Shining spotlight on our forgotten mayor

Donal Óg O’Callaghan, who succeeded Terence MacSwiney, was a man of principle who deserves his story to be told, reveals GRÁINNE McGUINNESS
Shining spotlight on our forgotten mayor

FOUR YEARS AS CORK CITY LORD MAYOR: Donal Óg O’Callaghan at the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia in April, 1921

NEXT Wednesday, November 4, marks the centenary of Donal Óg O’Callaghan’s election as Lord Mayor.

While we are all familiar with the stories of his famous predecessors, much less is known of O’Callaghan, who held the role from November, 1920 to January, 1924.

But a new book from academic Dr Aodh Quinlivan, Director of the Centre for Local and Regional Governance in UCC, aims to shed light on his life and role in Cork history of the time.

What drew Dr Quinlivan to O’Callaghan as a subject?

“My previous book, Dissolved, was published in 2017 and it told the story of the dissolution of Cork Corporation in 1924,” he says. “From researching for that book, I noted that Donal O’Callaghan was Lord Mayor at the beginning of 1924, having been in office since November, 1920, after succeeding Terence MacSwiney.

“It struck me as odd that I did not know more about him, so I kept it in the back of my mind that I would do some digging into him. I am now glad that I did so as I was able to unearth more than I ever imagined.”

The book is titled Forgotten Lord Mayor: Donal Óg O’Callaghan 1920-1924. This begs the question, why has O’Callaghan’s role in Cork’s history of the time received so little attention prior to now?

Forgotten Lord Mayor, by Aodh Quinlivan
Forgotten Lord Mayor, by Aodh Quinlivan

“I think it is entirely understandable that O’Callaghan has been overshadowed by his two martyred predecessors, Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney,” Dr Quinlivan says. “2020 is a significant year of commemoration and Cork City Council has put together a tremendous programme, some of which unfortunately has been curtailed due to the pandemic.

“In recent weeks, we have read and seen a lot about MacCurtain and MacSwiney but much of this material was already in the public domain and quite well known.

“The challenge with researching Donal O’Callaghan is that I was literally starting from a blank page. He barely warrants a mention in most books from this period, he did not keep a diary, and he refused to give a written statement to the Bureau of Military History.

“To go from that blank page to a 346-page book is a great thrill and I loved every second of the journey.”

“O’Callaghan left Cork in August, 1922, and never again resided there — despite retaining his roles as Lord Mayor of Cork and County Council Chairman. In some ways, he departed as a broken man — disappointed to have lost his Dáil seat, devastated at the deaths of some close friends (especially Harry Boland) and fearful for his life as the Civil War moved south.

“He stayed involved with Éamon de Valera and the alternative Republican cabinet for the next couple of years but he withdrew from public life completely in 1924, without so much as a backward glance.”

This decision, Dr Quinlivan feels, may be a factor in how little is known of O’Callaghan.

“I think his total withdrawal from politics also contributed to him being forgotten. His glory days were between 1920 and 1924, when he was a very young man, 28 to 32 years old.” To never again return to live in his home county, despite living another 40 years, seems very unusual for a man who cared enough about the city to enter politics and become the Lord Mayor.

“I think he was mentally and physically exhausted because for most of the previous two years he was on the run, never spending a night in the same house,” Dr Quinlivan suggests.

“We must remember that he was close to MacCurtain and MacSwiney and traumatised by their deaths. Also, a mere five weeks after being elected Lord Mayor, he witnessed his beloved city (including City Hall and the Carnegie Free Library) burnt to the ground.

“He adopted a strong anti-Treaty position but suffered a huge electoral loss at the June, 1922 general election. I believe he felt humiliated because even though he was Lord Mayor and an incumbent TD, he finished last place out of seven candidates. In his mind, the people of Cork had let him down.

“Then the Civil War broke out and I think he needed to get away. Chapter 20 of the book, ‘The Dimming of Hope’ sums up his mindset at this time.”

There is another possible reason. On August 12, 1920, at a meeting in City Hall of IRB, senior IRA officers of the Cork No, 1 Brigade and a Republican Court, Liam Deasy told O’Callaghan there may be a raid. O’Callaghan set out at 6pm from the Courthouse to go to City Hall to sound the alarm but returned at 7pm having not done so.

“There is the elephant in the room which is that some people in the Republican movement did not trust him after he failed to sound the alarm in City Hall and did not warn MacSwiney that a raid was imminent,” Dr Quinlivan says.

“Of course, MacSwiney was arrested in the raid and commenced his hunger strike. O’Callaghan deputised for him at this time and then succeeded him as Lord Mayor. This did not sit well with everybody.”

Following months of research and writing, Dr Quinlivan describes O’Callaghan as principled, perhaps to a fault.

“He held very strong beliefs but struggled at times to move from them in a spirit of compromise, which is at the heart of politics,” he says. “For example, in the book you will see that he became embroiled in a couple of battles with Henry Ford which betrayed a certain naivety and an unwillingness to bend, until he was forced to do so.

“There were many different levels to Donal Óg O’Callaghan but it would be incorrect to call him a complex man. He was straightforward, honest and, above all else, principled.

“During a turbulent four-year period, from 1920 to 1924, his life was interwoven with the most notable events and figures in Irish political history — the War of Independence, the Burning of Cork, the Treaty, the Civil War, Tomás MacCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera. As a Gael, a solider, a patriot, a staunch Republican and a devoted public servant, he helped lay the foundations on which Ireland was built. This is how I think he should be remembered and hopefully he will no longer be forgotten.”

Dr Quinlivan highlights some of the people and resources which made the book possible.

“I received great encouragement from Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, who was Lord Mayor in 2017/18 and he was keen that I would conduct research into O’Callaghan, another Lord Mayor who went to school in the North Mon!

“John Ger O’Riordan came on board as a research assistant and he contributed greatly to the book, as did Brian McGee in the Cork City and County Archives and Dan Breen and Dara McGrath in the Cork Public Museum.

“We are extremely lucky to have these fantastic resources available to us.”

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