An amateurish ‘blue plaque’ has recently been painted on one of the exterior walls of Brixton prison. It is in memory of Terence MacSwiney, whose death was one of the most drawn-out but dramatic events in the building’s history.
In August 1920, MacSwiney, a Republican activist and Lord Mayor of Cork, was arrested by British troops, tried and sentenced to two years in prison. MacSwiney had other ideas, defiantly telling the court-martial: “I have decided the term of my imprisonment . . . I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.”
He died in Brixton prison on 25th October 1920 following a 74 day hunger strike. His death prompted demonstrations from Buenos Aires to Boston, and when his body was laid out in Southwark Cathedral, it was estimated 30,000 people filed past. It is said to be the event which first brought the Republican movement to the world’s attention.
This event is detailed in one of the governor’s diaries which are still held in Brixton:
20th August 1920: Commissioner Dr O F N Treadwell visited the prison this afternoon, and warned the Irish political prisoner, Terence MacSweeney [sic] in the following words – Terence MacSweeney, I am directed by the Secretary of State to solemnly warn you that you will not be released, and that you alone will be responsible for any consequences that may ensue from your persistence in refusing food. The above warning was given to T MacSweeney in the presence of the Deputy Governor, E G Humphry, the Medical Officer, Dr W W Higson, Hospital Principal Warder J Winship, and Warder E J Loastby.
25th August 1920: T MacSwiney Lord Mayor of Cork died in prison at 5.30 am.
27th August 1920: Inquest was held on Terence MacSwiney this day. Verdict death from heart failure following on scurvy and persistent [fasting crossed out] refusal to take food. Permission for the body to be removed from the prison was given by the Home Secretary.