Dr Aodh Quinlivan: Donal O’Callaghan was the hero who was almost forgotten

Aodh Quinlivan looks at the life of the Cork lord mayor who fled the city in 1921 so he wouldn’t follow both his predecessors to an early grave

Dr Aodh Quinlivan: Donal O’Callaghan was the hero who was almost forgotten
Donal O’Callaghan succeeded Terence MacSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain as Lord Mayor of Cork, and also acted as Michael Collins’ emissary to raise funds in America.

Daniel (or Donal as we would be called) O’Callaghan, Cork’s third Republican Lord Mayor of 1920, was born this week in 1891. His parents, William O’Callaghan and Catherine (Kate) Donovan had married the previous year and the couple had eight children in all. At the time of Donal’s birth, the O’Callaghan family lived in Factory Lane, before they later moved to Cathedral Place. 

Young Donal went to school at Eason’s Hill, where he was taught by the renowned Eamonn O’Donnchadha. Donal soon earned a strong reputation as an excellent Irish speaker, earning praise in October 1902 from the Republican political activist Pádraig Pearse – who subsequently was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. 

Like Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, Donal O’Callaghan went to secondary school in the fabled North Monastery and his love affair with the Irish language continued.

From the age of eighteen in 1910, Donal was immersed in every Republican organisation and association in Cork city, including the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Fianna Éireann. When the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers (Óglaigh na hÉireann) was formed in December 1913, he immediately became involved and he was elected as the Second Lieutenant of Company B. Over the next few years, O’Callaghan worked tirelessly on behalf of the Volunteers. 

He was particularly keen to develop the organisation in the towns and villages of Cork county. To this end, he was instrumental in the setting-up of district units of the Volunteers. 

William Desmond recounts that when Terence MacSwiney came to Newcestown to start the Volunteers there, he was accompanied by Donal O’Callaghan. Desmond describes O’Callaghan as an ‘inspiration’ because he cycled the twenty-three miles from Cork to Newcestown and back every Sunday to take charge of parades. 

Like many, O’Callaghan was disappointed not to have played an active part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and he blamed his Dublin colleagues for the chaotic organisation and poor communications. In the aftermath of the Rising, he was arrested but was released after a short time in Cork Jail, following the intervention of Bishop Daniel Cohalan.

Dr Aodh Quinlivan: Donal O’Callaghan was the hero who was almost forgotten
Terence MacSwiney

With the rise of Sinn Féin over the following years, O’Callaghan assumed a leadership role and he took over as Chairman of the local branch in Cork city. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not contest the elections for Cork Corporation in January 1920, following which Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor. Interestingly, the outgoing Lord Mayor, William F. O’Connor, had won seats in three different electoral wards, which necessitated the holding of two bye-elections. 

Donal O’Callaghan was nominated for the South Area No. 1 bye-election and, in the absence of any other candidates, he duly took a seat on the Sinn Féin-dominated Cork Corporation. O’Callaghan was ratified as a councillor at the first meeting after the bye- election, on 12 March; little did he know that a little over a week later, Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain would be murdered at home. 

Terence MacSwiney succeeded MacCurtain as Lord Mayor and, following his arrest on 12 August, it was Donal O’Callaghan who deputised as first citizen. In between times, he won a seat on Cork County Council after topping the poll in the Ballincollig Electoral Area. When the members of the County Council met on Saturday 19 June in the Council Chamber of the Courthouse, O’Callaghan was elected as Chairman.

He delivered his acceptance speech in Irish, telling his fellow councillors: "Everything we do in this council will be seen entirely in the light of our loyalty to Dáil Éireann, the government of the Irish Republic. Our outlook and the spirit actuating us, will be the restoration of the Irish language to its proper place. It is a matter of regret that the business of the council cannot be altogether done in Irish, but as much as possible will be."

 One of his first actions as Chairman of Cork County Council was to sign a resolution of the council pledging allegiance to Dáil Éireann as the elected government of the Irish people.

As mentioned earlier, Donal O’Callaghan deputised as Lord Mayor after the arrest of Terence MacSwiney on 12 August. On that fateful night, City Hall was being used for a meeting of the IRB, a meeting of the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, and a sitting of a Republican Court. The previous day, having intercepted a letter, the IRB discovered that City Hall was likely to be raided. 

Dr Aodh Quinlivan: Donal O’Callaghan was the hero who was almost forgotten
Home of Tomás MacCurtain, taken shortly after his death, March 1920

The prominent Republican activist Liam Deasy subsequently gave a statement to an IRB inquiry stating that he came to Cork on 12 August to warn Donal O’Callaghan of the impending raid, but the latter failed to sound the alarm or inform Lord Mayor MacSwiney. While Terence MacSwiney was on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, O’Callaghan was in daily contact with Fr Dominic O’Connor who had travelled to London to tend to the Lord Mayor. In return, O’Callaghan provided regular updates on the status of the prisoners on hunger strike in Cork Jail, including Michael Fitzgerald and Joe Murphy. After the death of MacSwiney, Donal O’Callaghan led a delegation from Cork Corporation to attend the Requiem Mass at St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark and accompany the Lord Mayor on his final journey back to Cork.

The elected members of Cork Corporation met in City Hall on Thursday 4 November to elect their third Lord Mayor of 1920. 

Sinn Féin’s Michael O’Cuill proposed Donal O’Callaghan and the nomination was seconded by Edward Coughlan. With no other nominations and with no dissenting voices, Councillor Donal O’Callaghan was accordingly unanimously elected as Lord Mayor of Cork. 

Amidst sustained applause from the councillors and those in the public gallery, O’Callaghan signed the declaration of office and was invested with the historic mayoral chain. Cork’s new Lord Mayor then rose to speak, initially in Irish and then in English. In a short but passionate address, he referred to his two Republican predecessors who were ‘murdered by the British government’. 

He added: ‘My position, which I am setting forth as clearly and distinctly and glaringly as it can possibly be set forth, is that we absolutely refuse to be tyrannised. Our demand in this country has been made and we are not going to flinch no matter what the result or cost might be. If that gang [British government] continues its campaign of organised murder, we will only release the grip of Republicanism on the chair I occupy when they have closed the grave over the last Republican in Cork’. At twenty-nine years of age, Donal O’Callaghan was now simultaneously Lord Mayor and Chairman of Cork County Council, two positions he would hold until 1924.

Five weeks after his election as Lord Mayor, O’Callaghan watched in horror as his beloved city was burnt by British forces. This included the City Hall and the Carnegie Free Library which were both destroyed. Within days he fled Cork for the United States, as a stowaway on the steamship, West Cannon. 

There were three main reasons for his sudden departure, First, he had no desire to be Cork’s third dead Republican Lord Mayor of 1920. He was effectively on the run, staying in different houses every night and, having received multiple death threats, he feared for his life. Secondly, he wished to provide evidence to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland which was in session in Washington. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the Dáil Minister for Finance, Michael Collins, had asked him to act as his emissary in America to help secure a loan for the Dáil, so that the Republic could function properly. 

O’Callaghan spent the next eight months in the US and, after giving evidence to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland, he toured the country making a series of public speeches. One such speech was to a crowd of 4,000 people in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House.

Donal O’Callaghan returned to Cork as a TD, having won a seat uncontested in the general election of May 1921. He opposed the Treaty, telling the Dáil on 3 January 1922: ‘I take the view that every member of the Dáil has sufficient brains and sufficient intelligence and a sufficient conception of his responsibility from every point of view to decide for himself or herself what the course of action to be taken is. I think it is perfectly clear that on no side of this question is there a monopoly of patriotism, a monopoly of common sense. Why we cannot here take different views without levelling charges at one another is beyond me’.

O’Callaghan suffered a bitter blow in June 1922 when he lost his Dáil seat and, following the outbreak of the Civil War, he departed for Europe and then America. He never again resided in Cork or attended a meeting of the Corporation or County Council.

 Initially however, he remained politically active. Like Éamon de Valera, he believed that the second Dáil had never been properly dissolved. Accordingly, when de Valera announced a Republican cabinet in October 1922, he included Donal O’Callaghan as Acting Minister for Local Government (deputising for Seán T. O’Kelly who was in jail). 

The Publicity Department of the Provisional Government poured scorn on de Valera’s cabinet, noting: "Donal O’Callaghan has been appointed as ‘Minister’ even though he is not now a member of the Dáil, having been rejected by his constituents at the last elections!" 

de Valera later appointed O’Callaghan as Minister for Foreign Affairs and as his Republican envoy to the US.

O’Callaghan resigned as Lord Mayor of Cork and Chairman of Cork County Council in 1924 and he quietly withdrew from public life.

 He spent some years in Strasbourg, before returning to Ireland to work for the ESB in Athlone and Dublin. He had no interest in discussing his former political life and refused to be interviewed by Ernie O’Malley who travelled around Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s talking to survivors of Ireland’s struggle for independence (O’Malley described him as the rudest man in all Ireland). 

Donal O’Callaghan died in Dublin on 12 September 1962, aged seventy-one. He is buried in Dean’s Grange Cemetery and, under his full name, the headstone reads: ‘Donal Óg ó Corcaigh’. 

Though understandably overshadowed by MacCurtain and MacSwiney, Donal O’Callaghan deserves to be remembered as someone who simultaneously served as Lord Mayor, County Council Chairman and TD and was trusted and respected by Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera.

Reserved, principled and austere, he did not suffer fools gladly and should be commemorated as a major political figure in the tumultuous years of the early 1920s.

As part of Cork City Council’s Centenary Commemoration Programme, UCC’s Dr Aodh Quinlivan is writing Forgotten Lord Mayor: Donal Óg O’Callaghan, 1920-1924. It is due to be launched on 4 November 2020, marking the 100-year anniversary of O’Callaghan’s election as Lord Mayor.

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