The essay below is a shortened and slightly edited version of a paper entitled “Cork, Lisburn and Belfast in 1920: connections, controversy and conflict”, which was delivered electronically for the West Cork History Festival on August 8th this year.
One hundred years ago, on Sunday August 22nd, 1920 the war came to Lisburn. Members of the Cork IRA shot dead District Inspector Oswald Swanzy outside Christ Church cathedral. Extensive riots and destruction ensued, first in Lisburn and then in Belfast, with thirty-one fatalities. Afterwards, Col Fred Crawford visited Lisburn and recorded in his diary: “It reminded me of a French town after it had been bombarded by the Germans as I saw in France in 1916.”
Swanzy’s death was part of a fatal cycle of violence which linked with the earlier killings in Cork of Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain and Lt Col Gerald Smyth. These events show clearly the effect of unintended consequences and how “violence begets violence”. They also reveal how this war involved Irish fighting and killing other Irish. At the same time some brave people were willing to criticise violence from their own side.
By March 1920 Cork had experienced early stages of the War of Independence with a growing numbers of actions and attacks on police barracks by Irish Volunteers, now known as the IRA, with their links to Sinn Féin. On March 20th, 1920, however, Tomás Mac Curtain, lord mayor and also commandant of the Cork No 1 IRA brigade, was murdered at his home by some men with blackened faces.
A few days later a coroner’s inquest delivered a verdict of “wilful murder” against a number of persons, including prime minister Lloyd George, as well as District Inspector Oswald Swanzy, who was in charge of the RIC in the area where the murder occurred. Vague allegations and hearsay comments have been made about Swanzy’s role. Historian Peter Hart commented: “the case against him personally (as opposed to the police in general) was, at best, unproven”. Nonetheless, he was the senior police officer in the area and republicans blamed him.
Why did members of the RIC kill MacCurtain? Daniel Cohalan, the Catholic bishop of Cork, had no doubt about the reason. In a pastoral letter issued in December 1920 he looked back at events in Cork over the previous nine months, beginning with Mac Curtain’s murder. He pointed out that earlier that night RIC constable Joseph Murtagh had been murdered on Pope’s Quay in Cork. He stated that it was “certain” that it was the murder of Constable Murtagh that “gave occasion to” the murder of the lord mayor. Murtagh had been unarmed and on leave and was shot seven times by the IRA. Peter Hart noted that this murder followed another incident on March 10th when District Inspector BW McDonagh was shot and seriously wounded while guarding ballot boxes in a municipal by-election. That night policemen left their stations to smash windows and look for Sinn Féin supporters.
It is very likely that Mac Curtain was murdered in reprisal for these earlier attacks because he was the senior volunteer/IRA figure in the area. Bishop Cohalan strongly condemned Murtagh’s murder, as he did Mac Curtain’s murder, declaring that the killing of police was, “morally, murder”.
In fact, Mac Curtain did not approve of Murtagh’s murder. Shortly before his own murder he sent condolences to Murtagh’s family and promised discipline against those responsible. It is probable that the murder of Murtagh was the work of the Cork No 1 brigade vice-commandant, Sean O’Hegarty, and his men. For some time, Mac Curtain had clashed with O’Hegarty, who wanted a more aggressive policy. The militant O’Hegarty now came to play a dominant role in the Cork No 1 brigade.
In his pastoral letter of December 1920 Bishop Cohalan observed that since Mac Curtain’s murder “it has become like a devil’s competition in feats of murder and arson between members of the Volunteer organisation and the agents of the crown”. At the same time he bravely issued a decree of excommunication against those guilty of ambush, kidnapping or murder. His words did not go down well with some republicans. On Christmas Eve a large gang of men forced their way into the offices of the Cork Examiner, which had published his pastoral and destroyed all the printing presses.
The months after Mac Curtain’s death saw a sharp rise in violence in Cork city and county, and elsewhere in Munster. The police found themselves under great pressure. They were forced to evacuate barracks in more remote parts, which were burnt by republicans. Police fatalities increased considerably. To deal with this situation the government appointed in early June 1920 a new divisional commander for Munster in the person of Lt Col Gerald Smyth. A native of Banbridge, Co Down, Smyth was a much decorated army officer.
On June 19th, along with other senior officers, he visited the RIC station in Listowel, Co Kerry, where the police were unhappy with a proposal to hand over their building to the military and take up more exposed posts. Smyth delivered a speech in which he advocated that the police should take an aggressive approach to anyone carrying arms or suspected of carrying arms. One of those present, Constable Jeremiah Mee, objected to Smyth’s words, which he interpreted as saying that the police could kill with impunity. Smyth ordered Mee’s arrest, which the others refused to carry out. Five police officers resigned, including Mee, who afterwards joined the republican movement. A report of this event, based on Mee’s account, was later circulated in the Irish Bulletin of Sinn Féin and then published in the Freeman’s Journal on July 10th, causing great public outcry. It was claimed that Smyth gave an assurance that “no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man”. Smyth denied strongly that he used these or other words ascribed to him.
District Inspector John M Regan was asked to reorganise the barracks at Listowel. Later he wrote about Smyth: “I knew him when he was in the army in Limerick and would greatly doubt if his words were intended to convey the meaning attributed to them, and the fact that the police in the station were alleged to have practically mutinied afterwards makes their version extremely doubtful.” We should note that Smyth’s brief printed orders to the police around the time of this original incident, read out in parliament on the day of his funeral, stated his strong opposition to reprisals: “I wish to make it perfectly clear to all ranks that I will not tolerate ‘reprisals’. They bring discredit on the police. I will deal most severely with any officer or man concerned in them.”
Whatever the truth, Smyth was now publicly seen as a resolute enemy of republicans. On July 17th, as he sat in the County Club in Cork city, an IRA unit from Cork No 1 Brigade shot him dead. Train staff refused to allow his body to be transported by train. Instead, a motor convoy conveyed the remains to his home town for burial.
These events reverberated in the North, where by July 1920 the situation was already very tense. People were well aware of events elsewhere from newspaper reports of attacks on police and Southern loyalists. In April the IRA attacked tax offices and custom houses in Belfast, Derry and other Ulster towns. In June and early July they destroyed some unoccupied police stations and attacked others in Cookstown, Co Tyrone and Crossgar, Co Down.
The violence had not reached the level seen in Munster but still it alarmed many unionists as did the success of Sinn Féin. On July 12th, Sir Edward Carson spoke at an Orange demonstration in Belfast. He “informed the government that the Loyalists of Ulster would not submit to be left helpless in the face of their enemies. In the last resort they would defend themselves”. So tension was very high.
On Thursday July 21st, Divisional Commander Smyth, a member of a well-known local linen family, was buried with full honours in the family grave in Banbridge. Afterwards riots broke out in the town. At first homes and shops of those believed to have Sinn Féin sympathies were attacked. Attention then turned to the homes of other Catholics, many of whom were made leave. Catholics were forced out of local mills and only allowed to return by signing a statement denying they supported Sinn Féin.
A fatality occurred when a crowd attacked the home of Daniel Monaghan, a Sinn Féin candidate at a recent poor law election. The inhabitants defended themselves with guns, which led to the death of a seventeen-year-old Protestant, William Sterritt, who was in the street at the time. Serious disturbances broke out in Dromore, where Catholic homes and Catholic-owned premises were attacked.
Belfast saw the worst of the violence. Trouble began in the shipyards, following a lunchtime meeting of workers on July 21st, the first full day back after the Twelfth holidays and the day of Smyth’s funeral. The Belfast Telegraph, July 22nd, 1920, reported that “the barbarous murder of Divisional Commander Smyth in Cork on Saturday night greatly excited feeling”. It also recorded its belief that former soldiers were being disadvantaged because the places of shipyard workers who had gone to fight in the war had been taken by Catholics.
After the meeting fighting broke out, which led to the violent expulsion by loyalists from the shipyards of so-called “disloyal” or “Sinn Féin” employees, which meant all Catholics, and also so-called “rotten Prods”, namely Protestant Labour supporters and socialists. There followed extensive riots in Belfast which lasted three days. Many Catholics were expelled from other firms.
The final outcome was nineteen deaths, eleven Catholics and eight Protestants. In his later recounting of these events, Dr Joseph MacRory, Catholic bishop of Down and Connor, deplored the cycle of violence which had affected the city. He protested that the Catholics of Belfast were being punished for “the crimes of their co-religionists in the South of Ireland”, what he called “this doctrine of vicarious punishment”.
In East Belfast a significant effort to stop the violence and challenge people from his own community was made by the Rev John Redmond, a voice of “common sense and decency”, as historian Alan Parkinson has called him. A former 36th Ulster division chaplain, he had ministered to the mortally wounded Captain Willie Redmond MP in his last hours at Messines in 1917. He became vicar of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish, Ballymacarrett in early 1920.
When the riots began, he went onto the Newtownards Road to stop Protestant rioters who were attacking and looting Catholic-owned premises. With the help of his curate, Rev Major Frederick Chesnutt-Chesney, who had commanded a company at the battle of Passchendaele, he organised bands of unarmed volunteers, mostly ex-servicemen, to prevent rioting. At St Patrick’s church on Sunday July 25th, “after being beset two days before by a rioting hostile group” he denounced the previous days of “passion and lawlessness” and warned of the dangers of retaliation, which led to counter-retaliation, and “so the fires of evil keep spreading”.
The final event occurred in Lisburn in August. After the murder of Mac Curtain in Cork, District Inspector Swanzy was transferred to Lisburn, where he lived with his mother and sister Irene. On Sunday August 22nd, 1920, outside Christ Church cathedral, he was murdered by the IRA. Members of Cork No 1 Brigade IRA had discovered his new location and decided to kill him. They informed Michael Collins, who authorised the killing. Two Cork men, Dick Murphy and Sean Culhane (who was also involved in Smyth’s murder), travelled to Belfast and, helped by two Belfast IRA volunteers, went to Lisburn.
The murder had immediate terrible consequences. It was assumed widely that the killing had been the work of local IRA or helped by locals. Attacks were made by loyalists on the premises of people believed to be Sinn Féin supporters before the attention of the rioters turned to the shops and homes of all Lisburn Catholics. The destruction then extended to Protestant-owned property. The rioting began on the Sunday and continued for the next two days, as historian Pearse Lawlor has described in graphic detail. It is estimated that 150 to 250 Catholic families fled from Lisburn and that approximately a thousand people, around one-third of the town’s Catholic population, were affected by the riots. There was one fatality, of an unknown person whose body was found in a burnt-out boot factory.
On the outbreak of the rioting, the Rev JB Bradshaw, a curate at the cathedral, and other clergy, sought to restrain the crowd, but without success. On Monday a meeting of clergy and other citizens, convened by Canon WP Carmody, was held in the cathedral schoolhouse. It was addressed by the Rev HB Swanzy, a cousin of the district inspector who said that the mother and sister of the murdered officer were very anxious that what was going on should stop. Those present formed a peace patrol, which went onto the streets but had no impact on the rioters. The Rev Swanzy stood on a box in Market Square to urge an end to the rioting but was ignored. Later Swanzy’s mother and sister issued a message to deplore “the destruction and loss which has befallen Lisburn”. They stated: “They wish through the press to say how truly sorry they are that any person should have suffered any sorrow or loss on account of him. It would have been a real grief to him that anyone should suffer pain or loss of any kind on his behalf.”
After the shooting, Culhane and Murphy returned to Belfast, where they took the train to Dublin, travelling first class to avoid detection. Culhane later remembered seeing a number of houses on fire in Lisburn as they headed to safety in the South. Then they went to Vaughan’s Hotel in Dublin to meet Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, who, Culhane recalled, “were profuse in their congratulations”. Historian Robert Lynch has written: “As the Corkmen celebrated in Dublin, the nationalist areas of Lisburn were reduced to ruins.”
The violence spread to Belfast, with deadly results. Sectarian rioting began in the Crumlin Road area of North Belfast, engulfed streets in West Belfast and then broke out in East Belfast. The fighting continued until the beginning of September. The Rev John Redmond in East Belfast again tried to stop the rioting in his area. He and other clergy issued an appeal on August 26th calling for self-restraint. He acted on the streets to discourage rioters and stepped in between loyalist and Sinn Féin/ nationalist mobs, but his efforts had only limited effect. The outcome of the fighting was the death of thirty persons, seventeen Protestants and thirteen Catholics.
Some observations can be made. These events show the effect of unintended consequences, violence leading to more violence and Irish killing Irish. The attempted murder of District Inspector McDonagh and the murder of Constable Murtagh by the IRA caused the murder of Lord Mayor Mac Curtain. The murder of Mac Curtain by members of the RIC resulted in a hardline takeover of the Cork No 1 brigade and a rise in attacks on police. The killing of Divisional Commander Smyth by the IRA eliminated a senior RIC officer who was strongly opposed to police reprisals. Mac Curtain’s death ended in the death of District Inspector Swanzy.
The killing of Smyth and Swanzy by Cork IRA members had dire consequences for the citizens of Banbridge, Lisburn and Belfast. By the summer of 1920 tension was already high in the North due to the War of Independence and political uncertainties. These murders served as a catalyst for deadly confrontation in Northern streets. All the victims were Irish. Violence continued to grow after August 1920. In Cork city and county and Belfast there was an escalation of attacks, reprisals and murders. The death toll for Cork has been estimated at 523 for the whole period 1920-21, and the majority of these occurred between August 1920 and July 1921. In Belfast some eighty people were killed between early September 1920 and mid-July 1921.
The Truce of July 11th, 1921 led to a partial lull in these killings, but not for long. Violence had now become part of the political framework and culture. Over the next ten months in Cork thirty-four people were killed. In the ensuing civil war about 180 were killed in Cork. In the North violence was also part of the political scene. The new state of Northern Ireland experienced violence between government and anti-government forces and also sectarian conflict. In Belfast fatalities have been put at around seventy between mid-July and December 1921, followed by some 250 deaths in the first half of 1922. Peter Hart commented: “Mac Curtain and Swanzy died because they were nominally in control … the victims were helpless and unarmed when shot.” Afterwards Mac Curtain, Swanzy and Smyth were remembered, but in very different ways.
At a meeting of Cork city corporation on April 23rd, 1920 it was agreed that the name of one of Cork’s main streets be changed to MacCurtain Street. Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney said it was their duty “to do honour to their immortal dead”. Later a number of memorials to Mac Curtain were erected in Cork, including a statue in the entrance hall of the rebuilt city hall. He was survived by his widow and five children. His son Tomás Og was a leading IRA member between 1935 and 1960.
In Lisburn cathedral there is a brass plaque, erected by Oswald Swanzy’s mother and sister in April 1921, in “proud and loving memor”’ of their son and of “all his gallant comrades who like him have been killed in the unfaltering discharge of their duty and in the service of their country”. Irene Swanzy left Ireland and settled eventually in the Fiji Islands. For the next six decades, however, on August 22nd every year, she placed in the Belfast Newsletter and The Irish Times a memorial notice for her brother and “his gallant comrades” of the RIC, 1919-22. Mary Swanzy, cousin of Oswald and Irene Swanzy, became “arguably Ireland’s finest woman painter”, as art historian Brian Fallon has written recently.
In Banbridge on October 4th, 1920 Loyal Orange Lodge 518 was renamed the Col. Smyth Memorial in honour of Gerald Smyth. Loyal Orange Lodge 257 was renamed the Sterritt Memorial after seventeen-year-old William Sterritt. After Gerald Smyth’s death, his brother Osbert returned from Egypt to join military intelligence in Dublin. On October 12th, 1920 he was killed in a shootout with Dan Breen and Sean Treacy. He was buried next to his brother in Banbridge.
During these months in 1920 Cork was intimately linked to Banbridge, Lisburn and Belfast. The War of Independence impacted greatly on all these places, but in different ways. What happened in Cork had grave consequences for the North. In the larger scene the government, political parties and politicians were involved in a power struggle over the future of Ireland. At another level citizens faced the consequences of this conflict in their communities. Some brave individuals spoke out against violence from their own side although their words had limited effect. The War of Independence has been described as a war against the British empire. It was also a war of Irish against Irish, as these events in 1920 have shown clearly. The killing did not end with the Truce of July 1921. Today, we should remember all the victims of this tragedy.
Brian M Walker is professor emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast. His recent book is Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration (History Press). The RCB Library website archive of the month carries an article by him on Rev John Redmond.