Mary MacSwiney (Máire Nic Suibhne – 27 March 1872 – 8 March 1942) was an Irish politician and educationalist. In 1927 she became ‘de facto’ leader of Sinn Fein when de Valera resigned from the presidency of the party.
Born in London, UK to an Irish father and English mother, she returned to Ireland with her family at the age of six and was educated at St Angela’s Ursuline High School in Cork.
At the age of twenty, she obtained a teaching post at a private school in England. After receiving a loan from the Students’ Aid Society in Ireland, she studied for a Teaching Diploma at Cambridge University, which was normally reserved for men. She worked at Hillside Convent, Farnborough and considered being a nun beginning a one-year noviciate with the Oblates of St Benedict, Ventnor.
On the death of her mother in 1904 she returned to Cork to look after the younger members of her family and took a post at St Angela’s where she had been a pupil. She attended the first meeting of the Munster Women’s Franchise League becoming a committee member. She opposed militancy within the Irish suffrage movement and her nationalist views caused irritation to other members.
The first republican speech Mary attended was the Centenary Celebration in Waterford in 1898. There, she heard John Redmond give a fiery rebel speech. Much to her disappointment, however, she read a speech given by Redmond in Yorkshire, England, a few days later, where he assured England that the Ireland would not even dream of asking for control of excise, customs or taxation in Ireland. She was appalled by the glaring contrast of the two speeches, and fiercely set out as an activist for Home Rule. She refused to join Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin because, as she said, I will never accept the King of England as the King of Ireland.” She did join Sinn Féin in 1917, however, after its views became more republican.
Influenced by her younger brother, Terence MacSwiney’s staunch Irish republicanism she joined the Gaelic League and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. She was a founder member of Cumann na mBan when it was formed in 1914 in Cork and became a National Vice-President of the organisation. In 1916 she was arrested and imprisoned following the Easter Rising and also was dismissed from her teaching position for her republican activities. Several months later, upon her release from prison, she and her sister Annie founded Scoil Íte, modelled on Patrick Pearse’s St. Enda’s School, and she remained involved with the school for the rest of her life.
She supported the Irish War of Independence in 1919–21. After the death of her brother Terence in October 1920 on hunger strike during the height of the war, she was elected for Sinn Féin to the Cork Borough constituency (taking her seat in Dáil Éireann) in 1921. Another brother Seán was also elected to the Dáil in a different Cork constituency. She gave evidence in Washington, D.C. before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. For nine months she and Terence’s widow, Muriel, toured America lecturing and giving interviews.
She strongly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, debated in December 1921 – January 1922, preferring to resume the war: “This matter has been put to us as the Treaty or war. I say now if it were war, I would take it gladly and gleefully, not flippantly, but gladly, because I realise that there are evils worse than war, and no physical victory can compensate for a spiritual surrender.” On 21 December she spoke for three hours, criticising the agreement from all angles.
During and after the Irish Civil War she was interned and went on hunger strike twice. She retained her seat at the 1923 general election and along with other Sinn Féin members she refused to enter the Dáil.
In March 1926 the party held its Ard Fheis. MacSwiney and Father Michael O’Flanagan led the section from which Éamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil broke away. De Valera had come to believe that abstentionism was not a workable tactic and now saw the need to become the elected government of the Dáil. The conference instructed a joint committee of representatives from the two sections to arrange a basis for co-operation. That day, it issued a statement declaring “the division within our ranks is a division of Republicans.” The next day De Valera’s motion to accept the Free State Constitution (contingent on the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance) narrowly failed by a vote of 223 to 218. However De Valera took the great majority of Sinn Féin support with him when he founded Fianna Fáil.
MacSwiney continued to maintain a hard-line republican position until her death. By then she was vice-president of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan but lost her seat at the June 1927 general election. When lack of funds prevented Sinn Féin contesting the second election called that year, MacSwiney declared “no true Irish citizen can vote for any of the other parties”.
MacSwiney and republican legitimacy:
In December 1938, MacSwiney was one of a group of seven people, who had been elected to the Second Dáil in 1921, who met with the IRA Army Council under Seán Russell. At this meeting, the seven signed over what they believed was the authority of the Government of Dáil Éireann to the Army Council. Henceforth, the IRA Army Council perceived itself to be the legitimate government of the Irish Republic.