Terence MacSwiney and the Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire


Early on 20 October, Day 69 of his hunger strike, Terence MacSwiney received Holy Communion from Father Dominic. He complained again to his chaplain about the prison physician Dr Griffiths threatening to make him take food, and thereafter drifted in and out of consciousness. Annie MacSwiney was alone with her brother for a while that morning and the silence inside the room was such it was possible to hear some distant banging and clashing from the prison yard. Suddenly, her brother grew alert and animated.

“Do you hear that knocking: Do you hear it?” he asked. “That’s Griffiths’ new treatment, that’s what he was talking about now. You stay now and watch, listen, do you hear? What’s the time?”

“Quarter past ten,” she replied.

“Show me the watch, I can tell the time more accurately than you – look it is only 13 and a half minutes past ten (it was). And today is Wednesday?”


“Now, you think I am muddle-headed, but I am not.”

“No you are muddle-headed if you think that.”


He grew still and stopped speaking for a few minutes though he kept looking at her, as if trying to focus on her face. Then he was off again.

“Now you are my witness I’m a soldier dying for the Republic. Say this after me: ‘I, Annie MacSwiney, do hereby affirm that I am a soldier dying for the Republic.’ Now we will swear that, have you anything we could kiss?”

Annie held up the cross of her Rosary beads. She kissed it herself and then gently pressed it on his lips as he lay still on the bed. Just then, she was called out of the room to take a phone call. Upon returning, her brother admonished her for leaving and failing to take note of the knocking as he’d asked.

“That’s valuable evidence. It is of international importance – do not let a thing escape you – note it down.”

Dutifully, she took her pencil and inscribed upon his copy of the Gospels: “10.13 and half, Wednesday knocking”. When she stopped, he noticed and told her to keep going. She scribbled some more and then he lost concentration and succumbed to fresh delirium, throwing his arms up to hug her, talking wildly and making no sense. A nurse came over to intervene, a warder was called, and the doctor was sent for. He lapsed in and out of clarity all that Wednesday, his fleeting and brief cameos of sense given over to poignant statements that would later have to be re-classified as goodbyes.

“Muriel, you have always stuck by me,” he said to his wife that afternoon. “This is awful for you because you have to stay here.”

“It’s a better time than we have had since we were married or since you have been Lord Mayor, because I can be with you all the time,” she said with a smile. And they both laughed.

Later, he turned to Mary, and called his sister by his own pet name for her. “Min, you are always loyal to Ireland. Stay by me and see what they do to me.” Ever-vigilant, Mary MacSwiney wasn’t likely to fail him in that regard.

She complained to the authorities that his rapidly deteriorating mental state was a consequence of their threat to force-feed him playing upon his mind. Whatever the validity of that theory, there’s no question his brain was now succumbing after so long without sustenance. Early in the evening, she supervised the writing of wires from the family to Edward Shortt at the Home Office, and to several MPs in the Commons.

“Following Dr Griffiths’ threat to force the Lord Mayor of Cork to take lime juice, delirium has set in today,” went the message to Shortt. “The Lord Mayor has been bad all day owing to excitement caused by the threat in his prostrate condition after 70 days’ fast. Tonight at 6.30, Dr Griffiths announced to his sister he was going to forcibly feed the Lord Mayor. Will the representatives of the British people uphold this refinement of cruelty in prolonging the Lord Mayor’s torture? After 10 days’ hunger strike, one prison doctor considered it dangerous to attempt forcible feeding. Dr Griffiths announces he will begin it on the 70th.”

Before Shortt had a chance to read the telegram, the substance of it was being raised in the House of Commons by Lieutenant-Commander Kenworthy, the Liberal MP for Hull who had accompanied Mary to the Trade Unions Congress the previous month. At the adjournment for the evening, Kenworthy asked the Home Secretary about the government’s intention to force-feed the prisoner lime juice and other substances, and the dangers inherent in such a move.

“I can only say in perfectly general terms that the doctors will do, as they have done consistently, what they consider to be the best in the prisoner’s interest,” answered Shortt. “Their business is to try to keep him alive. They have done everything possible. He has had every possible consideration and care, and the best of nursing and everything has been done for him; but eat he will not. If the doctors think lime juice would ease him, help him to live, and give him another chance of seeing sense, they will be perfectly justified in trying to persuade him to take it, and, indeed, if necessary, in forcing it upon him.

“Whether they are doing so or not, I have not had an opportunity of ascertaining. I know that he has taken certain light medicines, like Eno’s Fruit Salt from time to time, but whether he has taken lime juice or not, I have not had an opportunity of asking. I am satisfied that whatever the doctors have been doing has been done from a sense of pure mercy and consideration, and in what they consider to be the best possible interests of the prisoner himself.”

By the time Shortt delivered that response, the question was moot. During a lengthy bout of unconsciousness that Wednesday night, MacSwiney was forcibly fed with Brand’s beef essence and drops of brandy. Upon awakening, he immediately tasted the food in his mouth and called his sister Mary, still standing sentry inside the room, to his side.

“I am afraid they have tricked me, have they?” he asked.

“I am afraid they have.”

“What did they give me?”

“Meat juice.”

“Wait a minute, we will have to keep cool now.”

At this juncture the nurse on duty came across and asked Mary to leave her brother be. He was aware enough to be angered by this.

“Go away nurse; I must speak to my sister.”

“You must not speak to her,” said the nurse.

“Go away, go away, go away, go away.”

“Nurse, please go away for a minute,” asked Mary. The nurse stepped away from the bed and she tried to calm her brother. “It is all right now.”

“Wait a minute,” he said desperately. “Wait a minute. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.” He couldn’t get anything else out of his mouth except “wait” and then he lost his train of thought completely and descended into delirium once more.

That night, Mary and Father Dominic stayed over in the prison as the feeling grew that the end was now truly at hand. Dr Griffiths warned them that MacSwiney might not last more than 12 hours.

He endured to disprove that prognosis but on 21 October, Day 70, he was, for the first time since his chaplain arrived in London, too weak even to receive Communion. He was unable to recognise his wife either when she arrived. Indeed, he couldn’t make out anybody at all, the sight problems compounded now by the ongoing and more serious manic episodes. The vigil had reached its most painful point, the visitors agonising as they watched his mouth opening and closing as if in slow motion, his limbs twitching beneath the sheets, and the pain etched upon his face.

The body and the mind seemed to revolt against the food administered the previous day. He vomited copious amounts of green liquid and occasionally thrashed his arms around in the bed with anger and frustration. When he lapsed into unconsciousness again however, he was fed once more: Brand’s beef essence, drops of brandy, and Benger’s Food (a liquid type of Complan from that era which was usually given to the sick). Two spoonfuls of Benger’s were swallowed involuntarily but as soon as he awoke the trouble started. Ever hopeful that he might relinquish the struggle now that his fast had, by whatever means, been broken, a nurse placed a cupful at his lips.

“Will you have a little more now,” she asked, the question sending the watching Peter MacSwiney, his brother, into a fury.

“It is a shame for you to ask an unconscious man that,” said Peter angrily. “You know that if he were conscious he would say no. It is a mean thing to take advantage of a man in his condition. You had him here for seventy days and he would not take it from you. Why do you ask him a question like that now?”

Muriel MacSwiney was sitting in the room during the incident and she calmed her brother-in-law down.

In recognition of the increasing gravity of the situation, the bulletins to those waiting outside the gates of the jail were now being given every two hours.

4.30 – The Lord Mayor is still delirious and he looks much worse.

6.30 – The Lord Mayor had a violent fit of vomiting. His condition generally remains unchanged. He is now in a semi-conscious state and does not recognise anyone.

8.30 – Although his mouth, feet and hands are still subject to spasmodic working, the Lord Mayor has been calmer since the issue of the last bulletins. The vomiting has ceased but he is still retching.

10.30 – Condition is generally the same as at time of last bulletin.

Father Dominic, Annie and Sean MacSwiney all stayed in the prison Thursday night, fearing for and preparing for the worst. They waited in the corridor outside his room, from where they took turns peeking through the keyhole to try to see what was happening inside. At three o’clock in the morning, the mayor became violent but soon fell back to sleep. He woke shortly before five when Annie, her ears to the door, overheard the following conversation.

“What is the time?” he asked the nurse by his bedside.

“A quarter to five.”

“A quarter to five in the morning or evening?”

“A quarter to five in the morning.”

“Where am I?”

When the nurse offered him a drink, he snapped at her.

“What’s that?”

“Hot water.”

“Oh, hot water.” Satisfied with the answer, he sipped it down. He closed his eyes then and at 7.30am, Annie was invited in to sit by the bed. No sooner had she sat down than her brother woke and stared back at her.

“Do you know me?” asked Annie.

“Yes,” he replied, the voice just audible.

“Who am I?”

“Annie,” he said. She paused then and he came back with questions of his own.

“What month is it?”


“What year?”


“Have I been here all the summer?”


“And have you been in England all the year?”

“No, only for two months.”

“But what are you all doing here?”

“Muriel, Maire and I are at the hotel.”

“What hotel?”

“The Germyn Court Hotel,” said Annie, “and Peter too.”

“Peter?” he repeated the name in a puzzled tone, “Peter?” He seemed to be struggling to comprehend how his brother from America was in London. After a pause, he quizzed her some more.

“But what is it all for, what are we here for?” he asked.

“Don’t you remember you’re in Brixton?”

He stared back at his sister as if trying to figure out exactly where he was.

“What count have they got me here for?”

“For the Irish Republic.” That answer brought something approaching a bright smile to his wan face.

“So it is established?”

“Yes,” said Annie.

“Is it in alliance with the Allies?” he asked.

Annie wasn’t sure how to play this, worrying over what response might impact on a man in such a fragile state. She gave the one she thought he’d like best. “Yes!” she declared.

At that, he stared some more before going into a soliloquy.

“Oh we did grand marching in the night,” he said, “and they marched too, we made them march, but we marched better!” That was the point when he stopped making sense and began rambling again, his eyes flitting around the room as if searching for something he couldn’t find.

So began 22 October, Day 71. Within three mornings, he would be dead.

Extract from Terence MacSwiney: The Hunger Strike that Rocked an Empire by Dave Hannigan, published by O’Brien Press, priced at EUR14.99.


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