Ireland’s Wars: The Burning Of Cork

Throughout the course of our “coverage” of the Irish War of Independence we have discussed reprisals by Crown Forces in the aftermath of IRA attacks. In the first two years of the war these reprisals took on many forms: the summary executions of Volunteers, or in some cases suspected Volunteers; the summary execution or assault of those supporting the IRA, or suspected of supporting the IRA; the general harassment of civilian populations, with behavior ranging from physical and verbal assault, to the inflicting of fear and terror by the random firing of weapons; the destruction of businesses that local communities heavily relied upon, like creameries; the isolation of other places for periods of time, like at Tralee; and the burning of urban centres, most vividly seen this far in the catastrophe that was visited upon Balbriggan. It was the last one that was often seen to have the most vivid impact, both on the dehoused residents of the buildings that went up in smoke, and on the perception of the conflict to the outside world. In early December 1920, in the wake of the worst week the British had suffered in the war thus far, another reprisal took place, but on a scale unseen thus far. It deserves an entry all of its own.

As noted, there had been some degree of localised reprisals in the wake of the Kilmichael ambush, but their severity has been disputed. Certainly units of the Auxiliaries, Black and Tans and RIC were angry at the deaths, and held hostility towards the local populations that they felt supported, openly or secretly, such things. The countryside of Cork had been the main focus of reprisals for a while but Cork City was not immune. The 1st battalion of the First Cork Brigade had been active in the city, ambushing Crown Forces, attacking barracks’ and raiding government buildings. Their enemies gave as good as they got at times. Three IRA Volunteers on the 23rd November were victims of a grenade allegedly thrown by a Black and Tan in civilian dress, with several others wounded. Raids and harassment of the civilian population were commonplace, as were officially unauthorised damage to and burnings of shops and residential buildings.

Less than two weeks after Kilmichael, martial law was declared in Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary. A curfew was imposed on Cork City, with the civilians to be off the street by 10PM, at which time it was reported that various Crown Forces – regular military, RIC and their reserve and auxiliary detachments – would flood the city streets. Such restrictions could be both a hindrance and an opportunity for the IRA, who obviously saw their freedom of movement impaired, but also gained the chance to hit many more targets.

One of those was a consistent patrol of Auxiliaries that was identified leaving Victoria Barracks in the north of the city every night around 8PM, heading towards the city centre. Even now, in the aftermath of what had happened in the countryside, the Crown Forces were victims of routine. The IRA of the 1st Battalion’s A Company, under Captain Sean O’Donghue, determined to try and ambush this force, choosing the location of Dillon’s Cross, a confluence of two streets in the suburbs north-west of the city centre, to do so, and the date of the 8th December.

O’Donoghue’s planned ambush appears to have been a little reckless. He himself had only six men the night the ambush went ahead, and had received intelligence before initiating it that the patrol had two lorries, and as many as 25 men travelling between them. The element of surprise could only have done so much in the circumstances, and grandiose objectives of wiping out the patrol are hard to fathom today, probably being bluster. More likely the attack was planned to be a few volley’s before dispersal, or the IRA had a specific target like an intelligence officer travelling with the Auxiliaries, but even with that, attacking a force that outnumbers you four to one was a strange decision. Still, nearby fields behind houses provided a good way of escape in the dark December night. Such a route was required, as the ambush site was only a short distance away from a barracks, from which reinforcements could spill quickly.

The 8th came and went without any lorries appearing, and for two days after the area had a larger than normal Crown Force presence. It is possible that the actions of the Volunteers were leaked to the nearby barracks by loyalist locals. On the 11th, with knowledge that two lorries would be travelling the route, O’Donoghue tried again, and this time the attack went ahead. Much like Kilmichael, the ambush was initiated when a Volunteer, posing as an off-duty British officer, flagged the leading lorry down. As it slowed the other Volunteers, taking cover behind a stone wall, threw grenades and opened fire with revolvers. The engagement lasted only seconds before the IRA fled the scene. According to the official British report, 12 of the Auxies were wounded in some fashion and one, Cadet Spencer Chapman, died of these wounds the following day. By the time the Auxiliaries were in a position to fire back, their enemy was no longer there to be fired at. The IRA all escaped successfully. It had been a risky attack, but given the disparity in men and arms, must be considered a success for the IRA.

The reprisals began almost immediately, and escalated quickly. The nearest pub was commandeered at gunpoint to hold the wounded while a brutal search of nearby houses was enacted. Some witnesses claim that men living in the area was stripped naked on the street and forced, at gunpoint, to sing “God Save The King”. Reinforcements from the nearby barracks arrived. The mood was angry. Auxiliary Charles Schulze, a former Captain in the Army, has been identified as the man who began the setting of fires, organising a group of outraged men from “K” Company of the Auxies to do so. Residents of Dillon’s Cross were forced out of their homes, and could only watch as they were set alight. Those who tried to intervene were fired at, allegedly, or detained at gunpoint.

Whether they were the same men or other members of the Auxiliaries or associated units, other groups now began to congregate at other places in Cork City. Several trams were held up, with their passengers removed and searched at gunpoint, before the same trams were set alight. A group of Auxiliaries was spotted firing indiscriminately in the area of McCurtain Street. And at St Patrick’s Street, one of Cork City’s most important commercial areas, Auxiliaries and, it is claimed by some, non-uniformed military personnel, fired guns into the area, looted shops, and set fires.

The St Patrick’s Street fire quickly spread, possibly aided by the Auxiliaries, who were accused of using bombs and other incendiaries to aid in its growth. The local fire brigade was soon sent into action, but was not big enough to tackle both the conflagration in the city centre and that at Dillon’s Cross. The Brigade Superintendent, Alfred Hutson, was faced with the grim choice of picking which fire to focus on, and favoured the city centre. It is alleged that his pleas for Victoria Barracks personnel to fight the fire at Dillon’s Cross were ignored.

Hutson’s task was further impeded by Crown Forces themselves. Firefighters testified later that when they moved to put out the fires in the city centre they were shot at, with two of their number wounded. A local journalist reported that a group of firemen attempting to fight the fires spreading near City Hall were actually pinned down behind cover for a time by sustained fire. They further claimed that their hoses were cut or driven over by Auxiliaries, who were spotted pouring petrol onto the fires. City Hall and the neighbouring Carnegie Library soon succumbed to the spreading flames.

There would be deaths that night as well, though, mercifully considering the spreading flames, they were limited. After dropping unused grenades at a farmhouse on the north outskirts of the city, Sean O’Donoghue slipped away into the night but, whether he had been followed or betrayed, an Auxiliary patrol raided the farm shortly afterward. Two Volunteer brothers, Cornelius and Jeremiah Delaney, were shot dead there, and an elderly relative wounded. One woman died when the Auxiliaries burst into her home during search, apparently of a heart attack. Several days later an Auxiliary later dubbed insane by courts shot dead an elderly priest and another man in a roadside inspection when the patrol was on their way to Spencer Chapman’s funeral. Many others suffered wounds from Auxiliary assault, or the fires.

It was not until the following day that the fires were brought under control, and by that time the damage was extensive. On the 12th, Cork residents woke up to the sight of the central parts of their city largely destroyed. It was estimated later that five whole acres of the city centre were burnt down, comprising roughly 300 residences and 40 businesses. The cost of the damage was estimated at over £3 million pounds, or over a £130 million by today’s rates. Hundreds were now homeless, and many more left without employment. Cork City Hall would not be re-built for five years.

As with all of the major reprisals, condemnation from the usual quarters – the press both national and international, opposition benches, the church (though locally the IRA got it just as bad from Bishops) – followed the destruction. In the House of Commons Hamar Greenwood attempted his usual display of bluster and dismissal, going as far as to claim that the fires were set by the IRA, statements that brooked little beyond contempt and ridicule. Lloyd George quietly ordered General Crozier to suspend a company commander, just so it could be said that it had been done, but said company commander was soon reinstated, to Crozier’s derision.

Several inquiries were ordered over time, a few to be undertaken by the military. The most well-known, the Strickland Report, had its proceedings boycotted by the staff of the Cork City council, but did ultimately blame the Auxiliaries, whose “K” Company was rapidly moved from the city, and then disbanded in March. However, the British government refused to publish the report, leading to strong criticism of the likes of Greenwood. It was no longer possible to put a brave face on such things. Cork was not some distant outpost of the Empire where the natives could be terrorised without much in the way of notice, it was a major city of the United Kingdom, that had seen members of the police supposedly there to protect the civilian population burn huge parts of it to the ground.

There remains debate about how pre-meditated the burning was. Many tried to paint the events as an unordered reprisal carried out by Auxiliaries seeking revenge for the Dillon’s Cross ambush. But there have been suggestions that the burning was a more planned out affair, that had been in the pipeline since Kilmichael, with the Dillon’s Cross attack just the excuse for enacting it. Some observes have claimed that petrol and other incendiaries made their way from barracks to city centre a bit too quickly, and that the lighting of fires took place in a regimented manner, with the Crown Forces zeroing in on specific homes and businesses in a manner that does not indicate it was a spur-of-the-moment emotional response. The City Hall and Carnegie Library in particular stand out, as they were away from the main scene of burning, across on the south bank of the Lee, so could not be held to have been victims of a fire gone out of control elsewhere. This may just be wishful thinking, but the scale of the burning, and the manner in which different parts of the city were targeted, certainly does leave room for questions.

The entire affair was another boon to the republican movement when looked at in a wider lens. But December 1920 was also a month when things did not go so well for the IRA or “the Republic”. In the next entry I want to take a look at two ambushes, that took place a few days apart, which were reported as successes by some of those that took part, but which bear a deeper examination.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: The Burning Of Cork

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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