Donal Óg O’Callaghan, wearing the mayoral chain and robe, November 1920. Photo: Courtesy of Cork Public Museum

100 years ago - When Cork rejected the Lord Mayor

By Dr Aodh Quinlivan

100 years ago the citizens of Cork sensationally rejected Lord Mayor Donal Óg O’Callaghan, at the ballot box. The general election of 1922 was effectively a referendum on the Treaty.

The main protagonists in the Treaty debate, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, had agreed to enter into a pact to safeguard the dominance of Sinn Féin. They decided the party would present a panel of candidates, filled from the pro- and anti-Treaty sides, in proportion to their present strength in the Dáil.

After the election, the party would retain power as a coalition government with the winning side allocated 5 cabinet seats, compared to 4 for the losers. The tenure of the 2nd Dáil had been brief, fewer than 300 days since it first sat on 16 August 1921. Unlike in 1921 when Sinn Féin had not faced competition, the 1922 election was contested with the Labour Party entering the fray.

When nominations closed on 6 June, there were 7 candidates for the 4 Dáil seats in Cork city. Sinn Féin put forward the 4 outgoing TDs, JJ Walsh and Liam de Róiste, both pro-Treaty, and Mary MacSwiney and Lord Mayor Donal O’Callaghan, both anti-Treaty.

The 4 Sinn Féin candidates were joined on the ballot paper by Frank Daly (Chairman of the Harbour Commissioners) and Richard Beamish, who were standing as Independent Commercial candidates, and by Robert Day, running for the Labour Party.

The not inconsiderable challenge facing Sinn Féin was to present a united front, even though the party was divided on the Treaty. No money was spared as the party ran daily advertisements in the ‘Cork Examiner’, listing the names of their 4 Cork city National Panel Candidates with a carefully crafted message around the election slogan – ‘In Unity is Strength’.

However, there was not much unity on display when a major election rally took place in Cork city on the night of Sunday 11 June, with Éamon de Valera as the principal speaker. JJ Walsh was not on the platform and Liam de Róiste attended only after much argument. De Róiste’s lack of enthusiasm was due to the hasty manner in which the meeting had been organised by Donal O’Callaghan, without consulting his pro-Treaty party colleagues.

De Valera told the crowd on the Grand Parade he was there as the President of Sinn Féin. He admitted his party had fundamental differences on 1 question, but they agreed on most other things and it was on that basis they were contesting the election.

He expressed the hope that both sections of his party would come together as a coalition government with a large majority to steer the country though the next critical 8 or 10 months.

Donal O’Callaghan’s speech was low-key and brief. He said stability was needed to get Ireland through the coming period of time, which was bound to be challenging. In his view, that meant re-electing the 4 Sinn Féin candidates who had worked hard for Cork city in the last Dáil. If Sinn Féin secured ‘a solid working entity’ in the new parliament, it would be best for Ireland and for Cork.

3 days later, Sinn Féin organised another rally in the city, this time dominated by pro-Treaty speakers.

In a famous speech, Michael Collins told the crowd: ‘I am not hampered now by being on a platform where there are Coalitionists. I can make a straight appeal to you citizens of Cork to vote for the candidates you think best of, to vote for the candidates whom the electors of Cork think will carry on best in the future the work that the citizens of Cork want carried on …… You understand fully what you have to do, and I will depend on you to do it.’

The presence of candidates other than those on the National Panel caused some annoyance to Sinn Féin. Many incumbent Sinn Féin TDs had not faced a contested general election in either 1919 or 1921, and they were not eager to become acquainted with the experience. One man who refused to be intimidated by the strong quartet of Sinn Féin candidates was Labour’s Robert Day. He made a virtue of this point during a very effective and energised campaign. At a big rally in Cork 3 days before the election, Day referred to a statement that had been made earlier in the week by a Sinn Féin member, to the effect that Cork never put an untried player on the field in a hurling or football match.

Day conceded this was true, before pointedly criticising Cork’s incumbent Sinn Féin TDs: “I can safely say that when the people of Cork tried a man and found him wanting, they quickly substituted him with another.”

Alderman William Kenneally also addressed the meeting and he spoke strongly in support of Day, stating: “Labour is going forward and is not going to stand down for de Valera, the Lord Mayor or anyone else.”

The ‘Cork Examiner’ reported that election day, 16 June, “passed off with great humour and mostly quietly.” It said there was a big poll of nearly 30,000 votes and warned counting could “take some days” due to the intricacies of PR-STV.

This did not turn out to be the case and the election results for Cork city were announced around midnight on 17 June, by the city’s sub-Sheriff, JF Maguire. A large crowd of people were present in the courthouse, including Michael Collins.

The outcome was a shock. Labour’s Robert Day topped the poll, exceeding the quota on the first count.

The bigger news, however, was that Donal O’Callaghan, Lord Mayor of Cork and sitting TD, finished last of the 7 candidates.

Cork City Election Results June 1922

Electorate: 48,817

Total Valid Poll: 30,347

Quota: 6,070

First preferences

Robert Day Labour Party - 6,836

JJ Walsh Sinn Féin Panel, pro-Treaty - 5,731

Liam de Róiste Sinn Féin Panel, pro-Treaty - 5,657

Mary MacSwiney Sinn Féin Panel, anti-Treaty - 4,016

Richard Beamish Independent Commercial - 3,485

Frank Daly Independent Commercial - 2,826

Donal O’Callaghan Sinn Féin Panel, anti-Treaty - 1,796

O’Callaghan was eliminated on the 2 count, as his 3 Sinn Féin colleagues, Liam de Róiste, JJ Walsh and Mary MacSwiney secured seats along with Robert Day. The result was a personal humiliation for the Lord Mayor. Not only was he the only incumbent Cork city TD to lose his seat, 1 of his main political rivals, Robert Day, secured nearly 4 times as many first preference votes.

Richard Beamish, the only ex-Unionist standing outside Dublin University, also finished ahead of him. In trying to explain O’Callaghan’s disastrous performance, the ‘Cork Examiner’ noted that since he was already the Lord Mayor, perhaps the electorate had decided 1 person should only have 1 job. It also reasoned that the Lord Mayor’s anti-Treaty proclivities weighed against him though it pointed out that his anti-Treaty colleague, Mary MacSwiney was returned.

2 months later, the defeated and deflated Lord Mayor left his beloved Cork and never again resided there – though he remained as Lord Mayor until January 1924, when he was succeeded by Seán French.

An accumulation of factors contributed to his departure. Donal O’Callaghan had been left crushed and shattered by the violent deaths of Cathal Brugha and Harry Boland.

O’Callaghan had been especially close to Boland. They had spent a lot of time together in America in 1921 and both men had attended the Irish Race Convention in Paris.

Also, O’Callaghan was acutely aware that the focus of the Civil War fighting was shifting from Dublin to Munster. The National Army had arrived in Kerry on 3 August and their next target was Cork.

As a staunch anti-Treatyite, O’Callaghan had received a series of death threats, just as he had in 1920 when he took over as Lord Mayor following the deaths of Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney.

The simple truth is that Donal Óg O’Callaghan had no stomach for the Civil War. He was broken-hearted by the deaths of Brugha and Boland and, having witnessed the centre of Cork city destroyed during the War of Independence, he had no intention of seeing it ruined again in a battle between Irishmen.

Disillusioned by his rejection at the recent general election and appalled that politicians had not been able to avoid a Civil War, he fled Cork for Europe, taking no further part in the public life of the city of which he was Lord Mayor.

Cork Corporation was now rudderless, and the consequences became apparent when the local authority was dissolved in 1924, until finally being reinstated in 1929 with Philip Monahan taking over as the country’s first City Manager.

Dr Aodh Quinlivan is the Director of UCC’s Centre for Local and Regional Governance. He is the author of ‘Forgotten Lord Mayor: Donal Óg O’Callaghan, 1920-1924’. Dr Aodh Quinlivan is speaking tomorrow night, 17 june, in St Peter’s Cork about Cork Corporation in the Civil War period. It’s a free public event but registration is required on