The hunger strike and death of the Lord Mayor of Cork,Terence MacSwiney, in 1920 had a profound affect on Irish people, not just in Ireland but in many cities in Britain, including Manchester.
Terence MacSwiney was arrested on 12th August 1920 and sentenced at a British army court-martial to two years in prison. He joined the hunger strike in progress at Cork Gaol, whereupon the government moved him to Brixton prison where he continued his fast. By the end of the second week he seemed to be sinking rapidly and his death was expected at almost any hour.
When he was inaugurated as Lord Mayor of Cork after the murder of Tomas MacCurtain by British forces, MacSwiney had prophesied that “This contest on our side is not one of rivalry or vengeance, but of endurance. It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer…” He later sent out a message from Brixton prison via Archbishop Mannix. “We must be prepared for casualties in the last battle for Irish independence. Let every man offer his life.” In the end he gave up his own life after 74 days.
A great deal of pressure had been put on Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and the cabinet to make concessions in order to get MacSwiney to call off his fast. The British government very quickly decided, however, that this was a political battle it had to win and dug in its heels. The British ruling class understood that Empire was as much a matter of psychology as it was of soldiers and guns. If MacSwiney were to call off his hunger strike it would be a severe a blow to Irish morale. If he died it would be a lesson to the Irish of how ruthless the government was prepared to be, a view reinforced by Lloyd George himself in a controversial speech at Caernavon in early October in which he spoke of the “very strong measures” that needed to be taken in order to defeat “the real murder gang”. The Daily Herald condemned his speech as “coarse, cowardly and cruel”.
A number of organisations and leading citizens in Manchester tried to put pressure on the government to give way. On 26th August a joint meeting of the Manchester & Salford Labour Party and Manchester & Salford Trades Council passed a resolution stating that they were appalled at the callous attitude of the government and requesting that “in the interests of humanity and peace” the Lord Mayor be released forthwith. A number of local women sent a telegram also requesting MacSwiney’s release. Their number included Dr Cathleen Chisholm, Dr Florence Robinson, Annot Robinson and Mabel Hewitt.
On 27th August a meeting of Manchester citizens at Merchants Restaurant in Market Street sent a telegram to the King, asking him to exercise royal prerogative. It was signed by, amongst others, Canon Peter Green, Joe Toole, Councillor William Mellor (secretary of Manchester & Salford Trades Council), Alderman Jackson, Catherine Chisholm of the Women’s International League, Mrs Neal of the Women’s Freedom League, Annot Robinson, Councillor Hugh Lee, Agatha Watts and George Clancy of the Irish Self Determination League.
The government remained unmoved by these and many other protests from Britain and abroad. Instead they skilfully and subtly created the conditions to put maximum pressure on MacSwiney to give up his protest. Thus his friends and relatives were able to visit at any time, nurses and doctors were in attendance and there was always food by the bedside. Journalists from around the world called into Art O’Brien’s office in London where MacSwiney’s sister Mary spoke to them, giving them the latest information. Mary tried every avenue to put pressure on the government. In early September she went to Brighton where the TUC was meeting, hoping to address the assembled delegates. The TUC President J H Thomas refused to let her speak to the Congress, however, claiming that it would be too much of an emotional strain on her, and instead made a token gesture by sending another telegram to Lloyd George.
In New York a spectacular strike broke out on the docks at the end of August when a group of Irish women calling themselves American Women Pickets for the Enforcement of America’s War Aims brought out the West Side waterfront for nearly a month. They were protesting both at the arrest of MacSwiney in Ireland and the arrest at sea of Archbishop Daniel Mannix from Melbourne, a fierce critic of British government policy in Ireland, who had sailed for Ireland from New York on the White Star liner Baltic. En route two British destroyers stopped the Baltic and arrested Mannix, landing him in Penzance, where he was handed orders forbidding him from travelling to Ireland, Liverpool, Glasgow or Manchester. In New York the women pickets brought out British stokers, Irish and black longshoremen in a strike which spread rapidly, disrupted some sailings and lasted until 21st September
On 17th October Michael Fitzgerald died on hunger strike in Cork gaol after 67 days, while MacSwiney himself died on the morning of 25th October. The two friends with him in his last hour could never bring themselves to speak of it. The Manchester Guardian commented acidly that his death was “part of a policy, the policy of ruthlessness. Ireland is to be terrorised, opposition is to be crushed.” The Manchester District committee of the ISDL, representing 36 local branches, sent a telegram to MacSwiney’s widow saying that “The Irishmen and Irishwomen of Manchester send their heartfelt sympathy with you in this your great hour of sorrow. However, you will be consoled in your grief, knowing that the Lord Mayor died that the Irish nation might live.”
Fellow Republican political prisoners carried MacSwiney’s body to the prison doors after which it was taken to the Catholic cathedral in Southwark where several hundred attended the brief service, many of them working class Irish women from South London. His body lay in its coffin before the High Altar with many coming to pay their respects. A few days later thousands attended Mass in the cathedral after which the coffin was driven slowly across London to Euston station accompanied by a huge procession, with representatives present from across Ireland and every Irish community in Britain. The train that carried his body also carried several hundred policemen.
On arriving in Holyhead those accompanying MacSwiney’s body were informed that the government had forbidden its passage to Dublin, where the whole city was waiting, and had instead provided a steamer to take the coffin directly to Cork. There was a bitter and emotional argument between Art O’Brien, Mary MacSwiney and government officials but they had no choice but to agree. In Cork nobody would receive the body from the British vessel and eventually it was landed by British soldiers. MacSwiney was finally laid to rest in his home town accompanied by a massive funeral procession. The next day eighteen year old Kevin Barry was hanged in Dublin.
In Manchester on Sunday 31st October there was a huge procession in honour of MacSwiney, perhaps the largest march ever organised by the Irish in the city. Thousands assembled in Stevenson Square and walked slowly four a breast to Moston cemetery by way of Oldham Street, Oldham Road, Livesey Street and Rochdale Road with spectators lining the whole route. Sixty taxi-cabs and carriages led the procession followed by a hearse carrying a mock coffin covered with the tricolour and flags.
Despite the cold weather there were many elderly people on the procession as well as many local Catholic priests. A squad of girls and women accompanied the hearse, some in semi-uniform, while an industrial school band played Saul’s Dead March and Chopin’s Funeral March. There were also Irish pipers playing in the march. As many as forty branches of the Irish Self Determination League were present, carrying tricolours, and many marchers wore armbands in the same colour. So great were the numbers on the procession that the tail was still in Stevenson Square by the time that the front of the procession had reached the cemetery and the last mile was unable get in to the graveyard at all. Those that managed recited prayers as wreaths were laid at the Manchester Martyrs memorial.
Article by Michael Herbert