A hero lost: The final days of Mac Curtain

As the centenary of the death of former Lord Mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain nears, GERRY WHITE recalls the tragedy of his death
A hero lost: The final days of Mac Curtain

Crowds outside his home in Thomas Davis Street in Blackpool after his assassination there by the RIC.

ON the morning of Wednesday, March 17, 1920, people all over Cork prepared to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.

At 11.30am, Tomás Mac Curtain, the Lord Mayor of Cork, travelled from the City Hall to the North Cathedral in a horse-drawn carriage to attend noon Mass. In a display of the esteem in which they held Mac Curtáin, many people cheered as his carriage made its way through the streets of the city. However, unknown to the Lord Mayor that morning, he had just three days to live.

Tomás Mac Curtain’s road to City Hall began at Ballyknockane, near Grenagh, where he was born on March 20, 1884. He came to live with his older sister in Cork when he 13 and was educated in the North Monastery.

At an early age, the young Tomás developed a love of culture and in 1901 he joined the Blackpool branch of the Gaelic League. He also became a committed republican and in 1906 he was inducted into the Cork city ‘Circle’ of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

The following year, he joined the Cork Branch of Sinn Féin and in 1911 he helped establish a branch of Na Fianna Éireann in the city. On December 14, 1913, Tomás attended the inaugural meeting of the Cork Brigade of Irish Volunteers that was held in City Hall and became a member of the unit’s executive.

In the midst of all this activity, Tomás also found time for love. In 1908 he married Eilís Walsh, a fellow member of the Blackpool Branch of the Gaelic League. The couple went on to have six children — five of whom survived to adulthood.

On January 15, 1920, Mac Curtain stood as a Sinn Féin candidate in the Blackpool Electoral Area in the Cork City municipal election. The party ran on a joint ticket with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and their candidates won 30 of the 56 seats in Cork Corporation. Mac Curtain topped the poll in his ward and when the new corporation convened in City Hall on the night of January 31, he was elected the first republican Lord Mayor of Cork.

After he donned the chain of office, Tomás declared his main duty would be to stick to the principles of the Irish Republic and to promote the freedom of the country. He followed this by proposing the corporation pledge its allegiance to Dáil Éireann. He also declined to nominate someone for the position of High Sheriff, which was the Crown’s representative in Cork and raised the Irish Tricolour over City Hall.

Mac Curtain quickly proved to be a diligent Lord Mayor who worked tirelessly for the prosperity and welfare of all the citizens of Cork, regardless of class, creed or politics.

However, at that time he also had other responsibilities. Since January, 1919, a conflict had been taking place between members of the Republican movement and the forces of the Crown to decide the future of the Irish nation.

In addition to being the First Citizen of Cork, in 1920 Tomás was also the Commanding Officer of Cork No. 1 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and was responsible for directing the unit’s operations against the opponents of the republic.

Two weeks before the municipal elections, members of Mac Curtain’s unit had captured the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks in Carrigtwohill and attacked the one in Kilmurray. Then, on the night of March 12, Constable Timothy Scully was shot dead outside Glanmire RIC barracks. That same night, two IRA officers, Florence O’Donoghue and Tom Crofts, shot and seriously wounded District Inspector McDonagh near Sawmill Street.

Members of the RIC were infuriated by these incidents and in response militant elements within the force raided and ransacked a number of Sinn Féin offices and the homes of party members in the city.

Tomás Mac Curtain was now a marked man. As the public face of the Republican movement and the senior IRA officer in Cork, he was aware his life might be in danger and had received a number of threatening letters. In view of this, he could easily have chosen to put his safety first and gone into hiding. But neglecting his duties was never an option for Tomás Mac Curtain.

At that time, he lived openly at 40, Thomas Davis Street in Blackpool above the premises of the Artan Clothing Factory, a business he had established with his brother Seán. Also living in the house was his wife Eilís, who was pregnant with twins, their children, Siobhán, Síle, Tomás, Máire and Eilís, his wife’s invalid mother, her brother, three of her sisters, two nieces and a nephew.

Notwithstanding the danger to his life, the morning after St Patrick’s Day, Mac Curtain was back at his desk in City Hall. On the afternoon of March 19, he was in his office with Con Harrington, the town clerk, when Alderman Tadhg Barry came in and told him that he had received a report stating that if another policeman was killed, Mac Curtáin would be shot in reprisal. Upon hearing this, Mac Curtain simply replied: “That’s interesting”, and continued his work. However, within a few hours, Barry’s words would prove true.

Later that night, Mac Curtain attended a meeting of his officers in the home of Nora and Shelia Wallace on Brunswick Street (now St Augustine Street), which served as the secret headquarters of Cork No. 1 Brigade. At 10.30pm, as the meeting was concluding, Joseph Murtagh, an off-duty RIC constable, was making his way along Pope’s Quay to his lodgings on Sunday’s Well when two Volunteers shot him dead.

PATRIOT: Tomás MacCurtain and his family in early 1920. RIGHT: His great great granddaughter, Leah-Mai Hartnett-MacCurtain, at his statue outside City Hall
PATRIOT: Tomás MacCurtain and his family in early 1920. RIGHT: His great great granddaughter, Leah-Mai Hartnett-MacCurtain, at his statue outside City Hall

Mac Curtáin heard of this incident a short time later when he was making his way home to Blackpool with his brother-in-law, James Walsh. The clock was now ticking.

That night, Cork was full of additional policemen who had come to the city for the assizes. Considering the conduct of the RIC in recent days, the first thing Mac Curtain did on his way home was to go to the Blackpool offices of Sinn Féin, where he told party members he found there to leave immediately for their own safety. When he arrived at his own home, he rang the North Infirmary to inquire about the condition of Constable Murtagh, offered his condolences and retired to bed.

Around the same time that the Lord Mayor arrived home, a large group of men with blackened faces and wearing civilian clothing, who were later identified as members of the RIC, were descending on Blackpool. Some placed a cordon around the area while others made their way to 40, Thomas Street. At around 1.10am the sleep of those inside the building was shattered by a loud banging on the door — a sound that would herald a night of unprecedented terror for those inside.

Eilís Mac Curtain woke first. While her husband was getting out of bed, she looked out the window and was greeted with shouts to ‘come down’. She asked if they would give her time to get dressed but got no reply other than the sound of repeated banging. She later recalled what happened when she opened the door: “A man rushed in with a black face and eyes shining like a demon. One man outside the door then asked ‘where was Curtain’, and I said he was upstairs. Six men rushed in the hall, four tall men and two small men; the two small men were about my height and carried rifles which they held against their sides. I don’t know what the tall men had, they may have had rifles but I didn’t see them… one gave orders to hold ‘that one’, meaning me, and the second one turned around and shoved me towards the door but didn’t say a word.”

Two men then rushed upstairs. They stopped outside the bedroom Mac Curtain shared with his wife and ten-month-old baby Eilís and shouted for him to come out. By now all the house were awake and the baby was crying.

When she heard the commotion, Susan Walsh, Mac Curtain’s sister-in-law, rushed to the bedroom to see what was wrong. Seeing the men outside the door, she approached them and asked if she could take the baby. In response, one pushed her back and shouted at her to ‘get away’. Just then, Mac Curtain opened the bedroom door, but as he did so, one of the men lifted a revolver and fired two shots into his chest and he slumped to the ground. A third shot was fired a short time later. The men then ran downstairs, pushed Eilís Mac Curtain out of their way and rushed out onto the street.

James Walsh had witnessed his brother-in-law get shot and immediately went to a window facing the street and shouted for help. When they heard the shouts, some of the men below fired a volley of shots in his direction. Then, having completed their mission, the assailants escaped into the darkness.

Back in the house there was pandemonium. Eilís Mac Curtain was at the front door screaming for someone to call a priest, her sister Annie Walsh was at a rear window calling for help, the children were hysterical and the Lord Mayor was lying on the floor in a pool of blood and moaning in pain.

By now a crowd had gathered outside. When they heard the call for a priest, two neighbours, Peg and Annie Duggan, ran off in the direction of the North Cathedral. Fortunately, on the way they encountered a curate, Fr Robert Burts, and took him to Mac Curtain’s house to administer the Last Rites of the Church.

Mac Curtain was conscious but still lying on the landing when they arrived. In an effort to console her husband, Eilís leaned over him and whispered: “Remember, darling, it’s for Ireland.” Fr Burts then heard his confession and anointed him.

A short time later, with his wife by his side, the Lord Mayor of Cork and Officer Commanding, Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, passed away. It was the morning of his 36th birthday. His last words were an expression of the faith that he held so dear: “Into Thy Hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

An ambulance and doctor arrived a short time later but when they saw Mac Curtain was dead, all they could do was lift his remains to his bed.

Still in a state of shock, Eilís Mac Curtain and other family members then knelt down by the bed to say the rosary, but their ordeal was far from over. No sooner had they started their prayers than a party of soldiers from Victoria Barracks accompanied by policemen arrived with orders to arrest the Lord Mayor. When told Mac Curtain was dead, they still insisted on searching the house, including the bed that held his remains. Then, having inflicted more pain on the grieving family, they left the house and returned to their barracks

In the meantime, a report of their commanding officer’s death had reached some officers of Cork No. 1 Brigade. As soon as they heard it, Terence MacSwiney, Florrie O’Donoghue, Sean O’Hegarty and brigade chaplain Fr Dominic O’Connor rushed to Blackpool. According to O’Donoghue, they found Eilís Mac Curtain ‘in a state of collapse’ and the ‘house filled with the wailing of the children’. They remained there for the rest of the night and into the morning, consoling the family and arranging what had to be done next.

News of the Lord Mayor’s death now travelled fast. The morning edition of The Cork Examiner contained details of the killing and described it as an ‘Appalling Crime’. On Saturday night, the remains of the Lord Mayor, clad in his Irish Volunteer uniform, were taken to the City Hall to lay in state. That night and all day Sunday, members of Cork No. 1 Brigade flanked the coffin as thousands filed past to pay their last respects.

After he was killed, people all over Ireland, even those who had different political views, paid tribute to Tomás Mac Curtain. Dr Charles Dowse, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork Cloyne and Ross, spoke for many when he described the late Lord Mayor as “a straight man who was anxious to do his duty and who tried to administer the affairs of the city as earnestly and as conscientiously as he could”.

A Requiem High Mass for Mac Curtain was said by Dr Daniel Coholan, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, in the North Cathedral on Monday, March 22. After Mass, the citizens of Cork lined the streets in silence and sadness as uniformed members of Cork No 1 Brigade escorted the remains of their slain leader to St Finbarr’s Cemetery, where they were buried with full military honours.

An inquest into the death of Mac Curtain was convened in Cork after the morning after his death. Lord French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, had publicly blamed members of the republican movement for Mac Curtain’s death but evidence provided at the inquest clearly identified members of the RIC as the perpetrators. On April 17, the inquest concluded by delivering a historic verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, members of the British administration in Ireland and senior officers of the RIC.

Republican retribution soon followed. As soon as the IRA identified those they believed were involved in Mac Curtain’s death, the organisation struck. On the evening of May 12, 1920, RIC Sergeant Denis Garvey and Constable Daniel Harrington were shot dead as they boarded a tram near their barracks on the Lower Glanmire Road. District Inspector Oswald Swanzy was the chief suspect but after Mac Curtáin was shot, he was transferred from Cork to Lisburn for his own safety. However, the IRA soon discovered his whereabouts and on the morning of August 22, Seán Culhane, and Dick Murphy of Cork No. 1 Brigade shot Swanzy dead as he was leaving the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Lisburn.

Unfortunately, Eilís Mac Curtain’s health would suffer as a result of her husband’s death. In July, 1920, she would give birth to two stillborn twin girls. Some time later, she would contract tuberculosis and would have to move to Switzerland with some of her children to recover her health.

On the day Tomás Mac Curtain was buried, his friend and comrade Terence MacSwiney stood at his graveside and said that, though the great work which was being done by the Lord Mayor had been interrupted by his murder, the Volunteer movement would carry on as usual and another would be found to take their dead leader’s place.

His words would prove true and, in the weeks and months that followed Mac Curtain’s death, the fight for an independent Irish republic would continue.

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