Eyewitness accounts from the night that Cork city was an inferno

TIMOTHY DE BARRA, of Cork, did his final year project at The London School of Journalism on the Burning of Cork and in this extract, he explains the origins of that infamous night, using eyewitness accounts of the mayhem
Eyewitness accounts from the night that Cork city was an inferno

ENEMY IN OUR MIDST: The first batch of British Auxiliary Police arrive at Cork Station in autumn, 1920, to take up duty during the Irish War of Independence

ON the night of December 11, 1920, the gates of Victoria Barracks in north Cork City, swung open and two Crossley Tender Motors exited at full throttle, carrying a squad of 12 Auxiliaries.

In the first lorry was Temporary Cadet Spencer R. Chapman, born in 1893 in Wandsworth, London. His father, a stockbroker, described as a “gentlemen”, hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and work in the financial sector. But the young lad wanted adventure.

So, in 1914, aged 21, Spencer had joined the Honorary Artillery Company of the British Army and, in December, landed on the beaches of France to fight in the Great War.

On his return to England in 1918, he wed Yvonne M. Cardon but the post-war English economy was no place for a returning veteran with no marketable skills. “It was a common sight after the war,” wrote Military Medal winner George Coppard, “to see queues of ex-officers looking for jobs as messengers and window cleaners. There were no jobs for the ‘heroes’ who had won the war.”

Now 25 and struggling to support his family, it must have seemed to Spencer a godsend when he saw an ad in the London press, looking for former army, navy and air force officers to fill a new division in the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary at £7 a week.

He answered the call and that Saturday night 100 years ago found himself sitting in the back of a lorry, bumping and jerking along an old winding road in Cork, listening to the rumble of the engine as his mind drifted home, wondering what his young wife might be up too and if she was thinking of him.

Although the Auxiliaries were experienced fighters, there was an unpredictable lunacy about their new enemy that unnerved them. The IRA were conducting guerrilla-type warfare, able to attack and disperse like molecules resembling something more akin to a lethal gas than a typical military corp.

As the vehicles approached Dillon’s Cross in the north of the city, a shadowy, silhouetted figure appeared to be standing on the dirt road a few yards ahead. Cautious, the driver was well aware of the IRA’s predatory nature; it had hardly been a week since Commandant Tom Barry staged one of the bloodiest attacks on officers of the Auxiliaries, ambushing and killing 16 of them in Kilmicheal, Co Cork.

As the lorry drew closer, the figure, now illuminated by the headlights of the lorry, appeared to be a British officer. The driver recognised the Macintosh overcoat, scarf and cap and, heeding the officer’s signal, stopped and cut off the engine, with the second driver following his colleague’s lead.

As they awaited instruction, the seemingly friendly British Officer, now only metres away, pulled a small whistle from his jacket pocket and blew two blasts of it, a signal to a six-man IRA squad hiding behind a nearby stone wall that the two vehicles had entered the kill zone.

The audacious ambush was planned by Captain Seán O’Donoghue in spite of martial law being declared on the city the previous night. His objective was to capture or kill Captain Kelly, a key British Intelligence Officer traveling in one of the lorries.

On the signal, the phony officer, Michael Kenny, attacked the second lorry with O’Donoghue. Two grenades were lobbed into the first lorry by Augustine O’Leary. A cadet, T/C Leslie Emanuel, later recalled how one of them landed on his lap, and though he managed to throw it off, the other detonated, blowing him and his colleagues out of the truck.

The Volunteers emptied the contents of each of their revolvers into the trucks’ occupants. The Cadets, caught completely unaware, were blinded by smoke and showered with shrapnel.

Then, as quick as it started, the shooting stopped. There was no time to finish the job as reinforcements were surely already on the way from Victoria Barracks, searching for the cause of the explosions and releasing a pack of bloodhounds to track the assailants across the fields in which they escaped.

Sean Healy would later recall how, after the brief attack, “it was every man for himself. Under cover of darkness, and hugging the walls, we ran towards Goulding Glen, the others (O’Donoghue), ran toward The Glen”.

The Official Account by the War Office in London later revealed 12 cadets were seriously wounded but there was only one fatality: T/C Spencer R. Chapman, 26, died of his injuries and was remembered by his wife, Yvonne.

The euphoria enjoyed by the IRA that night would be short-lived, as the city braced itself for a devastating reprisal.


TRAIL OF DEVASTATION: Firefighters train their hose on smouldering buildings in the devastating aftermath of the Burning of Cork on December 12, 1920
TRAIL OF DEVASTATION: Firefighters train their hose on smouldering buildings in the devastating aftermath of the Burning of Cork on December 12, 1920

For Allen J. Ellis, Cork was home. His family migrated from the county into the city in the early 19th century. In 1916, at 18, he joined the staff of the Cork Examiner.

Despite the city being under martial law on December 11, 1920, Allen was in no rush to be home for the 10pm curfew. He spent the evening in the home of his cousin, Mikey Hussey and they chatted long into the evening, taking no notice of the time or the “scattered and intermittent sounds of gunfire” which citizens had grown accustomed too.

“We ceased to take any notice of it,” wrote Allen in his account of the evening.

Mickey, however, “was worried” reminding Allen of the curfew ordered by General Macready, the British Commander-in-chief in Ireland. Despite missing his last tram home, the 9pm northern line to St Luke’s, Allen assured his cousin he would simply return to the office and hitch a lift home with the night clerk, who drove a motorbike and lived nearby.

The two talked for further half an hour or so over another cup of tea. Once the clock struck 9.30pm, Allen cordially thanked his cousin and bid him farewell. Don’t worry, he said, reminding Mickey that “as a journalist” he would be permitted to travel during the curfew hours.

“Looking back,” he recalls, “I was living in a fool’s paradise.”

Walking from the Corn Market toward Patrick Street, Allen soon became aware that something was awry. Without letting himself be seen, he watched a small group of Auxiliaries drive people from the streets, firing over their heads to make them disperse into the buildings.

Closing the distance between himself and the scene of the commotion, he now stood in clear view of Patrick Street. To his horror, he realised all the principal buildings were in flames.

While he was watching in terrible events unfolding on Patrick Street, in Dillon’s Cross and other parts of the city, other groups of Auxiliaries began a campaign of arson and looting.

In revenge for the ambush, the Auxiliaries forced residents from their homes and onto the streets. Furniture was piled high and set alight. Anyone who tried to save their meagre possessions was beaten. One resident described being “dealt a severe blow on the face, causing my teeth to come through my upper lip.” Other residents would describe how “uniformed men patrolled up and down the roads, guarding the burnings from any attempt to extinguish them.”

In MacCurtain Street, a Priest recounted how his tram, as it was about to ascend Summerhill, was intercepted by armed officers, who began “shouting and beating us with the butts of their rifles, firing in all directions, with much cursing and blasphemy.” Women were “knocked to the ground and kicked as they lay helpless and screaming. An officer roared out that if any of the men stirred they would be shot.”

Near the Lower Glanmire road, a pedestrian recounted seeing a party of soldiers open fire without warning or provocation. By Coburg Street, a university student was held up by five armed men in Auxiliary uniforms, most of whom, he noted, were drunk.

By now, Superintendent Alfred Hutson of the city fire brigade had received reports of fires breaking out all over the city. He contacted the Grattan Street fire station and on arrival at Patrick Street, observed with terror the flames now engulfing all the buildings.

“The fires were well alight and too big to be managed by us,” he told a private inquisition later. “We decided to go at once to Sullivan’s Quay for assistance.”

Before he could go, Hutson was pulled aside by a man who identified himself as a journalist for the Cork Examiner, Allen J. Ellis. He had been staying out of sight and inquired as to the cause of all the mayhem. Hutson informed him bluntly that “the fires were being deliberately started by incendiary bombs” and also stated he had personally seen soldiers pouring cans of petrol into buildings and setting them alight.

The increasing barbarity of the Auxiliaries was making it unsafe to remain on the streets. Allen, on receiving the information from Hutson, thanked him and made a dash towards Abbey Street. Hutson went the opposite way toward Sullivan’s Key.

Allen would later be arrested by a number of soldiers and detained, possibly for his own safety, until the early hours of the next day. His full, detailed account of the night would prove crucial in an independent, joint investigation into the incidents by The Irish Labour Party, Trade Union Congress and British Labour Party.

Back in Dillons Cross, however, another unit of soldiers were closing in on what they thought was the whereabouts of Captain O’Donoghue, the mastermind behind the ambush there.


O’Donoghue was being chased across the murky fields of The Glen by a pack of vicious hounds and armed men. He had grenades, a surefire death warrant should he be caught. His destination was a safe-house in the north of the city, but as the dogs and soldiers were closing in, he had to make a split-second decision.

Passing by the Delany farm on Dublin Hill, he flung the grenades away and ran for his life.

The Auxiliaries kept on wreaking havoc in the city. As a final act of vengeance they set light to City Hall and Carnegie Library. The sky above turned a crimson red, viewable to all those unlucky enough to see it. One onlooker watched from his living room window while his sons and daughters slept upstairs, unaware of the danger they were in as soldiers approached their doorstep.

“About 2am,” stated Daniel Delany, head of the family, “a number of men came to my door and demanded admission.” After the dogs sniffed out the grenades left by O’Donoghue on Mr Delany’s land, the Auxiliaries deduced they must have belonged to someone in the house.

On the contrary, the man responsible had long gone and there was never any evidence to suggest the Delany family were even aware their farm was used as a dumping ground.

On opening the door, Mr Delany was “called out” and surrounded by armed men. One of the officers asked if he was a member of the IRA.

“I don’t understand you,” was his reply.

“Are you interested in politics?”, the officer questioned, looking him up and down.

“I’m an old man,” Delany answered, “I’m not interested in anything.”

Seemingly satisfied he was not the culprit, the officer began to grill him about the other occupants of the house.

Delany, this time with more trepidation in his voice, told the officer there was nobody home but his daughters and two boys, Jeremiah and Cornelius. At this, the officer’s eyebrows raised. The brothers were known IRA sympathisers.

“Mind if we have a look?” said the officer, as he pushed his way past the old man and entered the home, followed by “at least eight men”.

“I could hear them moving in my sons’ bedroom”, Mr Delany recalled, as he waited downstairs, fearing the worst. Then, one of the men said in a harsh voice, “Get up out of that.” Rushing upstairs, Mr Delany arrived in the room just in time to see the officer ask one of his sons “Is your name Delany?”

Groggy and half asleep, the two boys both answered “Yes.”

At that moment, the officer drew his revolver and two distinct gunshots were heard.

“My two boys fell immediately,” Delany said.

One of his daughters arose and ran toward her brother’s room. “Con was lying in a pool of blood. I ran out and got the crucifix,” she said. The sister looked on helplessly at her brothers, lying dying on their bedroom floor. “(Jeremiah) turned his head towards me and I put the crucifix to his lips. (Then) he died immediately.”

Due to the fires raging in the city, an ambulance was unable to reach the Delany home till 8am. Con would later die of his injuries at the Mercy Hospital. After the shootings, the officer holstered his revolver and walked out the front door. No person or persons were ever arrested in relation to the killings of the two boys.

As the shots that killed the Delany boys rang out, the exhausted fire brigade were busy trying to stop the fire from engulfing the last vestige of pride left, The City Hall. But their efforts were in vain.

Superintendent Hutson later revealed in a letter to the Lord Mayor of Cork that the hoses were cut in several places while in the streets, and were no further use.

As the sun rose, the lamplighters, some not yet aware of the night’s events, came on duty at 7am to extinguish the streetlights. One, whose route took him to City Hall, left his home in the north side of the River Lee.

“(I) proceeded down Pope’s Quay, over Patrick’s Bridge and saw a tram burnt to a cinder. Going down Merchant’s Quay, following light of the fire, [the] only light you could see, I met one of my Comrades.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“I told him I was going to City Hall.”

“There’s no City Hall there”, was his reply. “(They) burned it down.”

In total, 57 commercial buildings were destroyed in Cork that night by fire — 20 were severely damaged and 12 houses were wrecked and looted. In the aftermath, a letter written by an Auxiliary Cadet of ‘K’ Company was intercepted by IRA intelligence.

“In my life,” the Cadet revealed to his mother, “and in all the tales of fiction I have read, I have never experienced such orgies of murder, arson and looting as I have witnessed during the past 16 days with the RIC Auxiliaries. It baffles description and we are supposed to be officers and gentlemen.”

The morning after the fire, many citizens made their way to the city from the suburbs to attend work, meet friends and purchase Christmas presents for their children. But when they arrived, they surely must have thought themselves dreaming, for nothing of the city they knew remained. It might have looked almost apocalyptic.

Any hope they had that the men responsible would be brought to justice was soon discarded. The subsequent military inquiry proved inconclusive and no parties were arrested.

Instead, the burnings and the murder of the Delany brothers only radicalised republicans already opposed to British occupation.

Likewise, the death of T/C Spencer R. Chapman, embittered his comrades and encouraged them to crack down even harder on the volunteers and sympathisers of the IRA. As the conflict continued, the killings only intensified.

The burning and subsequent controversy is one of the most significant events of the Irish War of Independence.

While the scars never faded, through huge effort, the city, at least, rebuilt itself to become, 100 years on, one of Ireland’s most diverse and economically prosperous areas.

The Burning of Cork series continues in paper and online this week.

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