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Rebels in Solidarity: An Irish Hunger Striker and Catalonia, 1920

While watching the brutal way Spain suppressed the will of the Catalan people on the first day of October 2017 a quote came to my mind:

‘It is not those who inflict the most but those that endure the most that shall prevail.’

That apt observation came from the pen of Terence MacSwiney, an Irish revolutionary who died after 74 days on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920. His death gave rise to widespread outrage, including in Catalonia.

MacSwiney had been serving as the Lord Mayor of Cork when in the Autumn of 1920 he was arrested by British authorities and started a hunger strike. MacSwiney continued his hunger strike when he was sent across the Irish sea to languish in a British prison and garnered support from many across the globe including in the northeastern part of Spain where a nation of people were longing for their own independence.

MacSwiney died on October 25th 1920 and his death was mourned by those in Catalonia who had been closely following the hunger strike of the rebel Lord Mayor. During MacSwiney’s hunger strike daily updates filled Catalan newspapers while masses were said for the Irishman and public demonstrations filled the streets. When news of MacSwiney’s death reached Catalonia a state of mourning kicked in. Women wore black, flags were flown at half mast and on October 27th grief turned into protest when up to 500 Catalans marched on the British Consulate in Barcelona.

Waving a tri-colour Irish flag, the crowd marched to the British consulate while chanting ‘Viva Irlanda, muera Inglaterra!’ ( long live Ireland, death to England!) The consulate had closed its doors as the consul general was not in and when the marchers reached the closed building they flung stones and broke all the windows. The angry protesters dispersed when the heavy handed guardia civil arrived on the scene. Days later the consul general wrote to London to divulge his utter disgust at how Catalans sided with the cause of Irish freedom. He informed London how the consulate in Barcelona was “now guarded by a strong force of police and guardia civil who shall remain until the local excitement over the so called martyrdom of MacSwiney has subsided.” But the ‘local excitement’ did not subside because just days later a mass rally in support of the martyred MacSwiney was held in Catalan capital.

On November 1st 1920, thousands attended a rally in Barcelona to show their support for Irish independence and their grief for MacSwiney.  It was organised by the trade union CADCI (Central Autonomista de Dependents del Comerc i la Industrial) and the guest of honour was Sinn Fein’s representative in Spain Maire ni Bhriain but, it was the recital of a poem that became the highlight of the day.

The Catalan playwright, poet and politician Ventura Gassol had been asked by the CADCI to compose a poem in honour of MacSwiney and he delivered ‘Germd Nostre’ (our brother) from a balcony draped in an Irish tri-colour flag in the main square in Barcelona. Gassol’s poem was based on an old Catalan folksong ‘La Preso de Lleida’ (Lleida Prison) and as he delivered it to the thousands assembled, a sustained applause broke out after each verse, such as the intense emotion. A report in the Catalan journal L’Accio described how “the poet Ventura Gassol gave a magnificent reading of a most beautiful original poem exalting the towering deed of the Lord Mayor of Cork, producing among those present a deep emotion.”

Before MacSwiney succumbed to his hunger strike, the CADCI had sent a letter to the British prime minister Loyld George  to vent their frustration with Britains brutal response to Irelands fight for freedom. Dated September 1st 1920 the letter from the CADCI informed the British PM  ‘our organisation, consisting of 8,000 members……….wishes to make its voice heard by you, in order, to express the concern of all Catalonia for the heroic, sublime and now tragic gesture of the Lord Mayor of Cork…..and his unbending will to sacrifice his life on behalf of his ideal of nationhood.’

In the aftermath of MacSwiney’s death, town council’s across Catalonia passed motions of condolence to MacSwiney’s family and expressions of support for the Irish Republican movement. The town council in Figueres passed a motion of ‘admiration of the glorious death of the Lord Mayor of Cork and other patriotic Irishmen who have died in English prison, that our adhesion to the liberty of people and the inviolable rules of justice may be proclaimed.’ The mayor of Villafranca del Panades sent a letter to 10 Downing Street condemning those there for the death of MacSwiney.  The British replied by requesting the Spanish government to punish local authorities across Catalonia who publicly support Irish Republicans.

Apart from letters to the British PM and public displays of support, Catalonia also sent condolences directly to the MacSwiney family in Cork. A letter of condolence was sent to MacSwiney’s widow from the Directive Council of Nostra Parla in Barcelona. The message of condolence dated December 1st 1920 to Mrs MacSwiney informed her that her husband’s ‘martyrdom will be an example for all people that, so as ours, feel a foreign domination.’ MacSwiney’s two year old daughter was also in the thoughts of Catalans and they sent her a doll which is now displayed at the public museum in Cork City.

The poem that Ventura Gassol wrote and recited with great emotion in Barcelona on All Saints day in 1920 highlighted the similarities between Ireland and Catalonia in their quest for self determination, a quest still not completed for many Catalans to this day. The following lines from Gassol’s poem describe how through death MacSwiney forced an opening through the prison walls and how his fight for freedom is inspiring to Catalans who are yet to find an escape from their imprisonment…..

Al cor ombros d’Irlanda
N’hi ha una gran preso:
que ja no hi queden presos,
que no n’hi queden, no.
MacSwiney, blanc de cara,
gelet encar de la suor de mort,
Ha obert un esvoranc a les muralles,
i cel amunt se’ls va enduent a tots….
Espirit de MacSwiney, germa nostre,
Oh, si tambe ens obrissiu la preso!

More articles by:

Pauline Murphy is a freelance writer from Ireland. 

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