McSwiney, Peter Paul (c.1810–1884), retailer and politician, was born in Cork city, son of John McSwiney (b. 1780) of Cork. Little is known of his early life other than his family was part of the prosperous catholic middle class in Cork and that he was related to Daniel O'Connell (qv). In May 1852 McSwiney provided the financial backing to form a partnership in Dublin with draper George Delaney to open a store on Sackville (O'Connell) Street. The partners purchased the leases of 23 to 28 Sackville Street and held a competition to design the store. After some controversy as to who should be credited with the design for the façade, McSwiney, Delaney & Co. opened the New Mart on 28 May 1853. Decorated in an opulent style and selling fabrics, silks, and other finery, the store was said to be even more impressive than its equivalents in London, Paris, or New York. Promoting shopping as a form of entertainment, the New Mart was an instant success and captured the imagination of the public, who affectionately referred to it as 'the Palatial Mart' and 'the Monster Store'. The artist Michael Angelo Hayes (qv), McSwiney's brother-in-law, captured the position of the store as a focal point of the city's main boulevard in an 1854 painting of Sackville Street.
The success of the enterprise raised McSwiney's public profile, and in 1860 he was elected a city councillor for the North Dock ward of Dublin Corporation, on which the staunchly catholic McSwiney generally represented the interests of the archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv). Elected lord mayor of Dublin in 1864, McSwiney proposed the placing of a statue of Daniel O'Connell in Sackville Street, and on 8 August 1864 he took great pride in laying the foundation stone. The procession to lay the stone was one of the largest that Dublin had ever seen and McSwiney and his allies sought to capitalise on it. In October 1864 he sent a letter to Archbishop Cullen proposing the creation of a new political association, and became a member of the small organising committee that included Cullen and John Blake Dillon (qv). On 29 December 1864 McSwiney presided over the founding of the National Association of Ireland to promote tenant right and catholic interests, especially the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and state support for denominational education. In 1866 he became an alderman and JP and continued to play a central role in the deliberations of the National Association, but despite his best efforts, the association's political effectiveness was limited owing to its poor organisation, inadequate finances and internal bickering; it lasted into the 1870s, but was largely a talking shop.
McSwiney, however, regarded the National Association as a useful vehicle to unite the catholic clergy and laity and lead young men away from the Fenians. While he regarded Fenianism as the enemy of the catholic faith and public order, he had considerable sympathy for individuals caught up in the movement. Many of his own shopworkers were attracted to Fenianism and during the 1860s he interceded with the authorities on behalf of several who had been arrested. On 13 May 1867 he chaired a public meeting in the Mansion House to seek clemency for Thomas Francis Bourke (qv), who had been condemned to death for his part in the Fenian uprising of 1867 (after appeals by Cullen and others the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life). He also attended a large meeting in Dublin on 26 January 1869 seeking the release of Fenian prisoners.
McSwiney cooperated closely with Cullen and Sir John Gray (qv) in the Central Franchise Association, the Liberal party political machine in Dublin founded to register those enfranchised by the 1868 reform act. In the November 1868 general election he stood as a liberal in Dublin county but was beaten into third place by two conservative candidates. McSwiney cultivated close links with English liberals and was labelled by many nationalists as an Irish whig. Like Cullen he kept his distance from Isaac Butt's (qv) Home Government Association (HGA): he was suspicious of Butt's protestantism and his tory past, and claimed that he was supported by only extreme or discredited nationalists. Catholic liberals such as McSwiney stressed their commitment to repeal of the union rather than home rule and argued that the HGA had departed from the O'Connellite tradition. Home rulers, however, dismissed his calls for repeal as a convenient catch-cry that masked his unwillingness to demand that Ireland should have its own parliament.
In 1874 McSwiney put himself forward with Cullen's approval as a parliamentary candidate for Co. Meath, but failed to secure a nomination, mainly because the local clergy would not support him on the grounds that his extensive business interests made him unpopular with the county's small shopkeepers. Reelected lord mayor in 1875, he presided over the celebrations for the O'Connell centenary (5–7 August) and attempted to use the occasion to gain a political advantage over the home rulers. This led to criticisms from opponents such as Butt and A. M. Sullivan (qv) who complained of McSwiney's emphasis on O'Connell's achievement of catholic emancipation rather than his efforts to repeal the act of union, thus turning what should have been a national celebration into a religious one. At various public meetings McSwiney was subjected to much heckling and at a celebratory banquet on 6 August his efforts to secure a hearing for Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) were shouted down by Butt's supporters, and the evening broke up in disarray.
Angry at the lack of support he had received from the Freeman's Journal during the centenary, McSwiney proposed with Cullen's approval to establish a daily paper to promote O'Connellite principles, and asked Duffy to direct it; Duffy, however, had no wish to become involved in any venture associated with his old enemy Cullen and declined the offer. In September 1875 McSwiney and P. J. Smyth (qv) attempted to challenge Butt's home rule party by launching a new nationalist movement, the National O'Connell Committee, under the motto 'Faith and fatherland'. The Freeman's Journal responded by noting of McSwiney that it was possible to be 'a good family man, a respectable citizen, an enterprising merchant, and yet to be in politics a mischevious and conceited fool … led from quagmire to quagmire by the mocking lights of vanity and ambition' (16 September 1875). It dismissed his talk of 'Faith and fatherland' as an attempt to found a sectarian party that would split Irish constitutional nationalism. Most other nationalist papers were similarly opposed and the initiative came to nothing.
In 1872 George Delaney retired and McSwiney formed a new partnership with Edward Russell, P. J. Plunkett, and Michael Lynch, called McSwiney & Co., to run the store. That same year the partnership reputedly became the first publicly quoted company in the city, with McSwiney as its chairman. The store had continued to prosper throughout the 1860s and early 1870s and in addition to the fancy goods already stocked, began to carry goods from Germany, France, and Switzerland. A committed Francophile, McSwiney helped to organise a public collection to help France meet its war debts following defeat by Germany in 1871. During this period he had also become involved with the Dublin & Chapelizod Distillery through another relation, John Stanislaus Joyce (qv). McSwiney invested a large sum of money, but the venture was unsuccessful and the firm was wound up in 1877. Despite these losses he spent another large sum in 1878 to renovate and enlarge the New Mart to prepare for the Exhibition of Arts, Industries, and Manufactures that was to take place in Dublin in 1882: the façade was extended from eight bays to eleven and absorbed the old structure of the Imperial Hotel, although the hotel remained a separate business. However, the following year saw an economic recession and McSwiney's attempts to recapitalise with the introduction of new partners could not save the store. By 1882 the New Mart was bankrupt and McSwiney's health was in rapid decline. The receiver of the company, Robert Gardner (qv), sold the store to M. J. Clery (qv) of Limerick for £32,000, and it reopened as Clery & Co. in 1883.
For his efforts in collecting money to pay off the French war debt McSwiney was created a chevalier of the Legion of Honour. On 30 December 1875 he led an Irish delegation to Rome to pay their respects to Pope Pius IX who in 1876 made him a papal knight (Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great); McSwiney delighted in wearing the order's glorious red sash at public and civic functions. Michael Angelo Hayes painted his portrait, which was held by Dublin Corporation. He died 27 February 1884 aged 74 years at 71 Lower Baggot St., Dublin, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery.
He married Anne Lalor and lived mostly in Westmoreland Street, Dublin; they had three sons and six daughters.