The death of Terence MacSwiney was an international event that took place in the most private of places.
The Lord Mayor of Cork was brought into Brixton prison on 18th August 1920. He had been on hunger strike for almost a week in protest at his two year sentence for being in possession of ‘seditious material’. He passed away on 25th October 1920 after 74 days of refusing to take food. It is said to be the event which first brought the Irish Republican movement to the world’s attention.
Soldiers on horseback and on foot guarded the outside of the prison while the world’s newspapers carried daily updates on his condition. But ultimately MacSwiney’s agonising death was an intimate affair, witnessed by a few family and friends, his chaplain Father Dominic and a few of the staff of Brixton prison.
One of those in charge of his care was the head warder, Frederick Dean. A month before MacSwiney’s death, Dean had been helping him with his water feed. As he was taking the bottle from him, MacSwiney placed a ten shilling note in Dean’s hand, saying: “This is a token of good will for what you have done for me today.”
Dean reported the incident to the medical officer, who told the governor, who himself reported the matter further up the political chain. The response demonstrates a certain compassion for the terrible state MacSwiney was then in:
The best plan in the extraordinary circumstances will be to hand the note to Mrs MacSwiney and explain to her that officers are not permitted to receive gifts, and that you take this course because you do not wish to trouble her husband with the matter in his present condition.
This exchange is detailed in recently discovered prison documents. It was a remarkable show of gratitude by MacSwiney to one wearing a uniform of the regime which had provoked his desperate state.