By Pauline Murphy
In the early hours of March 20th 1920 members of the R.I.C. arrived at the home of Cork’s Lord Mayor with murderous intent. Tomás Mac Curtain had been Lord Mayor just three months before he was shot dead by the R.I.C. in his home in Blackpool on the northside of Cork city on that March night 100 years ago.
MacCurtain was not only the Sinn Féin Mayor but he was also Commander of the IRA First Cork Brigade. He was also a member of the Gaelic League and he held a great grá for all things Irish, especially traditional music and dance.
Mac Curtain played the fiddle and was taught how to play the bagpipes by Sean Wayland, a Tipperary man living in Cork. In the early 1990’s MacCurtain became secretary of the Blackpool branch of the Gaelic League.
He also established its string orchestra where he played fiddle. His favourite tune to play on the fiddle was The Lark in the Clear Air. It was through the Gaelic League that Mac Curtain met his wife Elizabeth and she too had a love of traditional music and played the concertina.
As the head of the First Cork Brigade, Mac Curtain would travel the Rebel County on his bike inspecting its 21 IRA Battalions. Travelling Ireland’s biggest county by bike was not an easy task and it often resulted in stopping at halfway houses of musicians where he would pick up new tunes or brush up on his own playing. His favourite stopover was at Goldens in Donoughmore which was a renowned music house in the area.
In February 1914 MacCurtain established the Cork Volunteer Pipe Band. They would play at many a Feis and commemoration events such as the annual Manchester Martyrs commemoration. The band, bedecked in an impressive attire of traditional kilts, took part in the funeral procession of O’Donovan Rossa in Dublin in 1915 and during the War of Independence the pipe band led many funeral processions of dead IRA members who fell to crown guns.
Mac Curtain had a set of Warpipes made with ivory tops and his name engraved on it. Those same pipes made a rare appearance in 2016 during a commemorative event in Cork city.
Following the 1916 Rising Mac Curtain was one of many rounded up in Cork and sent to Frongoch prison camp where a fiddle was sent to prisoners by a lady in London – Margaret Bartles, a Gaelic League member. Mac Curtain wrote to thank her for her generosity and informed her – “it has been a source of great pleasure and engagement to us all, me especially!”
Mac Curtain was released in December 1916 but two months later he was arrested again. He was sent to England but this time he and others like Terence Mac Swiney were put into lodgings in villages – effectively they were put under house arrest! Mac Curtain was to spend his time in Ledbury where a local priest sourced him a fiddle to while away the time until he was back home in Cork in June 1917.
Following his murder in 1920, Mac Curtain’s funeral drew thousands to the streets of Cork as his remains made their way to St. Finbarr’s Cemetery. At the head of the funeral was Mac Curtain’s Cork Volunteer Pipe Band who played a lament for their dead leader.