At the meeting of Council of Cork Corporation on 14 May 1920, Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney presided. On the agenda was a discussion on the beatification of Oliver Plunkett headed up by Sinn Féin councillors. A number of decisions arose out of it. One of the principal ones was the proposal by Cllr Micheal O’Cuill that the name or George’s Street be changed to that of Sráid Olibhéir Phluingcéid (Oliver Plunkett street), and this was seconded by Cllr Seán O’Leary and passed unanimously. This change in name just came within a month of the change from (Robert) King Street to (Tomás) MacCurtain Street.
Renaming streets was a very symbolic act and another mechanism to breaking bonds with the British Empire. Cork’s George’s Street was named to celebrate the ascendency of the German Royal House of Hanover to an English royal seat. Its first monarch came to the English throne in 1714. The western part of George’s Street was laid out across Cork’s unreclaimed eastern marshes from 1715 onwards and historic maps such as John Rocque’s in 1759 show that the street and its buildings in its eastern sections were still being developed. In 1760, Mayor Thomas Newenham organised a subscription fund to erect an equestrian statue of George II on a pedestal on a specially constructed arch at the western emtrance to George’s Street on the south side of the eminently arched Tuckey’s Bridge (centre of present day Grand Parade and marked by Berwick Fountain). In late September 1760, it was further decided to enlarge this bridge so that carriages could pass on each side of statue into George’s Street.
Very little survives on the present day street from the early eighteenth century but there are some very fine examples of Georgian architecture from the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. The side streets of Georges Street were named after prominent Protestant merchant figures – John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Stephen Cook who was Sheriff of Cork in 1681, William Winthrop (Sheriff of Cork in 1741 and Mayor in 1744), Thomas Pembroke (Sheriff of Cork in 1724 and Mayor of Cork in 1733), and Samuel Maylor (Sheriff of Cork in 1766). Caroline Street is named after Queen Caroline of Brunswick, wife of George IV. Such names added to British imperial remembering structures within the city.
The name Oliver Plunkett (1625-1681) is a far cry from the connections with the House of Hanover. Temporally he did not live in the eighteenth century and is linked to martyrdom and suppression. He was an ideal candidate to commemorate during the Irish War of Independence. Oliver was born at Loughcrew, near Old Castle, Co. Meath in 1625. Up to the age of sixteen he was educated by Dr Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s Dublin. Subsequently he studied for the priesthood at the Irish College, Rome. He was ordained in 1654 and acted as agent in Rome for the Irish Bishops. In 1669 he was appointed to the Archbishopric of Armagh. In 1670 be returned to Ireland and established a Jesuit College in Drogheda in 1670. In 1679 he was arrested on a charge of high treason, which was supported by the evidence of witnesses who came forward to prove a Popish or Roman Catholic plot to kill England’s King Charles II. The King did not believe in the conspiracy and refused to get involved in the case of Oliver, and the law was allowed to take its course.
Brought to Westminster before an all Protestant jury, during the first trial, Oliver disputed the right of the court to try him in England. He was found to have pursued no crime but was not released. During the second trial, he drew focus on the criminal background of some of the witnesses, but to no avail. Found guilty Oliver was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681, aged 55. He was the last Catholic martyr to die in England. His story of a miscarriage of justice was not forgotten about in and was harnessed in many subsequent debates from condemning the Penal Laws to calling for Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth century.
Fast forward to 1920 nationally the story of the miscarriage of justice of Oliver Plunkett was connected to the war for Independence and in a Cork context to the murder of Tomás MacCurtain and his ongoing memorialisation. The Cork Examiner records that at the Cork Corporation Council meeting of 14 May 1920 this latter connection is seen through Sinn Féin’s Cllr Professor Alfred O’Rahilly, who proposed: “We, the Corporation of Cork, in Council assembled, hereby record the joy and satisfaction of the people of Ireland at the approaching Beatification of the Venerable Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, who 239 years ago, as the victim of a bogus plot, was seized and deported by the English Forces then in Ireland, and was legally murdered as a criminal and a traitor. We direct that this resolution be forwarded to the Cardinal Secretary of State, to his Eminence Cardinal Logue, to his Grace Dr Harty, Archbishop of Cashel, and to his Lordship Dr Cohalan, Bishop of Cork”.
Lord Mayor MacSwiney proposed that a deputation of four be appointed to go to Rome on the occasion of the Beatification. The City Solicitor pointed out that the Corporation could not pay the expense of the deputation. The Lord Mayor expressed his understanding of the financial position. However, the resolution appointing the councillor deputation was passed, and the following were appointed – Lord Mayor, Professor Stockley, Messrs Donal O’Callaghan, and Simon Daly.
Commercial party Councillor Sir John Scott expressed his gratification at the passing of the resolution, and recited instances in which he took the official part as representing the Council of Cork in other such matters.
Alderman Tadgh Barry took issue with Sir Scott and said he was sure that in the days of Oliver Plunkett somebody conniving at those who martyred him spoke in such manner as they had just listened to; “The same Government that martyred Oliver Plunkett killed Tomás MacCurtain, and they did not want to hear any more hypocritical nonsense from those who sympathised by their acts with the murderers of Tomás MacCurtain”. Sir John Scott replied that he did not sympathise with such murders, and it should not be said. He noted that he joined in the resolution as a mark of respect.
The Lord Mayor further noted that it was his understanding that to proceed to Rome they needed passports. He tried to get passports direct from the Italian Government but could not. He also understood that he would have to the nearest police barrack – and in this case that would be King Street. This was not a journey he wished to make especially after the focus placed on it during the inquest of Tomás MacCurtain.
Cllr O’Callaghan. speaking in Irish, suggested that the four members of the deputation proceed as far as they could go without passports. Alderman Edmund Coughlan seconded, and the suggestion was adopted. The passports though were not received by the proposed delegation nor did they travel some of the way to Rome.
During another discussion point the Lord Mayor said he had been specially asked by the Rector of Rome’s Irish College to go to Rome if he could possibly manage it. He suggested they should make special acknowledgment of the Pope’s declaration in connection with the beatification of Oliver Plunkett. He suggested that two or three members of the Council should draw up an address expressive of their gratitude to His Holiness, said address to him in Irish and French.
To mark the Beatification of Oliver Plunkett in Rome on 14 May 1920, Bishop Cohalan celebrated high mass at the North Cathedral where Lord Mayor MacSwiney and councillors were present. In all the churches of the city after Mass at noon the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the High Altar.
Twenty-four hours previously, the Lord Mayor sent out a public call to citizens to illuminate their houses and display flags and bunting to commemorate the historic and holy event. Mass pageantry ensued. On 14 May 1920 rows of houses in whole streets were all lit up. Statues and pictorial representations of the Sacred Heart were erected inside the windows and surrounded by vari-coloured lights, the Papal colours – gold and white – predominated. The Papal Flag was displayed from very many homes. The Sinn Féin flag flew over public buildings, such as the City Hall, the Markets, and was also hoisted over the Courthouse in Washington Street. The latter flag was put up in the morning by some young men with the aid of the fire escape outside the Court House. A demonstration was made in the evening by the members of the Irish Trades and General Workers Union whose hall at Camden Quay was beautifully decorated. Accompanied by the Connolly Memorial Fife and Drum Band, the Union members of well over one thousand left the hall and proceeded to Blackpool Bridge. Here a halt was made to pay tribute to the memory of the late Lord Mayor, Alderman Tomás MacCurtain. The band played outside his residence for some time.
The processionists then went to the Cathedral, outside which the band played, and having paid a similar visit to the Church of the Franciscans. Liberty Street, they marched onto the National Monument on the Grand Parade. Here Rev Fr Mathew OFM, said the rosary in Irish with the crowd kneeling and giving responses to the Rosary. The band and members then went on to the Holy Trinity Church, and having halted outside it and played, a return was made to the hall, Camden Quay.
At Cork City Hall the facade over the main entrance was lined with electric bulbs, and in the centre was placed a shamrock, the bulbs being coloured gold and white. At some points of the city tar barrels were set ablaze. The illuminations continued to midnight. All of this happened as Black and Tans loomed more and more in making their presence felt.
Kieran’s new book Witness to Murder, The Inquest of Tomás MacCurtain is now available to purchase online at www.irishexaminer.ie (co-authored with John O’Mahony 2020 and published by the Irish Examiner).
Dr Kieran McCarthy is a Geographer, Cork local historian and an Independent member of Cork City Council. His historical work can be viewed at www.corkheritage.ie.