Despite being cleared of any dereliction of duty, the failure of the Cork Brigade to take part in the rebellion weighed heavily on the minds of Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney.
By Gerry White
On Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916, more than 1,000 members of the Cork Brigade of Irish Volunteers had mobilised under the command of Tomás MacCurtain and marched to eight concentration points in the county.
Their original mission to take possession of arms that were to be supplied by Germany was scuppered on Good Friday, when the SS Aud carrying the arms had been intercepted by the Royal Navy off the Kerry coast.
When the last of a series of conflicting messages from Dublin arrived to the Volunteers Hall on Cork’s Sheares Street on Sunday morning, in which Eoin MacNeill cancelled the manoeuvres, MacCurtain’s men were already on the move to their designated destinations and faced possible confrontation with Crown forces.
The situation was now fraught with danger and, after weighing up his options, MacCurtain decided his only possible course was to let his men proceed to their respective concentration points and then stand them down.
Once his mind was made up, MacCurtain set off for West Cork accompanied by his second-in-command, Terence MacSwiney and Bob Hales, a senior Volunteer officer from Ballinadee. He visited Crookstown, Bweeng and Inchigeela and stood down the Volunteers at these locations. The officers at the other concentration points had been told to stand down their men if no further instructions were forthcoming.
That afternoon, as a heavy rain fell over the county, the Volunteers of the Cork Brigade returned home confused, dismayed and soaked to the skin with green dye from their Volunteer hats running down their faces.
Having stood down his men, MacCurtain decided to go Ballingeary to discuss the situation with Seán O’Hegarty, the senior IRB officer in the county.
Unfortunately, the headlights on his car failed and MacCurtain, MacSwiney and Hales were forced to spend the night at Carrigadrohid instead.
On Easter Monday morning, they set off for Ballingeary and spent the day with O’Hegarty. Then, at 6pm, they began the return journey to Cork, unaware that a rebellion to establish an independent Irish Republic had commenced in Dublin.
Earlier that morning, Seán Murphy, the Brigade Adjutant, and Seán O’Sullivan, the Officer Commanding the Cork City Battalion, were in the Volunteer Hall when Mary Perolz, a member of the Cumman na mBan in Dublin, delivered a message from Patrick Pearse, the Volunteer Director of Operations and member of the IRB Military Council.
The message simply said “We start at noon today” and, in the absence of their commanding officer and further information from Dublin, these officers decided to man the Volunteer Hall and await further orders.
MacCurtain returned to Sheares Street at 9pm on Monday and was handed the message from Pearse. If his situation had been difficult the day before, it was now almost impossible and was again fraught with danger.
His men had dispersed; he had no contact with Dublin and, in all probability, the British Army in Cork’s Victoria Barracks was preparing to move against him. MacCurtain decided his best course of action was to remain in the Volunteer Hall until the military situation was clarified and defend it if attacked.
In the meantime, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Councillor Thomas C Butterfield had contacted Brigadier-General W.F.H. Stafford, the General Officer Commanding in Cork who was based in Victoria Barracks, and offered to meet with MacCurtain in an effort to prevent an outbreak of violence.
Stafford agreed and appointed Captain F.W. Dickie, to act on his behalf. Late on Monday night, Butterfield and Dr Daniel Cohalan, the Auxiliary Bishop of Cork, met MacCurtain at Sheares Street. He assured them that he had no intention of taking offensive action but would defend his position if attacked.
On Wednesday morning, MacCurtain received intelligence that the British army had deployed artillery on the hills of Gurranabraher to the north of the city and had positioned a number of machine guns in the Malt House opposite the Volunteer Hall. A stand-off had now developed and that same day, as tension rose in Cork and fighting in Dublin intensified, Butterfield, Cohalan, MacCurtain and Captain Dickie continued their efforts to find a peaceful settlement.
On Friday, the terms of an agreement were eventually agreed whereby the Volunteers would hand up their arms to the Lord Mayor for safekeeping on Monday. In return, no action would be taken against them by the military or the police.
MacCurtain and McSwiney also agreed to travel to Limerick and Kerry on Saturday to ask the Volunteers there to accept a similar settlement.
Early Saturday morning, MacCurtain and MacSwiney set off on their mission. When they returned to Cork that evening, they discovered that a report of the agreement had been carried in the newspapers.
The situation then took a turn for the worse when Captain Dickie arrived at the Volunteer Hall and demanded that the Volunteers’ weapons be handed up on Sunday instead of Monday as previously agreed.
MacCurtain was outraged by these developments.
On Sunday morning he met with the bishop and lord mayor and informed them that under the current circumstances he could not possibly ask his men to hand over their arms. After lengthy debate Cohalan persuaded him to put the matter before a meeting of the Volunteers at Sheares Street at 8pm on Monday night.
Both he and the lord mayor also agreed to address the men at that meeting. Butterfield then wrote to Dickie explaining the Volunteers’ position and suggesting a meeting at noon the following day. When Captain Dickie met with Butterfield and Cohalan in the City Club on Monday he told them that, unless the Volunteers handed up their weapons to the lord mayor that night, they would be considered to be ‘rebels in arms’ and would be treated accordingly.
That night, 140 Volunteers gathered in the hall. After the lord mayor and bishop spoke a ballot was held and the majority voted to accept the proposal.
Once the meeting was over some of these men took their weapons to Butterfield’s home at 68 South Mall. Many of those who disagreed with this decision moved their arms to secret locations around the city or removed the firing pins to render them unserviceable.
That night MacCurtain must have felt relieved that the crisis was over. He was satisfied he had taken the correct course of action. He also expected that the British authorities would honour the terms of the agreement. Unfortunately, the following day would prove him wrong.
On Tuesday, May 2, the British Army confiscated the Volunteers’ weapons and a round-up of leading republicans commenced that would continue for weeks.
In the early hours of that morning, an RIC unit under the command of Head Constable William Rowe arrived at the home of the Kent family at Castlelyons, Co. Cork, to arrest Thomas Kent and his brothers David, Richard and William. The Kents resisted and a gun battle erupted that only ended when the brothers surrendered after running out of ammunition.
Head Constable Rowe was killed in the fighting and David Kent was injured. Richard Kent was seriously wounded when he tried to escape after surrendering, and died two days later.
Thomas and William Kent were charged with ‘waging war against his Majesty the King’ and court-martialled at Cork Military Detention Barracks on 4 May. William was acquitted but Thomas was found guilty, sentenced to death and was executed by a British Army firing squad in the exercise yard of the Detention Barracks at dawn on 9 May. His remains were buried close to where he fell and they would remain there for 99 years. In the summer of 2015 they were removed and, after being formally identified, they were reinterred in the family plot at St Nicholas’ Church in Castlelyons.
Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney were among the hundreds of Irish Volunteers arrested and interned in Britain after the rebellion. They were released on Christmas Eve 1916 and after they came home, two courts of inquiry, one by the IRB and one by the Irish Volunteers, were convened to examine the failure of the Cork Brigade to rise at Easter 1916. Both exonerated Tomás MacCurtain.
Despite being cleared of any dereliction of duty, the failure of the Cork Brigade to take part in the rebellion continued to weigh heavily on the minds of Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney.
On September 30, 1920, on the 49th day of the hunger strike that would eventually cost him his life, MacSwiney wrote a letter to Cathal Brugha, his close friend and Minister for Defence in Dáil Éireann. Referring to the ordeal he was then going through, he said, ‘Ah Cathal, the pain of Easter Week is properly dead at last’.
Gerry White is a military historian and co-author, with Brendan O’Shea, of Baptised in Blood: The formation of the Cork Brigade of the Irish Volunteers 1913-1916 (Mercier Press)