Terence MacSwiney to Margaret (Peg) MacSwiney, 30 Jan. 1914
UCD Archives, P48b/4.
Original document images and a transcription of the letter can be viewed here. All images from Terence MacSwiney Papers, courtesy of UCD Archives.
The poignancy of primary sources is often found in their innocence. Unlike history
books, the authors of primary sources write without knowledge of impending events.
Thus, we can frequently find in them traces of aspirations unfulfilled and plans that
were interrupted by the course of subsequent events.
The first of a monthly series of ‘From the Archives’ documents, (Revolutionary Decade Archival Collection) finds a 35 year old Terence MacSwiney writing to his sister Margaret (Peg), a nun then living in America and working as a teacher while writing a doctoral dissertation on the German philosopher and Nobel laureate, Rudolf Eucken. It would appear from the Morin Chavasse’s 1961 biography of Terence MacSwiney that the letter found its way into Terence MacSwiney’s papers when Chavasse made contact with Margaret in writing his biography of Terence in the 1950s. MacSwiney’s letter focuses on literary matters with both Terence and Margaret looking forward to the publication of their respective works. ‘Well, Peg, if you and I both publish books this year, you in America and I in Ireland, wont it be a sensation for our friends and relatives on both sides of the Atlantic.’ (p. 8).
By October 1920, MacSwiney would be dead. The hunger strike that caused his death
made him one of the best known figures within Irish republicanism on the
international stage at the time. The prominence and media interest generated by his
hunger strike, which lasted 74 days, from 12 August to 25 October 1920, was
unsurpassed in the period. In the history of hunger strike as a tactic in Irish politics,
arguably only the name of Bobby Sands is more recognisable in public memory today
than that of MacSwiney. As Lord Mayor of Cork, and having come into this
appointment through the violent death of his predecessor and close friend, Tomás
MacCurtain, MacSwiney rapidly became the most high-profile inmate in the British
criminal justice system in the autumn of 1920.
As the commemorative calendar of 2014 moves towards the very beginning of the
‘age of violence’, ushered in by the Ulster crisis in Ireland and the First World War in
Europe, it is important to look back at the status quo ante bellum, and to examine the
way in which future participants thought and acted prior to committing themselves
wholly into political and military struggles. In interpreting the Ireland of 1914, it is
important that events and personalities should not be seen purely in an island context
but rather through the lens of European and global transformations. By 1914, the era
of European empires was passing with the close of the ‘long nineteenth century’ and
the beginning of the twentieth. The ‘freedom’ to which MacSwiney devotes so much
of this letter is analogous to sentiments of nationalism, revolution, and selfdetermination
which flowed from the mouths and pens of figures as diverse as Gavrillo Princip, Lenin, and even Woodrow Wilson in the years after this 1914 letter was composed.
Likewise, MacSwiney’s comments on materialism and the conflict between the
working world and literature link into a wider cultural zeitgeist in which thinkers and
politicians across Europe struggled with the perceived loss of old-world virtues in a
modernising, bureaucratising, and urbanising civilisation. This is a concern shared
both by Terence and Margaret MacSwiney. Indeed, Margaret’s dissertation on Rudolf
Eucken already mentioned above was a treatise on anti-materialism which did
eventually get published in 1915, though not in 1914 as MacSwiney hoped in his
Reflecting the incompatibility of monetary and literary concerns, MacSwiney refers to
his distaste for teaching business methods, a post he had taken up full time in 1912 as
a travelling commercial instructor with the Cork technical instruction committee.
‘After a lesson on them [business methods], I’m not in the mood for poetry’ (p. 5).
What MacSwiney is reflecting is exactly that distaste for a mundane existence that
preoccupied many literary and intellectual figures of his generation.
In his poem ‘The Volunteer’, Herbert Asquith, son of the Prime Minister and an
artillery officer during the First World War, wrote of just the same sentiment. His
protagonist, a clerk ‘toiling at ledgers in a city grey’ abandons this life and enlists to
fight and die in battle. Asquith concludes:
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus he wants no recompense…
Yeats too explores the same belief, although with markedly less enthusiasm, in Easter
1916 where he describes the men who he has seen ‘Coming with vivid faces / From
counter or desk among grey’ to parade as members of the Irish Volunteers. These men
were equally caught up in the vogue of militarism and masculinity that brought
willing citizens into recruiting offices across Europe in the early phase of the First
World War. By the time he wrote this letter Terence MacSwiney was just such a
volunteer, having been one of the founder members of the Irish Volunteers in Cork.
MacSwiney was very much part of what Robert Wohl described as ‘the generation of
1914’. Like Herbert Asquith’s service on the western front, MacSwiney would
eventually embark upon his own departure from the life of the ordinary citizen into
politics, activism, and ultimately a fatal hunger strike. What is being witnessed in all
these cases, and what draws a common thread between them, is that MacSwiney and
many of his contemporaries belonged to a generation that came to see military service
and conflict as the antidote to the staleness of sedate, commercial, and urbanised life
in the Europe of 1914.
In a letter as wide-ranging and rich as this there are any number of themes that could
be examined. It illuminates of the history of Irish emigration, education, literature,
religious faith, and even commemoration; MacSwiney’s comments on writing a play
to mark the ninth centenary of the Battle of Clontarf are particularly interesting.
Unfortunately, it would appear that this play was never completed. However, given
the subsequent path taken by Terence MacSwiney, his melancholic remarks on death
will strike the reader as particularly prescient. In drawing his letter to a close, he
remarks to his sister that ‘I may have to make my exit from the stage of life with
something undone, which I earnestly pray may not be the case’ (p. 7).
This insight into MacSwiney’s mindset in 1914 provides an intriguing vignette into
his thoughts and outlook just before political developments fundamentally altered the
course of his life and eventually cut it short. We might return to Yeats to conclude
with a final excerpt from Easter 1916 suggesting the importance of a letter such as
this to understanding its author:
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead
Moirin Chavasse, Terence MacSwiney (with a foreword by Daniel Corkery) (Dublin, 1961)
Francis J. Costello, Enduring the most: the life and death of Terence MacSwiney (Dingle, 1996)
Seamus Deane, ‘Yeats and degeneration’ in Jacqueline Genet (ed.), Studies on W.B. Yeats (Caen, 1989), pp 209-221 (available here).
Margaret M. MacSwiney, Rudolf Eucken and the Spiritual Life (Washington, 1915, ebook available here)
Patrick Maume, ‘MacSwiney, Terence’ in James McGuire and James Quinn (eds), Dictionary of Irish Biography (9 vols, Cambridge, 2009, available online at dib.cambridge.org.
Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge, Mass., 1979)
By Conor Mulvagh