Muriel MacSwiney … An Unlikely Revolutionary!

The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival will contain an interview with Anne Twomey, teacher and historian on the life of Muriel MacSwiney. This will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday, November 25th at 8:00 pm followed by a Q&A with Anne at the Maldron Hotel.

Anne is a member of the Shandon Area History Group which recently published “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times”.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee through the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival has attempted over the past decade to research and promote the cause of women, especially strong independent women whose life stories have sometimes been ignored, silenced or deleted from the public discourse. In the following article Muriel MacSwiney … an Unlikely Revolutionary, we take a brief look at her eventful path through life.

Mary Harris and Muriel Murphy were both born on the north side of Cork City, but unlike the poverty of Mary Harris, Muriel Murphy was born to wealth and privilege at Carrigmore in Montenotte, a future heiress to the huge riches of the Cork merchant prince and unionist supporting Murphy family.

In Muriel’s statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) dated December 1951 she wrote “My family, of course, were completely imperialist, conservative, capitalist and roman catholic”.

The youngest in a family of six, she complained of being kept isolated from the “common people” and claimed to have left her snobbish convent at seventeen where she had “learned literally nothing”. Muriel received little formal education and author Angela Clifford in Letters to Angela Clifford suggested that as a result “her originality was left unfettered, she thought and then she did what her thinking suggested”.

Instead of a well-trodden pathway whereby she could have kept her head down and along with many former unionist families who simply blended into the new Free State then in its birth pangs through violent revolution, Muriel took a different path and boldly embraced the early Republican cause and later married Cork Volunteer leader Terence MacSwiney in 1917.

It was the ultimate love story of the beautiful girl sacrificing everything for a poor imprisoned playwright, poet and revolutionary. Her small wedding at Bromyard in Herefordshire on 9th June 1917, on her twenty fifth birthday was conducted through the Irish language at an open prison where the groom wore his military uniform was highly unusual.

Muriel and Terence’s Wedding.

Her forty months of married life was interrupted regularly by the absence of her husband either through his organizing work for the Irish Volunteers or as a result of his harassment or imprisonment by the British authorities. Terence’s later role as Teachta Dāla (TD) in the new Dāil Eireann or his position as Lord Mayor of Cork City could not save him from the harsh treatment of the British which in effect also victimised their families.

Terence was in jail when Muriel gave birth to Māire and his first meeting with their two month old baby daughter, involved Muriel making the long journey to a prison in Belfast in August 1918 and staying in that city for several weeks. The newly married couple had just a few months of normality together in places such as Ballingeary and Youghal in Co Cork.

Muriel with Máire and Terence. (Possibly in Ballingeary).

Muriel too endured the pain of the ceaseless attempts to break her husband’s spirit. She did not agree with hunger strikes, but supported her husband to the very end of his strike. In the full glare of worldwide publicity on 25th October 1920, Cork Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney died. His death caused a massive growth of support for the Irish Republican cause, but it also mortally wounded the resolve of the British establishment to enforce it’s rule in Ireland.

The Funeral of Terence MacSwiney in London in 1920. (Notice how close the London policemen are to the coffin).

Very few observers subsequently considered the human trauma, stress and acute loneliness of the young widow with responsibility for a baby. Nor did they empathise with her personal reaction to her husband’s slow painful death over 74 days, the enormous impact of which was such that Muriel collapsed from sheer exhaustion and grief and was unable to attend her Terence’s funeral in Cork.

The painting of the funeral of Terence MacSwiney in St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark by Sir. John Lavery.

Yet exactly a month later, Muriel boarded the Celtic in Cobh (Queenstown) along with her sister in law Mary MacSwiney and arrived in New York on 5th December to a huge welcome from thousands of supporters including some 300 women who ignoring formalities simply mobbed her.

Photo from a New York newspaper shows the mayhem which greeted Muriel in New York.

She provided searingly honest evidence at an American Commission On Conditions In Ireland hearing in Washington on 9th December.

The New York Times front page article referred in patronising terms to her as “a mere girl, with brilliant eyes and a quick engaging smile”. ‘A perfect picture of Irish beauty” gushed the New York Evening World.

Muriel spent the entire Christmas holiday period being introduced to hundreds of Irish people in political and business circles. Later on New Years Eve, New York Mayor Hylan presented her with the formal Freedom of the City at a ceremony in City Hall, the first woman to receive this honour.

Mary and Muriel MacSwiney in America.

Muriel was followed by huge crowds and by today’s terms was a media poster girl for the Irish Revolution. She was serenaded by the “Fighting Sixty Ninth” regimental band that night and the band turned up again to accompany Muriel to the New York quay as she sailed for home on New Year’s Day 1921. Sister in law, Mary MacSwiney stayed on in America until after the truce. One must wonder whether Muriel’s media role as the grieving widow of a Republican martyr was exploited by some within the increasingly powerful movement for independence.    

Portrait of Muriel MacSwiney by Sir. John Lavery.

Soon after returning from America, she headed briefly to Germany for medical treatment. 

Displaying great courage and resilience, she worked ceaselessly for the Republic in spite of health difficulties. She witnessed at close quarters the murder and mayhem around the transfer of power to her comrades and then experienced the growing bitterness between those former friends. As some revolutionaries conformed, others were marginalised. The old unity and loyalty disappeared. Muriel took the Republican side and was present at the heart of the initial fighting during the first days of the Civil War madness.

She returned to the USA in September 1922 and stayed for almost a year trying to gather financial support for the anti-treaty side. Her daughter Māire was looked after by Madame O’Rahilly as part of the O’Rahilly family in their home in Dublin. Māire in her memoir History’s Daughter (2005) described this period as “one of the happiest years of my childhood and the longest period that I spent in a family situation.”

The book covers in great detail the relationship between mother and daughter. They spent the early summer of 1924 together at the old Murphy family home at Carrigmore which seems to have been their last period together in Cork before their emigration to Germany. Māire discusses in some detail her various German schools and the long absences of Muriel in this memoir. However as Muriel gave birth in 1926 to her second daughter Alix may well have contributed to these long absences from Máire.

One may never know the full circumstances behind the sudden appearance of Māire back in Cork in the summer of 1932. Māire describes her return from Germany as voluntary if somewhat unorthodox. Muriel always contended that it was a well-planned kidnap by Mary MacSwiney and her friends in the Church and State. Her poignant description of her desperate efforts to get support in Dublin, are very raw. She spoke with Jim Larkin, Linda Kearns and many other friends and she describes how she cried tears for her child in front of Ēamon De Valera.

Māire was made a ward of court in Ireland after informing the judge that she wished to stay with her aunts in Ireland. It was argued that her aunt Mary was already her legal co-guardian. It remains unclear to this day if this legal paperwork was actually produced as the full court papers and decision have remained sealed. Maire was then raised and educated by the MacSwiney sisters, Mary and Annie at their Scoil Íte school located off Wellington Road in Cork City.

The end result was the 50 year long tragic family estrangement of Muriel and Māire who never spoke or met again. Muriel felt deeply wounded by what she felt was a total betrayal by the MacSwiney family and its cover up by the State. An immediate result was that she became quite ill with flu and pneumonia and was depressed for a period after her vain attempts to get back her daughter failed.

Muriel Image in St. Peter’s, North Main Street, Cork presented by Jeannette Collins.

https://www.corkcity.ie/en/a-city-remembers-cork-1920-to-1923/commemorative-events/muriel-macswiney/

In her BMH statement Muriel states how she left the Catholic Church as early as the outbreak of the Civil War. The Church emerged from the War of Independence as the most powerful institution in the new State (similar to the earlier post Famine period), however Muriel was beginning her break from its influence. “I consider everyone has the right to whatever religious beliefs they think right or to the freethinker ideal which is mine”. Ironically two of her sisters, Nora and Edith joined convents. A third sister Mabel married her second cousin James Murphy and lived at Ringmahon House, near Blackrock in Cork.

Ringmahon House today. Muriel often visited her sister here.

Muriel seems to have embraced European communism and socialist ideas from the mid-20s onwards and moved freely in the German and Parisian left wing circles. Her second daughter Alix was born in May 1926 following a relationship with Pierre Kaan, a writer and independent communist intellectual. Very little is known about this relationship as there is no available reference to Muriel discussing it.

Later, Kaan became a Liberation Sud Resistance leader operating in the town of Montlucon in Central France during the Nazi occupation of nearby areas. Following betrayal in 1943, he was imprisoned, tortured and locked up concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Gleina. He died soon after liberation by the Czech resistance on 18th May 1945.

Muriel left Germany in 1933, as the Nazi takeover of Germany got underway.

She initially lived in France, spent the Second World War in the UK and then moved between Brittany and the UK. Her house in Brittany was named Ty Connolly.

Muriel kept some contact with Ireland and came and went and had extensive correspondence with the Sheehy Skeffington family, while she said she had met Tom Hales in 1953/54. Earlier Māire had married Ruairí Brugha in July 1945 and Ruairi had made great efforts to build bridges to no avail.

She was very friendly with Mrs. Kathleen McDonnell of Bandon, who had German connections, knew all the parties including Mrs. Stockley and Mary MacSwiney and who attempted to organise a reconciliation between Māire and Muriel. Muriel would not agree to any meeting.

Muriel campaigned against homelessness in Dublin and actively supported the Dublin Housing Action Committee especially praising the activities of housing activist Dennis Dennehy. She expressed “complete confidence” in Dr. Noel Browne.

Her letters and writings clearly display expressions of her socialist views and she was somewhat involved in the complicated discussions and rows within the Left during that period. Her available correspondence demonstrates her sympathy on the side of the underdogs in society to the very end of her days. Muriel not alone fought bravely for the Irish Republic, but also fought against international fascism and the control of the Catholic Church in Ireland throughout her life.

Utterly fearless, she challenged the Bishop of Southwark in 1957 when he tried to raise ten thousand pounds for a MacSwiney Chapel in the cathedral where Terence’s body reposed after his death….she told the Guardian newspaper that the money would be better spent in Ireland “where children are suffering from bad conditions caused by unemployment and lack of proper health services”. This may refer to the present Chapel of St. Patrick, which lies on the southside of the cathedral and was rededicated in 1958. There is reference to the cathedral receiving with honour, the body of Terence MacSwiney, “which rested here on the 27th and 28th October 1920”.

The MacSwiney Brugha family at the dedication of the Southwark Cathedral altar to Terence MacSwiney.

In a prescient comment about Muriel, her daughter Māire contended that “one of the main reasons for her falling out with the Roman Catholic Church was its attitude to and treatment of unmarried mothers”. However, it took a further century for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Home reports to be published in the Republic of Ireland. These reports exposed to some degree in stark detail the treatment experienced by at least one hundred thousand Irish women who either gave birth to children in these institutions or who worked unpaid in the Magdalene laundries in the new State which Muriel witnessed being created in 1922.  Thousands of children died in the institutions and the whereabouts of their burial continues to be a source of controversy to the present day.

Ruairí Brugha died on 20th January 2006, while Māire MacSwiney Brugha died in May 2012. They were married for over 60 years.

Muriel later lived in England with her daughter Alix Blakelock (1926-2009), and her family at Tonbridge in Kent. Members of the family including Alix’s son Adrian (1948-2014) were active in Labour politics and Adrian supported the miners in the 1984/5 strike. On the 25th October 2020, at the commemoration outside of Brixton Prison, of the 100th anniversary of the death of Terence MacSwiney, among those who gathered were members of the Brugha family and Nigel Blakelock, grandson of Muriel MacSwiney.

Muriel died in the Oakwood Hospital Maidstone on 26th October 1982 almost 62 years to the day after Terence MacSwiney.

Angela Clifford who met and corresponded with Muriel regarded her as “a free spirit”. Cork journalist and author Mary Leyland in An Irishwoman’s Diary in the Irish Times September 2012 considered her to “have been charismatic in her own way, purposeful, original and fearless”.

From the few holidays she spent with her mother, Máire remembered her as “a warm and loving mother and I dearly loved her”. Terence MacSwiney himself, long resigned to bachelor hood expressed his intense love for this unusual, wealthy young lady who had innocently entered a closed circle of conspirators in Cork and took a shine to him.

In a chapter of Letters to Angela Clifford in 1996, Ms Clifford deals in chapter four with what she terms the “Character Assassination” of Muriel. Certainly, as Muriel had refused to play the grieving republican widow, she appears to have been largely removed from republican history and was rarely discussed openly in her native Cork. She was disappeared into the knowing silence of the new establishment.

Her refusal to bring up her child as a Catholic, her antipathy to the Church as an institution (Māire referred to it as “an obsession”) and her association with communists did not fit well with the prevailing conservative orthodoxy and double standards applied to her as a woman.

What is very apparent is that Muriel as an activist revolutionary woman/widow/ patriot was not allowed the same freedom or latitude in relation to her personal family life decisions as her male revolutionary counterparts. Nor were the doctrinaire positions of some in her republican circles commented on to the same degree as the conventional wisdom of Muriel’s perceived obduracy.

Muirgheal, (muir gheal…Irish for “bright sea”), the name by which she preferred to be known and with which she signed letters, is worthy of full inclusion as a serious Irish and international patriot, not solely as the wife/widow of Terence MacSwiney, but in her own right as a woman who took her own difficult path in a long revolutionary life.

Principles of Freedom, published in 1921.

In Principles of Freedom, originally a series of articles written in 1911, Terence MacSwiney considered womanhood; his heroic ideal woman was Matilda Tone, wife of Wolfe Tone because of her bravery. He also advised that “a man should learn to let his wife and children suffer rather than make of them willing slaves and cowards”.

In his poem The Path he acknowledged that the life of a revolutionary would place a harsh demand on any woman whom he wished to marry.

“I dreaded asking thee to take my hand lest on a path regretted it should lead, And lest thy heart in after years should bleed, if then ‘mid scenes unwelcome thou shouldn’t stand, And thou shouldst think: “It is a harsh demand this path makes on my labour””.

Muriel bravely survived these harsh demands.      

Gerard O’Mahony of the Cork Mother Jones Committee.     

The interview with Anne Twomey will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday November 25th at 8:00 pm followed by a Q&A with Anne at the Maldron Hotel.

Anne is a member of the Shandon Area History Group which recently published “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times”

Note:

Manus O’Riordan wrote of meeting Muriel in Dublin when she visited his family home and they later exchanged correspondence.  In his last visit to the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in August 2019, his parting words were “Never forget Muriel”. His assistance is very much appreciated.

Manus O’Riordan RIP (May 30th 1949-September 26th 2021).

Further reading:

  • Muriel MacSwiney: Letters To Angela Clifford, by Angela Clifford Athol Books 1995.
  • History’s Daughter: A Memoir From The Only Child of Terence MacSwiney, by Māire MacSwiney Brugha.
  • Enduring The Most: The Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney (1995) by Fergus J Costello.
  • Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times. The Shandon Area History Group.
  • An Irishwoman’s Diary, Irish Times, September 18th 2012 by Mary Leyland
  • Muriel MacSwiney On Ballingeary, and Her Letters To A Grandson of Ballingeary. Ballingeary & Inchigeela Historical Society 2016 by Manus O’Riordan.
Anne Twomey, Historian.

The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones will present an interview with local historian and teacher Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group, in which we explore the life of Muriel MacSwiney from the available information. The interview will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday evening 25th November at 8:00 pm.

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