Lord mayor of cork Tomás Mac Curtain was murdered by Black and Tans – historian

Regular members of RIC were blamed for killing in Blackpool on March 24th, 1920

Lord mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain was murdered at his home on March 20th, 1920

Lord mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain was murdered at his home on March 20th, 1920


Lord mayor of Cork Tomás Mac Curtain was not murdered by regular members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) but by a group of Black and Tans, according to police historian Jim Herlihy.

Herlihy, who has just published a book, The Black and Tans 1920-1921, believes that regular RIC officers under district inspector Oswald Swanzy were wrongly blamed at the time for the murder of Mac Curtain.

“The general consensus up until now is that the Black and Tans did not arrive in Cork until March 24th 1920 – some four days after Mac Curtain was murdered at his home at Thomas Davis St in Blackpool in the early hours of March 20th.

“That view is based on a report by Christopher O’Sullivan in The Limerick Echo of March 25th 1920 where he reports that these new RIC reservists were seen on a train at Limerick Junction in their new mixed uniforms.

“They had khaki trousers and dark tunics and he dubbed them the Black and Tans because they reminded him of the Kerry Beagles in the Scarteen Hunt and the name stuck and the view is that March 24th was when they came to Cork.”

But Herlihy, who has examined the records of more than 7,000 men who served in the RIC Reserve, has found that there was 16 Black and Tans in Cork by March 20th 1920 when Mac Curtain was murdered.

Mac Curtain’s widow, Eilis, told an inquest into her husband’s shooting that six men with blackened faces and English accents burst into their home in Blackpool in the early hours of March 20th and shot her husband dead.

The only clues as to their identity were the fact they had English accents, blackened faces and that an RIC button from a cape was found at the scene but Herlihy believes the finger can be pointed at the group of Black and Tans.

“Firstly, my research shows that there were 16 Black and Tans in Cork before Mac Curtain’s killing – 12 English, one Scotsman and three Irish and they included Stephen Henry Chance who was stationed at Shandon Street.

“Chance was notorious – he used to drive about Cork in an armoured car with an ex-soldier, Monkey McDonnell, who used to identify IRA men and he was also involved in the Ballycannon killings where six IRA men were shot dead.

“Chance arrived in Cork on February 7th 1920 and, being based in Shandon Street, which covered Blackpool, he would have had an extensive knowledge of the area and who was living there, including where Mac Curtain lived.

“Secondly, I’ve checked the records of all 56 regular RIC men who gave evidence at Mac Curtain’s inquest and they were able to account for their weapons and ammunition on the night.

“Every regular RIC man had to sign in and sign out his gun unlike the Black and Tans who had their own personal issue weapons, a Webley revolver and a rifle but had no accountability with them and could do as they liked with them.

“As I see it, if there was a murder squad on the go, they would have waited until the RIC had finished their beat at midnight and they had the information where the Sinn Féin leaders were so they did their own job,” he said.

Herlihy said the regular RIC was due to raid Mac Curtain’s house that morning as part of a round-up of leading Sinn Féin members in Cork but when they arrived at the house they were told that he had been killed.

Fifty-six regular RIC officers gave evidence at the inquest into Mac Curtain’s death but no Black and Tans were called, which adds to Herlihy’s suspicion.

The jury, after hearing evidence over 15 days, returned a verdict of murder on April 17th 1920 and coroner James J McCabe duly read out the verdict to loud applause from the public gallery.

“We find that the late Alderman Tomás Mac Curtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, died from shock and haemorrhage caused by bullet wounds, and that he was wilfully murdered under circumstances of the most callous brutality, and that the murder was organised and carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary, officially directed by the British Government, and we return a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England; Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; Ian McPherson, late Chief Secretary of Ireland; Acting Inspector General Smith, of the Royal Irish Constabulary; Divisional Inspector Clayton of the Royal Irish Constabulary; District Inspector Swanzy and some unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary,” the jury found.

Herlihy believes Swanzy was a marked man as soon as he was named at the inquest even though he believes he was not involved in the killing and had earlier investigated a shooting of another prominent Sinn Féin figure in Cork.

“Swanzy had actually called to the home of Prof William Stockley, another prominent Sinn Féin member in Cork and assured him he would investigate an attack where he was shot at as he walked home to Tivoli, ” said Herlihy.

“And in 1921, the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland heard from the Lord Mayor of Cork, Donal O’Callaghan, who had succeeded Mac Curtain and [Terence] MacSwiney, that Swanzy had warned him that his life was in danger.

“I believe that Swanzy was wrongly blamed for Mac Curtain’s murder and from my examination of the records, I think the suspicion falls on Chance and his fellow Black and Tans rather than the regular RIC serving in Cork at the time.”

Swanzy was transferred out of Cork by his RIC superiors for his own safety after the jury returned its verdict into Mac Curtain’s death but the IRA director of intelligence, Michael Collins, traced him to Lisburn in Co Antrim.

A hit squad from Mac Curtain’s own Cork No 1 Brigade travelled north and met up with members of the Belfast IRA and on August 22nd 1920, Cork volunteers, Sean Culhane and Dick Murphy shot Swanzy dead as he left Sunday service.

The shooting dead of Swanzy by Culhane and Murphy, one of whom used Mac Curtain’s own pistol, led to an angry loyalist mob attacking more than 40 homes and businesses of Catholics in the town.

The Belfast News Letter reported: “Many in Lisburn abandoned all restrains and for hours, the work of wholesale destruction of property – shops and houses – of those suspected of connection or sympathy with Sinn Féin went unchecked by the police, simply because the violence and strength of the mob was beyond control.

The Black and Tans 1920-1921 – A Complete Alphabetical List, Short History and Genealogical Guides by Jim Herlihy is published by Four Courts Press.