1238a. Portrait of Lord Mayor of Cork Seán French, 1924. (source: Cork City Hall)

Making an Irish Free State City – Cllr Seán French is elected as lord mayor

Late January 1924 coincided with two new starts for the Corporation of Cork. Firstly the final compensation was to be announced for the burning of City Hall and the Carnegie Library arising from the Black and Tan arson attack in December 1920, and secondly the election of a new lord mayor in the guise of Seán French.

The Cork Examiner outlines that on 24 January 1924, a meeting of Cork Corporation’s Law and Finance Committee meeting was held. There a letter was read by the city solicitor notifying that the Compensation (Ireland) Commission had awarded the sum of £73,257 in respect of the burning of the municipal buildings and City Hall, of which amount the sum of £58,000 was allocated to be expended on the construction of a new premises.

That overall sum was to bear interest at 5 per cent from the 1 January 1924. The letter asserted that the Corporation of Cork should have every reason to be satisfied with the award.

The Compensation (Ireland) Commission was created jointly by the Irish and British governments in 1922. It was held in Ireland under the presidency of initially, Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, and subsequently, Sir Alexander Wood-Renton. The commission's terms of reference were kept to the consideration of claims in respect of damage or injury incurred between 21 January 1919 and 11 July 1921. The registers of claims and papers are now in The National Archives in Kew in London.

The corporation’s city treasurer explained that the initial recorder’s or assessor’s award for the municipal buildings from 1921 was £69,324 and for the concert hall £7,333 – giving a grand total of £106,657. Hence the overall Compensation Committee award for 1924 was a reduction of £33,390.

In the case of the burned out Carnegie Library, the amount awarded by the recorder or assessor in 1921 was £40,000 and for books £9,650 giving an overall total of £49,650. The Compensation Commission’s overall package was £29,850 giving a total reduction of £19,300.

The Law and Finance Committee members asked whether the compensation packages were final. The city solicitor noted that they were but over the ensuing two months, further discussions were held at corporation meeting level. The outcome was that the compensation figures remained the same and in time financial plans were put in train to rebuild a new city hall and a new city library.

The context to the election of a new lord mayor arose from the resignation of Donal Óg O’Callaghan. He was absent for quite some time and there had been much criticism that he was missing from Cork and the fact he was drawing a salary.

The legality of continuing to pay lord mayor O’Callaghan's salary was raised some months previously owing to his absence from council meetings for twelve months. The city solicitor was asked to report on the matter.

The outcome was that indeed the lord mayor was disqualified and that any further payments to him in respect of his salary would be illegal. The Law and Finance Committee, therefore, struck off the item of £50, which was the lord mayor's salary for a month. Donal’s resignation followed.

A day after the figures for the compensation awards were released for the Municipal Buildings and the Library – on 25 January 1924 – the town clerk read a resignation letter from Donal, which was accepted by the body of the councillors.

“A chairde - I hereby resign Lord Mayoralty of the city. I wish to thank you for the assistance you gave me to fulfil the promises we gave citizens when we were elected. My election as Lord Mayor in 1920 came after Terence MacSwiney's sacrifice, RIP.

“It has been a troubled time since. All thoughts and opinions I had when I was elected are the same thoughts and opinions I have today on the question of the Irish Republic. Because of that I have been unable to be with you for more than a year.

“Because of that I should probably be unable to take part in municipal affairs for some times to come. Wishing prosperity to the city and those who will be working for it, Is mise Domhnaill O’Callaghan.”

On 30 January, the scene was set for a mayoralty election. The Cork Examiner records that the corporation members met in the council chamber, courthouse, to elect a lord mayor, fix his salary, and “select three gentlemen qualified to fill the office of high sheriff”.

A sizeable group of the general public had gathered in the vicinity of the courthouse long before the time of meeting, but admission to the building was carefully restricted.

The public gallery of the chamber became well filled. Many of the members took their seats at 11.45am.

Amongst the earliest arrivals was Sir Edward Fitzgerald, who got a very cordial welcome from the occupants of the gallery.

The next outburst of applause was when a group of councillors, which included Messrs. Sean French and Barry Egan, who entered the chamber.

They were to be the two candidates to put their name forward for the office of lord mayor.

Barry Egan attained 22 votes and Seán French received 23 votes. Having won the poll, the interim chairman John Horgan declared Seán as the next lord mayor. Having signed the role accepting office, he was invested with the chain of office.

The new lord mayor delivered a short acceptance speech. In returning thanks, Seán noted that he would not deal with the criticism offered against him. His first act was to try and make them recognise in the first instance that their hugely there “principally and primarily was for the progress of Cork”.

He had his ideals and he thought that he had been true to them and nothing would change him. “I would say to every individual of the council that if there was anything he had to suggest that would advance Cork in me I would have a whole hearted friend who would give every assistance”. He asked his councillor colleagues to forget their differences in the interests of the city.

On the motion of Cllr Gamble, seconded by Councillor Sir John Scott, the lord mayor's salary was fixed at the usual amount, £600 a year come on the same days were fixed for the quarterly meetings of the vouncil. Lord Mayor Seán French was to be the civic face of Cork well into the early 1930s.

Check out more on the life of Seán French through the new book ‘First Citizen, Sean French, Cork’s Longest-Serving Lord Mayor’ by Dr Aodh Quinlivan and John Ger O’Riordan, available in Waterstones and Vibes and Scribes.