seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Clonmult Ambush

The Clonmult ambush takes place on February 20, 1921, during the Irish War of Independence.

Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers occupying a farmhouse in Clonmult, County Cork are surrounded by a force of British Army, Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Auxiliaries. In the action that follows, twelve IRA volunteers are killed, four wounded and four captured. A total of 22 people die in the ambush and subsequent executions – fourteen IRA members, two Black and Tans and six suspected informers.

The 4th battalion of the IRA First Cork Brigade, under Diarmuid O’Hurley and based around Midleton, Youghal and Cobh, had been a successful unit up until the Clonmult ambush. They had captured three RIC barracks and carried out an ambush in Midleton itself. In January 1921, the unit takes possession of a disused farmhouse overlooking the village of Clonmult. O’Hurley plans to ambush a military train at Cobh Junction on Tuesday, February 22, 1921 and at the time of the Clonmult action is scouting a suitable ambush site. However, according to historian Peter Hart, they “had become over-confident and fallen into a traceable routine.” An intelligence officer of the British Army Hampshire Regiment traces them to their billet at a farmhouse in Clonmult.

British troops, a party of the 2nd Battalion, Hampshire Regiment under the command of Lieutenant A. R. Koe, surround the house. Two IRA volunteers notice the advancing troops and open fire. Both are killed, but the shooting warns those sheltering inside the house, and a siege begins. A sortie from the house is attempted in the hope of gaining reinforcements from the local IRA company.

The acting IRA commander, Captain Jack O’Connell, manages to get away but three other volunteers are killed in the attempt. But O’Connell is unable to bring help in time. The Volunteers trapped inside make a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to escape through a narrow opening in the gable. Their hopes are dashed when British reinforcements arrive instead — regular RIC police, Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. The police also bring petrol, which an Army officer uses to set the thatched roof of the farmhouse on fire. With the farmhouse burning around them, an attempt is then made by the IRA to surrender.

What happens next is disputed. In his after-action report, Lieutenant Koe reports that at 6:30 PM six or seven rebels come out of the house with their hands up. As the Crown Forces go to meet them the remaining rebels in the house open fire. Some of the rebels outside the house are killed or wounded by the crossfire that ensues. The Crown Forces rush the house and the eight rebels inside are taken prisoner. By contrast, the surviving Volunteers claim that their men had surrendered in good faith, and had come out with their hands up, only to be shot by the police without any provocation. Opinion is divided amongst historians as to which version of the story to believe.

A total of twelve IRA Volunteers are killed in the action, with four more wounded and only four taken prisoner unscathed. Two of the IRA prisoners, Maurice Moore and Paddy O’Sullivan, are later executed in the Cork military barracks on April 28. Patrick Higgins, an IRA man who survived the killings, is sentenced to death but is reprieved due to the truce that ends the war on July 11. Hampshire Regiment historian Scott Daniell notes on the action that “like all the Irish operations, it was hateful to the British troops.”

The IRA suspects that an informer had led the British to the billet of the column wiped out at Clonmult, and over the following week, six alleged spies are executed by the IRA in the surrounding area. Mick Leahy, a local IRA officer, states that “things went to hell in the battallion” after Clonmult. Diarmuid O’Hurley, the commander of the battalion, is not at Clonmult but is later killed on May 28, 1921.


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The Ballytrain Barracks Attack

An Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit commanded by Ernie O’Malley and Eoin O’Duffy captures a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks at Ballytrain, County Monaghan, on February 14, 1920 during the Irish War of Independence.

After a month of intense IRA activity across the country, the War of Independence continues unabated in February 1920. Becoming more daring in the process, the IRA continues to target the RIC and their barracks. Elsewhere, local issues and tensions also surface, and in some cases, they become embroiled in the struggle for Independence. February 1920 is a month of chaos across the country.

Described by the newspapers of the day as a ‘fierce affray’ the three-hour assault on the RIC barracks at Ballytrain, County Monaghan is a significant engagement for the Monaghan IRA during the War of Independence. Launched at 2:00 AM on a Sunday morning and led by Eoin O’Duffy, later a Commissioner of An Garda Siochana, the attack had been carefully planned.

Located eight miles from Castleblayney, the RIC barracks in Ballytrain is manned by Sergeants Lawson and Graham and four constables, Roddy, Gallagher, Murtagh, and Nelson, all of whom it is said fight against the odds for over three hours. At 5:00 AM, when ‘the leader’ of the IRA party demands the officers surrender it is met by continued firing from the police. O’Duffy then gives the order to plant explosives at the gable wall, which instantly collapses. Four RIC officers are buried in the rubble of the building and are later transferred to Carrickmacross hospital for treatment. About fifty men then rush the building carrying off a quantity of weapons.

A house belonging to a man named Mitchell is raided before the attack, where four members of the family are held hostage throughout the night. The IRA smashes all of the windows in the house allowing them to fire on the barracks. As many as 150 men take part in the raid, which also sees some men taking up position in cattle byres, which had been cleaned out in order to give protection. It is later alleged that O’Duffy had told the RIC men that he was glad no one had been killed in the exchange, saying, “We did not come here to do injury, but only for arms.” It is hardly the welcome Sergeant Graham had expected having only arrived in the barracks three days earlier.

(From: Irish Newspaper Archives, irishnewsarchive.com, February 17, 2020)


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Death of Seán MacBride, Politician & Chief of Staff of the IRA

Seán MacBride, Irish government minister, prominent international politician, and a former Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies in Dublin at the age of 83 on January 15, 1988.

MacBride is born in Paris on January 26, 1904. He is the son of Major John MacBride and Maud Gonne. After his father’s execution for his participation in the Easter Rising of 1916, MacBride is sent to school at Mount St. Benedict’s, Gorey, County Wexford in Ireland. In 1919, at the age of 15, he joins the Irish Volunteers, which fights as part of the Irish Republican Army, and takes part in the Irish War of Independence. He is imprisoned by the Irish Free State but is released in 1924 and resumes his IRA activities. He returns to Dublin in 1927 and becomes the Director of Intelligence of the IRA.

Toward the end of the 1920s, after many supporters have left the IRA to join Fianna Fáil, some members start pushing for a more left-wing agenda. After the IRA Army Council votes down the idea, MacBride launches a new movement, Saor Éire (“Free Ireland”), in 1931. Although it is a non-military organisation, Saor Éire is declared unlawful along with the IRA, Cumann na mBan, and nine other organizations.

In 1936, MacBride becomes Chief of Staff of the IRA after Moss Twomey is sent to prison for three years. At the time, the movement is in a state of disarray, with conflicts between several factions and personalities. In 1937, he is called to the bar and then resigns from the IRA when the Constitution of Ireland is enacted later that year. As a barrister, he frequently defends IRA political prisoners, but is not unsuccessful in stopping the execution of Charlie Kerins in 1944 who is convicted of killing Garda Detective Dennis O’Brien in 1942. In 1946, during the inquest into the death of Seán McCaughey, he embarrasses the authorities by forcing them to admit that the conditions in Portlaoise Prison are inhumane.

In 1946, MacBride founds the republican/socialist party Clann na Poblachta, hoping it would replace Fianna Fáil as Ireland’s major political party. In October 1947, he wins a seat in Dáil Éireann at a by-election in the Dublin County constituency. However, at the 1948 Irish general election Clann na Poblachta wins only ten seats.

MacBride is serving as Minister of External Affairs when the Council of Europe drafts the European Convention on Human Rights. He serves as President of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe from 1949 to 1950 and is credited with being a key force in securing the acceptance of this convention, which is finally signed in Rome on November 4, 1950. He is instrumental in the implementation of the repeal of the External Relations Act and the passing of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 which comes into force in 1949.

Clann na Poblachta is reduced to only two seats after the 1951 Irish general election. MacBride keeps his seat and is re-elected again at the 1954 Irish general election. Opposing the internment of IRA suspects during the Border Campaign (1956–62), he contests both the 1957 and 1961 Irish general elections but fails to be elected both times. He then retires from politics but continues practicing as a barrister. He expresses interest in running as an independent candidate in the 1983 Irish presidential election, but does not receive sufficient backing and ultimately does not enter the contest.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, MacBride works tirelessly for human rights worldwide. He is a founding member of Amnesty International and serves as its International chairman from 1961 until 1975. During the 1980s, he initiates the Appeal by Lawyers against Nuclear War which is jointly sponsored by the International Peace Bureau and the International Progress Organization.

MacBride is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 as a man who “mobilised the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice.” He later receives the Lenin Peace Prize (1975–76) and the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service (1980).

In his later years, MacBride lives in his mother’s home, Roebuck House, that served as a meeting place for many years for Irish nationalists, as well as in the Parisian arrondissement where he grew up with his mother, and enjoyed strolling along boyhood paths. In 1978, he receives the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

MacBride dies in Dublin on January 15, 1988, just eleven days shy of his 84th birthday. He is buried in a simple grave in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, with his mother, and wife who died in 1976.


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Ballinalee Raid in Search of Seán Mac Eoin

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) raid a cottage near Ballinalee, County Longford, on January 7, 1921 looking for Seán Mac Eoin. Mac Eoin opens fire from the cottage, killing District Inspector Thomas McGrath, wounding a constable, and escaping.

Mac Eoin is a soldier and eventual politician of the Fine Gael party. He is commonly referred to as the “Blacksmith of Ballinalee.” He is born John Joseph McKeon on September 30, 1893 at Bunlahy, Granard, County Longford, the eldest son of Andrew McKeon and Catherine Treacy. He joins the United Irish League in 1908. His Irish nationalist activities begin in earnest in 1913, when he joins the Clonbroney Company of the Irish Volunteers. Late that year he is sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood and joins the Granard circle of the organization.

Mac Eoin comes to prominence in the Irish War of Independence as leader of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) flying column. On November 4, 1920, his column holds the village of Ballinalee situated on the Longford Road between Longford and Granard. They stand against superior British forces, forcing them to retreat and abandon their ammunition. In a separate attack on November 8, he leads his men against the RIC at Ballinalee. An eighteen-year-old Constable Taylor is killed. Constable E. Shateford and two others are wounded. The story is that the small garrison sings “God Save the King” as they take up positions to return fire.

On the afternoon of January 7, 1921, a joint RIC and British Army patrol consisting of ten policemen led by an Inspector, with a security detachment of nine soldiers, appears on Anne Martin’s street. Mac Eoin’s own testimony at his trial, which is not contested by any parties present, states, “I was at the table writing when I was informed of the advance of the party. My account books were left in this house for safety. I was in partial uniform, wearing Sam Browne belt and revolver with two Mills No. 4 bombs in my pocket. Owing to some females being in the house, I had to get out as I could not endanger them by putting up a defence in the house, and as this Officer and Police Force had already signified to my sister and mother their intention to shoot me on sight, I decided to give them a run for their money. I stepped out on the street, about three paces directly in front of the oncoming force, and opened fire with my revolver. The leading file fell, and then the second file in the gateway brought their rifles to the ready. I then threw a bomb, and jumped back behind the porch to let it burst. When it had burst and the smoke had lifted, I saw that the whole force had cleared away, save the officer who was dead or dying on the street.” The casualties from this incident are District Inspector Thomas McGrath killed and a police constable wounded.

Mac Eoin is captured at Mullingar railway station in March 1921, imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder of RIC District Inspector McGrath in the shooting at Anne Martin’s street in January 1921. Michael Collins organises a rescue attempt in June 1921. Six IRA Volunteers, led by Paddy Daly and Emmet Dalton, capture a British armoured car and, wearing British Army uniforms, gain access to Mountjoy Prison. However, Mac Eoin is not in the part of the jail they believed and, after some shooting, the party retreats.

Within days, Mac Eoin is elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1921 Irish general election, as a TD for Longford–Westmeath. He is eventually released from prison, along with all other members of the Dáil, after Collins threatens to break off treaty negotiations with the British government unless he is freed. It is rumoured that Sean Mac Eoin serves as the best man at Collins’ wedding.


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Seán MacBride Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

Seán MacBride, Irish Clann na Poblachta politician who serves as Minister for External Affairs from 1948 to 1951, Leader of Clann na Poblachta from 1946 to 1965 and Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) from 1936 to 1937, receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, 1974. He also serves as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1947 to 1957.

Rising from a domestic Irish political career, MacBride founds or participates in many international organisations of the 20th century, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, he receives the Lenin Peace Prize for 1975–76 and the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980.

MacBride is awarded the Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of human rights, among other things as one of the founders of Amnesty International. He is described as a man who “mobilised the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice.” In December 1973, he is elected United Nations Commissioner for Namibia, a position he holds until January 1, 1977. In 1974 he is also Chairman of the International Peace Bureau and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations.

MacBride, nevertheless, has had a violent past. His father is executed following the Easter Rising of 1916, the Irish struggle for liberation from Great Britain. He is only 13 when he joins the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He takes part in the concluding battles of the Irish War of Independence against the British before the Irish Republic is founded in 1921, and in the Irish Civil War that follows. He backs Éamon de Valera in the latter’s refusal to accept Northern Ireland‘s continuing union with England. In the 1930s, he breaks with the IRA and qualifies in law. He defends IRA prisoners in Irish prisons who had been condemned to death.

After World War II he is for a few years Minister for External Affairs for Ireland. He plays a leading part in the establishment of the Council of Europe, and in the preparation of the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950.

MacBride dies in Dublin on January 15, 1988, eleven days before his 84th birthday. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in a grave with his mother and wife, who died in 1976.


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Death of Eoin O’Duffy, Activist, Soldier & Police Commissioner

Eoin O’Duffy, Irish nationalist political activist, soldier and police commissioner, dies in Dublin on November 30, 1944.

O’Duffy is born near Castleblayney, County Monaghan on January 28, 1890. Trained initially as an engineer, he later becomes an auctioneer. He becomes interested in Irish politics and joins Sinn Féin, later becoming a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

During the Irish War of Independence, O’Duffy commands the Monaghan Brigade and in February 1920 he successfully captures the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks at Ballytrain taking from it weapons and explosives. Also present at this victory is Ernie O’ Malley, who goes on to organize flying columns, and the socialist guerrilla fighter Peadar O’Donnell.

In the 1921 Irish general election, O’Duffy becomes TD for Monaghan. By 1922, he has been promoted to Chief of Staff of the IRA and is one of Michael Collins foremost supporters when he accepts the Anglo-Irish Treaty and fights in the Irish Civil War as a general of the Free State Army.

As commander of the 2nd Northern Division of the IRA, O’Duffy sees action in Belfast when defending Catholic ghettoes from attacks by Protestant pogromists. He also leads the Free State forces into Limerick city.

In September 1922, following the mutiny in Kildare by Civic Guard recruits, O’Duffy replaces Michael Staines as commissioner. Under him the police force is renamed the Garda Síochána, disarmed and is later merged with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). His fervent Catholicism is greatly reflected in the ethos of the Garda Síochána.

In 1933, O’Duffy becomes associated with Cumann na nGaedheal by taking on the leadership of their security organization the Army Comrades Association, later to be known colloquially as the Blueshirts. This organization is to become a participant in many street brawls with anti-treaty sympathizers who try to break up pro-treaty political meetings. When the pro-treaty parties merge in 1933 to become Fine Gael, he is the party President for a short period of time.

It is believed that O’Duffy unsuccessfully encourages W. T. Cosgrave to consider a coup-de’etat in the event of Fianna Fáil winning the 1932 Irish general election. Cosgrave, in the event, puts his trust in a democracy when Fianna Fáil does, in fact, form a government, led by Éamon de Valera, with the help of the Labour Party.

After the 1933 Irish general election, which again sees de Valera in power, O’Duffy is dismissed from his post as Garda Commissioner on the grounds that due to his past political affiliations, he will be unable to carry out his duties without bias.

In Europe, the new phenomenon of fascism is gaining ground and O’Duffy, like many of his pro-treaty colleagues, is drawn to it. His Army Comrades Association is renamed the National Guard and they begin to take on many of the symbols of fascism such as the outstretched arm salute and the blue uniforms.

When O’Duffy plans a massed march for August 1933 in Dublin to commemorate the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, de Valera, fearing a coup, has it banned. Possibly de Valera is also testing the loyalty of the army and the Garda Síochána. In September the National Guard itself is banned although it reforms under the title The League of Youth.

In 1934 O’Duffy suddenly and inexplicably resigns as president of Fine Gael although it is known that many of its members are growing worried by his actions and statements. The Blueshirt movement begins to unravel at the seams. That same year he forms his own fascist movement, the National Corporate Party.

In 1936, supported by the Catholic Church in Ireland, O’Duffy leads 700 of his followers to Spain to help General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War against the republican government. They form part of the XV Bandera Irlandesa del Terico, a part of the Spanish Legion. The Bandera sees little or no action and are returned to Ireland in 1937.

Although O’Duffy has some low-level dalliance with the Nazis he never does regain any of his political influence. His health is on the decline and he dies on November 30, 1944. De Valera grants him a state funeral and he is interred in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.


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The Murders of Patrick & Harry Loughnane

Brothers Patrick and Harry Loughnane, both members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), are abducted and killed by Black and Tans at Kinvara, County Galway on November 26, 1920.

County Galway sees its share of controversial incidents during the Irish War of Independence. Most of these incidents are carried out by Crown Forces, specifically the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and a new force, the Auxiliaries, created in order to help the RIC in dealing with militant republicanism.

Patrick Loughnane, aged 29, is a local IRA leader and Sinn Féin secretary. He was also active in the local Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). His younger brother Harry, aged 22, is president of the local Sinn Féin club and a goalkeeper with Beagh Hurling Club.

While working on the family farm in Shanaglish, County Galway, the two brothers are arrested by the Auxiliaries. Not a word is heard from the boys until a week after their arrest when a group of Auxiliaries call Mrs. Loughnane to inform her that her sons had escaped capture. This raises fear and suspicion among the brothers’ family and friends and a search is organised. Ten days after they had been arrested, their bodies are found in a muddy pond near Ardrahan.

Exactly what happened to the two brothers will never be known, however, witnesses, including others arrested at the same time tell a tale of merciless brutality. After being arrested the brothers are beaten for hours in Gort Bridewell and then tied to the tailgate of a lorry, bound to each other, and dragged along the roads to Drumharsna Castle, the headquarters of the Black and Tans, where they are beaten again. At 11:00 PM that night they are taken from Drumharsna Castle to Moy O’Hynes wood where they are shot. Witnesses recount on Saturday morning, Harry is still alive and is heard moaning. On Sunday morning, the Auxiliaries take the bodies to Umbriste near Ardrahan where they are set on fire. After failing to bury the bodies because of the rocky ground they throw them into a muddy pond and, to make their discovery more difficult, throw dirty oil into the water.

After the bodies are discovered they are examined by a local doctor. The letters “IV” are carved into the charred flesh in several places, two of Harry’s fingers are missing, his right arm is broken and hung over his shoulder. Both of Patrick’s legs and wrists are broken. The doctor believes it possible that hand grenades had been put into their mouths and exploded.

A memorial to the two brothers is later built on the spot where they died.

(From: Stair na hÉireann | History of Ireland, http://www.stairnaheireann.net)


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Bloody Sunday (1920)

More than 30 people are killed or fatally wounded in a day of violence in Dublin on November 21, 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. It goes down in Irish history as the first “Bloody Sunday,” though unfortunately not the last.

Through the centuries the British have crushed Irish revolutionary movements through the use of spies and informers. Michael Collins, Minister for Finance of the Irish Republic, head of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Republican Army (IRA) Chief of Intelligence, is in the process of beating the British at their own game. The day begins in the early morning hours with an IRA operation, organised by Collins, to assassinate members of the “Cairo Gang” – a team of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin. IRA members go to a number of addresses and kill or fatally wounded 16 men, mostly British Army intelligence officers. Five other men are wounded.

When word of the success of the operation gets back to Collins, knowing the caliber of the men in England‘s infamous “Black and Tan” force, he sends a message to the Gaelic Athletic Association, telling them to cancel that day’s Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary. However, it is too late and the match goes on.

Later that afternoon, lashing out blindly, the Black and Tans surround Croke Park during the match and move in. Their supposed purpose is to attempt to capture members of Sinn Féin who might be in the crowd, but they soon open fire indiscriminately on the players and spectators. They kill or fatally wound fourteen civilians and wound at least sixty others before members of the Auxiliary Division, another brutal force created to crush the Irish insurrection, finally manages to get them to cease-fire.

That evening, two Irish republicans and members of Collins’ squad, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, who had helped plan the earlier assassinations, along with a third man, a civilian named Conor Clune, who happened to be caught with the others, are beaten and shot dead in Dublin Castle by their captors, who claim they were killed during an escape attempt.

Overall, Bloody Sunday is considered a victory for the IRA, as Collins’s operation severely damages British intelligence, while the later reprisals do no real harm to the guerrillas but increase support for the IRA at home and abroad.

(Pictured: The headline of the Dublin Evening Herald reads ‘Latest Stories about Irish Tragedies’, 22nd November 1920. The newspaper reports on the massacre at a Croke Park football match, shootings in Dublin, and the discovery of a priest’s corpse in a Galway bog. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


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The Piltown Cross Ambush

Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighters from West Waterford, under Column O/C George Lennon, ambush a British army patrol at Piltown (Kinsalebeg), County Waterford, on November 1, 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. Two soldiers are killed, six wounded, and thirty captured although those captured are later released. Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Constable Maurice Prendiville promises to leave the RIC but is fatally shot the following month at the Youghal Bridge.

Involved is the IRA West Waterford Brigade, specifically the newly formed Deise Flying Column under O/C Lennon of Dungarvan, as well as Volunteers from the local Ardmore battalion. Returned Great War veteran John Riordan plans the successful engagement involving a feint attack on the RIC barracks in Ardmore.

The British garrison in Youghal subsequently dispatches nearly twenty troops in a single lorry. They are ambushed at Kinsalebeg and suffer two dead and six wounded. The ambush results in the capture of several rifles and a large quantity of ammunition which are used to equip the flying column. Captured are RIC constables O’Neill and Prendiville who give their word that they will resign. Prendiville is subsequently killed from a shot from the Waterford side of the Youghal Bridge.

(Pictured: Piltown Cross Ambush Memorial unveiled in 2008)


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Death of Terence MacSwiney, Playwright & Politician

Terence James MacSwiney, Irish playwright, author, politician and Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork during the Irish War of Independence, dies in London‘s Brixton Prison on October 25, 1920 after 73 days on hunger strike. His death brings him and the Irish Republican campaign to international attention.

MacSwiney is born at 23 North Main Street, Cork, County Cork, one of eight children of John and Mary MacSwiney. Following the failure of this business, John MacSwiney emigrates to Australia in 1885 leaving the children in the care of their mother and his eldest daughter.

MacSwiney is educated by the Christian Brothers at the North Monastery school in Cork, but leaves at fifteen to help support the family. He becomes an accountancy clerk but continues his studies and matriculates successfully. He continues in full-time employment while he studies at the Royal University (now University College Cork), graduating with a degree in Mental and Moral Science in 1907.

In 1901 MacSwiney helps to found the Celtic Literary Society, and in 1908 he founds the Cork Dramatic Society with Daniel Corkery and writes a number of plays for them. His first play, The Last Warriors of Coole, is produced in 1910. His fifth play, The Revolutionist (1915), takes the political stand made by a single man as its theme.

Described as a sensitive poet-intellectual, MacSwiney’s writings in the newspaper Irish Freedom bring him to the attention of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He is one of the founders of the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, and is President of the Cork branch of Sinn Féin. He founds a newspaper, Fianna Fáil, in 1914, but it is suppressed after only 11 issues. In April 1916, he is intended to be second in command of the Easter Rising in Cork and Kerry, but stands down his forces on the order of Eoin MacNeill.

Following the rising, MacSwiney is imprisoned by the British Government under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 in Reading and Wakefield Gaols until December 1916. In February 1917 he is deported from Ireland and imprisoned in Shrewsbury and Bromyard internment camps until his release in June 1917. It is during his exile in Bromyard that he marries Muriel Murphy of the Cork distillery-owning family. In November 1917, he is arrested in Cork for wearing an Irish Republican Army (IRA) uniform, and, inspired by the example of Thomas Ashe, goes on a hunger strike for three days prior to his release.

In the 1918 Irish general election, MacSwiney is returned unopposed to the first Dáil Éireann as Sinn Féin representative for Mid Cork, succeeding the Nationalist MP D. D. Sheehan. After the murder of his friend Tomás Mac Curtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork on March 20, 1920, he is elected as Lord Mayor. On August 12, 1920, he is arrested in Cork for possession of “seditous articles and documents,” and also possession of a cipher key. He is summarily tried by a court on August 16 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment at Brixton Prison in England.

In prison MacSwiney immediately starts a hunger strike in protest of his internment and the fact that he was tried by a military court. Eleven other Irish Republican prisoners in Cork Jail go on hunger strike at the same time. On August 26, the British Government states that “the release of the Lord Mayor would have disastrous results in Ireland and would probably lead to a mutiny of both military and police in south of Ireland.”

MacSwiney’s hunger strike gains world attention. The British Government is threatened with a boycott of British goods by Americans, while four countries in South America appeal to Pope Benedict XV to intervene. Protests are held in Germany and France as well. An Australian member of Parliament, Hugh Mahon, is expelled from the Parliament of Australia for “seditious and disloyal utterances at a public meeting,” after protesting against the actions of the British Government. Two weeks later, the Spanish Catalan organization Autonomous Center of Employees of Commerce and Industry (CADCI) sends a petition to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George calling for his release and the newspaper of the organization, Acció (Acción in Spanish), begins a campaign for MacSwiney.

Food is often placed near MacSwiney to persuade him to give up the hunger strike. Attempts at force-feeding are undertaken in the final days of his strike. On October 20, 1920 he slips into a coma and dies five days later after 73 days on hunger strike. His body lay in St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark in London where 30,000 people file past it. Fearing large-scale demonstrations in Dublin, the authorities divert his coffin directly to Cork, and his funeral in the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne on October 31 attracts huge crowds. He is buried in the Republican plot in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork. Arthur Griffith delivers the graveside oration.