Posted by Jim on December 9, 2017
During the War of Independence, Cork was one of the main centres of
resistance to British rule. In one of the worst atrocities committed
during the War of Independence, British forces deliberately set fire to
several blocks of buildings along the east and south sides of Saint
Patrick’s Street during Saturday and Sunday 11/12 December 1920.
Five acres of the city was torched, 300 homes destroyed as well as 40
businesses, leading to the loss of 2,000 jobs. The City Hall and the
Carnegie Library were also completely destroyed by fire. A look back at
those events, 97 years ago this week.
In the aftermath of an IRA ambush at Dillon’s Cross in which one British auxiliary
was killed and a number injured, Cork City went through a period of
terror the extent of which had never before been experienced.
Some time after the ambush, a large group of Black and Tans opened fire
on civilians without the slightest warning or provocation near the corner of King
Street (now MacCurtain Street) and Summerhill North. The shooting was
totally indiscriminate. Women and children huddled in doorways or ran
for shelter. The streets soon became deserted. Some panic-stricken
people took refuge at the railway station, and could hear rifle and
revolver fire continue for more than twenty minutes.
However, the worst was yet to come. At 10 pm. Alfred J. Huston, the
Superintendent of the Cork city fire brigade, ordered the ambulance from
Grattan Street fire station to Dillon’s Cross in case there were
casualties from a fire which was raging. (A number of houses in the
vacinity of Dillon’s Cross had been set alight by irate British forces).
As the ambulance was travelling through Patrick Street the firemen came
upon a fire at Grant and Co., a department store at the southern end of
Patrick Street. The driver of the ambulance described an encounter they
then had – “On reaching the comer of Patrick Street, I, who was driving,
saw forty or fifty men walking in a body in the centre of Patrick
Street, coming towards us in very mixed dress – some with khaki coats,
some with khaki trousers, and some wore glengarry caps”.
At 10.30 pm Captain Huston received a report of the fire in Grant’s. He
found that ‘the fire had gained considerable headway and the flames were
coming through the roof’. The fire brigade was successful in containing
this fire. If it had spread to the English Market, which was located to
the rear of Grant’s, a major conflagration could have occurred. While
the fire in Grant’s was being fought, Captain Huston received word from
the town clerk that the Munster Arcade and Cash’s department store were
on fire. It was now about 11.30p.m. These two buildings were situated on
the eastern side of Patrick Street. All available units of the fire
brigade were immediately sent to fight these fires, which were spreading
Despite the best efforts of the fire brigade, the fires spread to
adjoining buildings and caused extensive damage. The blaze in the
Munster Arcade spread to the following establishments – Egan’s
Jewellers, Sunner’s, Forrest’s, the Dartry Dye Co., Saxone Shoe Co.,
Burton’s Tailors, Thompson’s and Cudmore’s. The fire from Cash’s spread
to the Lee Cinema, Roche’s Stores, Lee Boot Co., Connell & Co.,
Scully’s, Wolfe’s and O’Sullivan’s. All of these buildings were totally
Shortly before dawn, two of Cork city’s historic buildings would also be
destroyed by flames. On Sunday 12 December Captain Huston received word
that both City Hall and the nearby Carnegie Library had been put to the
torch. Seven members of the fire brigade tried in vain to fight the
flames and, like the buildings in Patrick Street, both places were
completely destroyed. As they fought the flames the members of the fire
brigade were subject to continuous harassment from crown forces, who
fired on them, turned off hydrants and slashed hoses with their
In his report to the Lord Mayor, Captain Huston wrote; “I have no
hesitation in stating I believe all the above fires were incendiary
fires and that a considerable amount of petrol or some such inflammable
spirit was used in one and all of them. In some cases explosives were
also used and persons were seen to go into and come out of the
structures after breaking an entrance into same, and in some cases I
have attended the people have been brought out of their houses and
detained in by-lanes until the fire gained great headway”.
Widespread looting also occurred throughout the night. A young girl who
lived at Clankittane, near Victoria Barracks, recalled seeing a
lorry-load of Auxiliaries returning to the barracks in the early hours
of Sunday, December 12th. The lorry, which was full of stolen goods,
stopped outside Hennessy’s public house. Some drunken Auxiliaries
dismounted and banged on the door of the pub, shouting for the owner.
When someone put their head out of an upstairs window, an Auxiliary made
a threatening gesture with a revolver and demanded that the doors be
opened and drink served.
As to the question of who actually started the fires, many witnesses
gave statements that groups of armed men, some in uniform, others in
civilian clothes, were responsible for the destruction wreaked upon the
From his office in Victoria Barracks Major F. R. Eastwood, the brigade
major of the 17th Infantry Brigade, compiled the following report:
Official Military report on the state of Cork City for the period from
10 p.m. on Saturday, December 11, 1920, to 5.30 a.m. on Sunday, December
12, 1920, during which period the city was in complete control of the
(1) Three arrests were made.
(2) At 22.00 hours, Grant & Co., Patrick Street, was found to be on
fire. Warning was sent to all fire brigades.
(3) At about 00.30 hours, Cash & Co. and the Munster Arcade were
reported on fire.
(4) At 05.30 hours the majority of the troops were withdrawn, and the
remainder at 08.00 hours.
(5) Explosions were heard at 00.15 hours, but were not located. No shots
were fired by the troops.
F. R. Eastwood,
Brigade Major, 17th Infantry Brigade. Cork.
The fact that the burning of Cork occurred while the city was, as Major
Eastwood stated, ‘in complete control of the military’ is in itself a
damning indictment of the British forces then in occupation of Victoria
Writing about the burning of Cork, Florence O’Donoghue, intelligence
officer of Cork No. 1 IRA Brigade at the time of the atrocity, stated; “It
is difficult to say with certainty whether or not Cork would have been
burned on that night if there had not been an ambush at Dillon’s Cross.
What appears more probable is that the ambush provided the excuse for an
act which was long premeditated and for which all arrangements had been
made. The rapidity with which the supplies of petrol and Verey lights
were brought from Cork barracks to the centre of the city, and the
deliberate manner in which the work of firing the premises was divided
amongst groups under the control of officers, gives evidence of
organisation and pre-arrangement. Moreover, the selection of certain
premises for destruction and the attempt made by an Auxiliary officer to
prevent the looting of one shop by Black and Tans: ‘You are in the wrong
shop; that man is a Loyalist,’ and the reply, ‘We don’t give a damn;
this is the shop that was pointed out to us’, is additional proof that
the matter had been carefully planned beforehand”.
The action of the British Crown forces in Cork on the night of 11/12
December brought widespread condemnation upon the officers and men who
garrisoned Victoria Barracks. Whatever remaining goodwill some citizens
of Cork may have had for the British forces was now gone.