Opinion A tribute to Tomás Mac Curtain, the martyred Lord Mayor

Donal Fallon looks at the life of Tomás Mac Curtain, who was shot dead in his home on 20 March 1920.

TOMÁS MAC CURTAIN was born on 20 March 1884 and died on the very same date in 1920. He is the less familiar face emblazoned on the jerseys of Cork players in this ongoing Decade of Centenaries, depicted beside his successor to the office of Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney.

In one dramatic year, Cork lost two Lord Mayor’s amidst the escalating War of Independence, with MacSwiney’s prolonged hunger strike in Brixton Prison drawing enormous international media attention.

Mac Curtain in many ways embodied the multi-stranded nature of Ireland’s revolution, his life a crossover of the Gaelic revival, the emerging Irish Volunteers (which became the Irish Republican Army) and the ascendant Sinn Féin political party.

Born Thomas Curtin, he reinvented himself as Tomás Mac Curtain in his youth, joining the Gaelic League’s Blackpool branch in Cork. The Gaelic League was a tremendous success, open to men and women on all equal basis and attracting membership from across all social classes.

For many, it was the opening door into a life of radical nationalism. It could also open the door to romance. Through the Gaelic League, Mac Curtain met Elizabeth Walsh, with whom he would have six children.

Opening doors

The Gaelic League also presented employment prospects for Mac Curtain, who was employed as a travelling Irish teacher. On his bicycle, he would cycle rural Munster, establishing branches of the Gaelic League as he went and teaching classes in the Irish language. As his biographer Patrick Maume notes, this “proved a useful preparation for his Volunteer work”, when he was on the move as an organiser once more.

Mac Curtain, in the early stages of the Irish revolution, was centrally involved in the raising of the Irish Volunteers in Cork, but when the movement split with the outbreak of war on the continent – and the divisive question of what role Irishmen should play in it – the movement in Cork was greatly weakened.

The Irish Parliamentary Party was under the stewardship of John Redmond, who maintained that “The interests of Ireland—of the whole of Ireland—are at stake in this war.” Of the Volunteer movement in Cork, fewer than fifty of the two thousand men in the ranks opposed the Redmondite position, including Mac Curtain.

His comrade Florence O’Donoghue recalled that “it was a heavy defeat, but they were not discouraged. Immediately and with vigour, they set to work again.”

It was not for a lack of enthusiasm that Cork’s Volunteers did not partake in the 1916 Rising. Volunteers did mobilise, under Mac Curtain’s orders, but in the absence of coherent orders and significantly under-armed, the city and county did not witness insurrection. Mac Curtain was nonetheless imprisoned in its aftermath. Upon his release, he was back reorganising the revolutionary movement in Cork.

Thomas_mac_curtain Thomas Mac Curtin, Former Lord Mayor of Cork, Ireland. Statue in front of Cork City Hall, Cork, Ireland. Creative commons Creative commons

As in his days of teaching Gaeilge by bicycle, he put his faith in two wheels once more, O’Donoghue recounting that “Tours of inspection…were a regular feature of Tomás Mac Curtain’s activities. Those who know the hilly by-roads of County Cork can appreciate the endurance required to inspect twenty-one battalions from Mitchelstown to Castletownbere, from Youghal to Newmarket, while evading police attention, and with a bicycle as a mode of conveyance.”

A man of action

As the leading light of the IRA in Cork, and one of its most enthusiastic leadership figures in Munster more broadly, Mac Curtain insisted on action, writing to IRA GHQ that “some action must be taken which will give all the men a chance of doing something, otherwise the men will fall away and the companies die out.” Mac Curtain’s men actively attacked Royal Irish Constabulary police barracks, planning to hit some simultaneously on New Year’s Day in 1920.

The Irish revolution was not merely a military affair, but a political one too. While there has been much emphasis in recent times on the 1918 General Election and the creation of Dáil Éireann in 1919 which came from it, the local elections of January 1920 were important too, handing over control of many local authorities to the newly confident Sinn Féin.

Mac Curtain, first and foremost a soldier, was elected a politician in January 1920. Mac Curtain polled the highest vote of any Sinn Féin candidate in Cork city, and it was telling of the broad respect for Mac Curtain that his fellow councillors elected him Lord Mayor.

He was the first Republican Mayor in the city, and the thunderous applause and rendition of The Soldier’s Song at City Hall on the day of his election was a sign of a transformed city and country. Mac Curtain viewed the local authorities as essential to the success of Dáil Éireann, insisting that “it was up to local bodies now to pledge their allegiance to the government set up by the representatives of the people – to pledge their allegiance to Dáil Éireann.”

Mac Curtain would serve just forty-nine days in office as Lord Mayor. As a figure publicly associated with the revolutionary forces, he was advised to hide from the authorities, but “he considered it beneath the dignity due to his office that he should evade arrest.”

A violent end

The events of 20 March 1920, his thirty-sixth birthday, propelled the name of Mac Curtain into the international press and led to heated debate in the House of Commons. In the early hours of the morning, Mac Curtain’s wife opened the door to find men with blackened faces, who rushed up the stairs of the family home and proceeded to call on him to come out of his bedroom.

Mac Curtain’s grieving widow later recounted that “they seemed to know the house better than I did myself.” When Mac Curtain did emerge, wearing his nightclothes, he was fired upon. The death of the Lord Mayor, murdered in his own home, infuriated public opinion in Cork, as did the ludicrous suggestion that Mac Curtain was shot by fellow republicans.

The subsequent inquest into his death placed the blame at the door of the Royal Irish Constabulary, concluding that “ we strongly condemn the system at present in vogue of carrying out raids at unreasonable hours.

We tender to Mrs MacCurtain and family our sincerest sympathy. We extend to the citizens of Cork our sympathy in the loss they have sustained by the death of one so eminently capable of directing their civic administration.”

Internationally, there was a revulsion in the press that a Lord Mayor could be killed in such circumstances, but it did serve to inspire and rally the revolutionary forces at home.

On hearing of the brutal death, Michael Collins wrote to Terence Mac Swiney, “It is surely the most appalling thing that has been done yet.” Within months, MacSwiney himself was the focus of world attention, his hunger strike galvanising protest in the streets of Barcelona and New York City.

Today, both MacSwiney and Mac Curtain are commemorated with memorials at Cork City Hall, a building now synonymous with the Irish revolution.

Donal Fallon is a historian from Dublin. He presents the Three Castles Burning podcast. 

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