Mary MacSwiney

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Mary MacSwiney
Mary MacSwiney head and shoulders.jpg
Vice President of Sinn Féin
In office
LeaderJohn J. O'Kelly
Brian O'Higgins
Preceded byKathleen Lynn
Succeeded byMargaret Buckley
Teachta Dála
In office
December 1921 – June 1927
ConstituencyCork Borough
Personal details
Born27 March 1872
London, England
Died8 March 1942(1942-03-08) (aged 69)
County Cork, Ireland
OccupationPolitician and educationalist
British Army intelligence file for Mary McSwiney
British Army intelligence file for Mary McSwiney

Mary MacSwiney (pronounced 'MacSweeney'; Irish: Máire Nic Shuibhne; 27 March 1872 – 8 March 1942) was an Irish politician and educationalist.[1] In 1927 she became leader of Sinn Féin when Éamon de Valera resigned from the presidency of the party.[2]

Early life[edit]

Born in London to an Irish father and English mother, she returned to Ireland with her family at the age of six and was educated at St Angela's School in Cork.

At the age of twenty, she obtained a teaching post at a private school in England. After receiving a loan from the Students' Aid Society in Ireland, she studied for a Teaching Diploma at the University of Cambridge,[3] which was normally reserved for men. She worked at Hillside Convent, Farnborough, and considered becoming a nun, beginning a one-year noviciate with the Oblates of St Benedict, Ventnor.

On the death of her mother in 1904, she returned to Cork to look after the younger members of her family, and took a post at St Angela's where she had been a pupil. She attended the first meeting of the Munster Women's Franchise League, becoming a committee member. She opposed militancy within the Irish suffrage movement, and her nationalist views caused irritation to other members.[3]

Influenced by her younger brother Terence MacSwiney's staunch Irish republicanism, she joined the Gaelic League and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. She was a founder member of Cumann na mBan when it was formed in 1914 in Cork, and became a National Vice-President of the organisation. She led the denunciation of British rule at the Convention of November 1914.[4] In 1916 she was arrested and imprisoned[5] following the Easter Rising, and also was dismissed from her teaching position for her republican activities. Several months later, upon her release from prison, she and her sister Annie re-founded Scoil Íte, a sister school to Patrick Pearse's St. Enda's School, and she remained involved with the school for the rest of her life.


Republican politics and Cumann na mBan[edit]

She supported the Irish War of Independence in 1919–21. After the death of her brother Terence in October 1920 on hunger strike during the height of the war, she was elected for Sinn Féin to the Cork Borough constituency (taking her seat in Dáil Éireann) in 1921.[6] Another brother, Seán, was also elected to the Dáil in a different Cork constituency. She gave evidence in Washington, D.C., before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland. For nine months she and Terence's widow, Muriel, toured America lecturing and giving interviews.

MacSwiney was active in her friendship with Harry Boland and De Valera, whom she cultivated assiduously. In October 1921, a second delegation was to be sent to London, that for the first time included Michael Collins. MacSwiney, who remained implacably opposed pleaded with De Valera to be allowed to go. She was refused as De Valera thought her "too extreme."[7] She strongly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, debated during December 1921 to January 1922, preferring to resume the war: "This matter has been put to us as the Treaty or war. I say now if it were war, I would take it gladly and gleefully, not flippantly, but gladly, because I realise that there are evils worse than war, and no physical victory can compensate for a spiritual surrender." On 21 December she spoke for three hours, criticising the agreement from all angles.

Mary MacSwiney was arrested at Nell Ryan's home – a safe house – at 40 Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, on 4 November 1922, when it was raided by Free State soldiers. She was taken to Mountjoy Gaol, where she was interned. She immediately went on hunger strike. Dr O'Connor ordered a waterbed for her comfort. Cumann na mBan organized vigils outside the prison in protest of Mary's and the others internment. The Women's Prisoner's Defence League was formed in August 1922 to protect their rights. During the hunger strike she refused doctor visits. She was resigned to her death, and the inmates signed a joint 'Message from Mountjoy'. Her condition was critical and she was given the Last Rites by a catholic priest. The Government were not prepared to allow strikers die, and she was released.[8] En route to Liam Lynch's funeral, she was arrested when the car she was in stopped, and she was recognised. She was taken with Kate O'Callaghan to Kilmainham Gaol. She began another protest, fearless of death, being "ready for it". They continued to be interned (held without charge), but it was explained she was distributing anti-government propaganda. After nineteen days of hunger strike she was due to be released on 30 April 1923. The Governor allowed O'Callaghan to go, but stayed a decision on MacSwiney. Most of the women on hunger strike were sent to the North Dublin Union.[9]

She retained her seat at the 1923 general election and along with other Sinn Féin members she refused to enter the Dáil.

In March 1926 the party held its Ard Fheis. MacSwiney and Father Michael O'Flanagan led the section from which Éamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil broke away. De Valera had come to believe that abstentionism was not a workable tactic and now saw the need to become the elected government of the Dáil. The conference instructed a joint committee of representatives from the two sections to arrange a basis for co-operation. That day, it issued a statement declaring "the division within our ranks is a division of Republicans." The next day De Valera's motion to accept the Free State Constitution (contingent on the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance) narrowly failed by a vote of 223 to 218.[10] However, De Valera took the great majority of Sinn Féin support with him when he founded Fianna Fáil.

MacSwiney continued to maintain a republican position until her death. By then she was vice-president of Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan[3] but lost her seat at the June 1927 general election.[6] When lack of funds prevented Sinn Féin contesting the second election called that year, MacSwiney declared "no true Irish citizen can vote for any of the other parties".[11]

MacSwiney continued her efforts to reinvigorate the party but when Cumann na nGaedheal lost the 1932 election, she felt there was less need for the extreme oppositional position she had previously taken. However the fragmentation of the rigid republican side continued with the membership also tending to drift to the left. In 1933 MacSwiney resigned from Cumann na mBan, and founded Mná na Poblachta instead. In 1934 she resigned from Sinn Féin when Fr Michael O'Flanagan was elected president since he was a Free State civil servant.[12]

MacSwiney and republican legitimacy[edit]

MacSwiney remained strongly in favour of the violent independence movement and put her approval behind the IRA even when they were responsible for the deaths of 73-year-old retired vice-admiral Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville and John Egan. She determined that they were identified as enemies and spies. She gave her moral support to the IRA with the initiation of their bombing campaign of England in 1938.[13][12]

In December 1938, MacSwiney was one of a group of seven republicans, who had been elected to the Second Dáil in 1921, who met with the IRA Army Council under Seán Russell. At this meeting, the seven signed over what they believed was the authority of the Government of Dáil Éireann to the Army Council. Henceforth, the IRA Army Council perceived itself to be the legitimate government of the Irish Republic.

Personal life[edit]

MacSwiney was a legal guardian of her brother's daughter Máire. She went to Germany to bring Máire back to Ireland in 1931 when Máire was a teenager. This resulted in a court case and MacSwiney being given custody of her niece.[14] Máire was educated in Scoil Íte which MacSwiney had founded and continued to manage and work in as a teacher.[15] Her school, educational advances and feminism were recognised as progressive even as her republican beliefs were conservative.[16][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Mary MacSwiney". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 24 March 2012.
  2. ^ The Times, "Southern Irish Elections", 6 June 1927.
  3. ^ a b c Maria Luddy: "MacSwiney, Mary Margaret (1872–1942)", in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  4. ^ McCoole: No Ordinary Women, p. 30.
  5. ^ Letter from Gen. Maxwell to the Secretary of War, 30 May 1916. Class WO141/19/, PRO, (TNA).
  6. ^ a b "Mary MacSwiney". Retrieved 24 March 2012.
  7. ^ MacEoin, Uinseann (1997). The IRA in the twilight years: 1923–1948 (PDF). Dublin: Argenta. p. 203. ISBN 9780951117248. Retrieved 8 May 2020 – via Irish Military Archives.
  8. ^ McCoole, p. 97.
  9. ^ Lily O'Brennan Diary, 1 May 1923, O'Brennan Papers, UCDAD, P13/1.
  10. ^ The Times, "Irish Republican Split: Search For Basis of Cooperation", 13 March 1926.
  11. ^ The Times, "Mr. Cosgrave and the Oath", 30 August 1927.
  12. ^ a b c "Dictionary of Irish Biography". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  13. ^ Murphy, Brian. "Mary MacSwiney" (PDF). UCD. UCD. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  14. ^ "Hunger striker's daughter whose German link led to 'dual identity'". The Irish Times. 21 March 2013. Retrieved 9 November 2018.
  15. ^ "Mary MacSwiney". Oxford Biography Index. Dictionary of National Biography.
  16. ^ Michael Hopkinson (1988). Green against green: the Irish civil war. ISBN 9780312024482.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
P. J. Ruttledge
Vice President of Sinn Féin
with John Madden
Succeeded by
Margaret Buckley