While the Independence Museum Kilmurry collection has many artefacts reflecting our unique connection with the martyred Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, one of the objects of which we are most proud is a carriage wheel from the leading hearse in the Lord Mayor’s funeral cortege. Here is the story of the few days leading up to one of the biggest funerals ever held in the city of Cork.
Funeral in London
Having had the focus and opprobrium of the world on it during the long drawn-out spectacle of its shameful, disproportionate and unjustified treatment of the Lord Mayor of Cork and Sinn Féin Teachta Dála for the Mid-Cork Constituency, Terence MacSwiney, the British were more than anxious that any funeral should be low key. They had already been humiliated in London, the capital city of the British Empire, where MacSwiney’s fellow Volunteers had the audacity to openly wear their Volunteer uniforms. They also ensured that their Brigade leader was not only laid out in his own uniform, but that his coffin was draped in the tricolour of the Republic when he lay in repose in St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark.
Funeral Without a Body
To prevent a repeat of this happening in the initial stage of the funeral planned for Dublin the British authorities violently stole the body from the funeral party at Holyhead in Wales and transported it, against the family’s wishes, by steamer, The Rathmore, to Cork. The British were anxious to ensure that this funeral would not be another spectacular and portentous occasion as had been the funeral for his fellow Corkman, the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, in 1915. That funeral in 1915 was latterly seen as both a dry run (The Irish Volunteers had the run of the city for the day) for and a lead-in to the Rising in 1916.
The MacSwiney family, not wishing to legitimize the brutish British action nevertheless refused to accompany the body to Cork and continued on their journey to Dublin. Even without a body the funeral cortege would eventually consist of tens of thousands of people following a coffin-less horse-drawn hearse. This turnout had been facilitated by the declaration of a national day of mourning by Dáil Éireann. Tensions were already at a high pitch in the city due to the impending execution of 18-year-old Volunteer Kevin Barry, who would himself be dead within three days. Capuchin priest Fr. Augustine Hayden – who had officiated at Terence’s wedding to Muriel Murphy just over three years before and was a con-celebrant at the funeral Mass for MacSwiney had hurriedly arrived to the Cathedral after ministering to Kevin Barry in Mountjoy Jail.
The Lord Mayor Returns Home
Later on that day in Cork, the kidnapped remains of the Lord Mayor were deposited on that city’s Custom House Quay from the tugboat, Mary Tavy. Earlier on, the British had been thwarted in their attempt to deliver the body to the authorities in Queenstown (Cobh), where no one would accept the remains without the express permission of the Lord Mayor’s relatives.
Eventually crowds of people gathered around the quays despite (or because of) the considerably large presence of British military and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Auxiliaries.
It was dark by the time members of the MacSwiney family eventually arrived at the quayside and assisted by Irish Volunteers received the Lord Mayor’s body from his British captors. It was less than three months since the Lord Mayor’s arrest; and good to his word (notwithstanding his longer-than-expected hunger strike) that he had wrenched himself from his captor’s grasp.
“I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.”- Terence MacSwiney
The comfort for the family was that Terence was once more among not only themselves, but also among his comrades, citizens and supporters.
The Cork leg of the funeral rite was to begin when his comrade Irish Volunteers carried his coffin to the seat of his Mayoral Office, Cork’s City Hall. On the next day, Saturday, despite the wet weather the people of Cork turned out in their droves to pay their respects and witness the ravages of his ordeal evident in the face of the Lord Mayor as he lay in repose in his open coffin. The crowds sustained throughout the day and into the night despite people having to queue in the rain for at least an hour. The visceral and lasting effect that this had on the mourning populace cannot be underestimated. Coming as it did in the middle of the War of Independence it is probably no coincidence that the conflict would escalate in the following weeks and months.
All Night Vigil
That Saturday night, Terence’s two sisters, Annie and Mary – whose access to their brother had been cruelly restricted by the British authorities during the hunger strike – were not now about to leave their brother alone. They would spend the rest of that night and into Sunday morning keeping vigil over him. Incidentally, it was the same duty which Terence had performed in that same place for his murdered comrade and Lord Mayor, Tomás MacCurtain, when he lay in repose there in March of that year.
On the Sunday morning crowds continued to pay their respects to Lord Mayor MacSwiney, undeterred by the heavy intimidating military presence in Anglesea Street and along the proposed route of the funeral. This presence was no doubt to oversee and discourage any overt displays of Nationalist symbols; the only un-proscribed tricolour flag being the one that draped the Lord Mayor’s coffin.
Another directive by the British authorities was that the funeral cortege should at no stage exceed a quarter of a mile and that there were to be no military formations. Since this would effectively prevent any marching bands in the cortege the organiser circumvented this by stationing bands along the proposed route.
Three Hunger Strike Deaths
Feelings must have also been high in the city due to the recent deaths and funerals of hunger strikers, Michael Fitzgerald and Joe Murphy and the daily vigils kept by relatives and sympathisers outside Cork Gaol over the preceding weeks. So it must be testament to the respect of the populace for the occasion of the funeral, allied with the organisational capabilities of Volunteers, that the day passed without any hint of serious trouble.
As unsettling and provocative as the armed British military presence must have been, the majority of officers and soldiers were respectful of the solemnity of the occasion. Mostly they kept a discreet distance from the proceedings and could often be seen standing to attention and saluting as the coffin passed by them.
On leaving the City Hall the cortege made its way past thousands of people lining the routes via South Mall, Grand Parade, Camden Quay and then uphill to the North Cathedral in the city’s Northside.
The chief celebrant at the requiem Mass in a thronged Cathedral and surrounding areas was Bishop of Cork Daniel Cohalan, a native of Gurranareigh in Kilmurry’s neighbouring parish of Kilmichael. Bishop Cohalan – who had visited MacSwiney in Brixton and had made entreaties at the time on behalf of his fellow citizen – had reconciled (with his own beliefs) the manner of MacSwiney’s sacrifice as a justifiable means of focusing worldwide attention on the Irish cause. Also in attendance at the service was Cork Capuchin priest, Fr. Dominic (O’ Connor) who was a friend of Terence and Chaplain to the Cork Volunteers. It was Fr. Dominic who gave Terence the last rites; a constant friend and confessor to Terence throughout the whole of his ordeal in Brixton and also present at his death. In the many photographs and Pathé newsreels of the funeral, both in Cork and London, the distinctive features of Fr. Dominic with his beard and Capuchin gown can be seen among the chief mourners at the head of the cortege.
On leaving the church, the funeral made its way back into the city centre and onto St. Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork’s southside where the Lord Mayor was laid to rest among his recently deceased comrades – including fellow Lord Mayor, Tomás MacCurtain – in the spot then known as the Republican Circle, now more commonly referred to as the Republican Plot. Terence’s sister Annie expressed the opinions of many that his ordeal was now truly over and he was finally free and among his own;
“No hand but a comrade touched his grave”
– Annie MacSwiney
The large wheel of the carriage hearse that bore MacSwiney’s remains on his final journey through his native Cork city is a poignant reminder for visitors to Independence Museum Kilmurry of this sad event which brought the city to a standstill in the final days of October 1920.