Remembering 1920: The search for Oswald Swanzy
From evidence given at the inquest of Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain, there was no doubt among the officers of the Cork No.1 Brigade that RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy was the prime instigator in the murder of Tomás.
The Brigade Staff decided that Oswald Swanzy should be assassinated for his crime. Nineteen year old Seán Culhane, Intelligence Officer, Cork No.1 Brigade, was told that he could go ahead with the shooting provided Swanzy could be located. Shortly after the inquest, Swanzy departed Cork under an assumed name and moved to some unknown destination.
In his witness statement within the Bureau of Military History (WS746) Seán Culhane describes in depth his mission to assassinate Swanzy.
Following Swanzy’s departure from Cork, Seán heard that some baggage had been left Swanzy’s house and had been brought to the city’s railway station. He visited the station on the same evening and met a railway clerk named Seán Healy, who was a Lieutenant in A Company of IRA Brigade No.1.
He told Seán Healy his business and he proceeded to the parcels office and after rummaging around for a short while, Seán Healy found a hat-box and after examining the label on the box and, whether by chance or good fortune, he removed the top label and found another label underneath marked ‘Swanzy, Lisburn’. This information was sent to IRA General Headquarters and it was later confirmed by headquarters that Oswald Swanzy was in Lisburn.
Seán Culhane was then selected to go to Dublin and Belfast to make all necessary arrangements. He went to Dublin and after first calling to Brennan’s and Walsh’s – well known Republican drapers – one of the staff brought him along to Vaughan's Hotel where he met Michael Collins. Seán informed Mick of his mission and told him that he was en route for Belfast. Mick told him to get in touch with Matt McCarthy, an IRA sympathiser and then a constable in the RIC in Belfast.
On meeting Matt McCarthy, he thought the quest was inadvisable and after a full discussion of the proposal with Belfast Volunteer Joe McKelvey, it was agreed that the latter would provide reliable scouts to obtain all the information required for General Headquarters.
Satisfied that Swanzy was still there, Seán reported back to Dublin and sought further help as it was General Headquarters which was to finance the job.
He met Michael Collins, and after a frank discussion, he remarked that the job was much too big for Seán. He said it was a job for experienced men and mentioned about picking selected men from Dublin. Seán made a strong protest to him and informed him that his orders were very emphatic and that it was solely a Cork Brigade job.
After thinking it over, Michael Collins said that he would leave the decision to the minister for defence Cathal Brugha. The minister questioned Seán very closely as to his proposed plan of action and was convinced by the plan.
Seán then requested permission to attain four men from Cork to assist him in the operation, and this was agreed to. The men selected by the brigade were Dick Murphy, ‘Stetto’ Aherne, Corny McSweeney and Jack Cody.
They arrived in Belfast sometime later where Seán met them on arrival. After these men were sent for and prior to their arrival in Belfast, Seán had more time to examine the project in greater detail. He was satisfied that it was only a two man job and that any number over and above this might mean a bungling of the job and a bigger danger for all of them.
He chose Dick Murphy, who was captain of G Company, Cork No.1 Brigade, to accompany him on the operation. The other three were sent back to Cork. This was on a Friday and the following Sunday 22 August 1920, was the date fixed for the job.
Seán Leonard, a native of Tubbercurry and who worked in a Belfast garage was asked to provide the car and he arrived at the appointed time. By arrangement, they stopped the car about 150 yards from the place selected for the shooting in Lisburn.
It was also arranged that Belfast Brigade member Joe McKelvey would meet them about a mile outside Lisburn on completion of the job and that he would guide Dick and Seán across the hills to Belfast.
Belfast Brigade members Tom Fox and Roger McCorley informed them that Swanzy had gone to church and gave the approximate time the service would finish. Dick and Seán remained on the opposite side of the street near the church. They were not too long waiting until the congregation started coming out from the church.
When he was only a few yards away from them, Seán said to Dick: “That's him”. Seán fired the first shot hitting Swanzy in the head whilst Dick fired almost simultaneously into his body. The crowd of approximately one hundred persons coming from the church were stunned at first and then threw sticks and objects after them. Seán and Dick fired a few shots in the air and made a fast run for their car, which fled off very quickly.
Dick and Seán aimed for the train service from Belfast to Dublin for that same evening. They arrived in Dublin without any problem and proceeded to Vaughan's Hotel where they met Michael Collins.
Collins made a phone call to confirm whether Swanzy was actually dead. Michael sent them back to Cork the following day and he kept their revolvers stating he would send them along in due course. The journey was made by train and when it reached Blarney, about five miles from Cork city, they got off the train and walked into Cork.
On arrival at Blackpool suburbs, there was a military hold-up in progress. Dick and Seán were held up and searched, but after insisting they were only out for a walk they were allowed to go through. Incidentally, they never got back the guns from Michael Collins and one of the guns which Seán had was the property of Tomás MacCurtain. The gun now rests in the Kilmurray Independence Museum.
The day following Seán’s return to Cork, he resumed his apprenticeship job in the Munster Arcade and produced a certificate of illness from his doctor to cover the period of his absence.
Event: Kieran will conduct a self-guided lunchtime heritage treasure hunt along the City’s historic bridges on Saturday 22 September in collaboration with Meitheal Mara and the Playful Paradigm. Meet at 1pm at the National Monument, Grand Parade. See full details under heritage events at Kieran’s website, www.corkheritage.ie.