Following the murder of his friend and predecessor Tomás Mac Curtain by the Royal Irish Constabulary, MacSwiney was elected to Lord Mayor in March 1920 as the War of Independence raged. On 12th August, the British forces arrested MacSwiney in Cork for possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’, and for the possession of a cipher key. He was summarily tried on 16th August and sentenced to 2-years’ imprisonment at Brixton, away from his family and supporters. MacSwiney immediately began a hunger strike in protest against his conviction.
MacSwiney died in Brixton prison after a 74-day hunger strike which had caught the attention of the world’s press and raised the profile of calls for an independent Ireland. Even after death MacSwiney remained in the headlines with his supporters planning 3 funerals for the republican activist: the first in London; then Dublin; before his burial in Cork.
His wife, Muriel, spoke at the inquest following his death and insisted her husband did not wish to die and so his passing should not be ruled suicide. Dr Griffiths, Brixton prison’s senior medial officer, reported that MacSwiney often stated he ‘would get out of prison alive or dead’ and that, if released, he would agree to take food. Indeed, the coroner ruled that MacSwiney died of heart failure and not of suicide.
Funerals became an opportunity for republicans to rally their supporters. Tens of thousands lined the Dublin streets to pay their respects to nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, while similar numbers gathered for Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915. Pa´draig Pearse declared at Rossa’s graveside: ‘They have left us our Fenian dead, and, while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
Some scholars have cited these words as the impetus for the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent War of Independence.
Republicans hoped MacSwiney’s 3 funerals would have a similar impact. Mourners in Boston, Chicago, Melbourne, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Manchester held symbolic, mock funerals with empty caskets. MacSwiney’s London wake, held at St George’s Cathedral on October 27th, 1920, attracted an estimate 30,000 mourners. Many were working-class Irish immigrants.
Following a Requiem Mass on 28 October in St George’s Cathedral, at which Archbishop Mannix was among the officiating priests, thousands of sympathisers lined the route to Euston Station to where the large procession made its slow progress. MacSwiney’s remains were then taken to Holyhead and onto Cork, where they arrived the following day.
The original plan had been to land in Dublin, but a last minute decision by the government forbade this, fearing it might spark a large scale political demonstration. Instead, when the body arrived in Holyhead, it was placed, against his family’s wishes, on board the SS Rathmore, a vessel that had been chartered by the authorities, and travelled to Cork accompanied by around 200 armed members of the crown forces. The Irish Independent referred to the scenes at Holyhead as the ‘desecration of the martyred dead’.
The remains lay in state in the Cork City Hall for a night before being conveyed to the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne where another Requiem Mass was celebrated. His body was then taken to St Finbarr’s cemetery where it was finally laid to rest a few feet from his murdered predecessor, Tomás Mac Curtain.
Sinn Féin TD Arthur Griffith delivered a graveside speech and said that the deceased had ‘endured all that the power of England could inflict upon him and in enduring, triumphed over that power. His body lies here, his soul goes marching through all the ages. He is not dead. He is living forever in the hearts and conscience of mankind.’
Due to ill health caused by the ordeal, Muriel MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor’s wife did not attend the London ceremony, nor did she travel to Ireland.