Kieran McCarthy: Murder, myth and how MacCurtain Street got its name

Historian Kieran McCarthy looks at how one of Cork's most iconic streets got it's name
Kieran McCarthy: Murder, myth and how MacCurtain Street got its name
MacCurtain street in Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Historian Kieran McCarthy looks at how one of Cork's most iconic streets got its name

One hundred years ago today, King Street was renamed MacCurtain Street in honour of Cork’’s slain lord mayor.

Then mayor Terence MacSwiney at the weekly corporation meeting proposed in a short motion: “That the name of King Street be changed to MacCurtain Street”.

He did not wish to add anything to the motion except to say that it was their duty “to do honour to their immortal dead” but did propose that the plaque for the thoroughfare be solely in the Irish language.

The Cork Examiner recorded there were 36 of the 56 council members present with the majority on the night being Sinn Féin members.

Commercial public representative Sir John Scott moved as an amendment that the renaming proposal be deferred to the next meeting so those with vested interests in the street could come to address the council and so it could hear public objections.

In 1920, King Street was a busy thoroughfare bustling with a variety of trades and services. It boasted some of Cork’s most beautiful architectural creations from the latter half of the 19th century.

All provided much employment – such as Messrs Dobbin, Ogilvie and Company general provision buildings (1877) the Baptist Church (1892), the elaborate 12-bay five-storey structure building (erected about 1890), which hosted Thompson’s Bakery, The Cork Palace of Varieties (1897), the Metropole Hotel (1897), and the Coliseum cinema (1913).

Smaller businesses also thrived such as vintners, tobacconists, provision merchants, bootmakers, dentists, drapers, dress-makers, florists, fishmongers, fruiterers, newsagents, photographers, victuallers as well as three smaller hotels and a RIC Barracks.

John Scott, himself, was a member of an old Cork family who founded Scott Harley and Company in the early 19th century and who pursued a business in the shipping and shipbuilding industry on Harley Street and Patrick’s Quay.

Nevertheless, at the April 23, 1920 meeting there was no seconder to Scott’s amendment to seek public consultation and without any more debate, the motion was carried. It is unrecorded how traders felt whether they were for or against the name change.

Terence MacSwiney
Terence MacSwiney

John Scott did give a historic reference within his speech pointing out King Street’s much earlier 19th-century history. The street had been called after an old family whose members had been prominently identified with the commerce and politics of Cork. Robert King (1796-1867) was of the Kingston family of Mitchelstown Castle. He was a member of the British army, who stayed in France after Napoleon’s fall.

He was returned to parliament for County Cork – a Whig politician - from 1826 to 1832. In 1836 he was High Sheriff of County Cork.

At the time, it was common practice at the time to name streets after prominent regional members of parliament of which many of Cork’s street names are.

Figuring out which street is named after whom in Cork is a historical puzzle which is often complex but once figured out one can see the deeply embedded British imperial connection, memory, stories, and culture.

During Robert King’s time in politics in the 1820s and 1830s, comparisons between old maps of Cork City show the rapid development and re-alignment of a street called Strand Street, which was renamed King Street to provide for the rise of middle class Roman Catholic investment post-Catholic Emancipation.

Present day Patrick’s Hill, Wellington Road, Summerhill North and St Patrick’s Quay were widened and witnessed more housing development.

In April 1920, the renaming of King Street to MacCurtain Street was one of three acts of remembrance to be put into place to consolidate the public solidarity against the murder of Tomás MacCurtain. The other acts – the inquest and a public memorial fund – also caught the public imagination.

Tomas MacCurtain
Tomas MacCurtain

On March 30, 1920, a public meeting was held in the City Hall to inaugurate a memorial fund for MacCurtain’’s widow and family.

Bishop Daniel Cohalan chaired the meeting. The Cork Examiner records that he very much regretted the sad and tragic event that brought them together.

His first duty and the duty of the whole body of citizens was to express and convey to Mrs MacCurtain, the Lady Mayoress, their sincere sympathy on the great bereavement that had befallen her. He knew the Lord Mayor since 1916, and in his death, he deemed that the citizens of Cork had lost an “intelligent, man, an upright man, and a very unselfish man”.

He appealed to the citizens, irrespective of creed or class, to support the fund noting: “it is not an appeal for a private individual; it is an appeal for a man who was the civic head of the municipality, the first citizen of Cork”.

The speeches from those present – politicians and commercial figures – contained many accolades given to MacCurtain.

Alderman Liam de Róiste’s intervention is noteworthy. He rose and in Irish proposed the MacCurtain Memorial Fund. He appealed to the citizens of Cork and to the people of Ireland, in general, to make this fund a success.

“Tomás MacCurtain was struck down by the hand of an assassin. Had he been spared those associated with his work he felt confident that his energy, his initiative, his love of country, and his desire for the city’s welfare would have been valuable assets to the whole community, and would have been meant much for the progress and welfare of all sections and classes in the city.

"It was a terrible commentary upon the present situation m their country that a man of that character should have been stricken down in such a manner. That meeting was not the place nor probably the time to refer to these conditions, but he believed that he was only speaking the mind of the people when he said that the people of the city and of the land generally were a people who loved order, desired order, loved justice and who hated injustice and tyranny."

Between April and October 1920, donations were listed regularly as subscription lists – over 25 listings at least – within the Cork Examiner. By early October 1920, the public had subscribed over £14,600 in donations and over £2,300 has been given to the MacCurtain family.

For the most part, donations came in small monetary numbers – a pound and few shillings – but despite this every donor was publicly named and thanked. It is clear from analysing the subscriptions lists, every parish in the city and wider region donated large sums of money.

On April 26, 1920, a letter (catalogued in Cork City and County Archives) to Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney from Michael Collins enclosed his contribution to the Lord Mayor's Memorial Fund.

The letter noted the national significance and great importance of the fund. However, one of the largest donations was from Terence MacSwiney himself who gave two donations from his Lord Mayor’s salary – two £125 donations – one at the start of the memorial fund and the other in early October 1920 during his hunger strike Brixton Prison where he gave £125 of his Lord Mayor’s salary.

Dr Kieran McCarthy is a geographer, Cork local historian and an independent member of Cork City Council. His historical work and publications can be viewed at www.corkheritage.ie. 

He is the co-author with John O’Mahony of Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás MacCurtain (2020, Irish Examiner).

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