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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland The destruction of Saint Patrick's Street, Cork.

The burning of Cork Donal Fallon remembers a night of chaos and terror in 1920

The historian recounts the violence before and the cruelty during the devastating Cork city fire that took place 100 years ago this week.

THERE ARE FEW voices as authoritative on the Irish War of Independence as that of Florence O’Donoghue. Head of Intelligence of the Cork No.1 Brigade of the Irish Republican Army, he later devoted himself as a historian to the task of assembling the history of that tumultuous period.

In his history of the burning of Cork city on the night of 11 December 1920 (100 years ago today), he would correctly define the destruction of a significant part of Cork’s core as “the most colossal single act of vandalism committed in the whole period of the national struggle.”

By the closing weeks of 1920, a policy of reprisals – first officially denied, then later state-sanctioned – was firmly in place in Ireland. In the House of Commons, a young M.P named Oswald Mosley, later destined for notoriety as the leader of the British Union of Fascists, crossed the floor in protest, insisting that “every rule of good soldierly conduct” had been abandoned in Ireland.

Politicians struggled to defend the seemingly random nature of reprisals, with Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, insisting that rural creameries burnt by Crown Forces were “not always innocent institutions … They are sometimes the headquarters of the assassins”.

Still, the burning of rural creameries, or even the wanton destruction of factories and houses in Balbriggan in September, would be greatly overshadowed by the flames which engulfed Cork, leaving behind them some £3 million of damages (in 1920 estimations), and the destruction of dozens of commercial properties and important civic buildings.

The Road to Reprisal: Kilmichael and Dillon’s Cross

Less than a fortnight before the burning of Cork city, the IRA had inflicted a significant military defeat on the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary, or the ‘Auxies’, at Kilmichael in the rural terrain of West Cork.

Stephen O’Neill, a young participant in the ambush, later recounted the scene of chaos, as “the arms and ammunition, so precious to us, were carefully collected. The lorries were burned; seventeen Auxiliaries lay dead on the road.

“As we retired the rain, which had been threatening all day, fell in torrents.”

The events that played out on a wet day in rural Cork had sent a chilling message to Westminster, where a new fear of the IRA’s abilities led to barriers being erected on either end of Downing Street and the viewing gallery of Westminster being closed to the public.

What had been condemned as a ‘Murder Gang’ by the Prime Minister was increasingly demonstrating its capabilities in both urban environments (such as the Bloody Sunday morning assassinations) and rural terrain.

At around 8pm on 11 December, an IRA ambush on two lorries of Auxies at Dillon’s Cross, within half a mile of the Victoria Barracks, is widely regarded as the catalyst for the violent destruction of parts of the city that night.

TomBarry Tom Barry, IRA Flying Column leader who led the Kilmichael Ambush.

One Auxiliary was fatally wounded in the attack, while a dozen others were injured. As the IRA raiding party made good their escape, the immediate reprisal was inflicted on those who gathered in O’Sullivan’s public house at Dillon’s Cross.

Innocent of any involvement in the ambush, men were rounded up and subjected to brutal humiliation, historians Gerry White and Brendan O’Shea noting “one of them was dragged to the centre of the crossroads, stripped naked, whipped repeatedly and forced to sing God Save The King until he collapsed on the road.”

It was an ominous sign of what was to come in the city centre imminently.

The Burning of Cork:  “The whole skyline was a shifting orange glow.” 

By December, Cork city was living under a strict nightly curfew, one Volunteer recounting that from 10pm, “at least 1,000 troops would pour out of Victoria Barracks at this hour and take over complete control of the city.”

While Florence O’Donoghue and others acknowledged the military superiority of the British with regards to resources, he insisted “one thing they lacked with the IRA had in generous measure was the cooperation of the people, and without it, they were blind and impotent.”

The deep distrust of the civilian population, and the psychological damage inflicted by attacks like Kilmichael, were undoubtedly contributing factors to the extent of the violence on the night of 11 December.

The destruction of Cork city began at around 9:30pm, less than two hours after the Dillon’s Cross ambush. Despite this, it appeared to be highly co-ordinated, Alan J. Ellis of the Cork Examiner later recalled: “some of the attackers, while not hiding their uniforms, wore scarves over their faces.”

Ellis encountered Fred Huston, Chief of the Cork Fire Brigade, “valiantly trying to organise his men. He told me bluntly that all the fires were being deliberately started by incendiary bombs, and in several cases, he had seen soldiers pouring cans of petrol into buildings and setting them alight.”

The worst of the damage was on Saint Patrick’s Street, fire brigade historian Pat Poland noting that “by 11 pm most of the south side of St Patrick’s Street was on fire”.

“The columns of flame now moved further southwards, their unstoppable force-feeding greedily on the buildings in Morgan Street, Robert Street, Oliver Plunkett Street (north side), Cook Street, Winthrop Street, Winthrop Lane, Caroline Street, Maylor Street and Merchant’s Street.” 

Poland describes the flames, for those in the hinterlands of the city, by noting “the whole skyline was a shifting orange glow.”

Firefighters unable to do their jobs

Present in almost all first-hand testimonies of the fire that gripped Cork that night are references to Cork’s firefighters being impeded from doing their job.

Ellis, the Cork Examiner journalist who witnessed much of the destruction, wrote of hearing reports “soldiers ran their bayonets through the fire brigade’s hose pipes.”

Ellis was quickly on the scene when, at 4 am, “the City Hall and adjoining Carnegie Library, with its hundreds and thousands of priceless volumes, was suddenly a sea of flames.”

DFBCork Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Men of the Dublin Fire Brigade who responded to Cork's plea for assistance Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Ellis watched Cork’s firefighters struggle to the scene with an intact hose, but was horrified as he watched soldiers who “turned off the fire hydrant and refused to let the fire crews have any access to water”.

“Protests were met with laughter and abuse. Soon after six o’clock the tower of the City Hall crashed into the blazing ruins below.”

Cork City Hall, which had become a symbol of the political revolution through its connections to the deceased Lord Mayors Mac Curtain and MacSwiney, was no more.

Several Cork firefighters were wounded on the night, having been fired upon and physically assaulted going about their work. Their Chief Officer had called on other fire services for assistance, with men dispatched from Limerick and Dublin.

Poland notes that “the Dublin contingent travelled on a specially commissioned train out of Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station, accompanied by a large press corps.” As had occurred in the sacked town of Balbriggan, the press and photographers would be vitally important in ensuring images and reports of the burnt shell of Cork city made it to international audiences.

The scarred buildings themselves, from the Manchester Guardian to the New York Times, said all that needed to be said. Human stories went largely unreported, including that of the Delaney brothers, two active IRA Volunteers living on Dublin Hill, who were shot dead in their homes by the Auxies as the carnage in the city was underway.

A calculated act of revenge

Some of those IRA men who participated in the Dillon’s Cross ambush lived with a sense of guilt, feeling that their actions had directly contributed to the death of the Delaney brothers and the destruction of Cork city.

Yet the regimental manner in which the operation of burning Cork city was carried out suggests much pre-meditation and a plan which had been formed in advance, O’Donoghue noting “the deliberate manner in which the work of firing the various premises was divided amongst groups under the control of officers gives evidence of organisation and pre-arrangement.”

The humiliation of Kilmichael, as much as the ambush at Dillon’s Cross, may have motivated the night of madness inflicted on Cork.

Letters from Auxiliaries, sent home from Cork suggest mixed emotions in the aftermath of the incident. To some, it was an act of revenge, while one informed his mother “I have never experienced such orgies of murder, arson and looting as I have witnessed the past sixteen days.”

Remarkably, General Frank Percy Crozier, commander of the Auxiliary Division, would resign his post in 1921, feeling the force had been “used to murder, rob, loot, and burn up the innocent because they could not catch the few guilty on the run.”

Mocking the city of Cork and all who had lost homes and livelihoods to their flames, some Auxies began wearing burnt corks attached to the crest of their Glengarry hats, a badge of honour which marked one out as a participant in the carnage.

In parliament, Sir Hamar Greenwood solemnly insisted that the people of Cork had burned down their own city. In truth, the world knew otherwise.

Donal Fallon is a historian and author whose publications include Revolutionary Dublin: A Walking Guide (with John Gibney). He presents the Three Castles Burning podcast.

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