On This Day 17.4.1920 – Inquest verdict Tomás MacCurtain murder


There is a street in Cork named after him and he was the first of two consecutive fatalities among Lord Mayors of Cork. The murder of Tomás MacCurtain on 2o March 1920 was followed seven months later by the death of his successor, Terence MacSwiney, after a hunger strike in Brixton prison.

MacCurtain, was born on 20 March 1884, and was, therefore, shot dead on his 36th birthday. Of more consequence was that the assassination took place in front of his wife and one of his sons. His background was similar to that of many other republican figures of the early 20th century. He was a member of the Gaelic League and a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, siding with the anti-war element when the organisation split in 1914.

MacCurtain would have been ‘out’ in 1916 but for the failure of his force of 1000 Cork Volunteers to receive orders to that effect from the Dublin rebels. After the Rising he received his further education in revolutionary nationalism in Frongoch prison in North Wales. After his release in 1917 he took up the position of Brigadier in the Cork IRA and was unsuccessful in an attempt in the early months of the Anglo-Irish war to assassinate Sir John French, the British Lord Lieutenant. In January 1920 he was elected to Cork City Council and was later elected Lord Mayor by his Sinn Fein party colleagues.

MacCurtain lived with his family in the Blackpool area of Cork. On 20 March 1920 a number of men – up to eight in all – with blackened faces ransacked his home and shot MacCurtain dead. It was one of a number of reprisal killings to take place on both sides. It has been suggested that McCurtain’s killing was in retaliation for the murder, earlier that day, of Police Constable Murtagh on Pope’s Quay. Whether organized retaliation would have occurred that quickly, within two hours of Murtagh’s killing, is a moot point.

But who actually shot the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Cork. The jury at his inquest had no doubt. The coroner, James.J.McCabe, examined 97 witnesses in all, 64 being members of the RIC. The inquest took nearly a month. The jury, unimpressed by conflicts of evidence among senior RIC officers in the city issued a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against British Prime Minister Lloyd George and against a number of policemen, some named, but with the actual killers described as ‘unknown members of the RIC’.

More extra-judicial killings followed. Michael Collins made it his business to take revenge on any of the RIC officers alleged to have been involved in the assassination. The most prominent of these, RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, the man accused of having ordered the attack, was himself murdered while leaving church in Lisburn in August 1920. In a highly symbolic act MacCurtain’s revolver was used to shoot Swanzy dead. The killing, however, sparked retaliatory action against the Catholic residents of the town.

The jury in the inquest into the assassination of Tomás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, delivered its telling verdict 95 years ago, on this day.


The History Show, 26 May – Book Club – ‘The outer edge of Ulster’ by Hugh Dorian


Life in 19th century Donegal could be, to quote Thomas Hobbes, ‘nasty, brutish and short’. And that was at the best of times, in the most convivial places. The Fanaid peninsula was neither. It is situated on the far side of Lough Swilly to the Inishowen peninsula. With much of the land owned by one of the most oppressive landlords in the country, William Sydney, the 3rd earl of Leitrim, the people of Fanaid, to paraphrase the words of Henry David Thoreau, ‘led lives of  quiet desperation and went to the grave with the song still in them.’ Except for Hugh Dorian, clerk, schoolmaster, whose ‘song’ was a fascinating memoir of the area through most of the Victorian period. His portrayal of Fanad from the 1830’s to the 1890s has finally been published, almost a century after his death, by Lilliput press, in an edition edited by Breandan Mac Suibhne of the University of Notre Dame, and Professor David Dickson of Trinity College, Dublin.

Dorian writes about an impoverished but resilient community, tightly knit but exclusive, hospitable but wary. He describes the traditional Irish land-holding system of rundale and the attempts by the unpopular landlord, the 3rd Earl of Leitrim, to sweep the system away in a  series of evictions in the 1850s and 1860s. [He largely glosses over the infamous murder of Lord Leitrim in 1878]. He also writes about the influence of traditional religious practices on the area as well as the importance of smuggling and poitin to the people and the economy.

Dorian was a former schoolmaster who fell foul of the  local parish priest in Fanaid  and migrated to Derry in 1872, where he became a clerk. The brutal murder of an RIC Detective Inspector William Martin in 1889 prompted him to write the memoir, which has only been published a century after his death in 1914.