A terrifying insight into the terror and fear that stalked Cork city

A year after the Burning of Cork, the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress published a book, Who Burnt Cork City?, containing dozens of eyewitness accounts, aiming to quash attempts to whitewash inquiries by Britain. In the final part of our series, we publish some of the accounts, which provide a terrifying insight into the terror and fear that stalked the city that night
A terrifying insight into the terror and fear that stalked Cork city

A CITY SHELL-SHOCKED: A building lies in ruins following the Burning of Cork

THE eyewitness accounts in Who Burnt Cork City? are anonymous, as the fear of reprisals from the British soldiers was a real and present danger.

All swore on oath that their testimony was voluntary and its accuracy was true. The following was from a resident of Ballyhooly Road:


On Sunday morning, December 12, 1920, we were awakened by a loud knocking at the door. My wife and myself went down to open it. At the time we could find neither the key nor a match. The people outside said they would bomb the house if we did not open the b****y door quickly.

We got the key and opened the door, and they rushed in on top of us. One of them caught me and put me outside the door, another followed. Two more took my wife upstairs at the point of the revolver, kept her in while I was outside, and told her if she moved they would burn the place around her. She begged for mercy, and they would not listen to her.

When they got me outside the door, they told me I had three minutes to live, caught me by the arm and asked me to tell them about the (Dillons Cross) ambush, that they had got information about my being there. I told them I knew nothing about it. He then called me a liar. He pushed the revolver against my side several times and called me a coward. He then told me I had two and a half minutes to live and put me against the wall to shoot me.

He forced me on my knees, then, seeing the cincture of St Augustine on me, thought it was a belt, and asked the other fellows for their jack knives to cut it. Fortunately, neither of them could find them at the time, so I opened it for him, and be beat me on the naked skin several times with it. I was naked all the time. He then made me stand up and sing God Save The King and when I could not sing it right I got a blow of the revolver or his fist under the eye a couple of times. He then asked me what religion I was. I said I was a Roman Catholic. He asked me what I was, and where I worked, and I told him. He then told me to get inside quickly, and if they heard of any more ambushes they would blow myself and house and block of buildings up.

When I went upstairs, I missed my watch, also my wife’s purse, and some silver and coppers left out to pay the milkman in the morning.

To the best of my belief, three of them wore kilts and brown ‘tam o’-shanters’. Two wore Glengarry caps, with strings on the back. There was one dressed like an officer, with black cap and light coat, carrying a cane. All the rest were armed with revolvers, with the exception of him. I am under the doctor’s care since and am not allowed to go to work.


The following statement was given by a priest.

I was returning home from duty in SS Peter and Paul’s on Saturday, December 11, 1920, and succeeded in getting the last tram for Summerhill, which leaves Father Mathew’s statue at 9pm. As it passed through MacCurtain Street signs of confusion were visible in the streets outside (I was seated about midway in the interior of the tram), but the occupants did not seem to pay much attention. Just as the tram was about to ascend Summerhill, a lorry full of armed men dashed past us, shouting and jeering as they went up the hill.

The tram proceeded up the hill to a distance of about 100 yards beyond the RIC Barracks, Empress Place, Summerhill, when suddenly two men (well-dressed and with distinct English accents) dashed into our tram, and at the point of the revolver drove all inside, with me, out. A rush was made for the door at the driver’s end of the car and as that side was soon blocked I, being in the middle, could not, of course, move till the others had crushed their way out.

However, the gentlemen with the revolvers insisted I should, so they kept knocking me in the side, on my face, and around my head with the revolvers. Repeatedly I told them I would go as soon as the door was clear, at the same time asking what was the meaning of treating me like that. As soon as the way was clear I did make towards the door but on my way was forcibly pushed from behind, fell forward, tripped over something on the landing stage of the car, and was pitched out on my face and hands into the middle of the road.

Even in my fall I could see the tram had been surrounded by armed men, and on getting to my feet I counted about a dozen or more men dressed in long black coats like rain coats, with khaki-coloured bands or straps over their shoulders and crosswise in front, and wearing black tam o’shanter caps; each of these uniformed men was armed with a rifle. Immediately I recognised them as forces of the Crown.

As soon as I got to my feet I found myself in a scene of great confusion; the uniformed forces of the Crown were rushing at men and women indiscriminately, shouting and beating us with the butts of their rifles and firing in all directions; the ‘gentlemen’ with the revolvers were raging all round the tram with much cursing and blasphemy, issuing orders to the uniformed forces of the Crown. Three or four women I saw beaten by the ‘gentlemen’ in mufti (there were about six of these I now discovered).

ENEMY WITHIN: Two British Auxiliaries at Lower Glanmire Road station in Cork in 1921. They represented the officer class of the British army but were centre stage during the Burning of Cork
ENEMY WITHIN: Two British Auxiliaries at Lower Glanmire Road station in Cork in 1921. They represented the officer class of the British army but were centre stage during the Burning of Cork

One woman was knocked to the ground and kicked by a uniformed man as she lay there helpless and screaming. I made a move to assist this poor woman when one of the ‘gentlemen’ with the English accent roared out that if any man stirred, he would be shot there and then.

I tried to remonstrate, but my voice was absolutely lost in the general confusion.

All the men were now ordered to the wall on either side of the ambushed tram and roughly told by the ‘gentlemen’ with the revolvers to “put up our hands”. Then one of the uniformed men, apparently to make sure we had our backs to the wall, prodded each of us with the muzzle of his rifle. Then the ‘gentlemen’ in mufti came before each man, threatening us again with their revolvers, and searching and kicking, and shouting that they were going to revenge themselves on us and on the city for what had happened on the hill that night.

The ‘gentleman’ who had me in hand discovered on tearing open my coat I was a priest, and became very excited, shouting he had got one of the B***** fellows who advised the people to shoot them (the forces of the Crown). Tearing open my inside coat and my vest he continued to search all my pockets, removing everything I had, including my watch and some money (about 30s.). These he kept for himself, and whatever papers and books (including my breviary) he found he kicked out into the road.

Meantime, the other men were being searched and abused, and the tram was being smashed by the men in black uniforms. As the search of each man was completed, he was pushed and kicked then told he could go. But I being a priest was held over ’til all had been searched: They were going to revenge themselves on me and on the town that night, so they kept saying.

They all now gathered round me, shouting and cursing the Pope, the Bishop, and all the Catholic clergy in general. One of them rushed on me, tore off my overcoat, my inside coat, vest and collar and pushed me up against the wall, saying I was to be shot. All retired to the middle of the road, and I began to feel my end had now surely come. In the half light of the place I could not see very well, but they appeared to be debating with one another about me.

Suddenly one of the ‘gentlemen’ with the revolver rushed over and roared at me to kneel down, but before I had time to do so he flung me sprawling on the ground. He said that if I would write or say “To hell with the Pope”, I would be let off. I said surely they would not expect a Catholic priest to say this.

At this point some of the ‘gentlemen’ in the middle of the road shouted to let that **** go, and the ‘gentleman’ who had me on the ground kicked me and told me to clear off. I got up as well and quickly as I could, and as I was about to go, I was kicked again and told I should run.

Being scarcely able to walk from all the bruises and kicks, I was quite unable to carry out the latter command. One of the uniformed men ran at me with his rifle, saying he would make me run, and began to push me violently in the back with the muzzle of his rifle.

Thus, pushed from behind, I stumbled forward up the hill for 20 yards or so. Then I was suddenly grabbed by the shirt collar behind and kicked severely and told if I turned round, I would be shot. Without looking round, I asked him for my clothes, but I found they had been kicked up the hill a few feet before me. I was putting them on as hastily as I could when a shot rang out in my direction. Fortunately, I was not hit, and I hobbled home as best I could.


This statement was by a university student:

On the night of December 11, 1920, on returning home at about 9.25pm, I was held up by armed men in the uniform of the RIC, with khaki bandoliers over their coats. There were five around me, and one ordered me to put up my hands. This I did. They then forced me backwards till my back was to the wall, and told me they were going to shoot me. They kept me in that position for five or ten minutes. Now and then one of them put the barrel of a revolver to my face and lifted it upwards, hitting my nose, and told me to keep my head back. I was then asked to say “God save the King”, one of them informing me first that I would be shot this way or that. I refused.

Most of the men were drunk. One less drunk than the others said to give me a chance.He said, “run up that **** hill, and we’ll fire after you.” I ran up the hill (Patrick’s Hill) and they fired after me. I was not hit. This happened at the corner of Coburg Street and Patrick’s Hill.

While they held me against the wall, I saw 15 or 20 men, dressed similarly to those that held me up, at the bottom of Bridge Street. There were others about halfway across the bridge. I saw them firing at one another, and I saw a bomb hurled by the men in Bridge Street at the men on the bridge. I saw a bomb explode. I did not see the result.

I saw the same men fire at a person on the footpath on the east side of the bridge. I saw the man fall.

On going homewards along Wellington Road, I saw about 12 ‘Black and Tans’ each with a girl, going towards town.

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