Up the Rebels

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By Gerry Adams (for Léargas)

The necessary cancellation of Easter Rising Commemorations does not mean we should not celebrate these events. We can all wear an Easter Lily. Wherever possible wreaths can still be laid, Proclamations read, a moments silence observed. All this can be done by one or two people while keeping social distance. No need for big crowds. No need even to leave our homes. Find a quiet space. Remember fallen comrades. Read a Pearse or MacDonagh poem to yourself. Sing or play a patriotic song. Reflect on the lives, the work, the courage of the men and women of 1916 and those who followed their example since then. Reflect on the past. Plan for the future.

Back in the day Easter Commemorations were banned by the old order in Belfast and Dublin. But intrepid republicans usually found a way to break the ban. Some even went to gaol for doing so. Back in the day in punishment cells or lockup, as political prisoners, separated from other incarcerated comrades, we would pay our own individual homage to the past and the future. On our ownie-ohs in a bare prison cell. Alone. But together. Separated. But united.

In the last eight years of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ there have been many innovative, emotional, often inspiring, frequently exuberant, and poignant commemorations across the island of Ireland and beyond. For me one of the most memorable and goosebump moments occurred on a crisp Easter Sunday morning in 2016. Thousands came to the Sinn Féin commemoration outside the GPO in Dublin. In one unforgettable moment they spontaneously raised their voices acappella. It started like a whisper and grew in defiant harmony as the echo of the song swelled up to fill O’Connell Street as proud rebels joyously sang...

“A Nation once again, A Nation once again, And Ireland, long a province, be A Nation once again!

“A Nation once again, A Nation once again, And Ireland, long a province, be A Nation once again!”

All of these commemorations marked events that took place in the upheaval that shook Ireland a century ago. The signing of the Ulster Covenant; the Dublin Lock-out; the formation of the Irish Citizen’s Army, the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBán; gun-running by the UVF and Irish Volunteers; the 1916 Easter Rising, The Proclamation and the execution of the leaders; the 1918 election; the establishment of the First Dáil in January 1919 and more.

Many of these were organised by local communities proud of their history.

1920 - a century ago - was an especially important year. For many it was the tipping point for much that has occurred since. It was a year in which the IRA demonstrated to the British government that resistance to British rule was no short term aberration but a popular struggle for change that could not be militarily defeated. Most of Trim in County Meath was destroyed by the RIC and Black and Tans; so was Balbriggan and Cork city. Little wonder patriotic citizens were outraged by the Irish governments intention recently to honour these forces.

In December 1920 the British passed the Government of Ireland Act which imposed partition and established two states on our island.

Two of Corks Lord Mayors died in the cause. Last Friday - March 20 - was the anniversary of one of these - the murder of the Rebel City’s first Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain. He had been elected to the position of Mayor after the local government elections on 15 January 1920. That election, following on from the 1918 election, saw significant gains for Sinn Féin. The January elections were for urban and district Councils. Sinn Féin and Labour candidates and other nationalists won 172 of the island’s 206 Councils. Later in June Sinn Féin won 338 out of 393 local government bodies, including 36 rural districts out of 55 in Ulster. One consequence of this was that unionists moved quickly to introduce a major gerrymandering of council boundaries in the six counties. They ended the PR system of election, and introduced property qualifications for the vote which left tens of thousands of nationalists with no franchise in local government elections.

At his election as Lord Mayor of Cork on January 31, Tomás MacCurtain pledged that he would stand by the principles of the Republic declared at Easter 1916 and to promote Irish freedom. He proposed that the Council give its allegiance to Dáil Éireann. He believed that local authorities were key to the success of the First Dáil. He said: “it was up to local bodies now to pledge their allegiance to the government set up by the representatives of the people – to pledge their allegiance to Dáil Éireann.” He then raised the tricolour over Cork City Hall. MacCurtain’s election was greeted with loud applause and a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann – A Soldier’s Song - which at that time was generally referred to by the public as the Sinn Féin song.

As well as being Lord Mayor MacCurtain was also Commanding Officer of the Cork No 1 Brigade of the IRA. He was very popular, a teacher of Irish, an advocate of the Gaelic League, and a diligent public representative.

As a young man MacCurtain had travelled the roads and lanes of rural Munster promoting the Gaelic League and teaching classes in Irish. Later he travelled the same roads promoting and organising the Irish Volunteers in Cork. After the 1916 Rising he was interned. On his release and following the commencement of the Tan War MacCurtain emerged as a popular leader in the IRA.

In the early hours of March 20th 1920 – MacCurtain’s 36th birthday – armed RIC men with blackened faces led by Inspector Oswald Swanzy forced their way into his home. It had been raided over 20 times in previous months. His wife Eilís later said that “they seemed to know the house better than I did.” Two men ran upstairs to his bedroom. As Tomás MacCurtain opened the bedroom door he was shot twice in the chest. A third shot was also fired. He fell to the floor in front of his family. An hour later, as the family were kneeling by his bed, British soldiers arrived and searched the house, including the bed on which MacCurtain’s body lay.

His murder sparked outrage and was widely condemned. Tomás MacCurtain’s body, dressed in his Irish Volunteer uniform, was brought to Cork to lie in state in Cork Cathedral. The funeral cortege was said to have been the biggest ever seen in the city.

On 17 April 1920, a coroner’s inquest was held into the death of Mac Curtain. The jury returned a verdict of murder against RIC DI Oswald Swanzy, British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland John French, Viscount French, and the Inspector General of The Royal Irish Constabulary T.J. Smith.

The British, in an effort to protect Swanzy from IRA reprisals, transferred Swanzy from Cork to Lisburn.

Volunteers of the First Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade went there to kill him. They did so on 22 August, as Swanzy was leaving Christ Church Cathedral, Market Square, Lisburn.

It is widely believed that Mac Curtain’s personal handgun was used to kill Swanzy.

Catholic residential areas of Lisburn were burned in revenge by loyalists. Several people were later prosecuted for the burnings. Loyalists attacked Catholic areas of Belfast. A total of 33 people died over the next ten days in sectarian rioting and shooting in the city.

Tomás MacCurtain was the first of two Cork Lord Mayor’s to die that year. Seven months later, in October 1920, MacCurtain’s friend and comrade Terence MacSwiney died in Brixton prison after 73 days on hunger strike. MacSwiney, who replaced Tomás MacCurtain as Lord Mayor after his murder, gave the oration at his funeral. He said that although MacCurtain’s life’s work had been interrupted the fight for freedom would carry on.

This year as part of a programme of events to mark the 1920 centenary in Cork the GAA produced special commemorative jerseys for its senior footballers and hurlers. This is an innovative way to honour our history. Fair play to those involved. The geansaí front has an image of Tomás MacCurtain on the left and Terence MacSwiney on the right, with Cork burning as the backdrop. The back of the jersey has an image of the commemorative stone at Kilmichael which marks the ambush in November 1920 of a force of British auxiliaries. It was the biggest engagement of the Tan War and saw 16 auxiliaries killed and three IRA volunteers die.

Thankfully those days of conflict, including in our own time, are over. But we should not be reticent about remembering them. We should do so respectfully and in a tolerant way. Revisionists should be challenged intelligently and robustly. There is now a peaceful way to win freedom. But it was not always the case. So whatever freedom we have or will have in the time ahead we should never forget the pivotal role of rebels in that cause.

Easter is now only two weeks away. The Coronavirus crisis means that this year there will be none of the big public displays of Republican solidarity with our fallen comrades and their families.

So lets find innovative and imaginative ways to remember them, even on our own. Let’s post our contributions on social media. Let’s celebrate the 1916 Rising and the struggle for freedom. Let’s honour our past and plan for the future. Alone if need be. But together. Separate. But United.

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