Nashville Gaelic Athletic Club Public Relations Officer
News emerged this week that both the Cork hurlers and footballers will take the pitch in their home Allianz League matches with Limerick and Derry, respectively, wearing special black jerseys with red accents designed by the Cork GAA county board. Those participating in Gaelic games abroad may think that O’Neills is just wanting to sell another $60 alternate piece of kit to supporters. On the contrary, the jerseys will be worn in grave remembrance of events 100 years ago.
Ireland is in the last few years of what is being referred to as the Decade of Centenaries. This decade (give or take on the ending) remembers a whirlwind period of events on the island that shaped much of its status today, beginning with the signing of the Ulster Covenant and ending with the partition of Ireland and the Irish Civil War. Outside of Dublin, it’s hard to argue that any one area embodied the grind for Irish freedom more than Cork. It is, after all, The Rebel County.
The black jerseys that players will wear include images of successive Lord Mayors of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney, who both died at the hands of British authorities in 1920. The jerseys will also signify remembrance of the KIlmichael Ambush and the Burning of Cork, which were incredibly high and low points, respectively, for the crusading Irish people in that same year.
As mentioned earlier, it’s not always obvious to those who play Gaelic games outside of Ireland (minus the countless expats, of course!) to know what’s going on when commemorations take place. God help most of us if that day’s match is broadcast on TG4 as gaeilge. However, there is never a bad time to be reminded that the GAA was as important in pushing forward the cause of Irish freedom as Dáil Éireann or the IRA in the years marked by the Decade of Centenaries. (For further proof, look no further than our piece on 1918’s Gaelic Sunday.) That being said, we’ll take some time to briefly understand these events.
Tomás Mac Curtain (born Thomas Curtain) and Terence MacSwiney followed paths through their youth that resemble many of the central figures in this period of Irish history. Both men would be influential members of numerous cultural and political societies advancing the Gaelic revival. Mac Curtain would be the secretary for Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) in 1902 while he was still a teenager, and taught Irish language lessons in his free time. Terance MacSwiney would found the Celtic Literary Society and Cork Dramatic Society in 1901 and 1908, respectively.
By 1913, both would be members of the Irish Volunteers (the precursor to the Irish Republican Army) and had fine standing within the organization by the time of the Easter Rising. Both Mac Curtain and MacSwiney were meant to be in command of large numbers of troops in Cork’s part of the insurrection, but due to the conflicting orders given by Eoin MacNeill that stopped the Rising from being a nationwide event, MacSwiney never took command of his troops and a share of Mac Curtain’s 1,000 volunteers held out against British forces in their headquarters until their capture. Together, they would be involved in the top leadership of the Cork Volunteers until the army’s General Headquarters split them up into brigades.
Mac Curtain was still the brigadier of the Cork No. 1 Brigade at the time of his election to the Cork city council in January 1920 as a member of the Sinn Féin party. After that election, he was voted by the council to be Lord Mayor. Tomás set about a sweeping political reform of the city. It would be short lived, though. On his 36th birthday, March 20, 1920, Tomás Mac Curtain would be shot dead in front of his family and his house in Blackpool ransacked. The men who carried out the assassination had painted faces and would later be named as members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, with a coroners inquest naming the British Prime Minister Lloyd George as a full conspirator.
Terence MacSwiney was elected to the first Dáil Éireann in the monumental election of 1918 in which Sinn Féin were chosen in a landslide throughout most of the country. After the murder of Mac Curtain, MacSwiney would be chosen as the next Lord Mayor of Cork. His time in the position would also be short-lived. In August of 1920, he would be arrested for seditious materials, most notably the key to a cipher being used by the IRA to pass information. Immediately upon his imprisonment, MacSwiney would begin a hunger strike in protest of his internment and trial by a military court. 74 days into his hunger strike, Terence MacSwiney would die, setting off international outrage, protest, and boycott. His unflinching drive to use his own life in protest clearly influenced Bobby Sands and other members of the Provisional IRA and INLA six decades later in 1980 and 1981 during the Troubles. Both MacSwiney and Tomás Mac Curtain would be buried in the Republican plot at St. Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.
Late in 1920, plans were made to retaliate against the British for their ruthlessness on Bloody Sunday (which we will cover in great detail closer to its anniversary). That summer, the British government founded the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary to help stamp out the insurrection in Ireland. The Auxiliaries were presented to the British people as an expertly trained force. In reality, their training had been as officers in the army during World War I. The commander of the IRA’s 3rd West Cork Flying Column, Tom Barry, would note in his memoir that prior to Bloody Sunday, very little resistance had been raised to the Auxiliaries. Throughout Ireland, especially in Cork, this would have great effects on the morale for the War of Independence. And so, on November 28, 1920, Barry would assemble a column of 36 volunteers to ambush a force of 18 Auxiliaries near Kilmichael. All told, the IRA would kill 17 of their targets, wounding the 18th. This would compare with just 3 casualties for the Irish volunteers. While just short of 20 casualties was nothing to the British forces, it was incredible that the IRA was able to take out an entire party of Auxiliaries at once. The political ramifications for the Irish were enormous. In a war that had relatively few battle casualties, this was a special turning point for the IRA.
In December, a further 12 Auxiliaries would be wounded during an ambush at Dillon’s Cross in Cork city the day after martial law was imposed in Cork, Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary. Immense anger boiled through the Auxiliaries as the attack happened quite close to their headquarters. Overnight from December 11-12, the Auxiliaries and RIC contables (the Black and Tans) burned City Hall, the Carnegie Library, nearly 50 businesses, and between 300 – 350 residential homes. Only 4 total casualties (including a civilian woman) were recorded, but countless people lost their homes and over 2,000 were left unemployed as a result. Damages were found to be nearly £3,000,000.
With Cork being one of the most active areas in the Irish War of Independence and the escalation of that war on a straight upward trajectory throughout 1920, it’s clearly no surprise that we would be left with things to remember. However, the severity of reprisals in the murder of two successive Lord Mayors of Cork city and a widespread burning is hard to find comparable examples of. Without the sacrifices of the people of Ireland throughout their battle for freedom, there is no doubt that the GAA would have been forced out of existence and none of us would be here connected by it. This is especially embodied by the Nashville GAC club, which traces its origins through co-founder Anji Wall back to Cork’s Blackrock National Hurling Club.
It’s with these events in mind that we should all join with the members of the Cork GAA in commemorating these events.
Up the rebels!
Charles Townshend, The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918 -1923 (Penguin UK, 2014)
Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence (McGill-Queens University Press, 2004)
John Crowley (Editor), Atlas of the Irish Revolution (NYU Press, 2017)
Tom Barry, Guerrilla Days In Ireland (Mercier Press, 1981 Edition)
Denis Hurley, Cork hurlers and footballers to wear special black jersey honouring Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence McSwiney (EchoLive.ie, 02/17/2020)