Commandant General Austin McCurtin was born on September 23, 1898 to William F McCurtin, a native of Tipperary Town and Mary J Moloney, Castle Street, Nenagh. They were married in St. Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street in Dublin on November 30, 1893. The couple settled in Nenagh where William took over the running of the Moloney family business which comprised a bakery, hardware and general store. The family were heavily involved in political and sporting circles in Nenagh. William was a member of both the United Irish League and The Nenagh Town Tenants organisation. He was a vocal contributor to proceedings of both bodies. Mary was involved with and donated money to Nenagh Coursing Club.
Austin was the second son of four children. At a young age, he was sent as a boarder to the Ankers Bower Convent in Athlone where his older sister Maureen was already a pupil. The convent had children boarding from as young as six up to eighteen years of age. In September 1912, Austin entered Mungret College, Limerick, as a lay pupil, where his brother John was already enrolled. The college catered for both lay and apostolic pupils, who were directed towards vocations in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The boys already had an uncle, Fr John McCurtin, serving in the order. Among its stated aims, the college professed that ‘Special attention is paid to the improvement of manners and the formation of character.’
During his time in Mungret, McCurtin distinguished himself academically. He also played for the school Cricket team and took part in school drama productions. Francis Power, also from Nenagh, was a fellow pupil of McCurtin’s in Mungret and he also died in the Civil War, fighting on the opposite side.
Having completed the 1913-14 school year in Mungret, Austin started working in the family business in Nenagh. Following the first anniversary of the 1916 Rising, efforts were made in North Tipperary to breathe new life into the Sinn Féin Volunteers, which had been all but dormant following the split with the Irish National Volunteers over participation in the war.
Heavily involved in these efforts was Denis Carey, who was employed as a foreman in McCurtin’s and who ‘lived in’ with the family. Undoubtedly, Carey had an influence on the young Austin, as did his own brother John, who was studying Law in UCD and involved with Sinn Féin in Dublin.
In September 1919, the first attack on a police patrol in North Tipperary took place in Lorrha and the situation progressively worsened into 1920. By then, Austin had been appointed Intelligence Officer of the North Tipperary Brigade IRA. Following the establishment of the Active Service Unit (ASU) or Flying Column he also undertook the role of ASU Quarter Master. As such, he had the task of identifying targets and procuring arms, ammunition money, clothing and food to support the men on the column.
It was in connection with his work on behalf of the ASU that he came in contact with Sean (Jack) Collison. Collison had been a member of the ASU from its formation and succeeded Ned O’Leary as leader of the ASU, following a debacle over lack of discipline in the column.
Following the split in the ranks of the Army over support for the Treaty in 1922, Collison and McCurtin opted to support the Treaty and both joined the National Army. On account of the prominent positions both had played during the War of Independence, they were both commissioned as officers in the fledgling Army. McCurtin was appointed as Colonel and Collison to the rank of Captain.
Both men were initially assigned to the Curragh Command, which had responsibility for the midlands area, before being transferred to the newly established 3rd Southern Division, which was headquartered at Portlaoise under the command of Comdt. Paddy Mulcahy.
When the Civil War started with the attack on the Four Courts on June 28, 1922, the First Tipperary Brigade of the Anti-Treaty IRA attempted to take the town of Nenagh on behalf of the IRA Executive. McCurtin was in charge of the National Army forces which went to the relief of the besieged garrison.
Less than two weeks later, during the course of an engagement with the Leix anti-Treaty IRA at Capard House, Rosenallis on July 12, Mulcahy, his senior officer, was seriously wounded and McCurtin was promoted as Officer Commanding the Third Southern Division.in his place.
Just over a fortnight later, 28 July, during mopping up operations in the wake of an ambush at Tonduff, Abbeyleix, Austin McCurtin and Jack Collison were fatally wounded. The location of the incident was Raheen, about four kilometeres North-West of Abbeyleix. He was two months short of his twenty-fourth birthday and was the second most senior member of the National Army (after General Michael Collins) to be killed in the course of the Civil War.
On Saturday evening, July 29, the remains of both men left Maryboro (Portlaoise) in a heavily escorted military cortege. Along the way, the throngs of people were so large that it was almost 2 am on Sunday when the cortege reached St Mary’s of the Rosary Church in Nenagh.
All day Sunday, people from Nenagh and the surrounding area queued to file past the remains. On Monday, he was buried with full military honours in Lisbunny Old Cemetery, following Requiem Mass in St Mary’s of the Rosary Church. The graveside oration was delivered by National Army Assistant Chief of Staff Lieutenant General JJ O’Connell.
In 1926, Austin McCurtin’s mother submitted a claim for compensation for the death of her son. However, following submission of the claim it does not appear to have been pursued any further and there is no record of any award being made.
Extract from forthcoming publication by John Flannery on Tipperary 1921-1926