IN January, 1920 — at the height of the War of Independence — Cork city’s local elections were held.
There were 155 candidates for 56 seats, 30 of which were won by Sinn Fein candidates.
These were the first elections held using the Proportional Representation system of voting, which had possibly been introduced with an eye on limiting the dominance of Sinn Fein, whose successes at the 1918 General Election made a huge impact.
However, if the 1920 Cork election had been decided on a straight count on first preference votes, the Sinn Fein total would have been 23 seats, not 30.
The most famous of the 1920 candidates were, of course, Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney, both standing for election for the first time. MacSwiney had been elected in 1918 but the Mid Cork constituency seat was not contested.
MacCurtain polled the highest vote in the city — 765, near to three times the quota in the Blackpool Ward.
In an address to the Blackpool Sinn Féin Cumman before the election, he had declared: “We are now about to take the offensive again and the occupation of local boards [councils] by our forces will be the first tactical move.
"We want no weak spots in this line, these boards must be manned by men who are prepared to take all the consequences, men of discipline and courage, young, fearless and daring. See that this is done and these boards will be armed posts, fortresses for freedom, to be perhaps taken and retaken again by the enemy, but never to surrender, nor stoop its flag until that flag shall float above a liberated nation.”
During the last week of canvassing, it became clear that MacCurtain’s words were having an impact and on the morning of polling day the Cork Examiner carried a report on the canvas which stated that: ‘Sinn Féin and Transport Workers are the only party so far that have been in any way active in this direction. Their organisation is far advanced and conducted on the well defined-lines so evidenced in elections throughout the country which claimed the attention of Sinn Féin’.
In the days which followed the election, attention turned to the election of a Lord Mayor to replace the outgoing William F. O Connor, which would take place when the new council held its first meeting at noon on Friday, January 30, 1920.
MacCurtain was selected as the Sinn Féin nominee and in order to avoid arrest for his IRA activities he was smuggled into City Hall before daybreak on the morning of the meeting.
By 11.30am the council chamber and public gallery of City Hall were full with supporters of the new councillors. When the Sinn Féin members marched into the chamber at 11.45 they were greeting with a rousing cheer from the crowd but when Councillor William O’Connor, the outgoing Lord Mayor, took the chair he was greeted with a mixture of cheers and ‘hisses’.
The meeting commenced at noon and when the Town Clerk called the roll 51 members answered. When name of Sinn Féin Alderman Frederick Murray was called, Councillor Miceal O’Cuill replied in Irish that he was under the ‘lock of the foreigner’. O’Cuill’s remarks were received with cheers from the spectators which became even louder when, in response to the Town Clerk calling the name of Alderman J. J. Walsh, he again replied in Irish that he was ‘on the run’.
The next order of business was the election of the Lord Mayor and Councillor O’Cuill stood up, and speaking in Irish said it gave him the greatest pleasure to propose Alderman Tomas MacCurtain for the office. His nomination was seconded by Terence MacSwiney, who also spoke in Irish.
Sir John Scott of the Commercial Party then put forward the name of Alderman Beamish but, as this was done without the Alderman’s consent, the motion failed.
William O’Connor then declared Tomas MacCurtain to be elected and as he made his way to the chair loud cheers erupted from the public gallery intermingled with cries of ‘up Blackpool’. As MacCurtain put on the Lord Mayor’s chain, and signed the declaration accepting the office, his supporters in the council and in the gallery stood up and sang The Soldier’s Song.
Addressing the members of the corporation, MacCurtain said that, as a Republican his first duty would be to remain loyal to the principles of the Irish Republic but his next duty would be, as far as it was in his power, to assist every party, man and citizen who had the interests of the country at heart especially when it came to local enterprise and freedom.
He went on to assure the members that, no matter what party they belonged to, they would get every opportunity to put forward any ideas they possessed in connection with the welfare of the city.
The council then went on to discuss the Lord Mayor’s salary for the coming year. The previous year it had been £600 and when the Nationalist party put forward a proposal fixing the salary at £1,000, Sinn Féin councillor John Good immediately countered by proposing that it should be £500.
MacCurtain also urged that his salary be reduced to £500 and this sum was eventually agreed upon.
He then rose to address the assembly, and in a clear statement of intent his first official act was to propose a resolution recognising the suppressed Dáil Éireann.
In the course of his speech he declared:" A little over 12 months ago the Irish people, at the general election, declared by an overwhelming majority for an Irish Republic and elected 73 representatives pledged to that declaration. Those representatives of the people have formed a government within the country, and are carrying out certain works, even in the face of hindrances imposed on them by the usurper in possession — they are carrying out works of national good, and are functioning as far as possible up to the present, and will function in the future.
"Twelve months have gone by, and the people at the recent elections to local bodies ratified the decision of the general election. It is up to these bodies now to pledge their allegiance to the government set up by the representatives of the country — to pledge their allegiance to Dáil Éireann."
After his election, MacCurtain served as Lord Mayor a mere 49 days before he was shot dead, on his 36th birthday.