On the morning of 11 December 1920, a climate of fear and uncertainty hung over the city of Cork. Though Christmas was a mere two weeks away, the people of the city had little to be cheerful about. That morning, Cork was a city at war. 

The previous eleven months had seen Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA intensify its campaign of guerrilla warfare against the forces of the Crown. In response, the British authorities had sent Black and Tans reinforcements to the RIC, imposed curfew, introduced Martial Law and deployed K Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC to Victoria Barracks. A series of nocturnal arson attacks on the City Hall, Sinn Féin offices, business premises and the homes of republican sympathisers had also taken place. 

But worse was yet to come. Within twenty-four hours, the people of Cork would experience a night of unprecedented terror that would change the physical geography of their city forever.

Florence O'Donoghue, the adjutant of Cork No. 1 Brigade and a noted historian of the period, later recorded that, since they arrived, the Auxiliaries of K Company had:

Indulged in raids on houses, holding up and searching civilians in the streets, robbery and insulting behaviour…their drunken aggressiveness became so pronounced that no person was safe from their molestations. Age or sex was no protection. 

Poor women were robbed of their few shillings in the streets in broad daylight. After their raids on houses articles of value were frequently missing. Whips were taken from shops with which to flog unoffending pedestrians. Drink was demanded at the point of the revolver.

Image - British soldiers patrol the streets of Cork after the declaration of Martial Law. Photo: Getty Images

British soldiers patrol the streets of Cork after the declaration of Martial Law. Photo: Getty Images

The arrival of K Company also coincided with a marked increase in the arson attacks. The men tasked with dealing with these incidents were the members of Cork City Fire Brigade. Established in 1877 and commanded by Captain Alfred Hutson, the brigade had three stations in the city; on Sullivan's Quay, Grattan Street and Shandon Street. 

Its equipment consisted of one Merryweather steam pump, a motor fire tender, horse-drawn hose reels and a quantity of wheeled ladders that were housed in 'escape stations' located throughout the city. 

By 11 December, many buildings around the city had been destroyed or seriously damaged by fire. The IRA couldn't let this assault on the city and its citizens go unchallenged. 

 That afternoon, Captain Seán O'Donoghue learned that Captain Campbell O'Connor Kelly, a British Army intelligence officer whose activities posed a serious threat to the organisation, might be travelling with a mobile patrol of Auxiliaries that usually left Victoria Barracks each night at 8 pm and he decided to set an ambush some 300 metres away from Victoria Barracks near Dillon's Cross. 

He had set an ambush for this patrol on 8 December, but his quarry never appeared. But this time there would be a different outcome.

At 7:30 p.m., O'Donoghue and five Volunteers took up their positions. Five hid behind a stone wall near Balmoral Terrace while another stood on the footpath tasked with slowing down the patrol. Around 8 p.m. two lorries full of Auxiliaries left the barracks.

As they approached Dillon's Cross, the Volunteers targeted them with grenades and revolvers and then made good their escape down through the Glen. Twelve Auxiliaries were injured in the ambush and one, Cadet Spencer Chapman, later died of his wounds. 

Image - A birds-eye view of the devastated city after the burning of Cork. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

A birds-eye view of the devastated city after the burning of Cork. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The terror begins

After the wounded Auxiliaries were taken back to Victoria Barracks, the members of K Company decided to exact their revenge. Shortly after 9 p.m., a group stormed down to Dillon's Cross where they smashed their way into a number of houses, dragged the terrified occupants onto the street and proceeded to set the buildings alight. 

When some terrified residents tried to save their possessions, they were prevented from doing so at gunpoint. Among the houses destroyed was the former home of Brian Dillon, the famous Cork Fenian after whom the cross-road was named.

While one group of Auxiliaries were busy wreaking havoc at Dillon's Cross, others were making their way to the city centre carrying drums of petrol. In the meantime, word of the ambush had spread, and people were rushing to get home before curfew hour at 10 p.m. Some succeeded in getting on the last north-bound tram to leave Fr Mathew's statue at 9 p.m. 

 However, on the way up Summerhill, it was stopped by some Auxiliaries and Black and Tans who dragged its passengers onto to the road where they were assaulted and verbally abused. Around the same time, pedestrians walking along Mac Curtáin Street were subject to indiscriminate firing from a group of men who stalked the street determined on causing mayhem.  

By now the terror had spread to St Patrick's Street. Auxiliaries accompanied by Black and Tans had set fire to a tram near Fr. Matthew's statue and were smashing the windows and throwing incendiary devices into Grant's and Cash's department stores and the Munster Arcade. 

Alarmed by the flames, staff who lived in rooms above these shops ran out into the street only to be met with insults and threats from the arsonists. 

Image - The ruins of Cash's department store after its destruction by the Crown Forces. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The ruins of Cash's department store after its destruction by the Crown Forces. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

In the meantime, reports of the fires in Dillon's Cross had reached Captain Hutson and he ordered a unit from Grattan Street to the scene. However, when they saw the fires on St. Patrick Street, the firemen decided to deal with them first. 

They also sent a messenger to the station at Sullivan's Quay looking for reinforcements. Throughout the night, the firefighters worked heroically to extinguish the fires that were rapidly spreading, but they were hampered by Black and Tans and Auxiliaries who subjected them to threats, insults and physical abuse and in some cases, cut their hoses. 

Despite their best efforts, by midnight, the skies above Cork glowed red, and flames were gradually consuming much of the city centre. But Cork's night of terror wasn't finished.

Image - Auxiliaries and Black and Tans in Cork, 1921

Auxiliaries and Black and Tans in Cork, 1921

At approximately 2 a.m. on 12 December, Crown forces raided the home of Daniel Delany on Dublin Hill and shot his two sons, Jeremiah and Cornelius, both of whom were members of the IRA. Jeremiah died instantly but Cornelius lived for another six days before passing away. 

Their uncle, William Dunlea, was also wounded during the raid. Two hours later, Captain Hutson received reports that City Hall and the nearby Carnegie Free Library were also on fire. All he could do was send seven firemen to the scene but their attempts to fight the fires were also thwarted by the arsonists and within a short time both buildings had been destroyed by fire.

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Image - Crowds gather amid the ruins, 13th of December, 1920. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Crowds gather amid the ruins, 13th of December, 1920. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

As the citizens of Cork emerged from their homes on Sunday morning, they saw the scale of destruction. Florence O'Donoghue recalled that:

Many familiar landmarks were gone forever – where whole buildings had collapsed here and there a solitary wall leaned at some crazy angle from its foundation. The streets ran with sooty water, the footpaths were strewn with broken glass and debris, ruins smoked and smouldered and over everything was the all-pervasive smell of burning.

That morning a motor pump sent by the Dublin Fire Brigade and a horse drawn steam pump sent from the Limerick Fire Brigade arrived in Cork in response to a plea for assistance made by Lord Mayor Dónal O'Callaghan. But all they could do was help their exhausted colleagues in Cork hose down the smouldering debris to stop them from re-igniting.


Slide over the image to see how many buildings and businesses were destroyed, looted and damaged during the burning of Cork. You can explore the extent of the devastation in more detail a new interactive map by Mike Murphy and Charlie Roche, cartographers for University College Cork's Atlas of the Irish Revolution. 

On 13 December, K Company was transferred to town of Dunmanway. Two days later, an Auxiliary named Vernon Hart, shot dead its parish priest Canon Thomas Magner and a local man named Tadhg Crowley. Charged with their murder, Hart was found to be 'guilty but insane' and K Company was later disbanded.

The British government immediately denied any responsibility for what happened in Cork. Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, even blamed its citizens for starting the fires in the city centre. 

The Daily Chronicle also published a fake map showing the City Hall and Carnegie Free Library near St. Patrick Street, implying that they were destroyed by fires that spread from that thoroughfare. The evidence, however, would show otherwise.

Image - Sir Hamar Greenwood, shown here in 1922, blamed the citizens of Cork for the fires Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Sir Hamar Greenwood, shown here in 1922, blamed the citizens of Cork for the fires Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A court of inquiry convened by General E. P. Strickland in Victoria Barracks found that the fires 'were caused by the section of men from K Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC'. The findings were sent to the British Government, but they never saw the light of day. 

Another inquiry convened by the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress also found that the Auxiliaries were the main culprits. 

But perhaps the most damning evidence came from a member of K Company named Charles Schulze. In a letter to his mother he said:

We did it all night. Never mind how much the well intentioned Hamar Greenwood would excuse us. In all my life 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 the past 16 days.

In another letter to his sister Edith, he wrote:

You will have read all about Cork. Suffice to say I was there and very actively employed to boot until the dawn on Sunday…We took a sweet revenge.

Image - All that remained of Sunner's Pharmaceutical and Dispensing Chemist, 31 Patrick Street, Cork on 13 December 1920. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

All that remained of Sunner's Pharmaceutical and Dispensing Chemist, 31 Patrick Street, Cork on 13 December 1920. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

For the people of Cork, however, the Auxiliaries' revenge was far from 'sweet'. Over seventy business premises covering five acres of the city were either damaged or destroyed, £3,000,000 worth of damage was done, around 2,000 people were left jobless and many others became homeless in the incident that became known simply as 'The Burning of Cork'.

This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.