The Burning of Cork took place on the night of 11–12 December 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. It followed an Irish Republican Army (IRA) ambush of a British Auxiliary patrol in the city, in which one of the patrol, Spencer Chapman, was killed by an IRA grenade. In retaliation for Chapman’s death, Auxiliaries, Black and Tans and British soldiers set fire to a number of houses and then looted and burnt numerous buildings in the city centre. Many civilians also reported being beaten, shot at, robbed and verbally abused by British forces. Firefighters later testified that British forces hindered their attempts to tackle the blazes by intimidating them, shooting at them and/or cutting their hoses. Over 40 business premises, 300 residential properties, City Hall and the Carnegie Library were destroyed by fire. Over £3 million worth of damage (1920 value) was done, 2,000 were left jobless and many were left homeless. Two unarmed IRA volunteers were also shot dead in their home in the north of the city, and a woman died of a heart-attack when Auxiliaries burst into her house.
British forces carried out many other reprisals on Irish civilians during the war, but the burning of Cork was one of the biggest and most well known. The British government initially denied that its forces had started the fires and blamed them on the IRA. However, a British Army inquiry (which resulted in the “Strickland Report”) concluded that a company of Auxiliaries was responsible. Although many witnesses described the burnings as systematic and organized, there is debate over whether they had been planned before the ambush.
The War of Independence had begun in 1919, following the declaration of an Irish Republic and its parliament, Dáil Éireann. The army of the new republic, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), waged a guerrilla war against British forces in Ireland: the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). To help fight the IRA, the British Government formed the Auxiliary Division. This was a paramilitary unit composed of ex-soldiers from Britain which specialized in counter-insurgency. It also recruited thousands of British ex-soldiers into the RIC, who became known as “Black and Tans”. Both groups became infamous for their reprisals against Irish civilians for IRA attacks. Many villages were sacked and burnt. IRA intelligence officer Florence O’Donoghue wrote that the subsequent burning and looting of Cork was “not an isolated incident, but rather the large-scale application of a policy initiated and approved, implicitly or explicitly, by the [British government]”.
For most of the war, County Cork was where the IRA was most active. On 28 November 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 since the beginning of the war.
On 10 December, British forces declared martial law in counties Cork (including the city), Kerry, Limerick, and Tipperary. It also imposed a military curfew on Cork city, which began at 10PM each night. IRA volunteer Seán Healy later recalled that “at least 1,000 troops would pour out of Victoria Barracks at this hour and take over complete control of the city”.
Ambush at Dillon’s Cross:
The IRA had found that an Auxiliary patrol usually left Victoria Barracks (in the north of Cork city) every night at 8PM and made its way to the city centre via Dillon’s Cross. On 11 December, IRA commander Seán O’Donoghue received intelligence that two lorries of Auxiliaries would be leaving the barracks that night and travelling with them would be British intelligence officer Captain James Kelly. That evening, a unit of six IRA volunteers commanded by O’Donoghue took up position between the barracks and Dillon’s Cross. Their goal was to destroy the patrol and capture or kill Captain Kelly. Five of the volunteers hid behind a stone wall while one, Michael Kenny, stood across the road dressed like an off-duty British officer. When the lorries neared he was to beckon the driver of the first lorry to slow down or stop. The neighbourhood was mainly loyalist and there were many British servicemen and their relatives living there. At 8PM, two lorries carrying 13 Auxiliaries emerged from the barracks. The first lorry slowed when the driver spotted Kenny and, as it did so, the IRA unit attacked with grenades and revolvers. As the IRA unit made its escape, some of the Auxiliaries managed to fire their rifles in the direction of the volunteers while others dragged the wounded to the nearest cover: O’Sullivan’s pub.
The Auxiliaries charged into the pub with weapons drawn and ordered everyone to put their hands over their heads to be searched. Backup and an ambulance were sent from the nearby barracks. One witness described seeing a number of young men being rounded-up and forced to lie on the ground. The Auxiliaries dragged one of them to the middle of the crossroads, stripped him naked and forced him to sing “God Save the King” until he collapsed on the road.
The official British report on the ambush said that 12 members of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabluary were wounded and that one, Temporary Cadet Spencer R Chapman, a former Officer in the 4th Battalion Loondon Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), died from his wounds shortly after.
Burning and looting:
Angered by an attack so near their headquarters and still seeking retribution for the deaths of their colleagues at Kilmichael, the Auxiliaries in Victoria Barracks gathered to wreak their revenge. Charles Schulze, a member of the Auxiliaries and a former British Army Captain in the Dorsetshire Regiment during World War I, organized a group of Auxiliaries to burn the centre of Cork. At 9:30PM, lorries of Auxiliaries and British soldiers left the barracks and alighted at Dillon’s Cross, where they broke into a number of houses and herded the occupants on to the street. They then set the houses on fire and stood guard as they were razed to the ground. Those who tried to intervene were fired upon and some were badly beaten. Seven buildings were set alight at the crossroads. When one was found to be owned by Protestants the Auxiliaries quickly doused the fire.
At about the same time, a group of armed and uniformed Auxiliaries surrounded a tram at Summerhill, smashed its windows, and forced all the passengers out. According to witnesses, a number of the passengers (including at least three women) were repeatedly kicked and hit with rifle butts, threatened, and verbally abused. The Auxiliaries then forced the passengers to line-up against a wall and searched them, while continuing the physical and verbal abuse. Some had their money and belongings stolen. Another tram was set alight near Fr Mathew’s statue. Meanwhile, witnesses reported seeing a group of 14–18 Black and Tans firing wildly for upwards of 20 minutes on nearby MacCurtain Street.
Not long after, witnesses reported seeing groups of armed men on St Patrick’s Street, the city’s main shopping street. Some were uniformed or partially uniformed members of the Auxiliaries and British Army while others wore no uniforms. They were seen firing into the air, smashing shop windows and setting buildings alight. 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 flats. It exploded under the residential quarters while people were inside the building. They managed to escape unharmed but were then detained by the Auxiliaries.
The fire brigade was informed of the fire at Dillon’s Cross shortly before 10PM and was sent to deal with it at once. However, on finding that Grant’s department store on St Patrick’s Street was ablaze, they decided to tackle it first. Superintendent Alfred Hutson called Victoria Barracks and asked them to tackle the fire at Dillon’s Cross so that he could focus on the city centre. However, the barracks took no heed of his asking. As he did not have enough resources to deal with all the fires at once, “he would have to make choices – some fires he would fight, others he could not”.
Hutson went to oversee the operation on St Patrick’s Street and there he met Cork Examiner reporter Alan Ellis. Hutson told Ellis “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”. A number of firemen later testified that British forces hindered their attempts to tackle the blazes by intimidating them, cutting their hoses and/or driving lorries over the hoses. They also said that firemen were shot at and that at least two were wounded by gunfire.
Shortly after 3AM, Alan Ellis came upon a unit of the fire brigade pinned down by gunfire near City Hall. The firemen said that they were being shot at by Black and Tans who had broken into the building. They also claimed to have seen uniformed men carrying cans of petrol into the building from nearby Union Quay barracks. At about 4AM a large explosion was heard and City Hall and the neighbouring Carnegie Library 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 6AM when a group of policemen looted and burnt the Murphy Brothers’ clothes shop on Washington Street.
Shooting of the Delany brothers:
After the ambush at Dillon’s Cross, IRA commander Seán O’Donoghue and volunteer James O’Mahony had made their way to the Delany (or Delaney) farmhouse at Dublin Hill in the north of the city. Brothers Cornelius (“Con”) and Jeremiah (“Jerh”) Delany were members of F Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Cork Brigade IRA. O’Donoghue hid a number of unused grenades on the farm and the two men went their separate ways. At about 2AM a number of armed men arrived at the house and demanded to be let in. At least eight men entered the house and went upstairs into the brothers’ bedroom. The brothers got up and stood at the bedside. They were then asked their names. When they answered, the gunmen opened-fire. Both were shot dead and their elderly relative, William Dunlea, was wounded by gunfire. According to Daniel Delany, the father of the brothers, the gunmen wore long overcoats and spoke with English accents. It is thought that, while searching the site of the ambush, the Auxiliaries had found a cap belonging to one of the volunteers and had used bloodhounds to follow the scent to the Delany home.
Over 40 business premises and 300 residential properties had been destroyed. This amounted to over five acres of the city. Over £3 million worth of damage (1920 value) had been done, although the value of property looted by British forces was not assessable. Many were left homeless and 2,000 were left jobless. Two IRA volunteers had been shot dead, one woman had died of a heart-attack when Auxiliaries burst into her house, and a number of people (including firefighters) had been assaulted or otherwise wounded. Florrie O’Donoghue described the scene in Cork on the morning of the 12th:
Many familiar landmarks were gone forever – where whole buildings had collapsed here and there a solitary wall leaned at some crazy angle from its foundation. The streets ran with sooty water, the footpaths were strewn with broken glass and debris, ruins smoked and smoldered and over everything was the all-pervasive smell of burning.
At midday mass in the North Cathedral the Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, condemned the arson but spent much of his speech berating the IRA. He said that the burning of the city was a result of the “murderous ambush at Dillon’s Cross” and vowed “I will certainly issue a decree of excommunication against anyone who, after this notice, shall take part in an ambush or a kidnapping or attempted murder or arson”. A meeting of Cork Corporation was held that afternoon at the Corn Exchange. Councillor J.J. Walsh condemned the bishop for his comments, which he claimed held the Irish people up as the “evil-doers”. He said that while the people of Cork had been suffering, “not a single word of protest was uttered [by the bishop], and today, after the city has been decimated, he saw no better course than to add insult to injury”. Councillor Michael Ó Cuill, alderman Tadhg Barry and the Lord Mayor agreed with Walsh’s sentiments. The members resolved that the Lord Mayor should send a telegram asking for the intervention of the European governments and the USA.
Three days after the fire, on 15 December, two lorry-loads of Auxiliaries were travelling from Dunmanway to Cork for the funeral of Spencer Chapman, their comrade killed at Dillon’s Cross. When they met two men (an elderly priest and a farmer’s son) helping a resident magistrate fix his car, an Auxiliary got out and began questioning them. He then shot them both dead. A military court of inquiry heard that he had been a friend of Chapman and had been “drinking steadily” since his death. He was found guilty of murder, but insane.
Cork Corporation and other public bodies, together with nationalist politicians, called for an open and impartial inquiry. In the British House of Commons, Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, refused demands for such an inquiry. He denied that British forces had any involvement and accused the IRA of starting the fires. When asked about reports of firefighters being hampered by British forces he said “Every available policeman and soldier in Cork was turned out at once and without their assistance the fire brigade could not have gone through the crowds and did the work that they tried to do”. Bonar Law said “in the present condition of Ireland, we are much more likely to get an impartial inquiry in a military court than in any other”. The British military then launched its own inquiry, which became known as the “Strickland Report”, but Cork Corporation instructed its employees and other corporate officials to take no part in it. The “Strickland Report” pointed the finger of blame at members of the Auxiliaries’ K Company, based at Victoria Barracks. The Auxiliaries, it was claimed, set the fires in reprisal for the IRA attack at Dillon’s Cross. However, the British Government refused to publish the report.
The Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress published a pamphlet in January 1921 entitled Who burned Cork City? The work drew on evidence from hundreds of eyewitness, gathered by Seamus Fitzgerald, which suggested that the fires had been set by British forces and that British forces had prevented firefighters from tackling the blaze. The material was collated by the President of University College Cork, Alfred O’Rahilly.
K Company Auxiliary Charles Schulze, a former British Army Captain who was later identified as the main organizer of the burning, wrote in a letter to his girlfriend in England that it was “sweet revenge” while in a letter to his mother he wrote: “Many who had witnessed scenes in France and Flanders say that nothing they had experienced was comparable with the punishment meted out in Cork”. After the fire, K Company was moved to Dunmanway and began wearing burnt corks in their caps in reference to the burning of the city. For their part in the arson and looting, K Company was disbanded on 31 March 1921.
There has been 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. Florence (“Florrie”) O’Donoghue, who was intelligence officer of the 1st Cork Brigade IRA at the time, wrote:
What appears more probable is that the ambush provided the excuse for an act which was long premeditated and for which all arrangements had been made. The rapidity with which supplies of petrol and Verey lights were brought from Cork barracks to the centre of the city, and 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. Moreover, the selection of certain premises for destruction and the attempt made by an Auxiliary officer to prevent the looting of one shop by Black and Tans: “You are in the wrong shop; that man is a Loyalist,” and the reply, “We don’t give a damn; this is the shop that was pointed out to us”, is additional proof that the matter had been carefully planned beforehand.
Photo: Workers clearing rubble on St Patrick’s street in Cork in the days after the fires.