Tomás MacCurtain was born Ballyknockane, Mourne Abbey, County Cork, on 20 March 1884, the son of Patrick Curtin, a farmer, and Julia Sheehan. He attended The North Monastery school where Tomás fell in love with the Irish Language in addition to interests in Irish music, poetry, and history. MacCurtain became an active member of the Gaelic revival and joined the Blackpool, Cork branch of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League). His energy, charisma, and organizational abilities quickly became apparent; he was elected branch secretary at the age of 18 after only two years of membership.
While working as a clerk at the Steam Package Company, MacCurtain would bicycle the countryside, establishing branches of the Gaelic League and teaching classes in the Irish language. MacCurtain met Eilish Walsh at a Gaelic League meeting, and they married in 1908. They had six children, five of whom survived into adulthood. MacCurtain opened a small clothing and rainwear factory family at 40 Thomas Davis Street where he and an extended family that included his wife’s mother, brother and sisters lived upstairs
As with so many of his generation, MacCurtain’s love of his country’s native language and culture soon awakened a desire to see independence for Ireland and self-determination for the Irish people. When the Irish Volunteers formed in Cork, MacCurtain and his close friend and future Irish martyr Terence MacSwiney were amongst the first to join. Not surprisingly, MacCurtain’s talents for organization soon saw him in command of the Irish Volunteers in Cork. In 1916, due to the confusion caused by the countermanding orders issued by Eoin MacNeill, the Cork volunteers did not realize until it was too late that the Easter Rising was proceeding. Despite not having risen, and having surrendered their arms on assurances they would be returned, MacCurtain and the members of the Cork volunteers were still arrested and interned. At Frongoch Prisoner of War camp in Wales, MacCurtain met and made friends with fellow Corkman Michael Collins. After the general amnesty of participants in the Rising, MacCurtain returned to active duty as a Commandant of the First Cork Brigade.
However, it was politics, not the battlefield, that would seal MacCurtain’s fate. On 15 January 1920, MacCurtain was elected as the Sinn Féin candidate in the Cork City municipal election, winning overwhelmingly. When the corporation (legislature) met, he was chosen by his fellow councilors to be the Lord Mayor. No sooner had he donned his chain of office, then MacCurtain immediately recognized the authority of the independent Irish Government of Dáil Éireann and raised the Irish Tricolor over City Hall.
With the energy and dedication that were his trademarks, MacCurtain threw himself into his role as mayor. He began a process of political reform within the city, making changes to the way in which the council operated and was run. He was quickly recognized across the community as a man who worked tirelessly and fairly for all the citizens of Cork, regardless of class, creed, or politics.
However, MacCurtain’s high profile as a Republican military and political leader soon drew the attention and wrath of British authorities. On 16 March 1920, MacCurtain received a threatening letter ‘Thomas MacCurtain prepare for death. You are doomed.’ It was written on Dáil Éireann letterhead that had been captured in an earlier raid on Dáil Éireann headquarters and was now being used by British intelligence to sow dissension in the Republican ranks while providing cover for planned operations.
Around 1:00 AM on 20 March 1920, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) surrounded the MacCurtain home. Men disguised with blackened faces and civilian clothes burst through the doors of the MacCurtain house. One held MacCurtain’s wife at rifle point while two others rushed up the stairs. They stopped outside the bedroom, MacCurtain shared with his wife and ten-month-old baby and shouted for him to come out. They shot him twice fatally as he opened the bedroom door. His brother-in-law, who lived in the house, raced to a window to shout for help only to be met with a volley of shots from the street.
Mac Curtain was still conscious, but it was clear that the wounds were fatal. In an effort to console her husband, his wife leaned over him and whispered: “Remember, darling, it’s for Ireland.” A priest arrived who was able to hear his confession and anointed him. It was the morning of MacCurtain’s 36th birthday. His last words were: “Into Thy Hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Outrage was immediate. Dr. Charles Dowse, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork Cloyne and Ross, spoke for many when he described the late Lord Mayor as “a straight man who was anxious to do his duty and who tried to administer the affairs of the city as earnestly and as conscientiously as he could”. Following up on the “false flag” of the threatening note to MacCurtain, the British Government attempted to play off the assassination of MacCurtain as an internal power struggle within the IRA. Few, if any, were fooled.
On the 20 March, a Coroner’s inquest was held in which ninety-seven witnesses were examined, sixty-four of them being police, thirty-one civilians, and two military. On 17 April the jury, issued an unanimous verdict which shook the world:
“We find that the late Alderman Tomás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, died from shock and haemorrhage caused by bullet wounds, and that he was willfully murdered under circumstances of the most callous brutality, and that the murder was organised and carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary, officially directed by the British Government, and we return a verdict of willful murder against David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England; Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; Ian McPherson, late Chief Secretary of Ireland; Acting Inspector General Smith, of the Royal Irish Constabulary; Divisional Inspector Clayton of the Royal Irish Constabulary; District Inspector Swanzy and some unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. We strongly condemn the system at present in vogue of carrying out raids at unreasonable hours. We tender to Mrs. MacCurtain and family our sincerest sympathy. We extend to the citizens of Cork our sympathy in the loss they have sustained by the death of one so eminently capable of directing their civic administration.”
For not the first time in Irish History, when Britain received unfavorable results, they change the rules. When MacCurtain’s successor as Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney was later arrested and tried, it would be by military tribunal operating under the Defence of the Realm Act. MacSwiney would die on a hunger strike protesting the legitimacy of that court. In Limerick the following year, on 6 March 1921, the mayor was murdered in similar circumstances to MacCurtain. The killings were so outrageous that even British General Gough wrote: ‘Law and order have given way to a bloody and brutal anarchy… England has departed further from her own standards, and further from the standards even of any nation in the world, not excepting the Turk and Zulu, than has ever been known in history before.’
Sadly, these events echo to us in our own times. In 1989 Lawyer Pat Finucane was assassinated in front of his family just as MacCurtain was; the British Government has continued to delay and dissemble the pursuit of justice. England continues to “departed further from her own standards, and further from the standards even of any nation in the world” as it attempts to shield her security forces by creating a special protected class to avoid the pursuit of justice.
In the memory of Tomás MacCurtain, we can not let this continue.