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At the end of his court-martial on August 16th, 1920, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, greeted his sentence of two years in jail by declaring: ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment…I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’
Four days earlier, British troops had stormed the City Hall in Cork and arrested MacSwiney on charges of possessing an RIC cipher and documents likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty. He immediately began a hunger strike that sparked riots on the streets of Barcelona, caused workers to down tools on the New York waterfront, and prompted mass demonstrations from Buenos Aires to Boston.
Enthralled by MacSwiney breaking all previous records for a prisoner going without food, the international press afforded the case so much coverage that Ireland’s War of Independence was suddenly parachuted onto the world stage, and King George V was considering over-ruling Prime Minister Lloyd George and enduring a constitutional crisis.
As his wife, brothers and sisters kept daily vigil around his bed in Brixton Prison, watching his strength ebb away hour by hour, MacSwiney’s fast had Michael Collins preparing reprisal assassinations, Ho Chi Minh waxing lyrical about the Corkman’s bravery, and rumours abounding that he was being secretly fed via the communion wafer being given to him each day by his chaplain.
Using newly-released archive material, Dave Hannigan has pieced together a gripping, dramatic, and poignant account of one man’s courageous stand against the might of an empire.