Seamus Courtney was born in Cork City in 1897. His father Daniel, a blacksmith, was originally from Passage West. His mother Kate was from the Gortatlea area in Kerry. The Courtney’s lived in a small one bedroomed terraced house in the Hibernian Buildings just off Albert Road in Cork. The Courtney family home was right in the heart of Cork’s Jewish quarter, or ‘Jewtown’ as it was known to the locals, and at its height in 1910 had about 350 Jews living there, a good deal originating from Lithuania, mostly all congregating in or around the Hibernian Buildings. Despite the large Jewish community living around the Hibernian Buildings, a significant proportion of the local families were also Irish Catholics. Many of these were staunch nationalists, including the Courtneys. Others of note were the Smyths, Cotters, Mulcahys, Fitzgerald, and the Riordans; all of whom participated in the upcoming Independence movement in one way or another.
In 1912 when Seamus was fifteen years old, and having only just left school, he joined the Cork branch of the Irish National Boy Scouts, otherwise known as Na Fianna Eireann, which at that early stage held meetings at the Gaelic League headquarters An Dún in Queen Street. The Cork City Fianna branch had only been in existence for about a year but Seamus’ leadership qualities soon became apparent and he quickly rose up through the ranks and became leader of the Cork City Sluagh shortly after he joined. His leadership skills were also recognized beyond Cork City and he was soon in command of the Cork County Fianna by 1914. At that time there were branches throughout the county in places such as Blarney, Cobh, Douglas, Blackrock and Youghal. Courtney also represented Cork on the Munster Fianna Council, which had delegates from Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick and Kerry.
By this stage Seamus also became associated with the Irish Volunteers (IV) which had been founded in late 1913 and while he devoted the greater part of his time organizing, recruiting and training the Fianna, he was also regarded as an experienced and valuable officer by the Volunteer hierarchy in Cork, and he assisted in training of new Volunteer recruits.
At the Munster Fianna Convention held in Limerick in the summer of 1915 Courtney was appointed Commandant or O/C of the entire Munster Fianna organization. He delegated his previous role as head of the Cork Fianna to his able deputy and close friend Sean Healy.
In January 1916 Seamus took part in a week long ‘Officers Course’ held at Irish Volunteers HQ in Sheares Street, Cork City. Following orders received from IV Cork City Battalion O/C Sean O’Sullivan, in the days leading up to the Easter Rising, Seamus Courtney and Sean Healy mobilized about 20 senior Fianna Eireann officers at the Volunteers Hall in Sheares Street. On Easter Sunday morning the Fianna paraded in the Hall and several of them remained at Sheares Street for the rest of the week on standby.
Following the Rising the Fianna and Irish Volunteers were re-organised in Cork. In March 1917 a meeting of Fianna and Volunteer officers at Sheares Street was raided by the police and the names of those present, including Seamus Courtney and Sean Healy of the Fianna, were recorded. A week later, during the night Seamus and Sean were both arrested at their homes. The other officers had been tipped off about the imminent arrests but Courtney and Healy were not told as it was felt that they would not be arrested as they were too young. They were brought to the Bridewell detention centre in the city. They were charged with illegal drilling at the hall in Sheares Street, when they were clearly not doing anything of the sort and, despite their protests, were sentenced to eighteen months hard labour. It was subsequently reduced to three months on account of their age. They were sent to Cork Gaol. They served the full three months in harsh conditions and were released.
The Fianna organized a large welcome reception for Seamus and Sean the night of their release and the following Saturday another function was held where a presentation was made to each of them in the form of specially made inscribed Fianna wallets with ten pounds inside.
Once settled back into the regular routine of work and the movement, Seamus suggested to Sean and the other officers, about the possibility of inviting Countess Markievicz down from Dublin on behalf of the local branch of Fianna Eireann. Markievicz was only recently released from prison herself, and Seamus felt it would be a boost for the movement in Cork, a tribute to her and an honour for the Cork Fianna to have her as a guest in the city. Markievicz accepted the invite and Seamus began making plans for her stay. He booked City Hall for the occasion and arranged a full concert programme complete with a céilidh afterwards. He placed an advert in the local newspaper announcing her visit and arranged a horse drawn open carriage to collect her from the train station. The visit was a tremendous success and the streets were thronged with thousands of Corkonians hoping to catch a glimpse of this famous rebel woman. The concert itself was another triumph and Markievicz received a standing ovation when she took to the stage. Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney were so impressed with Seamus taking the initiative of organising the whole event and his tireless efforts with the Fianna, that they co-opted him onto the Battalion Council of the Irish Volunteers.
In October of that year (1917) another round up of senior Cork Volunteer and Fianna officers took place, this time there was no tip off and in total about 60 senior Republicans, including Seamus, found themselves behind bars. Following sentencing, they all received various terms of hard labour. A meeting of the prisoners was held and it was decided to start a hunger strike. Four days later they were all released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ act.
Towards the end of spring, 1918, Seamus’ health rapidly deteriorated, due to ill treatment he received, and the hard labour conditions, during his two prison stays and the brief hunger strike. He gave up his job as secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and also found himself unable to devote his time to Fianna activities. He went to stay with his Aunt on their farm near Ballymacelligott in Kerry. It was hoped the fresh air and a well needed rest would help Seamus back to his feet however about five weeks later word was sent to his comrades in Cork that he was in a bad way and was not expected to pull through. He requested to see his old friend Sean Healy and following a visit Sean remarked that he was “shocked at the change in him in such a short time”. Two weeks after Sean’s visit to Kerry, on the 22nd of July 1918, Seamus passed away aged only 21 years old.
Seamus’ coffin was sent from Kerry to Cork by train and was draped with a tricolour by the Kerry Fianna. A huge crowd met the train and followed the Fianna guard of honour through the streets of Cork to the South Parish Church. A large crowd attended his funeral the next day, which was organized by Sean Healy and the Cork Fianna. The burial took place at Passage West.
In the years following Seamus’ sad passing, his resting place was devotedly tended to by two local men, former Fianna members, George Hurley and Charlie Meaney. As time went on and these two men passed away themselves, the grave at Passage West became neglected. Recently the Irish Volunteers Commemorative Organization (IVCO), a national organization but based in Cork, decided that it was now time that Seamus’ grave was once again given the attention and care it deserves. Credit must go to all the local Cork members of the IVCO who have ensured that Seamus and his brave deeds will not be forgotten.
By Eamon Murphy