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Far too often remembered for the circumstances of his death, the anniversary today of Terence MacSwiney’s death reminds me of a very telling letter of his which I happened upon some time ago.

Terence MacSwiney, TD for Mid-Cork, Lord Mayor of Cork city

As the Sinn Féin TD, or member of Dáil Éireann, for Mid-Cork since the December 1918 general election, his responsibilities included the organisation of key elements of the counter-state being developed in parallel and in competition with the British administration in Ireland.
In the weeks before his arrest on August 12, 1920 – when he would begin the 74-day hunger strike that would lead to his death 96 years ago today – he was deeply involved in administering the final stages of the campaign to raise funds through the Dáil Loan, and in establishing the Dáil Éireann courts for his rural constituency.
His work was disturbed – or so he made out – by the visit of a cameraman from the ‘movies’ in mid-July. With cinema houses a common feature of Irish cities, and travelling picture shows in use in town halls, the newsreels were like the Facebook and Twitter of the early 20th-century. Through the flickering glimpses of events and personalities, those who could afford the ticket price could learn of what was happening at home and abroad.
“By the way, a representative (whose name I haven’t got) of the Pathé ‘movie’ show came looking for copy in his line. He was introduced by Mr. D’Egville,” MacSwiney wrote a few days later to Desmond Fitzgerald, director of propaganda for Dáil Éireann.
“I must confess I shied at being put on the ‘movies’.” [1]
Such newsreels were also seen by the ever-vigilant publicity department of Dáil Éireann as an opportunity to show the world just how successfully the revolutionary government could run Irish affairs independently.  It was with this in mind that Terence MacSwiney reluctantly agreed to allow the Pathé man into his rooms at Cork City Hall, where he spent long days dealing with his official business as Lord Mayor of Cork city – as well as his role as Commandant of the IRA’s Cork No. 1 Brigade, both roles he had inherited after the murder of his friend Tomás MacCurtain.
As the news camera began rolling, MacSwiney sat in his mayoral chambers and read a prospectus for the Dáil Loan at a dimly-lit desk, and then stood and spoke to the camera. What appears to be a bashful smile crossed MacSwiney’s face as he did his bit for the publicity campaign, a set of 19th-century mayoral ware decorated with the Cork city coat of arms visible on a dresser behind him in the room.
The footage was used by  Pathé in the weeks that followed, after MacSwiney’s hunger strike at Brixton Prison became the subject of global headlines.

The worldwide interest in Terence MacSwiney’s hunger strike made souvenirs like this American pin badge a part of the international campaign to press his case with the British government.

It  was the prompting of a Dáil Court official which had helped the Mid-Cork TD to overcome his shyness, the official in question having just beforehand brought the Pathé man to see a sitting of the court. He remonstrated with MacSwiney that it was all just for propaganda.
The court session can be seen in a longer Pathé newsreel compilation, below, which opens with the scene showing the judges under a canopy with the same Cork coat of arms seen in MacSwiney’s chambers. The likelihood is that this was a sitting of the Dáil Éireann District Court for the Cork city constituency. It was known to have sat in Cork City Hall, and such a sitting took place on the evening that MacSwiney was arrested there a few weeks later, on August 12, 1920. [2]
In this Pathé footage, the judge in the centre bears quite a strong resemblance to Liam de Róiste, one of two Sinn Féin TDs for Cork city, and  one of 14 men whose names MacSwiney had notified as members of the city’s District Court to Home Affairs Minister Austin Stack a few weeks earlier. [3]  Among those 14 were six priests, the clergy having quite a prominent role on parish and district courts of the Dáil Éireann courts system. [4]
The shots which follow those of the Lord Mayor show the scene outside Cork Courthouse, the doors surrounded by barbed wire and British soldiers to ensure the court officers of what remained of the official judicial system were not attacked by members of MacSwiney’s IRA brigade. The intimidation tactics of the IRA meant not enough jurors were available to hear cases anyway, with only a dozen out of around 300 summonsed for duty for the County Assizes taking place that week making an appearance.
Another inducement for MacSwiney to appear on camera was the information that Sinn Féin founder, Arthur Griffith, and Robert Brennan had been filmed by the newsreel men the day before.  A Wexford-born journalist and one of those to have a death sentence commuted after the Easter Rising, Brennan had founded the Sinn Féin publicity department in 1918. He produced the first editions of the Irish Bulletin, Dáil Éireann’s propaganda newspaper used to great effect from November 1919 in disseminating descriptions of restrictions and reprisals imposed by British forces during the War of Independence.
The footage which follows that of Cork Courthouse shows Arthur Griffith reading a book, and being joined by Brennan, both also speaking directly to the cameraman in the same self-conscious manner with which MacSwiney would do so the next day.
Writing to Desmond FitzGerald (father of future Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald), MacSwiney expressed reservation about the lengths to which TDs were expected to go to fulfil the needs of the publicity department.
“But I would like to know, seriously, how far we are to encourage the ‘movie’ business – and if we are to put any check on these insatiable journalists.”  [5]
The episode reflects MacSwiney’s cautious nature; he was always weighing up the pros and cons of every situation, whether it was trying to perfect a character in one of his plays, the methods to be used in IRA attacks on police barracks, or whether or not he should participate in the new media for the promotion of the cause of Irish independence.

Terence MacSwiney memorial card, October 1920. (The same printers, East London Printing Co., produced a card of the same design and cover for King George V 16 years later)

[1] Copy letter, Terence MacSwiney to Desmond Fitzgerald, July 23, 1920, PR4 /4/74, Terence MacSwiney Lord Mayor files, Cork City & County Archives.
[2] Moirin Chavasse, Terence MacSwiney (Dublin: Clonmore & Reynolds, 1961), p. 142.
[3]  List of District Court officials, PR4 /1/17, Terence MacSwiney Lord Mayor files, Cork City & County Archives.
[4] Niall Murray, ‘Dáil Courts: a case study of Mid-Cork 1920-22’ in John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy, John Borgonovo (editors), Atlas of the Irish Revolution, (Cork: Cork University Press, forthcoming March 2017).
[5] Copy letter, Terence MacSwiney to Desmond Fitzgerald, July 23, 1920, PR4 /4/74, Terence MacSwiney Lord Mayor files, Cork City & County Archives.