This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Terence MacSwiney, nationalist playwright and Cork mayor who died following 74 days of hunger strike at Brixton in 1920. The below extracts are taken from his posthumously published ‘Principles of Freedom’ outlining his views on the limitations of moral force alone as a tool for Irish separatists. 

Since the time of O’Connell the cry Moral Force has been used persistently to cover up the weakness of every politician who was afraid or unwilling to fight for the whole rights of his country, and confusion has been the consequence. I am not going here to raise old debates over O’Connell’s memory, who, when all is said, was a great man and a patriot. Let those of us who read with burning eyes of the shameless fiasco of Clontarf recall for full judgment the O’Connell of earlier years, when his unwearied heart was fighting the uphill fight of the pioneer.

But a great need now is to challenge his later influence, which is overshadowing us to our undoing. For we find men of this time who lack moral courage fighting in the name of moral force, while those who are pre-eminent as men of moral fibre are dismissed with a smile—physical-force men. To make clear the confusion we need only to distinguish moral force from moral weakness. There is the distinction. Call it what we will, moral courage, moral strength, moral force; we all recognise that great virtue of mind and heart that keeps a man unconquerable above every power of brute strength. I call it moral force, which is a good name, and I make the definition: a man of moral force is he who, seeing a thing to be right and essential and claiming his allegiance, stands for it as for the truth, unheeding any consequence. 

It is not that he is a wild person, utterly reckless of all mad possibilities, filled with a madder hope, and indifferent to any havoc that may ensue. No, but it is a first principle of his, that a true thing is a good thing, and from a good thing rightly pursued can follow no bad consequence. And he faces every possible development with conscience at rest—it may be with trepidation for his own courage in some great ordeal, but for the nobility of the cause and the beauty of the result that must ensue, always with serene faith. And soon the trepidation for himself passes, for a great cause always makes great men, and many who set out in hesitation die heroes. 

It is this that explains the strange and wonderful buoyancy of men, standing for great ideals, so little understood of others of weaker mould. The soldier of freedom knows he is forward in the battle of Truth, he knows his victory will make for a world beautiful, that if he must inflict or endure pain, it is for the regeneration of those who suffer, the emancipation of those in chains, the exaltation of those who die, and the security and happiness of generations yet unborn. For the strength that will support a man through every phase of this struggle a strong and courageous mind is the primary need — in a word, Moral Force. 

A man who will be brave only if tramping with a legion will fail in courage if called to stand in the breach alone. And it must be clear to all that till Ireland can again summon her banded armies there will be abundant need for men who will stand the single test. ‘Tis the bravest test, the noblest test, and ’tis the test that offers the surest and greatest victory. For one armed man cannot resist a multitude, nor one army conquer countless legions; but not all the armies of all the Empires of earth can crush the spirit of one true man. And that one man will prevail.

But so much have we felt the need of resisting every slavish tendency that found refuge under the name of Moral Force, that those of us who would vindicate our manhood cried wildly out again for the physical test; and we cried it long and repeatedly the more we smarted under the meanness of retrograde times. 

But the time is again inspiring, and the air must now be cleared. We have set up for the final test of the man of unconquerable spirit that test which is the first and last argument of tyranny — recourse to brute strength. We have surrounded with fictitious glory the carnage of the battlefields; we have shouted of wading through our enemies’ blood, as if bloody fields were beautiful; we have been contemptuous of peace, as if every war were exhilarating; but, “War is hell,” said a famous general in the field. This, of course, is exaggeration, but there is a grim element of truth in the warning that must be kept in mind at all times. If one among us still would resent being asked to forego what he thinks a rightful need of vengeance, let him look into himself. 

Let him consider his feelings on the death of some notorious traitor or criminal; not satisfaction, but awe, is the uppermost feeling in his heart. Death sobers us all. But away from death this may be unconvincing; and one may still shout of the glory of floating the ship of freedom in the blood of the enemy. I give him pause. He may still correct his philosophy in view of the horror of a street accident or the brutality of a prize-fight.

But war must be faced and blood must be shed, not gleefully, but as a terrible necessity, because there are moral horrors worse than any physical horror, because freedom is indispensable for a soul erect, and freedom must be had at any cost of suffering; the soul is greater than the body. This is the justification of war. If hesitating to undertake it means the overthrow of liberty possessed, or the lying passive in slavery already accomplished, then it is the duty of every man to fight if he is standing, or revolt if he is down. And he must make no peace till freedom is assured, for the moral plague that eats up a people whose independence is lost is more calamitous than any physical rending of limb from limb. 

The body is a passing phase; the spirit is immortal; and the degradation of that immortal part of man is the great tragedy of life. Consider all the mean things and debasing tendencies that wither up a people in a state of slavery. There are the bribes of those in power to maintain their ascendancy, the barter of every principle by time-servers; the corruption of public life and the apathy of private life; the hard struggle of those of high ideals, the conflict with all ignoble practices, the wearing down of patience, and in the end the quiet abandoning of the flag once bravely flourished; then the increased numbers of the apathetic and the general gloom, depression, and despair — everywhere a land decaying. 

Viciousness, meanness, cowardice, intolerance, every bad thing arises like a weed in the night and blights the land where freedom is dead; and the aspect of that land and the soul of that people become spectacles of disgust, revolting and terrible, terrible for the high things degraded and the great destinies imperilled. It would be less terrible if an earthquake split the land in two, and sank it into the ocean. To avert the moral plague of slavery men fly to arms, notwithstanding the physical consequence, and those who set more count by the physical consequences cannot by that avert them, for the moral disease is followed by physical wreck—if delayed still inevitable. So, physical force is justified, not per se, but as an expression of moral force; where it is unsupported by the higher principle it is evil incarnate. The true antithesis is not between moral force and physical force, but between moral force and moral weakness. That is the fundamental distinction being ignored on all sides. 

When the time demands and the occasion offers, it is imperative to have recourse to arms, but in that terrible crisis we must preserve our balance. If we leap forward for our enemies’ blood, glorifying brute force, we set up the standard of the tyrant and heap up infamy for ourselves; on the other hand, if we hesitate to take the stern action demanded, we fail in strength of soul, and let slip the dogs of war to every extreme of weakness and wildness, to create depravity and horror that will ultimately destroy us. 

A true soldier of freedom will not hesitate to strike vigorously and strike home, knowing that on his resolution will depend on the restoration and defence of liberty. But he will always remember that restraint is the great attribute that separates man from beast, that retaliation is the vicious resource of the tyrant and the slave; that magnanimity is the splendour of manhood; and he will remember that he strikes not at his enemy’s life, but at his misdeed, that in destroying the misdeed, he makes not only for his own freedom, but even for his enemy’s regeneration. This may be for most of us perhaps too great a dream. But for him who reads into the heart of the question and for the true shaping of his course it will stand; he will never forget, even in the thickest fight, that the enemy of to-day and yesterday may be the genuine comrade of to-morrow.

If it is imperative that we should fix unalterably our guiding principles before we are plunged unprepared into the fight, it is even more urgent we should clear the mind to the truth now, for we have fallen into the dangerous habit of deferring important questions on the plea that the time is not ripe. In a word, we lack moral strength; and so, that virtue that is to safeguard us in time of war is the great virtue that will redeem us in time of servility. It need not be further laboured that in a state enslaved every mean thing flourishes. 

The admission of it makes clear that in such a state it is more important that every evil be resisted. In a normal condition of liberty many temporary evils may arise; yet they are not dangerous—in the glow of a people’s freedom they waste and die as disease dies in the sunlight. But where independence is suppressed and a people degenerate, a little evil is in an atmosphere to grow, and it grows and expands; and evils multiply and destroy. 

That is why men of high spirit working to regenerate a fallen people must be more insistent to watch every little defect and weak tendency that in a braver time would leave the soul unruffled. That is why every difficulty, once it becomes evident, is ripe for settlement. To evade the issue is to invite disaster. Resolution alone will save us in our many dangers. 

But a plea for policy will be raised to evade a particular and urgent question: “People won’t unite on it”; that’s one cry. “Ignorant people will be led astray”; that’s another cry. There is always some excuse ready for evasion. The difficulty is, that every party likes some part of the truth; no party likes it all; but we must have it all, every line of it. We want no popular editions and no philosophic selections—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

This must be the rule for everything concerning which a man has a public duty and ought to have a public opinion. There is a dangerous tendency gaining ground of slurring over vital things because the settlement of them involves great difficulty, and may involve great danger; but whatever the issue is we must face it. It is a step forward to bring men together on points of agreement, but men come thus together not without a certain amount of suspicion. In a fight for freedom that latent suspicion would become a mastering fear to seize and destroy us. We must allay it now. We must lead men to discuss points of difference with respect, forbearance, and courage, to find a consistent way of life for all that will inspire confidence in all. At present we inspire confidence in no one; it would be fatal to hide the fact. 

This is a necessary step to bringing matters to a head. We cannot hope to succeed all at once, but we must keep the great aim in view. There will be objections on all sides; from the blasé man of the world, concerned only for his comfort, the mean man of business concerned only for his profits, the man of policy always looking for a middle way, a certain type of religious pessimist who always spies danger in every proposal, and many others. We need not consider the comfort of the first nor the selfishness of the second; but the third and fourth require a word. 

The man of policy offers me his judgment instead of a clear consideration of the truth. ‘Tis he who says: “You and I can discuss certain things privately. We are educated; we understand. Ignorant people can’t understand, and you only make mischief in supposing it. It’s not wise.” To him I reply: “You are afraid to speak the whole truth; I am afraid to hide it. You are filled with the danger to ignorant people of having out everything; I am filled with the danger to you of suppressing anything. I do not propose to you that you can with the whole truth make ignorant people profound, but I say you must have the whole truth out for your own salvation.” Here is the danger: we see life within certain limitations, and cannot see the possibly infinite significance of something we would put by. It is of grave importance that we see it rightly, and in the difficulties of the case our only safe course is to take the evidence life offers without prejudice and without fear, and write it down. 

When the matter is grave, let it be taken with all the mature deliberation and care its gravity demands, but once the evidence is clearly seen, let us for our salvation write it down. For any man to set his petty judgment above the need for setting down the truth is madness; and I refuse to do it. There is our religious pessimist to consider. To him I say I take religion more seriously. I take it not to evade the problems of life, but to solve them. When I tell him to have no fear, this is not my indifference to the issue, but a tribute to the faith that is in me. Let us be careful to do the right thing; then fear is inconsistent with faith. Nor can I understand the other attitude. Two thousand years after the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount we are to go about whispering to one another what is wise.

To conclude: Now, and in every phase of the coming struggle, the strong mind is a greater need than the strong hand. We must be passionate, but the mind must guide and govern our passion. In the aberrations of the weak mind decrying resistance, let us not lose our balance and defy brute strength. At a later stage we must consider the ethics of resistance to the Civil Power; the significance of what is written now will be more apparent then. Let the cultivation of a brave, high spirit be our great task; it will make of each man’s soul an unassailable fortress. Armies may fail, but it resists forever. 

The body it informs may be crushed; the spirit in passing breathes on other souls, and other hearts are fired to action, and the fight goes on to victory. To the man whose mind is true and resolute ultimate victory is assured. No sophistry can sap his resistance; no weakness can tempt him to savage reprisals. He will neither abandon his heritage nor poison his nature. And in every crisis he is steadfast, in every issue justified. Rejoice, then good comrades; our souls are still our own. 

Through the coldness and depression of the time there has lightened a flash of the old fire; the old enthusiasm, warm and passionate, is again stirring us; we are forward to uphold our country’s right, to fight for her liberty, and to justify our own generation. We shall conquer. Let the enemy count his dreadnoughts and number off his legions—where are now the legions of Rome and Carthage? And the Spirit of Freedom they challenged is alive and animating the young nations to-day. Hold we our heads high, then, and we shall bear our flag bravely through every fight. Persistent, consistent, straightforward and fearless, so shall we discipline the soul to great deeds, and make it indomitable. In the indomitable soul lies the assurance of our ultimate victory.

Posted by Terence MacSwiney

One Comment

  1. Are men of ideals like McSwiney even possible in an era of cynicism?


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