire between Muriel and his sister Mary (also known as Máire), it’s clear that Muriel was a handful. After all, Carrigmore must have been keeping vigil too.

Certainly Muriel’s subsequent avoidance of all contact with both her own and her husband’s families and with Catholicism; her commitment to a life abroad and to communism; her erratic dealings with young Máire and her absences suggest a volatile personality.

Muriel was immensely lovable. As Máire spoke of the events which are described in her memoir, she recalled her mother with love and sadness. After her father’s death, she was at school in Germany, until an envoy arrived one day on her mother’s orders to move her once again from a settled environment to an unknown destination. It happened just as her almost unknown aunt had made a furtive visit to her in 1932. Seeing Ireland and her aunts as her only guarantee of security, Máire frantically managed her own escape. She chose to go with the aunt on a breathless dash across the Austrian border from the German village of Grainau on to Geneva and Ireland.

Speaking with a kind of apologetic amazement rather than anger, she remembered that she was 14 years old at the time. In Ireland she was made a ward of court; Muriel fought for her and lost.

Our interview was never written: Muriel had another, later daughter whose identity is protected by Máire Brugha’s family, and for her sake Máire decided against continuing with our conversations. But what of Muriel herself? The obituaries for Máire speak of her father Terence MacSwiney. Of her mother nothing is said, in one case not even her name is given.

History’s Daughter: A Memoir from the Only Child of Terence MacSwiney by Máire MacSwiney Brugha (The O’Brien Press) 2006; Muriel MacSwiney: Letters to Angela Clifford (Athol Books) 1996

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