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Remembering 1920: The newly elected corporation

Wednesday, 15th January, 2020 5:10pm

One hundred years ago today, 16 January 1920, boxes of votes for the city’s six local electoral areas and for membership of Cork Corporation began to be counted in Cork City Hall.

The election had taken place a day earlier on 15 January. A total of 160 candidates looked on with trepidation as the ballot boxes were being opened.

Only one female, Summerhill North resident Miss Anne Sutton representing the Sinn Féin and Workers Transport grouping and standing in the north-east ward, was on the ballot paper (and she was successfully elected).

On 15 January, booths opened at 8am and closed at 8pm, after which the ballot boxes were taken to the City Hall, where the votes were counted. On Friday morning 16 January, two trained staff groups counted the votes and two electoral areas were counted simultaneously. There were six groupings for the public to vote for – the conjoined Sinn Féin and Transport Workers (30 seats won), Irish Parliamentary Party/Irish Nationalist members (14 seats won), the Cork Rate Payer’s Association/Commercial (4 seats won), Labour (3 seats won), Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers (2 seats won), and Independents (3 seats won).

At the time, the term of office was set at three years. The Sinn Féin and Transport Workers grouping had a clear majority of 30 seats out of 56. They also had great success in Waterford and Limerick.

The first meeting of the newly elected Cork Corporation was to take place on Friday 30 January. At this meeting the principal business was to elect a lord mayor for the ensuing twelve months, to fix the salary of that office, to give three names for submission to the lord lieutenant of persons suitable for the office of city high sheriff, and to set the dates and hours of quarterly meetings.

In addition to the election of members to the several corporation committees, the council were to elect five of its number to the Cork Harbour Board. Three members of the old council who were on the Harbour Board ceased to be members thereof when they ceased to be members of the corporation.

The Sinn Féin and Transport Workers party in the corporation had a working majority over all other groupings. One of their number was in gaol - Alderman Frederick Murray and JJ Walsh MP was on the run from policing authorities. This, however, was not to affect considerably their power to control the council’s work.

Both the Sinn Féin and the Transport Workers groupings held separate private meetings when their agendas were discussed and agreed upon.

Tracking the various meetings through the Cork Examiner, with one week to go, the selection of the name for the lord mayoralty had not been made, but JJ Walsh, MP was being considered as the front runner. However, as he was on the run from policing authorities, there were several challenges with his nomination.

The point though was argued by some members of the Sinn Féin and the Transport Workers in favour of his election, as any future potential arresting of a lord mayor of the city would place the policing authorities in an awkward political position. Nevertheless, the mayoralty position was offered to Tomás MacCurtain, the well-respected brigade commander of Cork no.1 Batallion within the IRA (since 1918).

He has been active on the ground since his Irish Volunteer days and had spent several months in Frongoch prison. His family were also well-known manufacturers in Blackpool.

On 31 January 1920 as early as 11.30am, the gallery and available seats within the Council Chamber of the old City Hall were comfortably filled. Soon the place was absolutely packed with people. There were some clergymen present, and it was noted in the press for the first time in the history of such a meeting that a large number of women were present. Admission was by ticket and these were checked by firemen at the main entrance outside of which many people gathered.

The first members of the corporation to take their place in the council chamber were Messrs MJ O'Callaghan (Independent), Daniel Gamble (Irish Parliamentary Party), and Daniel Horgan (Irish Parliamentary Party).

Some minutes after, about 11.45am, the Sinn Féin members came in together, and were received with loud cheer with a special hearty welcome being given to Alderman Tomás MacCurtain, the selected memeber of their party for the chair. A few minutes before noon, the outgoing lord mayor William F O'Connor took the chair.

At noon, the town clerk called the roll, and 51 members answered out of the 56. The Sinn Féin Party gave their reply in Irish, answering ‘anseo’. When the name of Alderman Frederick Murray was called, Councillor O'Cuill said in Irish that he was in prison, and again, when Alderman JJ Walsh's name was called, he said in Irish: “Ta sé ar siúl” or in English, he was “on the run”, which resulted in a sympathetic cheer.

Further cheers signalled the approval of the public present for the motion, spoken in Irish by Councillor O'Cuill, proposing that Alderman Tomás MacCurtain to be lord mayor for the coming year. The motion was seconded by Cllr MacSwiney MP, who also spoke in Irish.

The chairman asked: “Is there any other candidates?” He declared Alderman MacCurtain unanimously elected (more in the next few weeks).

Have you a family member who was one of the original 56 councillors elected in 1920 or who appear on the famous roll of honour in Cork City Hall outside the Council Chamber (see picture)? Give me a shout with some more information at 087-6553389 or email info@kieranmccarthy.ie. Many of the names have never been researched in any depth and much information has been diluted on their background and general context.

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