Irish Republican News · December 8, 2003
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Files throw light on the death of a martyr

British files on the death of Terence MacSwiney, after 74 days of hunger strike in 1920, have been revealed.

It has emerged that even an appeal by King George V to the British government to grant clemency to the lord mayor of Cork, as he was dying on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, was ignored.

He was told the RIC police and British army in ``Southern Ireland'' might mutiny if this happened.

The files, consisting of over 1,000 pages, were originally closed for 100 years and in some cases longer, but were released earlier this year.

The decision came after pressure from members of the Irish community in Britain.

The files will be handed over this Wednesday to the University College Dublin Archives and another copy to the Cork Museum at a later date. MacSwiney's only child, Maire, will be present.

The daily medical reports on MacSwiney's condition are among the papers now available. They make harrowing reading as the doctors report on his last days, when they tried to feed him as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. The doctors insisted this was not ``forcible feeding'' but MacSwiney's wife Muriel and sisters, Mary and Annie, accused the authorities of ``prolonging his agony''.

There was worldwide interest in MacSwiney's prolonged hunger strike, which drew international attention to the Irish struggle for independence. He had been sentenced to two years with hard labour for possession of ``seditious documents''.

He was also a commandant in the Cork IRA at the time of his arrest. He told his court-martial he would be ``free, alive or dead, within a month'' as he had already begun his hunger strike.

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.''

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 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.

When in his last days, MacSwiney began receiving liquid nourishment while in a delirium, his family described this as ``forcible feeding''. MacSwiney became very upset when, on regaining consciousness, he realised he had been fed.

The nourishment seemed to be yielding some results but MacSwiney finally found his freedom on October 25th about 5.30 a.m.

His sacrifice brought huge international pressure on the British government to withdraw from Ireland and helped to bring about the liberation of 26 of Ireland's 32 Counties in the following years.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News