Terence MacSwiney was a hugely courageous man. On this day exactly 100 years ago, he died after 74 days on hunger strike. There was an RTÉ documentary on him last week; today so far I’ve heard two tributes on RTÉ radio – by John Bowman and by a Sunday Miscellany contributor – to this great Corkman. Even though he was urged by Michael Collins to come off hunger-strike, arguing that alive, he could be far more effective in the struggle for Irish independence, MacSwiney continued to the death. His declaration “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer” is known by just about everyone. His final words to a visiting priest are less well-known: “I want you to bear witness that I die as a Soldier of the Irish Republic.”
If you want to measure the capability of the southern establishment to engage in double-think, look at how they have covered MacSwiney’s death. John Bowman, a respected historian, gave half-an-hour to MacSwiney this morning without once using the words “Bobby Sands”. Likewise the Sunday Miscellany contribution. The RTÉ documentary mentioned Sands once, then scooted quickly off to allow Lawrence McKeown to speak of his hunger-strike and how he survived it. That took roughly four minutes.
A hunger striker, world-wide attention, a republican soldier, visits by a priest, the grieving family: all these could equally be applied to Sands and his nine comrades. Yet the parallels have not been drawn.
The southern establishment’s thinking might be compared to the child who closes his eyes and tells himself that if he can’t see something, it can’t be there. Or maybe the southern establishment is vividly aware of what happened in Long Kesh in 1981, and is determined as far as possible to keep the eyes of the Irish people closed.
MacSwiney died because he refused to accept the British authorities’ right to arrest and try him. Sands died because he refused to accept the British authorities’ right to classify him a criminal.
In Cork City Hall, there’s a bust of MacSwiney, honouring his sacrifice. Maybe one day there’ll be a bust to Sands in Belfast City Hall. And no, Virginia – I don’t think Micheál Martin would be the appropriate person to unveil it.