The remarkable story of Cork's 'forgotten' Lord Mayor

The remarkable story of Cork's 'forgotten' Lord Mayor
Donal O'Callaghan, who succeeded Terence MacSwiney as Lord Mayor of Cork.

On this day, 99 years ago, a large crowd gathered in the council chamber of Cork City Hall for a solemn occasion. 

A special meeting of Cork Corporation had been called to elect a Lord Mayor, for the third time that year. 

The previous Sunday, 31 October, Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney had been laid to rest in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery, close to his friend and colleague, Tomás MacCurtain, who served as Cork’s first Lord Mayor of 1920. 

Since Terence MacSwiney was arrested on the fateful evening of 12 August, Donal O’Callaghan had been acting as Lord Mayor of his beloved city. Now, the time had come for him to be formally elected as Cork’s first citizen. 

Donal O'Callaghan, who succeeded Terence MacSwiney as Lord Mayor of Cork.
Donal O'Callaghan, who succeeded Terence MacSwiney as Lord Mayor of Cork.

It should have been a crowning moment of his political career, but the occasion was a sad one and O’Callaghan’s heart was heavy. 

The highly respected Alderman William Stockley, Professor of English at University College Cork, chaired the meeting. Sitting beside him was Fr. Dominic O’Connor, a fervent nationalist, who had been Terence MacSwiney’s chaplain during his hunger strike and final days.

After Town Clerk, Florence McCarthy, called the roll, he asked for nominations for the office of Lord Mayor, until 23 January 1921. Councillor Michael O’Cuill proposed the name of Donal O’Callaghan and this was seconded by Alderman Edward Coughlan. 

With no other nominations and no dissenting voices, Councillor Donal O’Callaghan was unanimously elected as Cork’s third Republican Lord Mayor of 1920. He commenced his acceptance speech in Irish, before reverting to English. 

In a short but passionate address, he referred to his two Republican predecessors who were ‘murdered by the British Government.’ He added: "My position, which I am setting forth as clearly and distinctly as it can possibly be set forth, is that we absolutely refuse to be tyrannised. Our demand in this country has been made and we are not going to flinch no matter what the result or cost might be."

"If that gang [British Government] continues its campaign of organised murder, we will only release the grip of Republicanism on the chair I occupy when they have closed the grave over the last Republican in Cork."

As those assembled in the council chamber rose to applaud, Lord Mayor Donal O’Callaghan sat in his chair. What would the immediate future hold for him, taking over as Lord Mayor of Cork following the deaths of MacCurtain and MacSwiney? 

Like his two martyred predecessors, O’Callaghan’s political beliefs were well known to all and, as such, he was a danger to the British Government. His house was being watched on an ongoing basis and, a few weeks before his election as Lord Mayor, he had received a threatening letter which he took very seriously. 

As proud as he was on 4 November 1920 to succeed Terence MacSwiney as Lord Mayor of Cork, Donal O’Callaghan was also afraid. In the midst of the War of Independence, he was a wanted man. In becoming Lord Mayor of Cork, had he signed his own death warrant?

Donal O’Callaghan is Cork’s forgotten Lord Mayor, overshadowed understandably by MacCurtain and MacSwiney. Yet, his story is both remarkable and compelling. Born in 1892 in Cathedral Place, he went to school at Eason’s Hill and later to the fabled North Monastery.

After leaving school, he was heavily involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Ancient Order of Hibernians American Alliance, Fianna Éireann and the Irish Volunteers. As Second Lieutenant in Company B of the Cork battalion of the Volunteers, he helped to set up district units all over Cork and trained the new recruits. 

Initially, he was a reluctant public figure and did not contest the local elections of 15 January 1920, where PR-STV was used for the first time as the voting mechanism. However, within a few weeks, he was a member of the Corporation, winning a by-election caused by outgoing Lord Mayor, William F. O’Connor who won seats in three different electoral wards. 

Donal O’Callaghan was Lord Mayor of Cork from November 1920 to January 1924, but he spent much of this time on the run – initially from the British authorities and then from the Irish Free State authorities (he was staunchly anti-Treaty). In this same time period, he was also the Chairman of Cork County Council.

O’Callaghan was Lord Mayor during the burning of Cork in December 1920 and, as the personal envoy of Michael Collins, he lobbied the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic and addressed a special commission in Washington which had been set up to conduct an inquiry into conditions in Ireland. 

He arrived in America as a stowaway and was fortunate not to be deported by the State Department. During a remarkably busy period in his life, he was elected unopposed to the second Dáil in May 1921, where he was appointed Minister for Home Affairs. 

He deplored the rancour of the Treaty debate and many of his contributions in the Dáil were delivered in Irish. Donal O’Callaghan, Cork’s forgotten Lord Mayor of 1920, was known for his sharp wit and unyielding principles.


Dr Aodh Quinlivan of UCC’s Centre for Local and Regional Governance is writing a book entitled, Cork’s Forgotten Lord Mayor: Donal O’Callaghan, 1920-1924. The book will form part of Cork City Council’s commemoration plans for 2020, remembering historic events of 1920. 

The aim is that the book will be launched in the council chamber of Cork City Hall on 4 November 2020, on the 100th anniversary of O’Callaghan’s election as Lord Mayor.

According to Dr Quinlivan: "The aim is not to write a biography of Donal O’Callaghan but to focus on his dramatic political life from 1920-1924. If there are people who have stories, pictures, letters, or any documents relating to Donal O’Callaghan, I would be delighted if they were able to share them with me."

Dr Quinlivan can be contacted at or 021-4903368.

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