MacCurtain, Tomás (1884–1920), republican, was born Thomas Curtin in Ballyknockane, Co. Cork, on 20 March 1884, the youngest of twelve children of Patrick Curtin, tenant farmer, and his wife, Julia (née Sheehan). The area had a Fenian tradition – Ballyknockane police barracks was stormed during the 1867 rising. Patrick Curtin knew Irish but did not speak it at home. Thomas was educated at Burnford national school, where his abilities became apparent. In 1897 he was sent to live with an elder sister in the Blackpool district of Cork city, presumably in the hope that this would provide him with wider opportunities. He attended the Christian Brothers’ North Monastery School. In 1901 he joined the Blackpool branch of the Gaelic League, proving a skilful learner of Irish; it was at this time that he adopted the Irish-language form of his name. By 1902 MacCurtain was the Gaelic League branch secretary in Blackpool, and founded its string orchestra (which was supported by fund-raising day excursions); he was a skilled fiddle player and later learned the pipes.
MacCurtain worked as a clerk with the City of Cork Steampacket Company, but in 1905 was recruited by Fionán Mac Coluim as a travelling Irish teacher. He spent the next two years cycling around Co. Limerick and parts of east Cork and south Tipperary, organising branches and teaching classes, which in time proved a useful preparation for his Volunteer work. MacCurtain returned to Cork in 1907 and worked as a clerk for Mack's mills (he moved to Sutton's in 1914). On 28 June 1908 he married Eilis (Elizabeth) Walsh, a committed republican; they had five children.
On his return to Cork, MacCurtain resumed the secretaryship of the Blackpool Gaelic League and joined the Cork circle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was led by Sean O'Hegarty. He joined the Cork branch of Sinn Féin on its formation in 1907, and served on the branch executive from November 1909 to March 1911, when he left the organisation in protest against Griffithite political compromises. Between 1911 and 1913 he supervised the Cork branch of Fianna Éireann, which as Flor O'Donoghue (qv) observed was ‘the first step in his service as a soldier’. A fellow member of the Gaelic League, Daniel Corkery (qv), accused him of neglecting cultural revival to drill boy scouts.
In December 1913 MacCurtain became a founder member of the Cork executive of the Irish Volunteers, and in June 1914 was appointed secretary. His dedication and organisational ability marked him as a natural leader; when the Cork Volunteers split on 30 August 1914 he became brigade commandant of the MacNeillite Irish Volunteers in Cork city and county. He also wrote for the short-lived political journal of Terence MacSwiney (qv), Fianna Fáil (September–December 1914); the intense, ascetic MacSwiney and the jovial though equally devout and politically committed MacCurtain formed a working alliance that lasted the rest of their lives. In 1915 MacCurtain opened a shop in Cork at 40 Thomas Davis Street, Blackpool (his brother Sean was a business partner but left in 1917). A period of intense activity followed as MacCurtain travelled the county organising new Volunteer units despite police surveillance.
Had the 1916 rising developed as originally planned, the Cork Volunteers might have played a central role in conveying German arms from Kerry. MacCurtain's reaction to the conflicting messages arriving from Dublin over the Easter weekend in 1916 was complicated by awareness that the county Volunteers' mobilisation was under way. After Eoin MacNeill's (qv) countermanding order MacCurtain and MacSwiney left Cork city to stand down the rural Volunteers (some of whom wanted to fight unilaterally); by the time they learned of the Dublin rising, crown forces had been alerted. The city Volunteers barricaded themselves into their headquarters and throughout Easter week remained there, under the watchful eye of the British who held dominant positions on the surrounding hills. The catholic bishop of Cork and the lord mayor negotiated an agreement with the military authorities whereby the Volunteers would give their weapons to the mayor for safe keeping; MacCurtain and MacSwiney regarded the subsequent seizure of the weapons and the arrest of Cork Volunteer activists (themselves included) as a breach of faith. In 1917 the two men were subjected to IRB and Volunteer inquiries about Easter week, though MacCurtain had left the IRB in 1916, believing that secret organisation was no longer necessary; they were cleared but found the interrogation profoundly humiliating.
MacCurtain was arrested on 11 May 1916, sent to Dublin on 22 May, and deported to Wakefield prison on 30 May. On 10 June he was moved to Frongoch in north Wales and on 11 July to Reading gaol, where he remained until his release in December 1916. He resumed leadership of the Cork Volunteers but was rearrested in February 1917 and deported to Ledbury (Herefordshire) until 20 June. On 30 October he was arrested yet again and court-martialled with other Volunteer activists; they refused to recognise the court and were sentenced to six months' imprisonment, but went on hunger strike on 19 November and were released under the ‘cat and mouse act’ on 22 November. After participating in the South Armagh by-election campaign for Sinn Féin in January 1918, MacCurtain spent most of the year on the run, resuming organisational work with the Irish Volunteers and preparing to resist conscription. He did not stand in the 1918 general election, though he oversaw the Sinn Féin campaign in Cork city. He suffered a severe bout of influenza in November–December 1918 and thereafter lived openly in Cork, finding time to start a ladies’ clothing factory.
In January 1919 the Cork Volunteers were divided into three brigades, with MacCurtain in charge of No. 1 brigade centred on the city. MacCurtain and MacSwiney, who saw the Volunteers as honourable soldiers, wished to mount large-scale attacks on police and army barracks (they also feared that the Volunteers would disintegrate unless kept active); Sean O'Hegarty (qv), MacCurtain's vice-commandant, favoured attacks on individual policemen and recruited a group that resembled the Squad, formed by Michael Collins (qv), to carry them out. In May 1919 an explosion took place in a bomb factory that O'Hegarty's men had constructed without MacCurtain's knowledge; O'Hegarty was demoted but he continued to operate independently, his activities causing tensions with MacCurtain that resembled those between Collins and Cathal Brugha (qv), who like MacCurtain (and for the same reasons) had left the IRB after 1916.
In the local government elections in January 1920 MacCurtain was elected to Cork corporation for the north-west ward (including Blackpool). On 30 January 1920 he became the first Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork. He used the mayoralty as a political platform, while developing plans for administrative reform; he made no secret of his whereabouts, believing that a public official should operate openly. Meanwhile, the city RIC responded to attacks by O'Hegarty's men with raids, shootings, and attempts on the lives of councillors. On the night of 19 March 1920 an off-duty policeman was killed in the city by O'Hegarty's men. MacCurtain dissociated himself from the killing and is alleged to have spoken of disciplining the perpetrator (‘We can't have men roaming around armed shooting police on their own’ (Hart, 241)). Between 1.15 and 1.20 a.m. on 20 March, MacCurtain was shot dead in his bedroom by disguised policemen; his wife (who was held back by the killers) later suffered a miscarriage.
MacCurtain's death represented a major escalation in the spiral of violence that marked the last year of the war of independence. Some doubt remains about whether the killing, which involved large numbers of policemen, was a locally organised reprisal or part of a wider scheme to assassinate Sinn Féin leaders while attributing the deaths to internal feuds. A widely publicised inquest accused government officials and named policemen, including Inspector Henry Swanzy (qv), of wilful murder; Swanzy was later shot dead in Lisburn. O'Hegarty succeeded MacCurtain as IRA brigade commandant in Cork, becoming completely dominant after the arrest and death of MacSwiney. In later years MacCurtain and MacSwiney symbolised Cork's civic pride and defiance during the war of independence and their statues were erected either side of the main entrance to the rebuilt city hall. MacCurtain's son, Tomás Óg, was a leading IRA activist c.1935–1960, briefly serving as chief of staff.
The Tomás MacCurtain papers are held in Cork Public Museum. Information about MacCurtain may also be found in the Liam de Roiste Papers in the Cork City and County Archives and in the Terence MacSwiney Papers in UCD Archives Department.