Following his court-martial in August 1920, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, greeted his sentence of two years in prison by declaring: ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment: I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’ Four days earlier, British troops had stormed the City Hall in Cork and arrested MacSwiney on charges of on charges of sedition and imprisoned in Brixton Prison in England.
MacSwiney immediately began a hunger strike that sparked riots on the streets of Barcelona, caused workers to down tools on the New York waterfront, and prompted mass demonstrations from Buenos Aires to Boston. Enthralled by MacSwiney breaking all previous records for a prisoner going without food, the international press afforded the case so much coverage that Ireland’s War of Independence was suddenly parachuted onto the world stage, and King George V considered over-ruling Prime Minister Lloyd George and enduring a constitutional crisis. As his family kept daily vigil around his bed, watching his strength ebb away hour by hour, MacSwiney’s fast had Michael Collins preparing reprisal assassinations, and rumours abounding that he was being secretly fed via the communion wafer being given to him each day by his chaplain.
The British government was threatened with a boycott of British goods by Americans, while four countries in South America appealed to the Pope to intervene. Protests were held in Germany and France as well. An Australian member of Parliament, Hugh Mahon, was expelled from the Australian parliament for “seditious and disloyal utterances at a public meeting” after protesting against the actions of the British Government.
Attempts at force-feeding MacSwiney were undertaken in the final days of his strike. On 20 October 1920, he fell into a coma and died five days later after 74 days on hunger strike. His body lay in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark in London where 30,000 people filed past it. Fearing large-scale demonstrations in Dublin, the authorities diverted his coffin directly to Cork and his funeral there on 31 October attracted over 100,000 people. Terence MacSwiney is buried in the Republican plot in Saint Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork. Arthur Griffith delivered the graveside oration. MacSwiney was confident “that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release.” His death energised an already emotional anti-British population.
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