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The hunger strike that shook the British empire

From Catalonia, to New York, Bengal and Australia, the death of Irish revolutionary Terence MacSwiney in a British prison 100 years ago sent shock waves around the world, writes PAULINE MURPHY

ONE HUNDRED years ago Ireland was in the midst of a war for independence. 

British rule over Ireland was being challenged constitutionally by the Sinn Fein political party and challenged physically by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

Terence MacSwiney was a democratically elected representative of Sinn Fein and commandant of the Cork IRA Brigade. 

He was serving as the lord mayor of Cork when he was arrested by British authorities in August 1920. 

He was transferred to Brixton prison in London and MacSwiney immediately went on hunger strike to protest against his unlawful arrest.

MacSwiney’s hunger strike would last 74 days in Brixton prison — a dramatic gesture carried out in the heart of the British capital. 

He died before dawn on October 25 1920. MacSwiney’s hunger strike and death was a turning point in Ireland’s war of independence.

He was 41 at the time of his death. Married for just three years with an infant daughter, he was also a playwright who co-founded a literary society in his native city and wrote articles and poems. 

His name was well known in Ireland but upon death his name became known worldwide. 

MacSwiney had succeeded Tomas MacCurtain as lord mayor of Cork in March 1920. MacCurtain, also a Sinn Fein politician and IRA commandant, was killed by policemen who burst into his home at night and shot him in front of his wife and children. 

MacSwiney was at his desk in Cork City Hall in August 1920 when British authorities raided the building and arrested all inside, including the lord mayor.

At the time of MacSwiney’s hunger strike there were many international journalists already in Ireland to cover the war of independence. 

The arrest and hunger strike of the Cork mayor drew the interest of the international journalists and before long the name and image of MacSwiney was on newspapers and newsreels across the world.

MacSwiney was not alone in his hunger strike in Brixton prison, dozens of IRA prisoners in his native city were also on hunger strike in Cork jail. 

On October 17, North Cork IRA volunteer Michael Fitzgerald succumbed to his hunger strike and on October 25 IRA volunteer Joe Murphy from the south side of Cork city died on hunger strike the same day as MacSwiney, but it was the death of the Cork mayor in the British prison which drew the attention of the world.

The New York Times reported daily on the condition of MacSwiney in prison and when he died the editorial declared: “English rule in Ireland is a horrible failure” and insisted that “some way must be found of allowing the Irish to manage their own affairs.”

The hunger strike of the Cork mayor was followed very closey across the US. 

In New York over 2,000 longshoremen went on strike in sympathy with MacSwiney’s struggle while in Washington DC dozens of women held protests outside the White House and the Capitol building. 

The Boston, New York and Chicago police departments sent MacSwiney’s widow messages of condolences and on October 31 35,000 people, including New York governor Al Smith, attended a memorial service for the martyred mayor of Cork at New York’s Polo Grounds. 

Up to 10,000 people gathered on the streets outside the grounds. 

Similar memorials were held across the US in cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia. 

There was also a large memorial in the mining town of Butte, Montana. 

In Chicago 75,000 people marched on the streets while over 30,000 people gathered at Boston Common for a memorial service.

In South America, an expatriate organisation called Circulo Irlandez (Irish Circle) in Buenos Aires plotted to blow up the British consulate in response to MacSwiney’s death, but the plot was scuppered by police.

In Catalonia, MacSwiney’s image became a common feature on the walls inside many households. 

When he died, hundreds of Catalans marched on the British consulate in Barcelona and smashed its windows with rocks. 

A doll in traditional Catalan attire was gifted to MacSwiney’s young daughter as a gift from the women of Catalonia. Today the doll takes pride of place in Cork public museum.

Italians also had a great interest in the Cork mayor. When MacSwiney died large-scale masses were said across Italy for him and in Milan the famous La Scala Opera closed for a night as a mark of respect. 

Theatres and music venues also closed in Paris. During his hunger strike, Parisians were kept up to date on the condition of the Cork mayor, with daily updates in theatres and cinemas.

In Canada the Montreal St Patrick’s Society held regular demonstrations demanding MacSwiney’s release. 

Upon his death, thousands took to the streets of the Canadian city for a memorial march.

In England mock funerals were held in cities such as Bradford, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool. 

Some 40,000 attended the mock funeral in Manchester where an empty coffin was carried through the streets as thousands lined the route and in Scotland over 10,000 attended a similar mock funeral in Glasgow.

In India the hunger strike of the Cork mayor was followed closely by Indians also wishing to break from British rule. 

In Bengal his image, like in Catalonia, was wildly seen and used by anti-colonialists there. 

The al Bureed newspaper declared across its front page: “If India desires her freedom, every Indian child should regard himself as a lord mayor of Cork.” 

Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by MacSwiney’s actions and his book Principles of Freedom. 

MacSwiney’s book was translated into several languages following his death and became an influential tool of the African National Congress in their creation of their manifesto. 

It was five days before news of MacSwiney’s death reached Australia but, when it did there was a mass outpouring of grief.

In Melbourne a large march was made to the grave of MacSwiney’s father who went to Australia and died there several years previously. 

A Celtic cross was erected over MacSwiney’s father’s grave and since the death of his son, a yearly pilgrimage was made there on the anniversary of MacSwiney’s death.

One hundred years ago news was slow to spread, but when it did it influenced and informed. 

When news of MacSwiney’s hunger strike and subsequent death spread across the continents it shone a light on the war in Ireland and also gave encouragement to others fighting their own wars for independence.


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