Shard of Wood

KHAA/IMK Archive - Dara McGrath photographer

After enduring a long, slow and tortuous death over the preceding 74 days, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Teachta Dála for the Mid-Cork Constituency of the 1st Dáil Éireann and O/C of the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, finally achieved his freedom, as he said he would at the outset of his ordeal on foot of the two-year sentence he received at his court martial in Cork on August 16th, 1920, for having “seditious” documents.

 … I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.


However the Dublin Castle authorities, only too aware of the world-wide impact of his hunger-strike, were fearful of the galvanising affect that another spectacular funeral in Dublin, such as happened in 1915 with the grand spectacle of the funeral of O’ Donovan Rossa, might have on the populace of Dublin and Ireland. That earlier funeral being considered a trial mobilisation of the Volunteers for the Easter Rebellion the following year in 1916.

In accordance with Terence’s wishes the family demanded custody the body once an inquest had been conducted.

The authorities thus had to endure the humiliation and shame of the huge crowds that filed past the body lying in state in Southwark Cathedral overnight followed by a huge funeral procession through London with the hearse flanked by uniformed IRA members.

To prevent a repeat of this happening in Dublin the British authorities violently stole the body from the Dublin bound funeral party at Holyhead in Wales and transported it, against the family’s wishes, by steamer, The Rathmore, to Cork. In protest the funeral party carried on as originally planned and went directly to Dublin where, without a body, requiem Mass was held followed by a funeral procession through the capital city in which a day of mourning was being observed.


Meanwhile the steamer carrying the body of Terence MacSwiney had arrived at Queenstown (Cobh) but no one there would dare accept the cargo without the permission of the family from which it had been stolen. The British had no other recourse but to further convey the coffin nearer to Cork city; landing it later on that day at Custom House Quay by means of a tugboat. However even there no one would receive the coffin. It was only later on that night that the Volunteers at the behest of the MacSwiney family, only recently returned from Dublin, finally retook possession of their brother’s body, again in the intimidating presence of a large contingent of British soldiers and RIC Auxiliaries.

There is a painting by Sir John Lavery of the London funeral Mass of Terence MacSwiney at the St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark which highlights the tri-colour draped coffin.

If this painting pays ample tribute to the glorious sacrifice and solemnity of MacSwiney’s passing, then this shard of wood – retrieved from the coffin transport case  (which contained the coffin on its lonely journey from Holyhead to Cork) at Custom House Quay by the late Cork journalist Shán Ó Cuív – maybe is testimony to the brutish treatment of the late Lord Mayor in death as in life. Even in death they were reluctant to grant him his freedom.

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