Kilmurry the home of our revolutionary spirit

A century ago, one Cork village was a centre of rebel activity, and now it is home to a fascinating museum collection located in a beautiful building that doubles as a community centre and village hall. Donal O’Keeffe recently visited Independence Museum Kilmurry.
Kilmurry the home of our revolutionary spirit

Some of the exhibitions on display at the Independence Museum Kilmurry, including (centre) a Famine pot from which soup was dispensed.

ALL through the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, Kilmurry was a hotbed of rebel activity, and now it has become home to a museum celebrating that role in Ireland’s revolutionary history.

Independence Museum Kilmurry is housed in a beautiful building with expansive views of the Lee Valley, and its collection includes the wheel from the Crossley Tender used in the Kilmichael ambush, a man-trap used to catch poachers, and artefacts relating to Terence MacSwiney.

Kilmurry’s proximity to such historical locations as Kilmichael, Béal na Bláth, Crossbarry, and other War of Independence sites makes it an ideal place from which to recount the narrative of our country’s story in this decade of centenaries.

Mary O’Mahony, chairperson of the Kilmurry Historical & Archaeological Association, recently gave The Echo a tour of the museum.

Independence Museum Kilmurry has strong links to Terence MacSwiney, “the martyr of Brixton Prison”, as the Evening Echo referred to him at the time of his death, and this building is heir to a smaller museum, the MacSwiney Memorial Museum, which was opened in Kilmurry in 1965 by Máire MacSwiney Brugha, the only child of Terence MacSwiney.

Terence MacSwiney exhibit at the Indepenence Museum Kilmurry, including the front wheel from the hearse that carried MacSwiney through Cork City at his funeral in 1920.
Terence MacSwiney exhibit at the Indepenence Museum Kilmurry, including the front wheel from the hearse that carried MacSwiney through Cork City at his funeral in 1920.

“The reason the museum was opened here was the MacSwineys’ ancestors came from this area,” Ms O’Mahony said. “The museum was opened in a small house up the street from here, just above the pub, when a group of local people realised that a lot of people were throwing out old implements, and they felt that if they didn’t preserve them, they would be lost forever.”

That museum continued until 2010, until exhibits were being damaged in a building that was not fit for purpose, so a successful application was made to West Cork Leader, and a grant covering 75% of the building cost for a new museum was allocated.

A condition of the grant was that the museum would contain a heritage and community room. The remaining 25% cost of the building was funded by local donations, and since the museum was opened by President Michael D Higgins in 2016, the museum has had a steady stream of visitors.

“Since signage has gone up for the Michael Collins Trail, when people go down to the Béal na Bláth ambush site they see the sign for the Independence Museum, and we get a spin-off from that,” Ms O’Mahony said.

Some of the exhibitions on display at the Independence Museum Kilmurry.
Some of the exhibitions on display at the Independence Museum Kilmurry.

The museum houses an eclectic collection that documents the extraordinary times of the revolutionary period, as well as everyday life in times gone by.

“We have artifacts ranging from a salmon poacher’s trident to something as unique as a stone hammer dating back to the Stone Age; we have spears that would have been dug up by farmers locally, and over the years they would have been donated to the museum,” Ms O’Mahony said.

The area’s rich archaeological heritage is celebrated in written and illustrated displays, and several oddities line the display cabinets. A cannonball recovered from the ruins of Mashanaglas Castle, in Macroom, sits beside a battered copy of Pacata Hibernia, a history of the wars in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, first published in 1633.

Guns of every type are on display, from bog-oak training pistols, to wooden dummies used for training by Volunteers in Inchigeela during the War of Independence, to a Webley revolver from the same time, to a Lee Metford service rifle, which was used by snipers and considered extremely accurate, and withdrawn from service before the First World War.

President Higgins opening the Independence Museum Kilmurry on 22 August 2016.
President Higgins opening the Independence Museum Kilmurry on 22 August 2016.

There’s the green metal cross that used to mark the site of the Kilmichael ambush, “erected by comrades in the dark days of the mid-20s”, presented to the museum in 1966 by Commandant General Tom Barry. There’s the general’s old suitcase, beneath a quote: “They said I was ruthless, daring, savage, bloodthirsty, even heartless… The clergy called me and my comrades ‘murderers’. But the British were met with their own weapons — they had gone down in the mire to destroy us and our nation, and down after them we had to go.”

If there is a prevailing theme to the Independence Museum, it is a dedication to the memory of Terence MacSwiney, and a love of the second republican lord mayor of Cork is evident. A quotation from MacSwiney is displayed prominently: “This contest is not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance. It is not who can inflict the most, but they who can endure the most, who will conquer.”

It comes from MacSwiney’s acceptance speech when he was elected lord mayor of Cork 11 days after his friend and predecessor, Tomás Mac Curtain, was murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary. The death of MacSwiney in Brixton Prison on October 25, 1920, after 74 days of hunger strike, brought the Irish struggle for freedom to international attention and galvanised support at home. Even today, over a century on, Republican heroes, and how they are celebrated and ‘owned’, can be in equal parts inspiring and divisive.

In April, a cast bronze sculpture of Terence MacSwiney, by sculptor John Coll, was unveiled at the museum by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath TD. Speaking at the unveiling, Mr McGrath said that MacSwiney and other leaders of Ireland’s revolutionary period would approve of taking in refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is fully consistent with the aspirations of the revolutionary leaders of a century ago; they would expect nothing less of us, of that I am certain,” Mr McGrath said.

Proving that if all politics is local, then all history is political, the Fianna Fáil politician used the unveiling as an opportunity to refer to the main opposition party.

“When we remember Terence MacSwiney and his comrades, nothing could be more disrespectful than to act as if they were just one part of an ongoing revolutionary chain,” Mr McGrath said. “They deserve a special place in our history in their own right,” he said, distancing them from the Provisional IRA’s campaign.

A medal from the Total Abstinence Temperance Society, currently on display in the Independence Museum Kilmurry. Note the name of the organisation's president - Father Theobald Mathew.
A medal from the Total Abstinence Temperance Society, currently on display in the Independence Museum Kilmurry. Note the name of the organisation's president - Father Theobald Mathew.

The new sculpture of Terence MacSwiney had originally been commissioned to coincide with the centenary of his death, but the unveiling was delayed twice because of the pandemic.

At the ceremony, Independence Museum Kilmurry patron Dr John O’Mahony SC praised Michael O’Flynn, of the O’Flynn Group, for sponsoring the sculpture and added that he was delighted to welcome Cathal MacSwiney Brugha, grandson of Terence MacSwiney, to the unveiling, maintaining the museum’s connection to MacSwiney more than a century after his death.

Independence Museum Kilmurry’s position in the greater Lee Valley, Mary O’Mahony told The Echo at the end of our tour, makes it a gateway to West Cork and all of the revolutionary history included in that region.

Crossley Tender wheel from the Kilmichael ambush, currently on display at the Independence Museum Kilmurry,
Crossley Tender wheel from the Kilmichael ambush, currently on display at the Independence Museum Kilmurry,

“We’re telling a local story here, but it has all the major themes of what was happening in this country a hundred years ago. This area was central to the revolutionary period, and we like to think our little museum captures some of that time and does justice to those who fought for our freedom,” Ms O’Mahony said.

The Independence Museum Kilmurry is open from 2pm-5pm, Thursday to Sunday.

Throughout August, the museum is hosting a temporary exhibition, entitled ‘Beál na Bláth — The Parish Story’.

For information, see http://kilmurrymuseum.ie/

Fitting tribute to Lord Mayor MacSwiney

ON Monday, November 1, 1920, the then Evening Echo had as its lead a story headlined “CORK’S LORD MAYOR. IMPOSING FUNERAL IN THE CITY. THE LAST SCENES.”

The report reads: “The last sad scenes in the funeral obsequies of Lord Mayor MacSwiney, the martyr of Brixton Prison, were enacted in Cork yesterday under circumstances that strikingly demonstrated the great esteem and respect in which he was held by all creeds and classes, and the profound grief that his tragic death produced.

“Rarely have such edifying and impressive scenes been witnessed in the city, and it was evident that the sorrow of the citizens of Cork was fully shared by the whole Province of Munster and throughout the whole country.

A fitting tribute of respect and honour was paid to the memory of the great Irishman who made the supreme sacrifice for a high principle, and deep and sincere condolence was offered to his bereaved widow and members of his family in their great bereavement. Sadness, combined with admiration, for Lord Mayor MacSwiney’s heroism was everywhere manifested, and the closing scenes created a deep impression. It was indeed a most memorable spectacle.

“Notwithstanding the order of the military authorities restricting the dimensions of the cortege, the funeral was one of the most imposing and impressive ever seen in the city and was witnessed by huge crowds congregated along the route, and all joined in a solemn sharing of the indignant grief at the death of such an excellent first citizen of Cork, and a great patriotic Irishman.

“Throughout the day the tram services were suspended, and on every side there was a stillness that was most appropriate to the proper honouring of the sad event. It was indeed a truly remarkable manifestation of the deep-seated grief of the citizens of Cork and the people of Ireland.

A hurley from the first Cork First All -Ireland hurling win (1890), currently on display in the Independence Museum Kilmurry.
A hurley from the first Cork First All -Ireland hurling win (1890), currently on display in the Independence Museum Kilmurry.

“Overnight the remains lay in State in the City Hall, guards of honour composed of Cork City Volunteers remaining on duty around the coffin.

“At an early hour in the morning crowds began to assemble outside the building to witness the solemn removal of the remains to the Cathedral, and half an hour before the coffin was borne to the sacred edifice the crowd had reached very large proportions.

“When the clergy and members of Corporation, Harbour Board and other local bodies had assembled in the City Hall, some sensation was caused by the arrival of two armoured cars and a number of lorries filled with soldiers. These vehicles passed through the crowd and took up positions along the Carnegie Library side of Anglesea Street.” [A month later, Carnegie Library and City Hall would both be destroyed in the Burning of Cork.]

“The crowd members along Albert Quay did not disperse and its numbers were augmented with each passing minute. As a matter of fact there was no interference on the part of the military. For the next half hour members of Dáil Eireann and public bodies began to enter the building, while Volunteers from the city and county districts were lined along the quay, across Parnell Bridge, South Mall, Grand Parade, Patrick Street, and the other thoroughfares leading to the Cathedral, with the object of regulating the traffic. In this important work, the Volunteers were eminently successful. A clear passage was maintained along the entire route.

Fragment of wood from the coffin case of Terence MacSwiney, currently on display at the Independence Museum, Kilmurry.
Fragment of wood from the coffin case of Terence MacSwiney, currently on display at the Independence Museum, Kilmurry.

“Punctually at eleven o’clock the coffin, surrounded by the Republican colours, was borne on the shoulders of Messr. Seán and Peter MacSwiney and two Volunteers, from the City Hall and removed to the Cathedral. Along the route the procession, in which a large number of clergy walked, attracted a considerable interest and reverential respect was paid to the martyred dead, Many affecting scenes were also witnessed.

“The military did not accompany the procession, but remained at Anglesea Street for some time, but afterwards proceeded by a circuitous route towards the Cathedral, and took up positions along Gerald Griffin Street.

“An aeroplane, however, hovered overhead, and was an object of much interest to the crowds gathered along the streets leading to the Cathedral … which was filled to its utmost capacity …

“The bands in attendance were – Barrack Street, Butter Exchange, Connolly Memorial, Workmen’s Fife and Drum, Greenmount Industrial School, Workingmen’s Brass and Reed, Discharged Soldiers’ Federation, Irish Volunteer Pipers, Brian Boru Pipers, Tomás MacCurtain Pipers, Douglas and Blackrock.”

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