Tragedy, death, a city in flames - we reflect on the historic events in Cork in 1920

Military historian GERRY WHITE picks the bones out of the historic events of 1920 in Cork
Tragedy, death, a city in flames - we reflect on the historic events in Cork in 1920
Home of Tomás MacCurtain, taken shortly after his death, March 1920.Mercier Archives

THE year 1920 would be a defining one for the city of Cork. It was a year that would witness dramatic changes to its political and geographical landscape; a year that would see the deaths of two Lord Mayors and a year that would see Cork transformed from a city at peace to a city at war.

In January, 1920, Ireland’s War of Independence, fought between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the forces of the Crown, was entering its second year.

In Cork, the conflict pitted Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, led by Commandant Tomás MacCurtain, against the forces of the Crown. As their use of conventional military tactics during the 1916 Rising had failed to achieve victory, the IRA now employed the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare.

While it focused on military matters, Sinn Féin continued the struggle on the political front. Having won the 1918 general election and established Dáil Éireann, the party now turned its attention to the municipal elections being held on January 15.

In Cork, Sinn Féin ran on a joint ticket with the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and won 30 of 56 seats on Cork Corporation. When the new body met in City Hall on January 30, MacCurtain, the Sinn Féin Alderman in the North-West No. 3 Ward, was elected the first Republican Lord Mayor of Cork.

His first act on that historic occasion was to propose that Cork Corporation recognise Dáil Éireann as the “lawful, legal and constitutional Parliament of the Irish Nation”. Though his resolution was unanimously passed and he held great promise for the future, MacCurtain’s term of office would be cut short in tragic circumstances.

The month after he was elected, the IRA shot dead a former member of Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade, Timothy Quinlisk, in Togher after they discovered he was a spy. Then, on the night of March 10, RIC District Inspector McDonagh was shot and seriously wounded while guarding ballot boxes for a by-election in the city.

After this incident, the RIC raided and ransacked the homes of a number of prominent Cork republicans. The IRA, however, continued their attacks. On March 12, Constable Timothy Scully was shot dead during an attack on Glanmire RIC Barracks and a week later, Constable Joseph Murtagh was shot dead as he was walking along Pope’s Quay.

Some elements in the RIC blamed these attacks on MacCurtain and decided to retaliate. Around 1am on March 20, members of the force wearing civilian clothing with blackened faces forced their way into the home of the Lord Mayor at 40, Thomas Davis Street in Blackpool and shot him dead in front of his wife and children.

The killing shocked people throughout Ireland. At his funeral on March 22, thousands lined the streets of Cork to pay their respects as the IRA escorted his remains to their final resting place in the Republican Plot in St Finbarr’s Cemetery.

After MacCurtain’s death, Terence MacSwiney took over command of Cork No. 1 Brigade. He was also a member of Cork Corporation and on March 31 was elected Lord Mayor of Cork. In the course of a historic acceptance speech he stated that the conflict in Ireland was “not on our side a rivalry of vengeance, but one of endurance” and declared: “It is not they who can inflict most but they who can suffer most will conquer.” His words would prove prophetic.

Within days of MacSwiney’s election, on April 3, the IRA destroyed the income tax offices on the South Mall and South Terrace and burned an evacuated RIC barracks at Togher. At the time, the RIC had difficulty preventing IRA activities because of the large numbers of resignations that had occurred since the start of the War of Independence. There was also a decline in new recruits in Ireland.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, the British government decided to recruit new members in Britain. These new constables had begun arriving in Ireland in January but due to a shortage of police uniforms were clad in a mixture of British army service dress and dark green RIC uniforms. This led them to be named ‘Black and Tans’.

The Lord Mayor recently presented  each of the 119 schools he visited with a framed picture containing photographs of the two martyred Lords Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain who was murdered by British forces in March 1920 and Terence MacSwiney who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison the following October.
The Lord Mayor recently presented  each of the 119 schools he visited with a framed picture containing photographs of the two martyred Lords Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain who was murdered by British forces in March 1920 and Terence MacSwiney who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison the following October.

The first Black and Tans arrived in Cork on March 25 and were quartered in Empress Place on Summerhill. Like many of their number deployed around the country, they soon proved both ill-disciplined and ineffective and quickly earned a reputation for cruelty.

Their arrival had little effect on IRA operations. On May 11, two more RIC constables were shot dead in Cork and over the next two months, six RIC barracks were destroyed.

On the night of July 17, an IRA unit stormed into the Cork County Club on South Mall and shot dead Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, the recently appointed RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster.

In response, Major General E. P. Strickland, the Officer Commanding the 6th Division in Victoria Barracks, issued a curfew order requiring the citizens of Cork to remain indoors between 10pm and 3am. In protest at this, Cork Corporation decided to extinguish the street lights during the hours of curfew.

Since MacCurtain’s election, Crown forces considered City Hall to be the symbol of republican resistance in Cork. On the evening of August 12, 300 soldiers from Victoria Barracks raided it while MacSwiney was holding a meeting of IRA officers inside and a case was being heard by a Republican Court. MacSwiney was among 11 republicans arrested and taken to Victoria Barracks for questioning.

The others arrested included leading members of the IRA such as Liam Lynch, Séan O’Hegarty, and Dan ‘Sandow’ Donovan. However, in what can only be described as the greatest intelligence failure of the war, these men were subsequently released.

Incriminating documents were found in MacSwiney’s possession so he was kept in custody and on August 16 a military court-martial found him guilty of sedition. Before he was sentenced, MacSwiney informed the court that he had been refusing food since his arrest and would continue to do so until he was released. His comment, however, made no impression on the court and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Brixton Prison.

In refusing food, MacSwiney was joining  the hunger strike that republican prisoners in Cork Prison had commenced on August 11.

As the days passed, the eyes of the world focused on his cell in Brixton as his condition slowly and painfully deteriorated. Finally, on October 25, he passed away, having refused food for 74 days.

MacSwiney’s funeral took place on October 31 and thousands again lined the city streets to pay their respects as his remains were laid to rest alongside those of his friend and comrade Tomás MacCurtain.

The day MacSwiney died, Volunteer Joseph Murphy of Pouladuff Road passed away in Cork Prison, having refused food for 76 days. He was buried in the Republican Plot on October 27.

In addition to these two deaths, the autumn of 1920 would witness a dramatic escalation of the conflict in Cork. On September 15, the IRA abducted John O’Callaghan from his home on Pickett’s Lane and executed him for being an informer. The following month an RIC constable was shot dead on Patrick Street and a British soldier was mortally wounded in an IRA ambush on Barrack Street.

In November, K Company of the newly-formed Auxiliary Division of the RIC arrived in Victoria Barracks. The ‘Auxiliaries’ had been formed in the summer as an elite strike force comprised of former officers of the British armed forces who were tasked with taking the fight to the IRA and their supporters.

The burning of Cork city in December 1920.
The burning of Cork city in December 1920.

That same month, death would stalk the streets of Cork. The IRA shot dead a sergeant in the RIC, a Black and Tan and two Auxiliaries. They also executed a Volunteer who was found guilty of spying and three civilians who were accused of being informers.

A 15-year-old member of Na Fianna Eireann and three civilians were shot dead by Crown Forces and three members of the IRA died when a bomb they were carrying accidently exploded on Patrick Street.

Crown forces in Cork also adopted a new strategy that autumn when they commenced a series of unauthorised arson attacks on Sinn Féin offices and the homes and businesses of republican sympathisers. These fires posed a major threat to the city and were fought by members of Cork Fire Brigade led by Captain Alfred Hutson.

Night after night that November, the brigade worked heroically to quench the flames. But nothing they experienced at that time would prepare them for the night of terror they would face the following month.

On November 28, an IRA Flying Column led by Tom Barry shattered the myth of invincibility that surrounded the Auxiliaries when they ambushed a mobile patrol at Kilmichael. Sixteen Auxiliaries were killed and another was seriously wounded. One escaped but would later be captured and killed.

The Auxiliaries in Victoria Barracks were outraged by this incident and out for vengeance. At the start of December they ransacked and burned a number of buildings in the city, shot dead two civilians, abused, assaulted and forcibly searched pedestrians on Patrick Street and caused the death of a 60-year old woman from a heart attack when they raided her home on Tuckey Street.

Then, on December 10, Martial Law was declared in the south of Ireland. The situation in Cork was clearly spiralling out of control, but worse was yet to come.

Faced with the aggressive behaviour of the Auxiliaries, the IRA decided to hit back. At 7pm on December 11, they ambushed an Auxiliary mobile patrol near Dillon’s Cross, wounding 12, one of whom later died. For the Auxiliaries, this was the last straw. Around 9pm, a group from Victoria Barracks stormed down to Dillon’s Cross where they proceeded to drag a number of residents from their homes before putting the buildings to the torch.

Crowds of onlookers throng Patrick Street on the day following the burning of Cork city centre by crown forces. 12/12/1920.
Crowds of onlookers throng Patrick Street on the day following the burning of Cork city centre by crown forces. 12/12/1920.

A number of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans also congregated on Patrick Street and began burning shops on the eastern side. When the fire brigade arrived, they were assaulted and their hoses were cut by bayonets but they still did their best to contain the fires.

Unfortunately, despite their efforts, all the buildings on the eastern side of the street were consumed by flames.

In the early hours of December 12, the Auxiliaries burned City Hall and the nearby Carnagie Library. They also shot dead Jeremiah Delany and mortally wounded his brother Cornelius, both IRA members, during a raid on their home, at Dublin Hill.

The next morning, crowds started to gather on Patrick Street where the foul smell of smouldering ruins mingled with the crisp air of a winter’s morning. More than 500 people lost their homes 2,000 were made unemployed, 57 buildings were destroyed and 20 were damaged in a night of terror that would come to be known as ‘The Burning of Cork’.

With the loss of two Lord Mayors, the introduction of a curfew, and the destruction of much of their city, 1920 was a year when, in the words of Terence MacSwiney, the people of Cork had indeed ‘suffered the most’.

As Christmas approached, they also faced an uncertain future, but they remained unbowed and their support for an independent Ireland remained undiminished. Unfortunately, they would have to endure many more trials and tribulations before fighting in their city came to an end.

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