Michael Clifford: Echoes of 1920 upheaval as Tomás MacCurtain commemorations curtailed

John Sheehan is the Lord Mayor of Cork at a time of living dangerously.

Michael Clifford: Echoes of 1920 upheaval as Tomás MacCurtain commemorations curtailed

John Sheehan is the Lord Mayor of Cork at a time of living dangerously.

This weekend, he was due to commemorate one of his predecessors, Tomás MacCurtain, who lost his life in violent circumstances at a time of living dangerously.

MacCurtain was shot dead in his home on March 20, 1920. He was murdered by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the state police force, who decided that the best thing to do was to kill the city’s elected leader.

There had been an order to arrest the lord mayor on the basis that he had been active in the IRA’s campaign for independence, but some within the police force took it upon themselves to order his murder.

Sheehan doesn’t face any such dangers as today’s lord mayor, but he is acutely aware that he is serving at a time of unprecedented upheaval.

“There is a slight feeling as if a hurricane is about to come, but what has really impressed me is that community spirit that has come out,” says Mr Sheehan. “One of the things that strikes me is that this will pass. In the next six weeks, it will be very different and we will get through it. It is important to remember that.”

Prior to the onslaught of the current emergency, the Fianna Fáil councillor and GP thought that, around now, his days would be filled with events commemorating his predecessor from a century ago. A series of events was planned, with guests including descendants and President Michael D Higgins due to attend. All of that has been overtaken by events.

For some, MacCurtain is the forgotten lord mayor. After his death, he was succeeded by his friend and fellow IRA commander, Terence MacSwiney, who was subsequently arrested and dispatched to Brixton Prison in London.

There he began a hunger strike in objection to his incarceration. Seventy-four days later, he died. His name quickly became synonymous with sacrifice.

Sheehan accepts that, in some minds, MacSwiney is the lord mayor of the city most widely remembered.

“That is probably the case outside of Cork,” he says.

But within Cork both are very much held in esteem. I’m honoured this year to be wearing the same chain they wore 100 years ago.

“Terence MacSwiney’s death was by hunger strike and that was the first time that happened; it was over a long, protracted period. It probably gained greater international recognition than Tomás MacCurtain’s death, which was a sudden, brutal murder. It would have resonated with those fighting the empire in the world, particularly in India and China.”

Both men received their secondary education in the North Mon, as did another mayor from those times, Donal Óg O’Callaghan. The Mon was once a breeding ground for mayors in the same way it would be for hurlers for most of the remainder of the century.

MacCurtain was among the Sinn Féin contingent who formed an alliance with the trade union movement when Cork City Council sat after the January 1920 elections. After MacCurtain’s election as mayor, Cork City Council became the first in the country to recognise Dáil Éireann, which had been established the previous year.

Mr Sheehan says MacCurtain decided from the outset that he was going to serve all the people of the city.

“When he was elected, he did reach out across the divide and made it clear that he was the lord mayor for all the people and would represent the business and unionist traditions as well as Republicans,” he says.

That was acknowledged as well, after his death, by the Church of Ireland bishop.

Within two months the 36-year-old native of Mourne Abbey would be dead.

The plan to arrest him spoke volumes of where British rule was at during that turbulent year.

“For the crown forces to go and arrest the elected leader of the people, you’re sending a message out that you have lost the moral authority to govern,” says Mr Sheehan.

One of the interesting features in the aftermath of MacCurtain’s murder was the verdict delivered in the coroner’s court. Nominally, the court was an instrument of the prevailing British rule, yet after a detailed hearing, it returned a verdict of “wilful murder by David Lloyd George”, the British prime minister.

All going well, there will be an opportunity later in the year to commemorate where appropriate the other events that shook the country in general and Cork in particular.

Sheehan does recognise that after that, things could get a little messy.

“In a way, 1920 is a relatively straightforward year to commemorate but, as a nation, we face a bigger challenge when we come to the Civil War and these things have to be done sensitively,” he says.

That, of course, is for another day, when hopefully the turbulence which we are currently living through, will have subsided.

- ‘Witness to Murder — The Tomas MacCurtain Inquest’ is available to buy from irishexaminer.com/shop

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