Illuminations: The Burning of Cork

Illuminations:  The Burning of Cork
By:  J. Michael Finn

This year we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Burning of Cork city in Ireland by British paramilitary units.  “A tale of arson, loot and murder,” was how one source described the events that befall Cork city on December 11–12, 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. It was an evening of unprecedented destruction by members of a British force bent on revenge.

During the War of Independence, the British took two actions to bolster the national police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Recruitment for the RIC was declining significantly. This was due largely to a campaign by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to discourage Irish men from service with the RIC. The British administration in Ireland promoted the idea of reinforcing the RIC with British recruits.

The first action was the introduction of the Black and Tans. Recruitment began in England in January 1920, and about 10,000 men enlisted. The majority were unemployed former soldiers from England who had fought in the First World War. They were to help the understaffed RIC maintain control and suppress the Irish Republican Army (IRA).  

The Black and Tans
The Black and Tans gained a reputation for brutality and became notorious for attacks on civilians and civilian property, including killings, arson and looting. Their actions further swayed Irish public opinion against British rule.

The second action was the introduction of the Auxiliary Division (ADRIC).  Proposed by Winston Churchill, this paramilitary force was considered to be part of the RIC, but actually operated outside of the RIC command structure. They were known as the Auxiliaries or “Auxies.”

The unit was established in July 1920, and was made up of unemployed British Army officers from England. Its role was to conduct counter-insurgency operations against the IRA. They were heavily armed and highly mobile and operated in ten counties, mostly in the south and west, where IRA activity was greatest.

The Auxiliaries were hurriedly recruited, poorly trained and had an ill-defined role. They soon gained a reputation for drunkenness, lack of discipline, summary executions and brutality worse than that of the Black and Tans.  The Auxiliaries were infamous for reprisals on civilians and on civilian property in revenge for IRA actions, the best know example of which was the burning of Cork city in December 1920.

County Cork Was the Center
County Cork was the center of the war between the IRA and British forces. On November 23, 1920, a Black and Tan in civilian dress threw a grenade into a group of IRA volunteers who had just left a brigade meeting on St. Patrick’s Street in Cork. Three IRA volunteers of the 1st Cork Brigade were killed and sixteen people were injured.

On November 28, 1920 the IRA’s 3rd Cork Brigade ambushed an Auxiliary patrol at Kilmichael, killing 17 Auxiliaries. This was the biggest loss of life for the British in County Cork. On December 10, 1920, British forces declared martial law for several counties in Munster, including County Cork. It imposed a military curfew on Cork city, which began at 10:00 pm each night.

A particular group of vicious Auxiliaries, known as K Company, stationed at Victoria Barracks, had been making life miserable for the people of Cork.  They had engaged in beatings, robberies, floggings and lootings. At 8:00 pm on December 11, 1920, IRA volunteers ambushed a truckload of Auxiliaries as it left Victoria Barracks in Dillon’s Cross in the north district of  Cork city. One Auxiliary was killed and 12 were wounded in the attack. 

At 9:30 pm, truckloads of Auxiliaries of K Company, Black and Tans, and a few British soldiers, enraged by the Dillon’s Cross ambush, left the barracks and arrived at Dillon’s Cross. There they broke into houses and herded the occupants into the street. They then set seven houses on fire and stood guard as they burned to the ground. Those homeowners who tried to intervene were fired upon and some were badly beaten.

Soon after, groups of armed men were seen on St. Patrick’s Street in Cork city, the main shopping area. They were uniformed or partially uniformed members of the Auxiliaries and the RIC. The men were seen firing into the air, smashing shop windows and setting buildings on fire.

Bombs Throughout
Many reported hearing bombs exploding. A group of Auxiliaries were seen throwing a bomb into the ground floor of the Munster Arcade, which housed both shops and apartments. It exploded under the apartments while people were inside the building. Residents managed to escape unharmed but were detained by the Auxiliaries.

Firefighters of the Cork Fire Brigade reported that British forces hindered their attempts to tackle the blazes by cutting their hoses and driving trucks over the hoses. They also said that at least two firefighters were wounded by gunfire.

Shortly after 3:00 am, Cork Examiner reporter Alan Ellis came upon a unit of the fire brigade pinned down by gunfire near City Hall. The firefighters said that Black and Tans had broken into the building. They also saw uniformed men carrying cans of gasoline into the building.

At about 4:00 am, a large explosion was heard and City Hall and the nearby Carnegie Library. Both buildings went up in flames, resulting in the loss of many of the city’s public records. When more firefighters arrived, British forces fired at them and refused them access to water. The last act of arson took place at about 6:00 am, when a group of policemen looted and burned the Murphy Brothers’ clothes shop on Washington Street.

Five Acres Destroyed
The fires destroyed over five acres of the city. More than 40 business premises, 300 residential properties, the City Hall and the Carnegie Library were destroyed. The economic loss was estimated at over £3 million in damages. 

Over 2,000 were left jobless and many more were homeless. Losses from looting were impossible to estimate. Two IRA men, Cornelius and Jeremiah Delaney, were killed in their beds at home in Dublin Hill and five civilians were shot on the streets.

The Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, immediately denied that Crown forces were responsible for the burning. He also refused demands for an impartial investigation into the burnings. 

A subsequent British Army inquiry in 1921, the Strickland Report, pointed the finger of blame at members of K Company of Auxiliaries and members of the RIC. It was reported that they set the fires in reprisal for the IRA attack at Dillon’s Cross.

There remains a debate over whether British forces at Victoria Barracks had planned to burn the city before the ambush at Dillon’s Cross, whether the British Army itself was involved, and whether those who set the fires were being commanded by superior officers.

Cork will host a major State event later this year to commemorate the centenary of the War of Independence, the burning of Cork city, and the deaths of two of the city’s Lord Mayors, Tomás MacCurtain and Terrence McSwiney, by British forces.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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