The Lord Mayor of Cork dies on hunger strike in Brixton prison

Terence MacSwiney c. August 1919 (Wikimedia) and  a statue of MacSwiney in Cork (kglavin - CC BY-SA 3.0 -  via Wikimedia)
 Terence MacSwiney c. August 1919 (Wikimedia) and a statue of MacSwiney in Cork (kglavin – CC BY-SA 3.0 – via Wikimedia)

25 October 1920

Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, died at 5.40 am on Monday 25 October 1920 on the seventy fourth day of his hunger strike at Brixton prison.  His biographer, Francis Costello, remarked that the MacSwiney’s ‘solitary protest would be seen, in the context of the Irish struggle, as personifying the triumph of the weak over the strong.’ MacSwiney’s himself had advised those struggling for freedom that ‘.. it is not those who can inflict the most. But those who can endure most who will conquer.’1

A correspondent for Britain’s Daily Herald reported that ‘the prison authorities denied his wife and sisters access to him in his last living moments. For two days they had been compelled to wait outside the prison walls in the biting cold.’ Belatedly, Annie MacSwiney, the Lady Mayoress, was told she could wait in a passage outside the ward where he lay unconscious, but when a priest, realising that MacSwiney was on the point of death, requested that she be allowed to enter, the prison authorities refused.  His sisters were only finally allowed in to the prison at 9.30am on Monday in order to be able to make arrangements for ‘conveying the body to Ireland for burial.’2

A graduate of Queen’s University, Cork, Terrence MacSwiney had taken a keen interest in the cause of Irish freedom and independence from an early age. He was the author of several political plays, poems and pamphlets and although he had not taken an active role in the Easter 1916 rebellion, he was among many Republicans subsequently detained. He was released the following year.

After the assassination of the former Republican Lord Mayor of Cork,  Tomas MacCurtain, by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary on 20 March 1920, MacSwiney had been elected Mayor unopposed but was detained shortly afterwards by the British authorities for the possession of a cypher and ‘two documents the publication of which would be likely to cause disaffection to the king’3.  These ‘seditious documents,’ as the Daily Herald acknowledged, were in fact merely ‘notes for his own speech on election of Lord Mayor.’4 He was, nevertheless, sentenced by a military court to two years imprisonment in Brixton prison in London where he immediately embarked on a hunger strike.

‘Irish disloyalists will make capital out of his death…,’ moaned one British newspaper editorial, and it commended the government for refusing to be ‘cajoled by the whinings of his sympathisers on this side of the channel.’5 Meanwhile, on the other side, a country mourned, to cite an editorial in the Dublin Evening Telegraph, ‘the loss of a son who loved her better than his own life.’6


  1. Francis Costello and Terence MacSwiney cited in Diarmaid Ferriter, A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23, Profile Books, London, 2015, p. 200.
  2. “Wife Excluded from Bedside,” The Daily Herald, 26 October 1920 p. 1, “MacSwiney Dead,” The Nottingham Evening Post, 25 October 1920, p. 1 and “Lord Mayor of Cork Dies for Ireland,” The Dublin Evening Telegraph, 25 October 1920 p. 1.
  3. “Lord Mayor’s Conviction,” The Nottingham Evening Post, 25 October 1920, p. 1.
  4. “His Life Story,” The Daily Herald, 26 October 1920 p. 1
  5. “Mr MacSwiney’s End,” The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 26 October 1920, p. 4.
  6. “Death the Deliverer,” The Dublin Evening Telegraph, 25 October 1920, p. 2.

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