“A rebel is one who opposes lawfully constituted authority and that I have never done.” So said one of the most devoted Republican women in Irish history, Mary MacSwiney. I’m sure she believed in that statement with all of her heart—as she did a free Ireland—but it’s guaranteed the English did not feel the same way. To them, Mary MacSwiney was the one of the worst and biggest female rebels, not only in Cork but in all of Ireland.
Ms. MacSwiney was born today, 143 years ago. She was born in London to mixed parents – her father was Irish and her mother was English and she did not see the country she’d spend most of her adult life fighting for until she was six years old. They settled in Cork, where there was a huge Republican population, prone to open rebellion. It’s no surprise that Mary got involved as she got older, no doubt inspired by her brother Terence’s passion for a free Ireland. She was a member of Inghinidhe Na hErieann (or Daughters of Ireland), one of the first female Irish organizations, and when it was swallowed up by the more militant Cumann Na mBan, she became a founding member of the Cork division.
Mary had a great education in Ireland and England, and when she was done with her own schooling, she followed in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a teacher. As she got more involved in the Republican movement, she began to dream of opening an Irish school for girls and after her first arrest that dream came to fruition. In 1916, while the Rising was going on in Dublin, the police arrested Mary MacSwiney in her classroom in Cork for her Republican activities in the region. The school was forced to replace her and when she was released, she and her sister opened Scoil Ite, a school for girls, modeled after rebel leader Patrick Pearse’s St. Enda’s school for boys.
In 1920, her brother Terence was arrested for sedition and sentenced to two years in Brixton Prison, despite the fact that he was also the Lord Mayor of Cork at the time. He promptly went on hunger strike to protest being tried and convicted by a military council and to try to garner support for his release. Eleven other men joined him. In spite of the worldwide attention, threats of boycotts, and international protests, the English government refused to release him and 74 days later, the Mayor was dead. Mary MacSwiney accompanied her brothers remains on his journey back to Cork, even though there were attempts to stop her from doing so and rather than being broken by her brother’s death, she was more determined than ever to fight the English in every way.
Her first move was to join Terence’s widow on an eight month tour in the United States. They testified to the state of Ireland in front of an American council and they traveled the states raising money for the Irish cause. They were met with huge crowds and a lot of support. Mary joined Sinn Fein and ran for a seat in the Dail. She was appointed to the cabinet of the second Dail as well, rising in the ranks of Republican politics. When Michael Collins was sent to negotiate a treaty with the English, Mary begged Eamon De Valera to be sent with him but De Valera believed she was “too extreme” to participate. He may have been right, since when the treaty came back, MacSwiney was desperately opposed to it. She thought it was a vast betrayal of everything the Irish Republicans had fought for. She begged her fellow politicians not to commit “the one unforgivable crime that has ever been committed by the representatives of the people of Ireland.” Her passionate speech to sway the vote was nearly 3 hours long but it did not succeed and they voted in favor of the treaty.
Mary was arrested and held without charges in 1922 after the civil war – and she took a cue from her brother, going on a 21 day hunger strike. It garnered world wide attention and eventually led to her release but not before she was in critical condition. She had even been given the last rights by a priest. She had no problem dying for her cause and proved it again by starting a second hunger strike when she was arrested again in 1923. While it did not get the same support from the media, it did grab the attention of her partners in Cumann Na mBan, who held daily meetings in front of the jail calling for her release. It also had the support of her fellow prisoners who would not abandon her during her strike. When 70 of them were due to be transferred, the women locked arms and refused to move. The prison guards rained down on them when they refused to budge, beating them severely and forcibly removing them, landing quite a few in the infirmary. The support of the women both in and out of the prison and the legacy of her brother’s death saved her again and she was released the next day.
She stayed political for the rest of her days, never giving up her ideals or belief that Ireland would be better off free from England’s grasp. She supported the Irish Republican Army and traveled again to America to raise funding for them. She maintained a role in the Irish school for girls that she and her sister had started, and remained extremely loyal to the Republican cause. She may not have considered herself a rebel, but the English certainly did – and in their opinion, she was an incorrigible one for her entire life.