Republicanism in Cork - Ireland's Rebel County

Cork has a long and proud republican tradition. The article below touches briefly on some of the main people and events over the last 150 years. 

As early as the 1860s Cork was a hotbed of republican agitation, being one of the main centres of the revolutionary underground organisation the Fenians or Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Indeed, the forerunner of the IRB, the Phoenix Society, was founded in 1858 by Rosscarbery man Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who served many years in English jails for his activities. Cork’s role in the Fenian movement led to its being named “The Rebel City” by the British authorities.

The early years of the twentieth century saw an upsurge of cultural and political activity in Ireland. The Gaelic League, GAA and Irish Literary Theatre all sought, in their different ways, to renew and strengthen the sense of a distinctive Irish culture. Revolutionary socialists and trade unionists like James Connolly and Jim Larkin organised workers to demand better pay and conditions. The IRB began to re-organise and a number of nationalist clubs and associations sprang up. In 1905, several of these came together to form Sinn Féin. 

Cork was not behind-hand in this activity.  In 1901 Terence McSwiney helped found the Celtic Literary Society, with the objective of increasing awareness of Irish literature. In 1908 he founded the Cork Dramatic Society with Daniel Corkery and wrote a number of plays for them. Sinn Féin was also active in the city from 1905 onwards, with both Terence McSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain – each of whom would later become Lord Mayor of Cork and die in the course of Ireland’s independence struggle – early members.

Following the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to oppose the granting of any measure of Home Rule to Ireland, the nationalist Irish Volunteer Force was founded in 1913. Terence McSwiney rapidly organised the volunteers in Cork; he was at the same time President of the local branch of Sinn Féin.  

Following news of the Easter Rising in Dublin the Cork Volunteers prepared for a call-up notice which never arrived. The R.I.C. moved swiftly to arrest and imprison known republicans. At Castlelyons in East Cork the Kent brothers refused to surrender themselves, leading to the siege of the house and the death of an R.I.C. constable. Following the arrival of the military the brothers were forced to surrender. David and Richard, both wounded, were removed to Fermoy military hospital where Richard died. Thomas and William Kent were subsequently charged with murder. William was acquitted but Thomas Kent was sentenced to death and executed on May 9th 1916.

The 1918 general election saw a landslide victory for Sinn Féin, which stood on a platform of refusing to take seats in Westminster and establishing a separate parliament in Ireland, to be called Dáil Eireann. Sinn Féin won every seat in Cork City and County. 

Meanwhile the volunteers were re-organising and re-arming themselves as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). When the British government sought to suppress the Dáil, guerrilla war rapidly ensued.

Cork played a pivotal role in the conflict that followed. At one time, one third of all British forces in Ireland were concentrated in the county. The three Cork brigades were among the most active, determined and effective formations in the IRA. Figures like Tom Barry and Liam Lynch entered legend for their skill as guerrilla leaders. Barry’s victories at Kilmichael (1920) and Crossbarry (1921) played a crucial role in forcing the British government to seek a negotiated settlement with the independence movement. 

However, the Tan War was also a period of suffering and tragedy for Cork. In the early hours of 20 March 1920, members of the R.I.C. burst into the house of Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain and shot him dead. MacCurtain was succeeded as Mayor by his friend Terence McSwiney; however, in August 1920 he was arrested for possession of seditious documents, tried by court martial and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. After his arrest he immediately went on hunger strike. He died on 25 October 1920 and his body was brought home for burial.

Less then two months later, on the night of 11th December 1920, British troops and auxiliaries went on a rampage in Cork City in retaliation for an IRA ambush earlier in the day, burning and looting large areas of the City Centre. British forces deliberately set fire to several blocks of buildings along the east and south sides of Saint Patrick’s Street, as well as the City Hall and Carnegie Library.  

Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, Cork was one of the main centres of resistance to the new Free State government and imposition of partition on Ireland. The city was under the control of the IRA which took over The Cork Examiner and used it to promote its side in the conflict, before the City was captured by the Free State army in August 1922.

The decades after the Treaty and Civil War were a fallow time for republicanism. However a minority continued to keep the ideal of a sovereign 32 county Irish republic alive and Cork always played its full role within the struggle. It was during this period that Cork republican Margaret Buckley became the first woman to head a political organisation in Ireland, serving as President of Sinn Féin from 1937-1950. 

The Civil Rights campaign in the North during the 1960s and the repression with which it was met awakened the sleeping embers of republicanism throughout Ireland. In the years that followed the republican movement in Cork was revitalised and reorganised. In this period two young republicans from Cork gave their lives on active service in the 6 counties. Volunteer Tony Ahern came from Mayfield and was educated at the North Monastery School. A politically aware young man, the civil rights campaign had a major impact on him and he joined the Cork Brigade of the IRA. Having volunteered for active service in the six counties, he went to fight alongside the IRA in Fermanagh. The active service unit he was attached to had planted a land mine to target British Forces using the Roslea road. The mine went off prematurely at Mullinahinch near Roslea, and Tony Ahern died on the 10th May 1973. Just over a month later, on 25th June 1973, his friend and comrade Dermot Crowley was killed along with Vols Sean Loughran and Patrick Carty when the bomb they were transporting in a car exploded prematurely near Omagh, County Tyrone.
Another volunteer with Cork connections who died in this phase of the struggle was Diarmuid O'Neill. Born in London of Irish parents, he took an early interest in Irish culture and spent much of his time in County Cork. He was shot and killed while unarmed in the course of a raid by the London Metropolitan Police at Hammersmith in London in September 1996.  In the six weeks leading up to the shooting, the police kept O'Neill and fellow IRA Volunteers Brian McHugh and Patrick Kelly under intensive surveillance, including bugging of O'Neill's room and video surveillance. At 4.30am on 23rd September the police conducted a raid on the hotel where O’Neill was staying with the expressed intention of arresting all three. The results of the post-mortem examination carried out on the body of O'Neill showed a "patterned" bruise on his scalp which in the opinion of the pathologist for the British Home Office may have resulted from "an individual treading on his head". Even though O'Neill was bleeding heavily and severely injured, he was dragged down the steps of the hotel to the outside of the building where he was denied vital medical care for 25 minutes, despite there being an ambulance on site. O'Neill later died in hospital. After the raid, police claimed that there had been armed resistance from O’Neill and his comrades. However evidence emerged later which showed that all three complied with police demands during the raid and that none were armed or in possession of explosives. Diarmuid O'Neill is buried at St. Mologas' Cemetry, Timoleague, County Cork.

In the 1990s there was a new focus among republicans on community politics and elections, and in 1999 Sinn Féin won its first seat on Cork City Council in many decades. The 2002 general election saw Jonathan O’Brien gain 2,860 votes for the party in Cork North Central, and in the local elections of 2004 Annette Spillane won a second seat for Sinn Féin on the City Council in the Cork North East Ward. The 2007 general election saw further substantial gains for Sinn Féin in both Cork North Central and South Central constituencies, and shortly thereafter the co-option of Fiona Kerins to Cork City Council brought the party’s number of seats on the local authority to three.
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