Northern Ireland news

How murder of Cork republican leader Tomás Mac Curtain 100 years ago sparked sectarian reprisals in Lisburn

Murdered mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain
Connla Young

THE murder of republican leader Tomás Mac Curtain in Co Cork 100 years ago set in motion a series of bloody events whose impact was felt hundreds of miles away in Co Antrim.

The then Sinn Féin mayor of Cork was shot dead at his family home on March 20 1920.

The killing, which was carried out by Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) members with blackened faces in the dead of night, caused outrage across Ireland.

It came at the height of the 'Black and Tan war' in the years following the 1916 Rising.

And while the murder stunned many in his native Cork, the full impact was felt further afield in the following months when one of the RIC officers suspected of involvement was himself shot dead in Lisburn by the IRA – an event that sparked a series of sectarian reprisals against the minority Catholic population in the town.

At the time of his death Mr Mac Curtain was also in charge of the IRA's Cork No 1 Brigade.

He was replaced as mayor of Cork by Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in October 1920.

At Mr Mac Curtain's inquest it was found that he had been “wilfully murdered” and that the killing was “organised and carried out” by the RIC and “officially directed by the British government”.

Several people were named at the inquest including RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy and British Prime Minister Lloyd George.

After the killing Mr Swanzy, who came from Co Monaghan, was transferred from Cork to Lisburn.

Five months later the IRA shot him dead as he returned from a service at Lisburn Cathedral.

It is believed the shooting was ordered by Michael Collins and involved members of Mr Mac Curtain's old unit in Cork along with republicans from Belfast.

It has also been claimed the IRA used a gun once linked to Mr Mac Curtain in the attack.

A Belfast man was subsequently tried and found not guilty of involvement.

The killing sparked a series of violent unionist reprisals in the Lisburn area, resulting in hundreds of Catholics being forced to flee the town.

It has been reported that nearly every Catholic-owned business was torched and that the parochial house was destroyed.

The rampage lasted for three days and isolated Catholic families continued to be targeted into the following month.

Violence also flared in Belfast, resulting in deaths there.

Dr Francis Costello, who authored Enduring the Most: Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney, said Swanzy “had a history”.

“He was not seen as an even-handed policeman,” he said.

“He was part of that mentality, he was going to teach people a lesson.

“This was the year Lloyd George said 'We will grab murder by the throat'.”

The historian added that the Lisburn reprisals had a long-lasting impact.

“They substantially reduced the Catholic population,” he said.

“There was an all-out pogrom on the Catholic population.”

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