Life Mask of Terence MacSwiney
Often mistaken for the typical death mask, this plaster effigy of Terence MacSwiney was actually taken during his life; a couple of days before his death after 74 days of hunger strike in Brixton Prison, London.
His death was one of the most significant moments of the Irish War of Independence.
Terence MacSwiney was elected Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork in March 1920, after the murder of the previous mayor, Tomás Mac Curtain, by a group of Black and Tans. MacSwiney had a long record of active service in Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers, and within days of the British authorities imposing martial law on Cork he was arrested and court martialled. He refused to recognise the authority of the British courts and protested by going on a hunger strike. News of his death on 25th October 1920 travelled around the world, influencing independence movements throughout the British Empire.
This life mask is an early plaster version of the marble sculpture (now in Cork Public Museum) created by artist Albert Power. Power was commissioned by writer and republican Oliver St John Gogarty, and Mary MacSwiney, sister of Terence, organised for Power to visit the dying man on the pretence of being a relative coming to say his last goodbye. Power took measurements of MacSwiney’s face which he later used to create the sculpture, which remained hidden before being smuggled to Cork.
MacSwiney’s hunger strike was one of the longest on record. His act of peaceful protest was extremely powerful, drawing international attention and sympathy to the cause of Irish independence, and was an inspiration for leaders fighting for the independence of their countries around the world, including Gandhi.
The mask, with the small smile on MacSwiney’s lips, is a powerful symbol of his lengthy protest and sacrifice.