Mary MacSwiney (1872 - 1942)

Mary MacSwiney was born in Surrey, England on March 27, 1872. She was the oldest of eight children born to John and Mary MacSwiney (nee. Wilkinson).  Both of her parents were teachers. Her mother, who was English by birth, was outspoken in her support of Irish freedom.. The family relocated to Cork when Mary was six years old. 

Mary received her primary education at a local national school. After completing her primary education she attended St Angela’s Ursuline High School in Cork.

On completing her studies at St Angela’s she returned to London where she worked as a private tutor. At age twenty she was admitted to Hughes Hall, the Cambridge Teaching College for Women from whence she received a teaching diploma. After receiving her diploma she taught at the  Hillside Convent in Farnborough, London before returning to Cork in 1904 on the death of her mother.  As oldest child she assumed responsibility for the care of her younger siblings.

On her return to Cork she obtained a teaching position at St Angela’s Ursuline High School, the school she attended as a student.

Once settled in she joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) an Irish Nationalist organization for women founded in 1900 by Maud Goone. The aim of the organization was to bring Irishwomen together to breakdown the prevailing Victorian attitudes that prevented them from participation in social and political activities thus denying them the right to have their voices heard. One consistent  message they conveyed from the onset was their opposition to the recruitment of Irishmen to serve in the British army and to John Redmond's anti-feminist Irish Parliamentary Party whose Home Rule stance would deny women the right to vote. They made clear that nothing less than full Independence for Ireland would ensure equal rights for women.

Inghinidhe na hÉireann was the foundation upon which Cumann na mBan was formed. 

 She also joined Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) founded in 1893  by Douglas Hyde, Fr. Eugene Ó Growney and other Gaelic scholars. The aim of the Gealic League was 1)  the preservation of Irish as the national language of Ireland and the extension of its use as a spoken language and 2) the study and publication of existing Gaelic literature, and the cultivation of a modern literature in Irish.

When the Munster Women's Franchise League (an organization for women's suffrage) was founded in Cork in 1911, Mary was one of its founding members and also its secretary. At the onset of WWI in 1914 the suffrage movement split into several camps, some sympathetic to England - others not. As a committed Irish Republican she left  the suffrage movement  when the Munster Women’s Franchise League bought an ambulance and presented it to the military authorities in Cork  By then she believed that most suffragettes were “Britons first, suffragists second and Irish women, perhaps, a bad third”

Cumann na mBan (CnamB) was established in Dublin  in 1914 as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers.  The primary aims of the organization was 1) "to advance the cause of Irish liberty and to organize Irishwomen in the furtherance of this object",  2) to assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defense of Ireland" and  3)  "to form a fund for these purposes, to be called 'The defense of Ireland Fund'".

Following it's founding in Dublin branched were setup throughout Ireland.  Mary was a founding member of the Cork branch.  In September of 1914 when John Redmond appealed to the Irish Volunteers to join the British army, the 140,000 who heeded Redmond's call were rebranded the National Volunteers. The 10,000 who ignored Redmond retained the original name, the Irish Volunteers. The majority of CnamB members including Mary stayed with the Irish Volunteers in conformity to their stated aim. 

After the split Mary became an officer and President of the Cork branch. The others officers were  Madeline O'Leary, Nora O'Brien, Birdie Conway and Maire Ni Chuill.

On May 2, 1916 three days after the Easter Rising Mary was arrested in her classroom by British soldiers for her involvement in the Republican  movement. She was released later that day with other Cumann members. As a consequence she was dismissed from her teaching position at St. Angela's Ursuline High School. 

In 1917, together with her sister Annie, she founded Scoil Íte, a secondary school for girls,  that emphasized Irish history, language and culture. It was modeled after St Enda's School Secondary School for boys founded by Padraic Pearse in Dublin in 1908. She remained involved with the school for the rest of her life.

Sinn Fein's founding in 1905 was based on the principle 'that the Union of Great Britain and Ireland was illegal and that no Irishman or woman could legally participate in any of its institutions. Ireland was to be a free and independent kingdom sharing the same monarch as Great Britain".

It was not until after the Easter Rising when Republicans rallied under the Sinn Fein banner after Sinn Fein adopted  'the establishment of an Irish Republic as it's core principle'. It was at this juncture that Mary joined the organization having previously stated "I will never accept the King of England as the King of Ireland"

During the 1918 General Election, Mary campaigned for her brother, Terence, who was subsequently elected a Sinn Fein candidate to the first Dáil Éireann.

After the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás  MacCurtain, was killed  in March of 1920 by the Black and Tans during the War of Independence  Terence MacSwiney succeeded him as both Lord Mayor of Cork and Commandant of the First Cork Brigade of the I.R.A. 

Shortly after taking office he signed an official resolution of the City Council declaring "Dáil Éireann as the lawful, legal and constitutional parliament of the Irish Nation". Shorty after his election as Lord Mayor Terence was arrested, charged with sedition and sentenced to two years imprisonment. 

In rebuking the sentencing court and its underpinning legal system as an illegal institution in Ireland he immediately embarked on a hunger strike. After 74 days on hunger strike, exacerbated by a crude attempt at force feeding, he died on October 25, 1920  in Brixton prison in London.  Mary was in there to support him during his agonizing ordeal. She accompanied his remains back to Cork despite the British governments attempts to stop her.

In December of 1920 Mary travelled to the United States with Terence's wife, Muriel, to testify before the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland (1).

After completing her testimony before the Commission she undertook a tour of the United States to 1) make the case for the recognition of the Irish Republic, 2) promote the newly formed American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic and 3) raise funds to support the government of the Irish Republic.

She started the tour in Madison Square Garden in New York on Jan. 7, 1921 where she addressed a crowd of 5,000.  For the following eight months she crisscrossed the U. S. attracting large crowds.  She submitted detailed reports to Harry Boland and John O'Mara on a regular basis detailing meeting attendance, successes and problems areas. 

While touring the U.S. she ran as a Sinn Fein candidate in the British arranged 1921 General Election to elect members to the House of Commons of Northern Ireland and the House of Commons of Southern Ireland as provided for in the "Government of Ireland Act 1920'.  The election was used by Republicans to elect members to the Second Dail Eireann.

Mary opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty when it was debated in the Second Dail. Her two hours and forty minutes address was best summed up by  the following excerpts “This is not the will of the Irish people; it is the fear of the Irish people”. She implored Dail members not to commit to "the one unforgivable crime that has ever been committed by the representatives of the people of Ireland" by accepting a treaty which required an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy.

Mary was vice-President of Cumann na mBan when it voted 419 to 63 to withhold support  for the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and afterwards the organization adopted a resolution put forward by Mary rejecting the formation of the Free State.

Mary was elected on the Sinn Fein  ticket to the Third Dail Eireann on June 22, 1922 just one week before the outbreak of the Civil War. The Third Dail which, was elected under terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and sanctioned by the British, was an anathema to Republicans who, having sworn allegiance to the Irish Republic, would not participate in such an abhorrent assemblage.

Shortly after the onset of the Civil War, Mary was arrested in a roundup of Republican women by the British supported Free State apparatus and imprisoned in Mountjoy Jail without cause other than for her steadfast commitment to the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916.  In protest, she went on a hunger strike that lasted 21 days. Due to protests and a barrage of negative worldwide publicity she was released.  

She was arrested for the second time in April of 1923 enroute to Liam Lynch's funeral and incarcerated in Kilmainham where she immediately joined other women on hunger strike. She was released on May 2, after enduring a nineteen day hunger strike.

The so-called Civil War ended in May of 1923 in the defeat of the Republican side.  That outcome was a victory for the British who used the Free State to achieve what they themselves failed to achieve.  Ireland was the loser.

Mary retained her seat in the 1923 General Election but, in common with the other Republican deputies, refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch as required under the constitution of the Free State, therefore did not take her seat.  

Mary undertook a second trip to the United States in January 1925 unannounced and without a Irish Free State passport. The gist of her message during her appearances was that the Irish Republic still exists although unrecognized and that the Free State was neither Free, Irish nor a State. She travelled extensively as she did during her first trip, however the crowds were smaller and more subdued. One aspect of her trip that provided Mary with an excellent source of publicity was the passport issue. The Free State government and its overlords in London spent many hours trying to determine how she entered the United States hoping to find some way to have her deported. She returned to Ireland on her own terms in November of 1925.

In 1926 when de Valera failed to convince the Sinn Féin party to accept the Free State constitution including the Oath of Allegiance in order to enter the Dail he resigned from Sinn Fein and formed a new party, Fianna Fáil. After his departure, Mary was amongst those who did not follow him, opting instead to remain  true to her beliefs -- a position she did not waiver from for the rest of her life.

In 1938 the Army Council of the IRA approached the Executive Council of the Second Dail with a view to having the Dail's executive power delegated to the army "to be held in trust" by it.

The first all-Ireland Dail meeting on March 11, 1921, at the height of the Black and Tan war, resolved that when enemy action had reduced the House to five deputies that "it should resolve itself in a Provisional Government" and that "Government should be left to the Volunteers as the Military Body" which was usual in the case of countries invaded.

The final meeting, in 1938, of the Executive Council of the 1921 Dail was presided over by Sean Ó Ceallaigh. It resolved "We hereby delegate the authority reposed in us to the Army Council in the spirit of the decision taken by Dail Eireann in the Spring of 1921".

In December of 1938 The Army Council in accepting stated "We accept this authority in name of the Army of the Republic the spirit in which it is tendered".

The surviving faithful deputies who constituted the Executive Council of the Second all-Ireland Dail included Sean Ó Ceallaigh, Count Plunkett, Cathal Ó Murchadha, Tom Maguire, Mary MacSwiney, Brian Ó hUuiginn and  Prof. W.F. P. Stockley

Mary MacSwiney passed away at her home in Cork on March 8, 1942.

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

A Cumann na mBan Centenary Commemoration was held at the grave
of Mary MacSwiney at
St. Joseph's Cemetery, Ballyphehane in Cork  on June 8, 2014.


1. The American Commission on Conditions in Ireland was selected by and derives its authority from a committee of distinguished Americans brought together through the efforts of the editors of the New York Nation to perform the service of ascertaining for the American people the truth about conditions in Ireland, which increasingly menace the friendly relations that have existed between Great Britain and the United States. In order to secure an impartial and distinguished body for this investigation, every United States Senator, every State governor, every member of the higher clergy of the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish churches, and the leading educators, journalists, editors, mayors, and publicists of the country were extended an invitation to become members of this committee, over 150 of whom accepted, including 5 State governors, 11 United States Senators, 13 Congressmen, the mayors of 15 large cities, the late Cardinal Gibbons. Archbishop Keane. 7 Protestant Episcopal bishops, 4 Roman Catholic bishops. 4 Methodist bishops, and other eminent public men and women, representing a broad diversity of racial stocks and political and religious beliefs, and covering geographically 36 states of the Union.  

 cemetery AND grave location

NAME:    Saint Joseph's Cemetery                                PHONE NO.   021-432191

ADDRESS:  Tony Top Rd.,  Ballyphehane, Co. Cork, Ireland




Photo provided by RSF Cork

click on image to read inscription


Back to Biographies                                                                                                                               Posted  06/28/2014