Analysis: the Lord Mayor Of Cork's hunger strike and death 100 years ago posed medical, ecumenical and legal quandaries

Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, began his hunger strike on his arrest on August 12th 1920. Six days later, he was court martialled, sentenced for sedition and transferred from Cork to Brixton jail. The story drew global and multi-lingual newspaper coverage, and is one of the earliest examples of an extended, medically-documented hunger strike. It raised political tensions, and also posed medical, ecumenical and medico-legal quandaries.

The medical issues

In accordance with prison rules, MacSwiney was medically assessed, weighed and measured on admission by Dr William Davies Higson. Standing at 5ft 9.5 inches and weighing 136lbs, MacSwiney's measurements using the body mass index formula show that that he was at the lower end of the normal range at 19.5. It is unlikely that he was weighed without clothes so, adjusted conservatively for 6lbs for its weight, his BMI is altered to 18.9.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Donal Byrne reports on the 100th anniversary of the death of Cork's Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney

External medical experts were called in to provide independent assessment of his general health. They warned that MacSwiney had a potentially dangerous comorbidity factor of latent tuberculosis, which in their view rendered him physically unable to withstand forcible feeding. This strenghtened the British government's position that he was not to be force-fed or released, and he would be held personally responsible for his demise.

Senior Medical Officer Dr George Batho Griffiths took over his care on September 1st until his death on October 25th, and 24 hour nursing care was assigned from August 26th. While vigilant, his medical care was rudimentary and primarily concerned observation and patient comfort. Among the important medical indicators to Griffiths were his pulse, which ranged in the daily reports from 44 to 48, his heart sounds, the elasticity of the skin and the amount of urine passed. MacSwiney consumed tumblerfuls of hot water.

From the outset, MacSwiney's 74-day hunger strike differed in tenor from that of prior Republican effort. By adopting his personal ethos, it took on a pious and dignified hue. Popular Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal (1863-1944) was an illustrated daily by 1920 and provided extensive coverage throughout. This drawing of his reclining martyrdom together with his personal Chaplain, Fr Dominic O'Connor OFM, in prayerful pose replete with rosary beads published on September 19th, encapsulated the essence of MacSwiney’s campaign.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Diarmuid Ferriter on the life and death of Terence MacSwiney

An ecumenical question

When efforts to use MacSwiney's female relatives to persuade him to desist failed, the prison authorities tried to use what it termed 'moral suasion'. Higson discussed 'the ethics of his conduct’ with him and recalled his reply on August 28th as follows: "that matter had been fully considered by the Church, and that it had been decided that his Death would be a "sacrificial" one and not "suicidal "otherwise he could not have been given the blessing of the Church, the Sacrament by the priest." 

Following his death, the New York Times outlined the theological problem posed and queried if the Bishop of Cork Dr Colohan and Fr Dominic had in fact encouraged suicide in their support of MacSwiney's protest. Self-murder was contrary to the code of canon and Catholic council edicts dating back to the sixth century expressly prohibited the rights to burial on consecrated ground.

Pope Benedict XV referred the MacSwiney case to the Congregation of the Holy Office which, like most other aspects of the Vatican, continued to operate in the timeframes of centuries and did not provide a timely response. The New York Times noted that Fr Dominic administered the sacrament of extreme unction and recited the rosary with his brother Sean MacSwiney as the last breaths were drawn. The Drogheda Democrat reported on 30 October 1920 that in they recited the rosary in Irish an expression of cultural nationalism.

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From British Pathé, coverage of the funeral of Terence MacSwiney in Cork in 1920 

The legal question

The Interments (felo de se) Act, 1882 removed the matter of ignominious burial in England and Wales but a verdict of suicide at the coroner's court inquiry in England would have called MacSwiney’s country of burial into question. Prior experience of the controversial Thomas Ashe inquest meant that the British authorities were alert to the potential for considerable unrest. A series of letters exchanged between the Home Office and the Attorney General from early September pre-empted the coroner’s verdict (not returning a suicide) and focused attentions on ownership of the body and the obsequies.

MacSwiney’s inquest was held at Brixton prison on October 27th and it took the jury 15 minutes to decide on an open verdict, ‘That the deceased died from heart failure in consequence of his refusal to take food’. Perhaps fearful of potential reprisals against prison staff, the jury added the following rider: ‘we are unanimously of the opinion that the whole of the prison officials carried out their duties under distressing circumstances’.

The coroner Dr Wyatt refused to accept the rider and persuaded the foreman to agree the final wording of ‘Deceased died from heart failure and acute delirium following scurvy due to exhaustion from prolonged refusal to take food’. His body was repatriated and his funeral was an ostentatious display of Republican piety.

READ: The links between the 1920 Cork hunger strikes and China

It is unclear what weight he was when he died (that medical detail was omitted from the inquest) but, with such a low start BMI, it would not be unreasonable to assume 30-40% loss of body mass. In as much as the church authorities quietly elided the matter of suicide in this instance by permitting obsequies in the Roman Catholic tradition, so too did the press steer clear the macabre. The New York Times simply stated that he was 'terribly emaciated' at the time of death.

Self-sacrifice piqued the interest of the international media and their audiences. In that discourse, MacSwiney’s incapacity due to hunger strike was not presented as the emasculation that sickness would have held at the time. Instead his physical weakness came to represent strength and moral conviction against corporeal colonialism, which later inspired Indian nationalists.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ