Volunteer Michael Kenny pulled up the collar of his mackintosh, tightened his scarf, and pulled down his cap against the cold breeze as he stood beside the Old Youghal Road near Dillon’s Cross in Cork City. As the clock neared 8 on that chilly Saturday night of December 11, 1920, Kenny stared down the road in the direction of the massive Victoria Barracks, with the mist of his breath curling around his head in the frosty air. Running along the north side of the road was a high stone wall, and behind it were five of Kenny’s Volunteer comrades armed with grenades and pistols.
(Left: Volunteer Michael Kenny)
Sean O’Donoghue (below-right), who commanded the 1st Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, at the time, was in charge of the party, and Seán Healy was second in command as captain of A Company. While Kenny walked along the roadway to act as their scout, the other Volunteers who took part in the ambush, Mick Baylor, Jim O’Mahoney, and Gus O’Leary, were behind the wall with O’Donoghue and Healy, sweaty hands trembling with fear and anticipation.
Victoria barracks housed two battalions of the 17th Infantry Brigade and the newly arrived K Company of the Auxiliary Division of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary). The Auxiliary Division was a new reinforcement for the RIC following the “Black & Tans,” whom the government recruited to reinforce the ranks of the RIC earlier. While the “Black & Tans” joined the regular ranks of the RIC, serving alongside the Irish Constables, the Auxiliary Division was made up mainly of ex-officers in the British army and operated independently. They would earn a reputation for being effective and good fighters, but also ruthless.
The headquarters of the 6th Division was also at the barracks. Captain James Kelly, who commanded their intelligence division, was stationed there. He ran a group of local spies and informers and was a high-priority target of the Volunteers.
The target this night was a motorized patrol of the Auxiliaries in two Crossley tenders that they expected to be coming down this road any minute now. That was enough of a target, but they were hoping that Kelly might also be with them. Since the barracks were only about 300 yards away, Crown forces would arrive to assist the patrol in a matter of minutes. Therefore, O’Donoghue designed it to be a rapid strike-and-run operation.
Shortly after 8, Kenny saw the two lorries, each carrying about 13 Auxiliaries, approaching. Turning his head away from them, he blew two quick blasts on a whistle, alerting the others that they were coming. Kenny’s dress, the mackintosh, scarf, and cap were designed to emulate how off-duty British officers often dressed. After giving the whistle warning, Kenny stepped to the side of the road and lifted his hand to slow the lorries down. The ploy worked, and they slowed right in front of the wall.
(Below: Ambush site at Dillion's Cross.)
O’Donoghue ordered the attack, and the five Volunteers rose, looking over the wall and tossing grenades. Baylor and O’Leary, on the left, threw grenades into the lead lorry while O’Donoghue, Healy, and O’Mahony lobbed grenades into the second lorry. One of the Auxiliaries in the first lorry, John Emanuel recalled having a grenade land in his lap. He managed to flip it out before it exploded, but the second one exploded in the bed, blowing all of them out of it.
As Kenny ran from the scene, the other five Volunteers pulled their pistols and fired several volleys down into the staggering Auxiliaries, many already wounded from the grenades. A few of the Auxiliaries managed to fire off some shots toward the wall, but the Volunteers were beating their hasty retreat by then.
The Auxiliaries carried some of their wounded into the nearby O’Sullivan’s pub. They pressed the 19-year-old niece of the owner, Mary O’Connell, into helping treat one of their wounded men. Had they known she was the girlfriend of Michael Kenny, she might have been in serious trouble. Kenny had gotten her to hide a small cache of weapons in an upstairs bedroom of the pub earlier. Luckily the Auxiliaries never searched the building.
(Below; A trio of very self-confident-looking Auxiliary cadets at
Lower Glanmire train station - now Kent Station.)
The Auxiliaries rounded up several young men in the area and held them near the intersection. Then, they dragged one of them out into the middle of the street, stripped him naked, and made him sing “God Save the King.” This was the first indication of things to come that night.
As the Volunteers expected, the Auxiliaries from Victoria Barracks quickly arrived at this scene of chaos. The British reported that 13 Auxiliaries were hit, but 15 later applied for compensation for wounds that day. Somewhat amazingly, only one, Cadet Spencer Chapman, would die. Chapman, 28, was a former Officer in the 4th Battalion London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).
This brazen attack on the Auxiliaries, in a place so close to their barracks, surely incensed many of them. This attack occurred two weeks after 17 of their men had died in the ambush at Kilmichael, Co. Cork. Their anger was about to boil over into one of the worst British reprisals of the war regarding property damage.
The Auxiliaries returned to Victoria Barracks (below), but not for long. Many of the worst reprisals by Crown forces during the war were fueled by alcohol, but the Auxiliaries and some military arrived back in Dillon’s Cross around 9:30 p.m. That wasn’t enough time for them to get very drunk. So this first part of what would become massive destruction in Cork City cannot be excused by saying it was the work of a few drunken policemen or soldiers. The beginning of the burning of Cork was cold and calculated.
Auxiliaries and soldiers kicked in the doors of a group of homes, drove their occupants into the street, and set them on fire. The government later justified this first destruction of homes based on the bogus idea that the Volunteers had attacked from these houses. The former home of Brian Dillon, a famous Fenian after whom the area was named, was among the destroyed houses. The Auxiliaries set them on fire and threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to put the fires out or rescue any items from them.
(Below: The ruins of Brian Dillon's house.)
Several people were assaulted; one man was brutally pistol-whipped. In all, six homes were destroyed. The first building they set on fire was Buttimer’s Shop on the corner of St. Mary’s Avenue. However, when they discovered the owner was Protestant, they extinguished that fire.
Had this been the end of the destruction, it would have been similar to other reprisals by the Crown forces during the war. But it would soon get much worse and become the most infamous British reprisal of the war. With six smoldering ruins at Dillon’s Cross, another group of Crown forces moved south toward the center of the city.
Recent research has pointed to Auxiliary Charles Schulze as the leader of this band of violent arsonists. Schulze, whose father was German, had been a Captain in the Dorsetshire Regiment during World War I. His brothers, Rudolf and Hugh, also enlisted and were killed near Amiens in France.
Schulze later wrote to his girlfriend in England that it was “sweet revenge.” In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “Many who had witnessed scenes in France and say that nothing they had experienced was comparable with the punishment meted out in Cork.”
Word of the ambush had spread, and people were desperately trying to get home before the 10 p.m. curfew. The Crown forces were not going to help them achieve that goal. On MacCurtain Street, they stopped a tram in the middle of the road, forcing everyone off, and set it on fire.
(Below: A burned-out tram on Patrick Street.)
One of the passengers was Father Patrick MacSweeney, who had just been hearing confessions at St. Peter & Paul’s Church. MacSweeney was pushed off the tram, and then witnessed several women being abused by what he reported was a mixture of Auxiliaries and soldiers. The men were all pushed against a wall where the Auxiliaries searched them. When his overcoat was removed, showing that he was a priest, MacSweeney came in for added abuse.
The Crown forces robbed MacSweeney of his watch and all the money he had on him. Then he was surrounded by a group of Crown forces who began to abuse his religion. After being told to kneel, they told MacSeeney to say, “To hell with the Pope,” or they would shoot him. When he refused, they let him go but fired at him as he hobbled away. The scene there, lit by the flickering light of the burning tram, was like something out of “Dante’s Inferno.”
(Below: Burned out RIC Barracks on King Street, now MacCurtain Street)
Cork City was quite used to the violence of the war by now and to the occasional arson fire as well. In March, the Volunteers killed RIC District Inspector McDonagh on Pope’s Quay. Crown forces then assassinated the city’s first republican Lord Mayor, Tomas MacCurtain, in front of his family at his home in Blackpool.
In July, the Volunteers burned the vacant RIC barracks at King Street (MacCurtain Street), St Luke’s, and Lower Glanmire Road. On July 17, Divisional Commissioner G. Brice Ferguson Smyth was shot dead by the Volunteers in the city. Smyth had infamously told RIC constables in County Kerry to shoot suspected Volunteers “on sight.”
In October, Crown reprisals against property became more widespread. In one case, fires were lit along Patrick Street and at City Hall. Swift action by the fire brigades prevented a huge disaster, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
The marauding Crown forces now headed for the city center on Patrick Street, across the River Lee. Here they would wreak tremendous damage to the commercial center of the city. The fire setting was not spontaneous. Groups of the Crown forces arrived with gasoline and Very gun (flare gun) to quickly set that gasoline on fire. The first building on Patrick Street to burn was Alexander Grant and Co. department store.
(Below: Patrick Street from turn of the century postcard.)
Alan Ellis, a young reporter for the Cork Examiner, was trying to make his way home that night and provided some of the best testimony of what happened on Patrick Street. “I could hear sporadic rifle fire and small arms from every direction. At first, I thought it was an engagement between republicans and the military. Then I noticed, further down Patrick Street, the ‘Auxies’ and soldiers were driving people from the streets and firing over their heads to make them disperse into the buildings. Grant’s drapery store appeared to be on fire.”
He came upon the fire at Grant’s as a Gratton Street fire brigade that was headed to Dillon’s Cross had stopped to fight it. A witness told Ellis that a group of Auxiliaries had marched up in formation and were ordered to fire the building. Those Auxiliaries had headed east, towards the river, and Ellis could see more buildings on fire in that direction.
The Auxiliaries had continued down Patrick Street, driving away any people they saw, often firing pistols over their heads. As they went down the street, they lit up the block that included the huge Munster Arcade. This block had a chemist shop, a jewelry store, a photography studio, and a silk merchant. The fire destroyed all these properties.
(Left: Munster Arcade before fire.)
More importantly, the Munster Arcade had living quarters, some used by employees on the upper floors. Luckily, the Crown forces had made so much noise firing their pistols and harassing people in the streets that most of the residents in the building were alert and observing the chaos outside. Peter Barry, an apprentice in one of the businesses in the building, observed the Auxiiliaries knocking down the door to the arcade and throwing in grenades. Barry got the other residents together and headed out the back way to Elbow Lane. Seeing a group of Auxiliaries in the lane, he opened the 2nd floor window and told them they were coming out and had women with them. The Auxiliaries assured him the women would be fine but gave no assurances for him.
(Right: The post-fire ruins of the Munster Arcade.)
Once they were in the street, the residents were lined up against the wall with pistols pointed at them. Barry observed a man with his face covered go into the building with two heavy-looking bags. Shortly after that, flames erupted from the building. Barry and his group were then released, but their tribulations continued. Twice they were turned back by groups of armed Auxiliaries, with shots fired over their heads until they finally reached safety on Marlborough Street. Those Crown forces assaulted them for being out past curfew, though they were running for their lives.
Barry and the other occupants ran from the building with little more than the clothes on their backs. They lost everything they owned, along with their homes. And they would not be alone in that predicament by Sunday morning. The fire was now spreading eastward on the south side of Patrick Street, partly by more arson by the Crown forces and in part naturally.
What was now a disorganized mob of Crown forces continued moving up and down the street, setting fires, looting various businesses, assaulting any Irish people they could find, and discharging their pistols indiscriminately. Finally, more fire brigades began to arrive, but the Crown forces’ interference with their efforts ended whatever chance they might have had to control the spreading fires.
(Below: Part of the Cork City Fire Brigade.)
One of the firemen recalled many years later that, “We were useless. They were cutting the hoses and they were firing all around them. There was one man … on top of Cash’s up a ladder. He was ordered down by a Black and Tan with a bomb in his hand. …. He was told that he would either get this or get down, and that meant that fire went on. It was worse than if a fellow was out in Flanders, or any other battlefield.”
Several firefighters were very lucky to escape death while suffering bullet wounds. One was hit in the hand and the ear. Another had a bullet graze his nose. The Superintendent of the Cork Fire Brigade, Alfred Hutson, arrived on the scene sometime after 10:30 pm. Ironically, the man in charge of fighting the arson of these British forces was British himself.
(Below: A much younger Alfred Hutson.)
Born in 1849 in Surrey, England, the 71-year-old Hutson served in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in London until 1891. He was hired to be the superintendent of the fire brigade in Cork that year and would live in Ireland until he died in 1933. One can only imagine his disgust at seeing these men from his native land wreaking such havoc here in his adopted land. There was no question in his mind what was happening. He told Alan Ellis that night “that all the fires were being deliberately started by incendiary bombs, and in several cases, he had seen soldiers pouring cans of petrol into buildings and setting them alight. At some point in the early morning hours, Hutson contacted Victoria Barracks and asked for soldiers to be sent to help his overwhelmed firefighters. He got no reply.
In addition to the arson, Auxiliaries and Black & Tans did extensive looting. Firemen and witnesses reported seeing many leaving the area with suitcases full of loot, coats, hats, rugs, and other items. No doubt those witnesses shook their heads in amazement when the British government later claimed the RIC had protected businesses in the area from looting by mobs of Irishmen.
As terrible as the destruction of much of the commercial center of Cork might be for city residents, the worst was yet to come. Around 4 a.m., a group of uniformed men entered the City Hall and Carnegie Library with gasoline cans. Soon, explosions were heard coming from both, and they burst into flames.
(Below: The burnt-out ruins of the City Hall.)
When word that the two buildings were on fire reached Hutson, he could only dispatch a small group to attempt to fight it. It’s unlikely they could have extinguished such a gasoline-fueled fire, but the Crown forces there denied them access to the fire hydrants, ensuring the destruction of both buildings. Shortly after 6 a.m., the City Hall’s clock tower toppled over into the burning ruins below. Over 4,000 books went up in flames in the library. In this case, the government would claim the fires there had merely “spread” from the Patrick Street fires. This claim was laughable, given they were over a quarter mile away from the nearest fires.
Volunteer Michael O’Donoghue went up on the roof of the Shamrock Hotel on the Grand Parade before sunrise Sunday. “Billows of red flame roared and swelled high into the air about 200 yards northeast of us. … As we watched the devouring flames, awe-struck and fascinated, our backs and bodies generally shivered in the cold frosty air of the roof; but, turning our faces to the red-roaring holocaust, we felt the heat-waves beating against our faces. It was an extraordinary experience,” he later recalled.
When the residents of Cork woke up on Sunday morning, the commercial center of their city was a smoking ruin, along with their City Hall and library. The pictures of it resemble those taken of bombed-out German cities over two decades later.
(Below: The destruction on Patrick Street on Sunday morning.)
Sinn Fein activist Liam de Roiste walked through the city center near sundown on Sunday: “Last night in Cork was such a night of destruction and terror as we have not yet had. An orgy of destruction and ruin: the calm sky frosty red – red as blood with the burning city, and the pale, cold stars looking down on the scene of desolation and frightfulness,” he said.
The Auxiliaries had been busy outside the city as well. The Delaney family had a farm at Dublin Hill on the city’s north side. Jeremiah and Cornelius Delaney were members of F Company, 1st Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade. Around 2 a.m., their father was awakened by pounding on their door. It was a group of Auxiliaries looking for his sons. About eight of them went upstairs to the brother’s bedroom, ordered the brothers out of bed, and immediately shot both of them. Jeremiah died within minutes; Cornelius fought hard for life but died a week later.
In all, 57 business premises and 300 residential properties were destroyed, and another 200 were damaged over five acres of the city. The destroyed businesses left several thousand people out of work.
(Below Hamar Greenwood)
Unsurprisingly, the British administration of Ireland immediately attempted to shift the blame for the fires to the Republicans. Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary of Ireland, told parliament on the 14th: “There is some evidence that they were started by incendiary bombs. There are incendiary bombs in the possession of the Sinn Féiners, and we are seizing them every week.”
Greenwood, speaking just three days after the event, seemed to be simply making things up. He said the work of the fire brigade was helped by police and soldiers, who managed the crowds. Of course, there were no “crowds” needing controlling. Greenwood railed against the allegations that firefighters’ efforts were sabotaged by British forces. “There is no evidence of hoses being cut or of forces of the Crown being responsible for these outrages at all.” But, of course, there would be overwhelming evidence of that once people had a chance to tell their stories.
City officials in Cork called for an impartial investigation of the fires. The British government responded by authorizing one conducted by Major General E. P. Strickland, the Military Governor of the Martial Law. The Irish refused to participate, but even without that, Strickland’s commission had to conclude that Crown forces were responsible. The government, however, didn’t allow the report to become public.
In response to that, Seamus Fitzgerald, Cork IRA Brigade No. 1, penned a pamphlet titled “Who Burnt Cork City” under the auspices of the Irish Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress of Dublin. Though Fitzgerald was obviously not unbiased, he had access to numerous eyewitness statements, and his findings have stood the test of time.
It was immediately evident that the government knew the Auxiliaries were responsible for the arson. The Auxiliaries of K Company were quickly moved out to Dunmanway. But moving them did not solve their problems of callousness, ill discipline, and violent tendencies. They began wearing burnt cork in their caps to celebrate the burning of the city. That was bound to elicit strong resentment from the Irish, but on the 15th they topped that.
That day two lorries full of Auxiliaries left Dunmanway to attend the funeral of Spencer Chapman, their comrade killed at Dillon’s Cross. The second lorry was under the command of Cadet Sergeant Vernon Hart. Hart had enlisted with Chapman and had stayed at his bedside after the ambush until he passed away. He had been selected to accompany Chapman’s body back to England after the ceremony in Cork. Before they left their barracks, Hart told his comrades, “something should have been done for Chapman. I should like to see Ireland swept with fire, and I should like to lead the boys.”
On the way, the two lorries passed a broken-down car. Canon Thomas J. Magner, the parish priest of Dunmanway, and Tadhg Crowley, a 22-year-old farmer from Behigullane were there attempting to help the driver. Hart commanded his lorry to stop shortly after they passed the car. Hart got out of the lorry, drew his pistol, walked quickly back to the car, and shot Crowley. He then made Magner kneel, shot him once, stood over him, and fired another shot, finishing him off.
(Left: Canon Thomas J. Magner)
In January 1921, Hart was found “guilty but insane.” He apparently served no more than one year in a mental hospital before being released as he emigrated to South Africa in 1921. He died there in 1937. For their part in the arson and looting in Cork, K Company was eventually disbanded on March 31, 1921, and its members split up into other Auxiliary units.
The goal of the British in reinforcing the RIC with the Auxiliary Divison was to aid in the defeat of the Republican movement. It’s often been said that defeating a native insurgent force is about “winning the hearts and minds” of the native population, depriving the insurgents of their support. Burning down the commercial center, town hall, and library of one of the major cities in the country was not likely to assist in that goal. Nor would randomly killing religious leaders of the indigenous population.
The burning of Cork was a great disaster for the people of Cork. It was also a great public relations disaster for the British in their fight to retain control of the island. As the news of the tragedy spread around the world, it became harder for England’s friends in places like the United States to defend their repression of the Irish people.
(Right: Co. K of the Auxiliaires arriving in Cork City. A bad day for both Ireland and Great Britain, as it turned out.)
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the number of men and women dedicated to ending British rule increased as word of the outrage spread. Far from causing the Irish people to cower in fear and kowtow to “the authorities,” reprisals boosted the Republican cause. Rather than try to put an end to these outrages, however, the British would shortly give them their official sanction. But each time they lit a fire in an Irish cottage or business, they only made the Irish passion for independence burn brighter.
“With the IRA in the Fight for Freedom: 1919 to the Truce” by Gabriel Doherty
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