A key figure before the Rising, Thomas Hunter is hardly known outside his native north Cork, reports Niall Murray

Thomas C Hunter was born in Castletownroche, Co Cork in 1883, and began an apprenticeship as a draper in Dublin in 1907.

He befriended Tom Clarke after joining the Gaelic League and was soon sworn into the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He became an IRB centre (head of a ‘circle’, or local club) and was on the organisation’s Supreme Council for a time.

Soon after joining the Irish Volunteers when it was formed in late 1913, Hunter was made vice-commandant to Thomas MacDonagh in the Dublin Brigade 2nd Battalion. He took part in the Howth and Kilcoole gun-running events in 1914.

With his friend Con Colbert, he also continued IRB duties, such as collecting and storing small arms and ammunition. In the three months before Easter 1916, although probably unaware of the IRB Military Council’s rebellion plans, Hunter’s associations with other “extremists” were noted 20 times by Dublin detectives.

Over Easter weekend, he and others detained Bulmer Hobson, a founder member of the Volunteers who the Rising organisers feared might alert the authorities after learning of the plot.

Hunter was deployed at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory during the Rising, and led a detachment to secure an outpost position on New St and Fumbally Lane, but they were called back a few hours later when the position was deemed indefensible. When the surrender order was given by Mac Donagh, Hunter and others wanted to fight to the end.

His death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. Although he had been second-in-command at Jacob’s factory, a junior officer Michael O’Hanrahan was one of the 14 men executed in Dublin.

Thomas Hunter’s reprieve from the death sentence on May 4, 1916, as set out in this dispatch from General John Maxwell to the War Office in London the next day. Future political leader WT Cosgrave was also spared, but there was no such fortune for John MacBride. Picture: National Archives (UK)
Thomas Hunter’s reprieve from the death sentence on May 4, 1916, as set out in this dispatch from General John Maxwell to the War Office in London the next day. Future political leader WT Cosgrave was also spared, but there was no such fortune for John MacBride. Picture: National Archives (UK)

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In Lewes Prison in England, Hunter, Éamon de Valera, and Thomas Ashe were recognised by the men as their commanding officers. The three signed and distributed among the men a ‘no surrender’ declaration on a sheet of toilet tissue.

They would lead prisoners on hunger strikes to demand their right to be treated as prisoners of war, and not as common criminals. Some of these protests would have a detrimental effect on Hunter’s health.

Eventually, the three were transferred to different prisons, but within weeks all Rising prisoners were shipped home to a warmly welcoming Ireland.

Hunter was arrested again during the ‘German Plot’ round-up of Sinn Féin leaders. He ran a front business, The Republican Outfitters’ drapery shop on Dublin’s Talbot St, with Peadar Clancy.

Hunter also led the 1920 Mountjoy Prison hunger strike that, in turn, lead to a general strike across Dublin.

Like many 1916 veterans, he was elected to the first Dáil in December 1918. He was re-elected for Sinn Féin in Cork North-East, and in the Civil War he was quartermaster of the anti-Treaty IRA’s Cork 2nd Brigade.

He married Máire Kelleher, a school teacher from Glanworth and they had one son, Con Colbert Hunter — a tribute to Hunter’s friend who was executed after the Rising. Con was born on Christmas Eve 1931, but his father died less than three months later at home.

He suffered prolonged health complications from repeated hunger strikes and a life on the run.

While in prison in 1919, he was taken to the Royal Infirmary in Gloucester and his influenza developed into rheumatic fever, which probably contributed to the heart disease which killed him.

“Deceased suffered as a result of refusing to take nourishment whilst detained in prison at Mountjoy in 1920,” his widow Máire wrote in a successful 1933 application for a dependant’s allowance under one of the military service pensions acts.

She added he was in constant poor health after that, having never been sick before. The heart disease that caused his death was said to have been contracted while in prison and on the run.

For the loss of her 48-year-old husband from the effects of the Rising and War of Independence, she and Con received an annual allowance of £67 from 1933.

Liam Deasy, Civil War commander of the IRA 1st Southern Division, said he was “an excellent officer and soldier”.

Hunter features in the exhibition, In their Own Words: Cork Stories, Easter 1916, at Cork Public Museum. Much of the information for this was supplied by descendants of the Hunter family: Matt Hannan in Boston and Margaret Corbett, Limerick.

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