The Burning of Cork

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | December 11, 2017 0

On the 10th December 1920 Martial Law was declared in 4 Irish counties including  Cork.  The next night carnage ensued including the burning of the City Hall and on 11/12 December of Cork City Centre as part of a campaign of terrorism by British Forces, Black & Tans, Auxiliaries and regular Army Forces.

The War of Independence 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 guerrilla warfare against British forces: 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 specialised in counter-insurgency and recruited thousands of British ex-soldiers into the RIC, who became known as “Black and Tans”. IRA intelligence officer Florence O’Donoghue claimed 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”.

Old City Hall in 1870

Old City Hall in 1870

The warfare was especially bitter in County Cork. On 23 November 1920, a Black and Tan in civilian dress threw a grenade into a group of IRA volunteers on Patrick Street, who had just left a brigade meeting. Three IRA volunteers of the 1st Cork Brigade were killed: Paddy Trahey, Patrick Donohue and Seamus Mehigan. The New York Times reported that sixteen people were injured.

On 28 November 1920, the IRA’s 3rd Cork Brigade ambushed an Auxiliary patrol travelling from Macroom at Kilmichael near Dunmanway, killing 17 Auxiliaries. This was the biggest loss of life for the British in County Cork. 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”.

During the War of Independence Cork was one of the main centres of resistance to British rule. In one of the worst atrocities committed during the War of Independence British forces deliberately set fire to several blocks of buildings along the east and south sides of Saint Patrick’s Street during Saturday night 11 December 1920 and the following Sunday morning. The City Hall and the Carnegie Library were also completely destroyed by fire.

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 Greewood, 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 a booklet published by the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress appeared in January 1921 entitled ‘Who burned Cork City?’ which, on the evidence of eye-witnesses to the events, showed that British forces had set fire to large sections of Cork City. The eye-witness depositions had been gathered by Seamus Fitzgerald and the statements collated by Alfred O’Rahilly, the President of U.C.C. A British Army enquiry subsequently placed the blame for the fire on renegade members of a company of Auxiliaries.

The Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were allegedly taking revenge for an earlier attack on British troops at Dillon’s Cross near Victoria Barracks in the city. Among the buildings completely destroyed on Saint Patrick’s Street were Roche’s Stores, Cash & Co., The Munster Arcade, Egan’s, The American Shoe Company, Forrests, Sunners chemist and Saxone Shoes.

More than 40 business premises, 300 residential properties, the City Hall and Carnegie Library were destroyed by the fire. Over £3 million worth of damage (equivalent to €172 million today) was wrought. 2,000 were left jobless and many more became homeless. Two unarmed IRA volunteers were shot dead in the north of the city.

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, Canon Magner, walking with a parishioner, 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.

The burning of Cork was one of the most significant acts of reprisal during the Anglo-Irish War. The British government at first denied that their auxiliary forces were responsible for fires, and tried to blame the IRA. Later, a British Army inquiry concluded that a company of Auxiliaries were responsible.

Patrick Street before the fire

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.”

While Cork revels in the title of “The Rebel County” it in fact refers to the County throwing in its lot with the Royalist side in the English Civil War in 1641, not to more recent events. Indeed in 1914 “Loyal Cork” was very much a Unionist and Redmonite City gaining much of its prosperity from provisioning the British Army and Navy and with large British Army and Navy installations. At the outbreak of World War 1 the city was covered in Union Jack bunting. The Irish Volunteers mustered 1,000 men on Grand Parade, Cork. Of these 950 marched to the British Army recruiting office to fight for the rights of Small Countries and Home Rule for Ireland. Fifty remained behind and formed the nucleus of the Cork IRA during the War of Independence.

It is a telling commentary on the stupidity of British policy in Ireland that “Loyal Cork” in a few short years was converted into a cockpit of resistance to British Rule culminating in the act of terror which was the Burning of Cork.

The Skibbereen Eagle

The Skibbereen Eagle

In 1898, to widespread bemusement, a small Provincial Newspaper in an equally small town in the South West corner of Ireland sonorously warned the Czar of Russia that it knew what he was up to and he should be careful how he proceeded for “The Skibbereen Eagle” was wise to his game and in future would be keeping its eye on him! It is doubtful that Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, even noticed the Eagle’s admonitions but as history soon proved he should have paid closer attention to the Eagle’s insightful opinions!

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