James Mountain


When I was a young girl, my father took me to the National Monument in Grand Parade, Cork, and pointed to a name inscribed on the Fenian panel. “You see that name, James Mountain,” said my father, “he was your ancestor.”

This didn’t mean a lot to me at the time but I know it’s true as my Grandmother, Mary Mountain, used to talk about him and the fact that he was the brother of my Great-Great-Grandfather; John.

I was17 when I visited the Monument that day in 1963 and in the intervening years I have come to find out more about James Mountain – the man who became known as Cork’s first Fenian.

 Very few people nowadays study the lists of names engraved on the sides of Cork’s National Monument. On the 1867, or Fenian, panel the eleventh name on the right-hand list is that of James Mountain. He is largely forgotten by Cork citizens, but in truth, he has a just claim on their hearts and minds.

To understand James Mountain’s involvement in Irish history, we must go back to a time when Ireland was still under British rule and its countrymen were faced with grinding poverty and injustice.  

James was born around 1819 and during his childhood and youth was an ardent supporter of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell who fought for Catholic emancipation.

Mountain lived with his wife and family at 72, North Main Street, where he was a shoemaker. His house, which stood at the corner of Broad Lane, was demolished in the early 1950s, to make way for the new passageway which links North Main Street to St. Francis’ Church. North Main Street could well be described as a ‘hotbed of treason’ in Fenian times. Mountain, a ‘Young Irelander’  was one of the leading contacts between members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and was seen as an inspiration and mentor to younger Fenians including Brian Dillon and John Lynch who gathered to meet in the premises of his shop. J.J.Geary, whose public house was also a meeting place for the movement, lived down the street at No. 27.

Mountain was active in the Cork National Reading Rooms, and involved in the Brotherhood of St. Patrick where annual soirees were organised for St. Patrick’s night. These events consisted of a meal with lectures, songs and dances.

In March 1863, records show that an event occurred, which brought James forcibly into the public eye. That same month, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) son of Queen Victoria, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. To honour the event there was a great burst of loyalist enthusiasm across the British Empire, including in Cork.

Novel illuminations became the order of the day on houses, shops and public buildings. The Cork Gas Company was busy designing, manufacturing and erecting all sorts of lighting effects. For instance, Blackrock Castle was covered externally by vast numbers of gas mantles which, when lit at night, displayed the castle in all its glory.

These displays of loyalty disgusted the nationalists of Cork and on the night of the royal marriage, rioting broke out, starting around Winthrop Street and spreading to Grand Parade and the South Mall.

Lights and windows were smashed, the constabulary and military from Victoria Barracks joined the fray and scores of people were injured.

Arrests followed and Mountain was among those detained due to lack of evidence and identification.  

These riots lived on in the memory of Cork people for many years and were referred to as the ‘10th March Riots’ or simply the ‘Prince of Wales Riots’.

During the latter part of 1863, Mountain took a trip to America which lasted for six months, bringing with him a letter of introduction from James Stephens, founder of the Fenians in Ireland, to John O’Mahony, head of the Fenian Brotherhood in the U.S. That letter, which showed the high regard Stephens had for Mountain, is now preserved in the ‘O’Mahony papers’ at the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.

In 1864 and 1865 the strength of the I.R.B reached its peak and Mountain was in the thick of it, unaware that undercover police were watching him.

The comings and goings of Americans were being watched too, at Cobh. After the American Civil War many officers were sent over by the Fenian Brotherhood to prepare for the Rising, which they firmly believed was imminent. Mountain met many of these men. On occasions too, he was active in seeing off at Cobh, emissaries of the home organisation to the Fenians in America.

As far as Fenianism was concerned, the biggest and most disastrous event of 1865 was the captivity of most of the leaders of the movement and Mountain did not escape the purge.

Policemen from both Shandon Street and Tuckey Street Station went to his house where a hostile crowd had gathered. Reinforcements of armed police were sent for and Mountain was handcuffed and taken to the Bridewell with crowds following, many in tears.

Whilst searching Mountain’s premises, the police found a copy of the proceedings of the First Fenian Congress in Chicago (1863), a copy of Begg’s Military Resources of Ireland and a copy of Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon inscribed with: James Mountaine - Fenian Brotherhood.

These were regarded as highly incriminating documents. The Government set up a Special Commission to try all the Fenians that had been arrested and throughout October; November and December; Cork was like an armed camp.     

On Wednesday, 27th December, Mountain – then approaching 50 - was charged and his trial was set for the following day.

His illustrious lawyer Isaac Butt put up a magnificent defence, heaping scorn on the idea that the white-haired, elderly Mountain was a menace to her Majesty the Queen.

He tore to shreds the evidence given by informers - who had been persuaded by police to turn Queen’s evidence by naming people. They were ridiculed for their inability to be convincing enough in their identification of the defendant.

A point of unusual interest came to light during the trial. It was stated, by a friendly witness, that for the first 20 years of his life, the accused had spelt his name ‘Mountain’ but had changed it to ‘Mountaine’ in later life.

The jury eventually returned a verdict of not guilty and a great cheer rang through the courtroom. Mountain was carried in triumph down Great George’s Street and along to his home.

A free man, he returned to his activities for two more years, until in 1867 he was arrested under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act and thrown into Cork Jail. After several months passed, and without his case being brought to trial, Mountain was released in poor health.

Late in September, 1868, James Mountain was taken seriously ill and six weeks later, on Friday, November 6th, the news of his death was announced.

At 2pm on Sunday, November 8th, the funeral procession started from Mountain’s home in North Main Street. Numbers in the procession were conservatively estimated at between four and six thousand. In fact the Cork Evening Herald estimated that upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of Cork. Such was the outpouring of grief.

Every street, every window and in some cases even roofs were full of spectators, who probably had never seen or met Mountain, but for them, he was a ‘Young Irelander’, a Nationalist and a Fenian.

Along the entire route, the footpaths on both sides were filled with a mass of people who followed on to the Botanical Gardens (now St. Joseph’s Cemetery) where the Patriot’s remains were laid to rest.

Following my article in the 2007 Holly Bough, I was contacted by the National Graves Association (NGA) who offered to provide a new headstone for James  Mountain’s grave and a plaque to show where his shop premises had been located in North Main Street.

On May 9th, 2009, a commemoration took place at Mountain’s graveside at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Ballyphehane.

I was present, along with my brother, sisters and cousins, as the NGA members arrived, along with a piper. The sound of bagpipes filled the air as the small procession moved to the graveside for a short ceremony.

I shared the honour of unveiling the new headstone with my cousin, Mary Casey, nee O’Sullivan.

After the ceremony, we made our way to 74 North Main Street, where the Pottery Market Shop now stands. A plaque in Irish and English had been erected upon the wall stating “James Mountain, 1819-1868, Young Irelander and Fenian lived at number 72”.

A stirring speech about the Patriot’s life was given by an NGA representative.

I would be interested to hear from anyone related to James Mountain or any of the Mountain family from Cork city. If you would like to contact me, please go to my website: http://james.mountain.tripod.com


Walter McGrath – Cork Evening Echo December 1968.

Cork Holly Bough December 2007