Personal Papers and Complex Sources: Muriel and Máire MacSwiney

A recent generous donation to UCD Archives illustrates the complexities of archival sources in understanding events which are traumatic, personal, and which are also caught up in the sweep of great events.

Muriel MacSwiney (née Murphy, 1892–1982) married Terence MacSwiney (1879–1920) on 9 June 1917 much to the disapproval of her family. They had one daughter together, Máire, and their life together was punctuated by his arrests. Despite her republican beliefs, Muriel did not support her husband’s hunger strikes and she lobbied senior figures in the IRA to order Terence to come off what was to become his fatal hunger strike in the autumn of 1920. Despite offering her public support, her private ambivalent stance damaged her relationship with Mary MacSwiney, Terence’s sister.

Following her husband’s death, Muriel’s story was considered an example of the harshness and brutality of British rule. She opposed the Treaty, and in July 1922 she was garrisoned with Cathal Brugha (1874–1922) in the Hammam Hotel on O’Connell Street. She later embarked on a lecture tour in the USA with Linda Kearns (1888–1951) in support of the Irish republic, leaving her daughter with the O’Rahilly family.

On her return to Ireland in 1923, she declared herself an atheist and joined the Irish Communist Party, neither of which improved her relationship with Mary. Muriel moved to continental Europe, sending Máire to a series of boarding schools, which she hoped would distance her from her aunt and from Roman Catholicism.

In 1932, Máire left Germany with Mary MacSwiney. Muriel described it as a kidnapping, but Máire always denied this, claiming that she wanted an end to the nomadic and unpredictable life provided by her mother. Following a bitter custody battle, Máire was made a ward of court and remained with her aunt. In 1934, Máire refused to join Muriel in Switzerland and Muriel never contacted her daughter again.

A collection of letters (UCDA P339) from Muriel MacSwiney to Margaret Corcoran (née Moriarty, 1904–1990), includes an account by Muriel describing what she understood as her daugher’s kidnapping from Germany and the ensuing custody case. Although written in 1953, her distress is evident and her account dramatic. Additionally, UCD Archives also holds an account written by Máire in 1994 (UCD P114, deposited in UCD Archives in 1996) describing the same events with a vastly different interpretation.

Máire writes about the custody case which followed her return to Ireland with her aunt:

The law case that followed for custody of me must have been very stressful for her [Muriel] especially as she felt she was being blocked at every turn. In a way, there seemed to be some truth in that. De Valera, and with him any authorities involved, were anxious to keep this matter out of the public domain. This was to protect my father’s name and memory. The Catholic Church had absolutely nothing to do with it. My mother had an obsession about the part the Church played (supposedly) in all this. There was a point in law at the time that a custody case could be heard ‘’in camera’ if the minor had property. The ‘property’ they came up with was my father’s Republican Bond which he had put in my name. These Republican Bonds were floated by the First Dáil in 1919 to finance that government. Most of the case was conducted without my direct involvement except at one crucial point when the Chief Justice brought me into his private chambers and cross-examined me alone as to what my wishes were. I made it very clear to him in my limited English, that I wanted to stay in Ireland with my aunt. I was made a Ward of Court and placed under police protection which seemed to me rather unnecessary at the time. However, reading my mother’s account of how she planned to “re-kidnap” me, perhaps it was necessary. The rest of her account is full of fantasy.

UCDA P144/1 Papers of Máire Ní Shuibhne Brugha
Papers of Máire Ní Shuibhne Brugha, UCDA P144/1, UCD Archives

In her letter to Margaret Corcoran of 9 August 1953, Muriel wrote that she was advised by the ‘old very conservative German international lawyer’ in the ‘English Consulate’ that she had ‘every legal right on my side with regard to my daughter’ and ‘that I would not now in Ireland win a lawsuit to get her back, because not the law but the Roman Catholic Church would decide the case, he advised me to re-kidnap Máire, & I came over to Dublin in order to do this.’

Muriel goes on to describe her plan to ‘re-kidnap’ her daughter:

I asked Linda Kearns (then Mrs MacWhinney) to help me, I don’t know if you ever met her, but I took her with me the 2nd time I went to the U.S.A. She had escaped from Mountyjoy, she drove a car splendidly, she had been a gunwoman & was dying to do it. She planned the whole thing saying that she would require a very good car, 4 men, & that it would cost £40. It would be best for us (I was to be hidden in the car) to go over the Border, as De Valera might close the ports. After all this she let me down, because of religious reasons.

UCDA P339/1 Letters from Muriel MacSwiney to Margaret Corcoran (née Moriarty)
Letters from Muriel MacSwiney to Margaret Corcoran (née Moriarty), UCDA P339/1, UCD Archives

She recounts that Mary MacSwiney took an action against her, seeking custody of Máire ‘because I was not an RC & was bringing up Máire freely & to choose for herself’ and ‘I never saw her again.’

Máire writes of her mother at the end of her account:

My memories of her from the few holidays I spent with her when I was at school in the Odenwald, were of a beautiful woman and a warm and loving mother and I dearly loved her. That is why I pleaded with her, when we were in Heidelberg, to allow me live with her, but she could not deal with it. When later, I seemed hard in my resolution not to comply with her wishes, it was that I recognised the inevitable. Then, it had become, as it were, a case of “sauve qu’il peut”. I had to rescue myself.

She was such a tragic figure, apart from loving her, one could only feel deeply sorry for. There did not seem any way of helping her.

I never met her again after our meeting in the railway station in Garmisch, Easter 1931, when I twelve years of age.

Papers of Máire Ní Shuibhne Brugha, UCDA P144/1, UCD Archives

This post was written by Kate Manning, Principle Archivist, UCD Archives.

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