MacSwiney’s ‘Principals of Freedom’ makes U.S. debut

Terence MacSwiney

Nearly 150 Irish civilians were killed by military and police forces from the Oct. 25, 1920, voluntary hunger strike death of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney to the January 1921 U.S. publication of Principles of Freedom, a collection of his essays.1 Many of these deaths were reported in U.S. newspapers, most notably “Bloody Sunday” in November 1920, but few received as much ongoing attention as MacSwiney’s martyrdom. Three months after his death, the posthumous book prompted a new round of headlines. 

E.P. Dutton & Co. of New York published the 244-page book six months before the first Irish edition from Talbot Press Limited, Dublin.2 The book contained 19 chapters, what MacSwiney called “articles,” all but one of which was previously published in the Irish republican newspaper Irish Freedom during 1911-1912. In the preface, MacSwiney said:

It was my intention to publish these articles in book form as soon as possible. I had them typed for the purpose. I had no time for revision save to insert in the typed copy words or lines omitted from the original printed matter. I also made an occasional verbal alteration in the original. One article, however, that on “Intellectual Freedom,” though written in the series in the place in which it now stands, was not printed with them. It is now published for the first time.”

MacSwiney devoted three pages of the preface to explain his essay “Religion” to “avoid a possible misconception amongst people outside of Ireland.” He continued:

In Ireland there is no religious dissension, but there is religious sincerity. English politicians, to serve the end of dividing Ireland, have worked on the religious feelings of the North, suggesting the dangers of Catholic ascendancy. There is not now, and there never was, any such danger, but our enemies, by raising the cry, sowed discord in the North, with the aim of destroying Irish unity. 

Arrested Aug. 12, 1920, for possession of “seditious articles and documents,” MacSwiney was tried four days later and sentenced to two years at Brixton Prison in south London. He probably wrote the preface and finalized the book deal during his hunger strike.

Correspondence between MacSwiney and E.P. Dutton & Co. is held by Syracuse University.3 My request for copies of this material is backlogged by COVID-19 slowdowns and lower priority due to being unaffiliated with the university. I’ll update in a future post.

U.S. Reviews

Reviews of MacSwiney’s book began to appear in U.S. newspapers the last week of January 1921, a month after his wife, Muriel, and sister, Mary, testified at American Commission on Conditions in Ireland hearings in Washington, D.C. The widow returned quickly to Ireland, but the sister remained in America to make the rounds of pro-Irish independence speaking engagements. 

MacSwiney’s “dying plea for Ireland” was “the peroration of a poet, an idealist, a dreamer, who possessed, nevertheless, a sense of humor, a leaning toward the practical, an insight into human nature which illuminate at frequent intervals the pages of the book,” The Evening World’s Martin Green wrote in one of the earliest reviews.4

“The martyr to the Irish cause was strong for the ‘dreamers, cranks and fools’. In his opinion those so designated are the backbone of a movement such as Ireland is undergoing.”

The Irish Press, a Philadelphia weekly with direct ties to the separatist government in Dublin, said the book was “a valuable contribution to philosophy … universal in its viewpoints; it happens to have Ireland as a particular and living illustration … though it can hardly be called a piece of Irish republican propaganda.”5

An editorial in the St. Louis Star said MacSwiney’s book “will not only prove a memorial to his life and his sacrifice, but it furnish the world a fresh insight into the spirit of the Irish people.”6

Period newspaper adverts show the book retailed for $2, or just under $30 with a century of inflation.7 Today, a California antiquarian and used book dealer advertises a 1921 first edition of the E.P. Dutton version in “Very Good Plus” condition for $150. (Digitized U.S. and Irish editions are linked in Note 2.)  

“Here is a document of extraordinary interest,” says the book’s original dust jacket. “It is the mind of an Irish irreconcilable turned inside out by himself for our inspection.”

From New York Herald, March 13, 1921.

  1. “The Struggles of the Irish People”, Address to Congress of the United States, Adopted by January 1921 Session of Dail Eireann, See “List of 270 Irish Citizens Murdered By English Forces in Ireland … Jan. 1, 1920-Feb. 28, 1921” , pp. 23-29. Presented in the U.S. Senate on May 2, 1921, and recorded in Senate Documents, Vol. 9, 67th Congress, First Session, April 11-Nov. 23, 1921, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1921.
  2. Terence MacSwiney, Principles of Freedom, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1921. Publication schedule in digitized Irish edition.
  3. E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc. Records, 1852-1969, Box 45.
  4. “Lord Mayor MacSwiney’s Book A Dying Plea For Ireland” The Evening World, New York, N.Y., Jan. 26, 1921.
  5. The Principles of Freedom”, The Irish Press, March 12, 1921.
  6. “Principles of Freedom”, St. Louis Star, Feb. 5, 1921.
  7. See Irish Industries Depot of the Gaelic League of Ireland, The Gaelic American, Feb. 26, 1921; New York Herald, March 13, 1921, shown. Conversion made at US Inflation Calculator.