Drama, rancour and song at Cork council meeting 100 years ago

On January 31, 1921, a Cork City Council meeting was held like no other, recalls AODH QUINLIVAN
Drama, rancour and song at Cork council meeting 100 years ago

Some of the Sinn Féin members on Cork Corporation in 1921, after Lord Mayor, Councillor Donal O’Callaghan, returned from America. Back, from left, Sean O’Leary, J F Sheehan, Josh Hennessy, Charlie Coughlan, Steve Riordan, C Neenan, T Forde, Jack Fitzpatrick. Middle, from left, Professor Stockley, Sean French, Donal Og O’Callaghan, Sean Nolan, Mick Moroney. Front, T Daly, Jerry Kelleher, Mick Donovan, Freddy Murray,

ON Monday, January 31, 1921, one of the most dramatic meetings in the rich history of Cork Corporation took place.

The elected members met in the Council Chamber of the Courthouse — City Hall was destroyed in the Burning of Cork the previous month — to elect a new Lord Mayor for the coming 12 months.

Having fled to America five weeks earlier, the incumbent Lord Mayor, Cllr Donal O’Callaghan, was not present. However, it was widely known that the Sinn Féin-led council intended to again propose O’Callaghan for the role. Since he had only held the post since November 4, 1920 — succeeding Terence MacSwiney — the councillors felt that he deserved to continue as the city’s First Citizen.

Some councillors, though, speculated that there might be legal difficulties if O’Callaghan was not physically present to accept the chain of office and sign the roll. As it transpired, the meeting was interrupted by British troops and the question did not arise.

Shortly after the beginning of the meeting, a District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary, accompanied by some police officers, entered the chamber and demanded to see the attendance list of those present. On receipt of the list, they left the room to examine the names.

The councillors were not sure if they should continue with the meeting or not. While they speculated about what to do, an impromptu ‘concert’ was started by Sir John Scott, who sang I Fear No Foe. Following his lead, Cllr Simon Daly sang There is a Flower that Bloometh and he was followed by Alderman Edward Coughlan with a rendition of Ireland and Cllr Stephen J. O’Riordan with Cruskeen Lawn.

The Deputy Lord Mayor, Cllr Barry Egan, then informed the members that he felt they should proceed with the business of the meeting and he called for nominations for the office of Lord Mayor.

It was Alderman Liam de Róiste who proposed the name of Donal O’Callaghan and the motion was seconded by Cllr William Russell. Sir John Scott offered his support for the motion, saying: “He (Donal O’Callaghan) is a very clever and able man, who, if he was permitted to apply a little more time to municipal affairs, it would be greatly to the advantage of the Corporation and the city.”

No other candidate was nominated and Donal O’Callaghan, in absentia, was declared elected by Deputy Lord Mayor, Cllr Egan, who then delivered a robust speech in which he spoke of the Lord Mayor’s ‘mission’ in America and criticised the British press propaganda for their attempts to ridicule the trip.

“Unanimously electing Donal O’Callaghan to be the Lord Mayor of Cork is the only answer befitting the dignity of the city of Cork that we can make to the lying British press propaganda that has sought to expose our first citizen to humiliation and insult in America,” said Cllr Egan.

“I can tell you this — the Lord Mayor of Cork was received in America with all the respect that is due to the office he holds and the city he belongs to. His own personality has been sufficient to gain for him the warm welcome and friendship of the citizens of the great Republic. His mission is one of truth and liberty; it is opposed to everything that may be known as Britishism.”

After fixing the Mayoral salary at £500, the councillors prepared to move on to other business, but the British forces re-entered the Council Chamber and called for 11 members to make themselves known. Nine responded and they were immediately arrested and taken away.

Councillors William Russell and Seán Good, though present at the meeting, did not answer and the remaining councillors covered for them.

The nine arrested councillors were among the first people interned on Spike Island, though some of them were subsequently moved.

At the end of his American tour, Donal O’Callaghan returned to Cork in July, 1921, to resume his duties, not only as Lord Mayor but also as Chairman of the County Council and a newly elected TD (he won a seat unopposed in the May, 1921, General Election).

One of those arrested at the fateful meeting of Cork Corporation on January 31 was Alderman Tadhg Barry who was interned at the Ballykinlar Detention Centre in Down. Later in the year, on November 15, he was shot and killed at the camp.

At the coroner’s inquest, it was reported that Barry had approached a perimeter fence in the camp to say goodbye to 14 departing friends who were being released on parole under the terms of the truce agreed between the Irish and British governments. He did not heed an order from a sentry to move away from the fence and was shot.

Tadhg Barry’s funeral was a massive affair. His body was initially brought from Down to Dublin where a Requiem Mass took place in the Pro-Cathedral. Though he was in the midst of the peace talks in London, Michael Collins insisted on attending the Mass in Dublin and he marched in the funeral cortège to Kingsbridge Station (now Heuston Station), from where Barry’s remains were transported to Cork.

Lord Mayor, Cllr Donal O’Callaghan, attended the funeral Mass in Cork and the burial of his colleague in the Republican Plot in St Finbarr’s Cemetery, next to Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, on November 20.

The next day, at a meeting of the Corporation, the councillors passed a resolution calling on the cabinet of the Dáil to consider suspending the London negotiations until the question of the Irish political prisoners had been satisfactorily adjusted.

Aodh Quinlivan is a lecturer at the Department of Government and Politics in UCC. His new book, Forgotten Lord Mayor: Donal Óg O’Callaghan, 1920-1924, was published in November as part of Cork City Council’s Centenary Commemoration Programme.

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