MacSwiney, Muriel Frances (1892–1982), republican, was born 8 June 1892 at Queenstown, Co. Cork, the youngest of the six children of Nicholas Murphy , owner and director of Cork Distilleries Co. Ltd, and his second wife, Mary Gertrude (née Purcell), daughter of Richard Purcell, manager of the Provincial Bank, Cork. Tutored at home (at Carrigmore and at Montenotte, in Cork city) until the age of fifteen, she completed her education at the Convent of the Holy Child, St Leonards, near Hastings. She came to detest her privileged education and described her family with disapproval as ‘completely imperialist, conservative, capitalist, and Roman catholic’ (BMH, WS 637).
In turn her family was horrified at her courtship of the republican Terence MacSwiney (qv). She had seen him speak at a Manchester Martyrs meeting and met him at a musical evening at the Fleischmann home in 1915. Already interested in radical nationalism and the Irish language, she joined the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan, becoming friendly with MacSwiney and his sisters. During the Easter rising she brought food and information to MacSwiney and his colleagues at the Volunteer Hall, Cork. Their relationship developed when she visited and wrote to him at various prisons in the aftermath of the rising. When he was released, only to be deported to Bromyard in Herefordshire in early 1917, she followed him there and they were engaged despite her family's disapproval. They married in Bromyard on 9 June 1917, one day after her twenty-fifth birthday (when she had come into her inheritance).
By the end of the month they had returned to Ireland, first to the Ballingeary Gaeltacht and then Douglas Road, Cork, where they settled. When Terence was again imprisoned, in Cork, and embarked on his first brief hunger strike in November 1917, the then pregnant Muriel objected. She later wrote ‘I did not approve of hunger strike although entirely for the cause’ (Clifford, 132). He was released but quickly re-arrested and she spent much of 1918 in Belfast and Dundalk where he was variously imprisoned. She returned to Cork for the birth of their daughter, Máire, in June, but was back in Belfast in August, bringing the infant to visit her father daily.
Their lives were a series of interludes between arrests until Terence's final imprisonment in the summer of 1920. She lobbied senior figures in the IRA to order Terence off his fatal hunger strike (in the autumn of 1920) while offering him day-to-day support inside Brixton prison. She later publicly claimed ‘what could be greater wickedness . . . than to try to keep Terence alive when he wished to die?’ (Lazenby, 36), but her private equivocal stance damaged her relationship with Mary MacSwiney (qv), who encouraged her brother's stand without qualm. The fissures widened when she was the only family member to recognise and attend Terence's inquest. She was physically unable to return to Ireland for his funeral.
In December 1920 she appeared before the American commission on conditions in Ireland convened in Washington, and addressed several meetings, with Mary MacSwiney, in Massachussetts and New York. Her story was considered a damning indictment of British rule and she became the first woman to receive the freedom of New York. She returned to Ireland exhausted in January. During February Art O'Brien (qv) felt obliged to deny rumours that they were romantically involved. For the next sixteen months or so she lived in Ballingeary and then Dublin. Her opposition to the treaty was registered during the treaty debates in a letter read to the dáil by Professor William Stockley (qv), and she was part of the garrison in the Hammam hotel with Cathal Brugha (qv) in July 1922. She was briefly arrested. After her release she embarked on a lecture tour in the USA with Linda Kearns (qv) in support of the republic, leaving her daughter with the O'Rahilly family. Various Irish-American republican factions vied for her support, but this tour was not as successful as the first. While in New York she was involved in the occupation of the Irish consular offices by Robert Briscoe (qv) and was forcibly removed by the police. She also lobbied for the release of Jim Larkin (qv) from prison.
When she returned to Ireland in the late summer of 1923 she was a publicly declared atheist and she leaned towards, and later joined, the Irish Communist Party. She also became more closely involved with Labour politics and joined Larkin on the executive of the Irish Worker League. This did nothing to improve relations with the conservative Mary, with whom she was also in dispute over the upbringing of Máire. Mary claimed that on his deathbed Terence had placed his daughter in their joint custody, but Muriel always denied this. In late 1923 Muriel moved to Germany, taking Máire and sending her to a series of boarding schools where she hoped the child would be kept from Mary and the catholic faith. Muriel travelled widely in Germany, Switzerland and France, becoming involved in left-wing politics in these countries. She appears to have suffered from depression, experiencing the sporadic lows that accompany this condition in the 1920s and 1930s while her fortune slowly dwindled away. A relationship with a French intellectual produced a second daughter, Alix, in 1926 and she later married a German left-wing activist, Pullman, who was killed during the period of Nazi rule.
In 1932 Máire (whom she saw during the summer holidays) left Germany with Mary MacSwiney who, because of her refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the Free State, had to be given a special passport by Éamon de Valera (qv). Consequently Muriel believed that her daughter had been kidnapped partially through de Valera's connivance. Máire always denied the allegation of kidnap, claiming that she wanted an end to the peripatetic and erratic life provided by her mother. Following a bitter custody battle Máire was made a ward of court and remained with her aunt. Although Muriel blamed the catholic church, the judge seems to have been most influenced by Máire's wishes and the belief that her life lacked stability. When Máire refused to join Muriel in Switzerland in 1934 she never contacted her daughter again and rebuffed several attempts at contact by Máire and her husband (Ruairí Brugha (1917–2006), son of Cathal) in later years.
She spent the late 1930s in France, but left for England following the occupation of Paris in 1940. During the war she worked in a hospital in Oxford. She spent her life after the war moving between left-wing circles in London and Paris. She was particularly active in the Ligue de l'Enseignement, a non-sectarian teachers’ association, to which she conscripted Owen Sheehy Skeffington (qv). In London she was associated with the Connolly Association, a group inspired by the British Communist Party and led by Charles Desmond Greaves (qv), but she fell out with Greaves and left in 1956. In 1950 – her fortune spent – she received a pension of £500 per annum that was occasionally increased, prompting debate in the seanad on one occasion in 1959. In 1957 she objected to plans to erect a chapel in honour of Terence MacSwiney in St George's cathedral, Southwark. She believed that a memorial to her husband should be built only in Ireland, that it should be non-sectarian, and that it should be of benefit to the poor. As late as 1972 she addressed a meeting of the Workers’ Association for the Democratic Settlement of the National Conflict in Ireland. This gesture was repaid in the years following her death by consistent efforts by left-wing intellectuals to vindicate her reputation. She died in October 1982 in a London nursing home. Correspondence can be accessed in the Terence McSwiney papers in UCD's archives and in the Oswald Garrison Villiard collection at Harvard University.