Ireland’s Wars: The Murder Of Tomas Mac Curtain

The War of Independence, and indeed the larger revolutionary period, is a segment of Irish history where the action of assassination is seen time and again. The IRA killed plenty of people on a singular basis in this period, most notably with the Squad in Dublin. The forces of Britain had also undertaken similar operations, though without any clear indication that they were formally ordered. But in March 1920 a killing occurred in Co Cork that seemed to go beyond these things: the active targetting and execution of a significant military and political figure, whose death would reverberate throughout Ireland and beyond.

Tomas Mac Curtain is someone that we have already talked about a bit, in the context of his involvement in the Easter Rising outside of Dublin. Born in 1884, he was raised in Cork City by a nationalist family, and was secretary of his local Gaelic League branch at the age of 18. Roles in Fianna Eireann and then the Irish Volunteers followed, as Mac Curtain rose in the ranks to eventually become the brigade commander in Cork.

What followed we have discussed before, but can spare a few sentences to recap. Mac Curtain was a respected officer who trained his men vigourously and planned a great deal for Easter Week, but all of those preparations were upset by the failure of the Aud’s mission, and then the confused nature of the orders received from Dublin. With radically different instructions sent by Pearse, MacNeill and others, Mac Curtain and his officers were left in a unappealing quagmire, and eventually ended up doing essentially nothing, waiting for something definitive. By the end of the Easter Week, under pressure from clergy and local politicians, Mac Curtain negotiated a handover of Volunteer arms to the authorities, with the hope that these would be returned in time, but the guns were kept and the leadership, including Mac Curtain, arrested.

Mac Curtain spent time in several different prisons and camps, including at Frongoch, before being released as part of the amnesties. After the tribunals into what had occurred in Cork in 1916 were finished, Mac Curtain was left with the task of building the strength of republican militarism back up in the county, a job that he threw himself into with gusto. Perhaps driven by the perceived failure of their part in Easter Week, Mac Curtain, appointed as the commander of Cork’s No 1 Brigade, worked tirelessly to recruit and train men into the nascent local IRA, which rapidly became one of the largest of the entire force.

But things were not all wine and roses. Recriminations within Cork over what had happened in 1916 would never completely go away, with many of the subordinate officers and rank-and-file having a less than stellar opinion of Mac Curtain and his staff. Mac Curtain was also close enough to GHQ, especially Michael Collins, taking trips to Dublin to discuss strategy, attacks and the general course of the war there: Mac Curtain had even been one of the men tasked with the first, aborted, ambush on John French. Such closeness also alienated some members of the Cork units, who resented what they saw as Dublin interference in their operations, and hesitance to approve larger scale attacks than those that took place, often ad-hoc and unsanctioned, in 1919. Mac Curtain, to these men, was part of that larger problem, too willing to show deference to Dublin, and too unwilling to push for the sort of grander operations that many wanted.

Chief among these men was undoubtedly Sean O’Hegarty, a puritanical IRB member who had wanted to carry out an attack on Macroom’s RIC post in 1916, but had been prevented from doing so owing to lack of men. Now the vice-commandant of No 1. Brigade, he grew exasperated with Mac Curtain’s hesitancy to act or order attacks on individual RIC members, with the O/C preferring larger-scale operations. The unhappiness with Mac Curtain’s leadership grew to the extent that O’Hegarty, with a number of other like-minded individuals within the Brigade, raided the Macroom post for arms without orders in 1919. The raid was a material success, capturing 50 badly needed rifles, along with a store of ammunition. Similarly, he had set up a bomb making post in Cork without Mac Curtain’s knowledge, which subsequently exploded in May 1919. 

Such actions undermined the chain of command enough that Mac Curtain instituted disciplinary proceedings against those who had led them.  O’Hegarty appears to have paid little heed to such things, with his band of like-minded IRA men quickly becoming known as “Hegarty’s crowd”. Some accounts have put them a footing similar to The Dublin Squad, but they acted in a much more “rogue” fashion.

In January 1920, Mac Curtain turned to more political activities, and as a Sinn Fein candidate was elected as Councillor of Cork City’s 3rd North West ward. Shortly after this, his fellow Councillors, in a legislature now dominated by Sinn Fein, selected him to be the Lord Mayor of the city. Such an appointment, one mirrored in other councils all over the country, married the political aspects of the republican cause with the military, and made the already prominent Mac Curtain one of the most high-profile men in the county.

On the 19th March, an RIC constable, James Murtagh, was shot dead on the Cork Quays, while returning from the funeral of a fellow constable killed in an attack a few days earlier. Murtagh was believed to have been torturing a captured IRA member for information: the attack did not have higher sanction, and appears to have been the work of “O’Hegarty’s crowd”. When he heard about the death, Mac Curtain was unhappy with what had happened, expressed sympathy for Murtagh, and called for such killings to cease, words that would only have confirmed the opinion of him held by others like O’Hegarty. It is only fair to say that Mac Curtain was not dead set against violent action against the RIC or British military, but wanted there to be a higher ambition, greater coordination and firm direction from on high: IRA members taking potshots at every RIC constable they saw was something he could not support.

Only a few hours later, Mac Curtain himself was dead. In the early morning of the 20th March, his 36th birthday, a group of armed men with blackened faces forced their way into his Cork City home. While two held his wife at the door, two others went upstairs to his bedroom and shot him dead. Just how many men were involved is a subject of some confusion, as some witnesses claim over a dozen more were outside the building, and fired shots from those positions.

Just who exactly these men were may seem obvious, but the question deserves at least some consideration. The main suspect was local RIC, choosing to kill one of Cork’s primary republican military officers and political figures. This likelihood is given further weight by claims that the shooters had English accents, and by the fact that the local RIC essentially choose not to investigate the murder in the aftermath. Mac Curtain’s arrest had apparently been ordered that night, but RIC witnesses differ in how far along the chain that order had come, but it does indicate a reason why RIC would have been there. The official inquest into the event, despite the lack of hard evidence, had no problem finding the local RIC guilty, though the political sympathies of the jury may be evident from the fact that they went further, laying the crime at the feet of various people, all the way up to John French and David Lloyd George. That being said, Mac Curtain’s hesitance to sanction attacks, and condemnation of some RIC killings, has left some thinking that it made little sense for the RIC to kill him. 

The other suspect people have considered is elements of the IRA that had grown tired of Mac Curtain’s stances. Things had grown fractured to some extent in the Brigade, and O’Hegarty, as a high-ranking officer, was in a position to benefit from Mac Curtain’s removal: O’Hegarty did become O/C of the brigade soon enough. The question is whether the resentment of Mac Curtain was enough to prompt some men to go so far as to shoot him dead: such “fragging” does not appear to have been a very obvious part of the War of Independence.

The third suspect was a supposed group separate from the RIC, but similar in outlook. So called “Anti-Sinn Fein” associations had been rumoured to have been popping up in the area, local civilians who disliked the rise of republican political and military power, and who felt strongly enough about the “problem” to do something about it. Comparisons were made in the press to the Ku Klux Klan, and some linked these associations to Freemasonry, a catch-all bogeyman for many Catholic nationalists. Certainly such entities existed to some extent, possibly a coalition of Protestant businessmen happy to engage in vigilante activities, taking part in a few direct attacks on republican targets. In most respects they are a mere footnote in the period, and may well have just been a front for members of the RIC.

In the end, it seems unlikely that the IRA would have been willing to kill one of their most prominent members over a dispute on strategy, and the “Anti-Sinn Fein” groups were more in the line of sending threatening letters than taking actual action. We will never know for sure, but applying Occum’s Razor leads only to one conclusion: that members of the RIC decided to kill Mac Curtain that night, because they viewed him as an enemy, and perhaps as a direct retaliation for the death of Constable Murtagh just a short time before. Such retaliatory killings were not officially sanctioned at the time, but things were changing in Ireland: soon enough, reprisals would become an official part of British government policy. The killing of Mac Curtain may just have been an early part of that process.

His death received widespread media attention, both inside and outside Ireland. The murder was near universally condemned, and the RIC predictably got the brunt of the blame. Mac Curtain’s funeral was a huge affair – the inquest into the death of Murtagh was affected as only eight jurors showed up, the absence blamed on Mac Curtain’s last rites – that provided yet another easy propaganda opportunity for the IRA and Sinn Fein. The death of an elected representative in such circumstances brought swift reproach from many international sources: if it had been a pre-planned killing by Crown Forces, any potential positives for them were swiftly wiped out in the larger battle for public opinion.

Michael Collins took Mac Curtain’s death hard, and became focused on gaining some measure of revenge for the whole affair. His, and the Cork IRA’s, efforts to arrange this would lead to one of the most dramatically ironic deaths of the whole period, and spark a wave of sectarian violence that some would later compare to an outright pogrom. Occurring later in 1920, it is a section of the War of Independence I will get to in time.

Mac Curtain’s death leads us directly into the next topic of conversation, a significant part of the Irish revolutionary period that I have not been able to give much attention to up to this point. Sinn Fein and IRA members taken prisoner at the time were denied “political” status by authorities that preferred to treat them as more common criminals. Such detainees, among them Mac Curtain’s successor as Lord Mayor of Cork, would resort to hunger strikes in response. In the next entry, we will discuss republican hunger striking of this period in more detail, how it was carried out, how the British responded, and what the overall effects on the war were.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Murder Of Tomas Mac Curtain

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Hunger Strikes | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: 1920 In Belfast | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Rathgar Road Shootout | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA After The Second World War | Never Felt Better

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