John Dolan: Martyred mayors should be up on a pedestal, in pride of place in the city that mourned them

It is a shame that some icons in Cork history have missed their moment in the sun, so their stories can be re-told, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: Martyred mayors should be up on a pedestal, in pride of place in the city that mourned them

Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney: writer, soldier, politician and hunger striker

THE fact almost two-thirds of Americans do not have a passport is often used as a stick with which to beat them. It’s proof, we’re told, of how insular and inward-looking they are.

I prefer to look at it in a different way. America is a vast country with so much variety, who among those born there wouldn’t want to visit many of the 50 States first, before travelling further afield?

Plus, it would take a long flight and much expense to travel to anther continent, and Americans have fewer holidays than us Europeans.

For all of that, Americans can be insular: after all, when Washington dictates much of what is happening in the world, why care about what’s happening in Brussels or Berlin?

I once had the privilege of sitting in on a Chicago Tribune news conference, where the heads of each department presented their news for the next edition. When the foreign affairs editor spoke, you really felt for him, as he tried to convince the executives the latest drought in Africa or row in the European Union would be of interest to their readers.

All of which makes it even more remarkable that 100 years ago this month, the New York Times splashed on a story that related to a place 5,0001km away, in Cork.

‘MacSwiney dies after fasting 74 days’, roared the banner headline, relegating news of U.S Senate campaigns and other domestic affairs to the ha’penny place.

The hunger strike and death of the Lord Mayor of Cork was that important, not just locally and nationally, but globally; indeed, it had led newspapers around the world for two months.

MacSwiney’s death was a pivotal moment, in a pivotal year for this city and county, and for the country.

A hundred years on, Cork, and Ireland, ought to be saluting him again.

Sadly, one of the many casualties of this cursed pandemic has been the cancellation of a slew of intended centenary commemorations, meaning people are unable to gather in large numbers,

It’s hard to train your eyes on the past when you’re caught up in the present, and a failure to mark historical events in 2020 will be well down the list of people’s priorities.

The death of Terence MacSwiney is reported in Le Petit Journal in France in October, 1920
The death of Terence MacSwiney is reported in Le Petit Journal in France in October, 1920

However, it is a shame that some icons in Cork history have missed their moment in the sun, so their stories can be re-told.

The pandemic broke out in March just days before the centenary commemorations were to take place in honour of the first Lord Mayor of Cork to die in 1920 — Tomas MacCurtain, who was murdered in his bed in Blackpool.

Now Terence MacSwiney’s centenary commemorations this month will also be curtailed, as, almost certainly, will events to mark 100 years since the Burning of Cork in December.

This week, Cork City Council tried to fill this gap by agreeing unanimously, following a recommendation by the present Lord Mayor, to add the names of its two patriot Lords Mayor, MacSwiney and MacCurtain to the roll of honorary citizens of Cork city.

It was a fine gesture, one that will be appreciated by anyone who has an inkling of how those two men helped shape hearts and minds both here and in the UK in those dark days.

Their actions undoubtedly played a vital role in at least part of Ireland gaining independence.

Furthermore, the way both MacCurtain and MacSwiney lived and died remains — unlike much of what happened on this island a century ago — free of any stain of controversy.

Which is why I was left wondering this week about what more the city could do to remember the two Lords Mayor in the centenary year of their deaths.

In terms of gatherings, our hands are tied, and making them honorary citizens is a noble thing. But I can’t help thinking we are missing a trick.

It’s not been a good year for statues, admittedly, but shouldn’t we have planned a joint one of MacCurtain and MacSwiney, to take pride of place in a prominent part of our city — perhaps around the area of Patrick Street and Winthrop Street worst hit by the Burning of Cork? That way we could mark all three pivotal events in Cork in 1920 in a fitting way, for our future generations to see and recognise their sacrifices.

Think about it: Our main statue in Patrick Street is of a man who wasn’t even born in Cork, and whose main virtue was urging folk to be teetotal — a fine legacy, but hardly ground-breaking or, indeed, effective. And I bow to no-one in my love for the Echo Boy statue. But a beautiful monument to the two Lords Mayor would be on a different level altogether.

I know there are busts of them at City Hall, and there is a fine monument outside the house where MacCurtain died in Blackpool, but shouldn’t we be thinking bigger and better, in this of all years? They should be centre stage, at the heart of the city that mourned them a century ago.

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