MacSwiney Centenary and The Woven Dream

Gavin Clarke history, Reflection, Theatre

On 12 August 1920, hard upon assuming his duties as Lord Mayor of Cork and Commandant of the First Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, Terence MacSwiney was arrested in Cork City Hall and summarily sentenced by a military court to two years in Brixton Prison for crimes including his possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’ and of a cypher key for decoding British messages. He was transported to Brixton Prison the next day and there began a hunger strike that would last for seventy-four days. Anne Curtis, from Green Curtain Theatre, reflects on her dramatisation of the campaign to release MacSwiney and the effect of his fast and death on the women closest to him.

By ANNE CURTIS

October 25 2020 sees the passing of 100 years since the death of Terence MacSwiney. Discussion of his death quite naturally focuses on the tragic-heroic narrative of a Sinn Fein politician, activist and poet-playwright who became a ‘republican martyr.’ Try another perspective, that of the campaigners drawing worldwide interest to his incarceration, their exposing of British atrocities in Ireland, reflect on their success in stimulating strikes in the US where in New York dockers refused to unload British cargo and an illuminating view of developments in human rights activism comes into view. Or consider the view of his family and friends and an intimate portrait of loss, anger and political tensions emerges. In dramatising the closing days of MacSwiney’s life in my play, The Woven Dream, I chose to imagine this story from the perspective of the women closest to him: his wife Muriel MacSwiney, the Lady Mayoress; Mary Murphy, her mother; and Geraldine O’Sullivan, Muriel’s close friend who, in later years became well-known as the pianist and columnist Geraldine Neeson.

Mary Murphy was the daughter of a regional bank manager who married Nicholas Murphy of the Cork brewing family in the mid-nineteenth century. They had six children who survived infancy, Muriel was the youngest. The Murphys were a pro-British, Unionist family who had ‘done well’ from the Empire. They lived in ‘Craigmore’, a mansion in Montenotte, amongst the prosperous merchant class of the city, where they employed a ‘full staff’ including a governess for their daughters. Muriel would reflect on her family as being: ‘completely imperialist, conservative, capitalist, and Roman Catholic’.

The Widow

(Mrs. Terence MacSwiney, Lady Mayoress of Cork 1920)

by John Lavery (1921), Crawford Art Gallery Collection

“The first woman to be granted the freedom of New York City, in 1921 Muriel Murphy MacSwiney (1892-1982) was catapulted onto the world stage following the death, by hunger strike, of her husband, Terence MacSwiney.”

While archives and biographical sources help toward an understanding of any historical person and provide the building blocks for their characterisation in a drama, there is always a gap one needs to fill with empathy and imagination. In the absence of an intimate account one supposes a tension, when dramatising the relations of the Murphys and MacSwineys, between Mary and the daughter she has seen marry a man she considered a terrorist. MacSwiney was wanted man who spent most of his married life either on the run or in prison. A man who during the action of my play elects a course of action likely to result in his own death. In 1920 only four years had passed since the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising which had left seven women widowed, some with children to raise alone. It seemed reasonable to assume that Mary Murphy must have feared for her daughter, especially when you consider that Muriel was prone to bouts of severe depression. Could she feel something for Terence, a fellow devout Catholic, could she see in his suffering a Christ-like sacrifice or did she deem it as suicide and thus outlawed by the Church?

Geraldine O’Sullivan was one of Muriel’s closest friends, her bridesmaid and fellow member of the Cork branch of Cumman na Bhan at the head of which was Terence’s sister, Min MacSwiney. The friends shared a love of classical music and attended lessons with the same piano teacher, a Mrs Fleischmann. In August 1920 Geraldine was in London organising a permit to allow her to continue her musical studies in Germany when Min contacted her with news that Terence had been brought to Brixton prison. Muriel soon arrived and took comfort in the support of her friend. It would not be until the seventieth day of his fast that Geraldine would visit Terence. Does the delay suggest some opposition or simply a making of space for republican and influential campaigning visitors? Again, the space in the record provides a dramatic opportunity to explore the political tensions of the time. We know that she found her only visit traumatic and expressed relief that her fiancée Sean Neeson, a ‘shinner’ who had been interned with Terence, was waiting for her outside HMP Brixton. I take some licence in giving her the lines:

“The Brits have said quite publicly that they won’t release hunger strikers on health grounds anymore. Muriel might have to watch the man she loves fade away. Supposing that happens?  Will I really know where I stand then?”

For Muriel hopes were raised and then dashed throughout the ordeal. She was kept hopeful by the worldwide support for Terence’s release which included that of George V. What pressure did she feel representing Terence and republicanism? She was desperate for her husband to live and by private channels actively lobbied senior members of the IRA to direct Terence away from his hunger strike.  

Liam de Roiste, MacSwiney’s deputy in Cork who visited him in prison at the end of August 1920, observed that Muriel seemed “exceptionally bright and cheerful, though kept up by excitement”. He wondered if her “apparent unconcern is her only way of keeping up before the people”. That she felt honour-bound to adopt a stoic persona seems evident from her reaction to hearing the news that Terence might die: “Of course I was upset, although I did not mean to be”. There is evidence that Muriel was coached by Art O’Brian of the Irish Self Determination League who, in her own wordstaught her how to do interviews’. In an interview which she gave to Forbes Fairbairn a few days before the end she said that she was “fully reconciled to hearing of his death. His battle is mine, for it is the one I took on myself when I married him three years ago.” She collapsed soon after his death and was physically unable to go to the funeral.

The spray-painted blue plaque commemorating Terence MacSwiney on the back wall of Brixton Prison.

While Muriel took a combative approach to the attitudes and politics of her parents, her republicanism positioned her in a subordinate role. Min MacSwiney was effectively Muriel’s ‘commanding officer’ in Cumman Na Bhan and took charge in London. Further duty was expected and delivered in November: only weeks on from Terence’s death and after expressing disinclination to Arthur Griffiths, leader of Sinn Fein, on his asking her to go to America to publicise the ‘cause’, she yielded on receiving Griffiths’ follow up telegram “I strongly suggest that you go.” Understandably fragile at the time, she remained in her cabin on the journey to America and, according to the attending stewardess, expressed no interest in politics: “the only thing that she wanted to talk about was the baby” (their daughter Márie was two years old – she would eventually write a memoir, History’s Daughter). However, once in New York Muriel seemed to find a way to contain her sadness and fulfilled everything that was asked of her in terms of public speaking and fund raising, she was a great success.

So those were my characters: a mother fearful for her daughter; a kindly friend; a conflicted wife and mother. In the gaps of the historical record I have tried to render a view of the time that is emotionally true, that privileges the experiences of those usually confined to the wings of our national drama and that I believe to be otherwise obscured in the masculine, national narrative of sacrifice.  

Anne Curtis is the Director of Green Curtain Theatre. The theatre produces new plays reflecting on the lives of the Irish in Britain. Find out more about their work on their site: irishinlondontheatre.co.uk. The Woven Dream is available to view on YouTube.