The Burning of Cork is the name commonly given to a devastating series of fires that swept through the centre of Cork City on the night of 11th December 1920. The burning and the subsequent controversy is one of the most significant events of the Irish War of Independence.
During the War of Independence, Cork was one of the main centres of IRA activity. On the day of the fire, a soldier was killed in an attack on British forces at Dillon’s Cross. Later that day Black and Tans opened fire on a group of civilians near the corner of Summerhill North and what is now MacCurtain Street.
At 10 pm that night fire engines responding to reports of a fire at Dillon’s Cross encountered a fire in a department store on Saint Patrick’s Street. Several other fires had been lit in the vicinity, and the fire service was unable to control the conflagrations.
By the next morning numerous buildings on Saint Patrick’s Street were completely destroyed by fires that had been set in buildings along its east and south sides. The City Hall and the Carnegie Library were also completely destroyed by fire, resulting in the loss of many of the city’s public records.
Over five acres of the city were destroyed and an estimated £20 million worth of damage was done. Also that night two IRA men, the Delaney brothers, were murdered in their beds by the Black and Tans.
The loss of the stock of the library and of the records in Cork City Hall was a huge blow to future historians. The Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, immediately denied that Crown forces were responsible for the conflagration. He also refused demands for an impartial enquiry which was called for by several public bodies in Cork.
In spite of Greenwood’s obstinacy, the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress published a pamphlet in January 1921 entitled, ‘Who burned Cork City?’ The work drew on eye-witness evidence assembled by Seamus Fitzgerald which suggested that the fires had been set by British forces. Members of the fire service testified that their attempts to contain the blaze were hampered by soldiers who fired on them and cut their hoses with bayonets.
A subsequent British Army enquiry (which resulted in the “Strickland Report”) pointed the finger of blame at members of a company of Black and Tans. The soldiers, it was claimed, set the fires in reprisal for the IRA attack at Dillon’s Cross.
Among the buildings completely destroyed on Saint Patrick’s Street were Roche’s Stores, Cash and Co., The Munster Arcade, Egan’s, The American Shoe Company, Forrests, Sunners chemist and Saxone Shoes.
Photo: The devastated city centre of Cork City following its destruction by locally garrisoned units of the British Occupation Forces.