Night of terror and chaos as Cork City burns

THE BURNING OF CORK 1920

It was a night like no other. In a terror-filled 24 hours, Cork city centre was reduced to rubble. Over 100 businesses were either destroyed, badly damaged or looted. To mark the 100th anniversary of the Burning of Cork, we look back at one of the darkest days in the city's history.

PLAY AS YOU READ
Marking the centenary of The Burning of Cork, a movement from a new and powerful orchestral suite by Corkonian Paul Frost vividly commemorating the events of the night of Dec 11, 1920. Recently recorded by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and featuring emotive solos by violinist Mia Cooper and pianist Gary Beecher.

Introduction by 

Gerry White

Tensions were high in Cork city on Saturday, 11 December 1920. The Irish War of Independence was in its second year and during the past eight months, one lord mayor had been shot dead in his home and another had died on hunger strike. 

The IRA had also intensified its attacks on British security forces, destroyed the city’s income tax offices and burned a number of RIC barracks. In response, the British authorities had introduced military courts, imposed a night-time curfew, deployed members of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to the city and proclaimed Martial Law. 

Around 7.20pm that Saturday, a mobile patrol of 22 Auxiliaries from K Company travelling in two Crossley tenders left their quarters in Victoria Barracks. However, as the lorries approached Dillon’s Cross, some 200 meters from the barracks, they were ambushed. Twelve Auxiliaries were wounded in this incident. One later died of his wounds but the ambush party escaped unharmed. 

The Auxiliaries were outraged by what happened and decided to retaliate.  Around 9 pm, a group left the barracks for Dillon’s Cross where they ordered the occupants of a number of houses onto the street at gunpoint before setting their homes on fire. Among the buildings destroyed was the former home of Brian Dillon, the famous Cork Fenian after whom the cross-road was named.

By now, word of the ambush had spread to the city centre and people were rushing home before the 10pm curfew. At the same time, a crowd of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were descending on the city centre seeking retribution. 

By the time the rampage was over, the city centre was in ruins, dozens of buildings were destroyed and 2,000 people were out of work.

However, as a counter-insurgency operation it was a complete failure; it had no impact on IRA operations, it further alienated the people of Cork, increased support for the republican movement and attracted more criticism of British policy in Ireland.  

In the weeks and months that followed, the people of Cork would start to rebuild their city. In the meantime, the war would continue.

 
EYEWITNESS
9.50pm Dec 11, 1920
WITNESS:
P Fireman, USS West Canon
FIRES ON COOK STREET
icon We went into the billiard room and I was there until 10.20pm when I retired to bed, and was notified at that time by the porter that Grant's was on fire. I went up to the top floor and looked out of the window at the fire. I then went to bed, my room (No. 9) overlooking Cook Street, and remained there about half-an-hour; and by that time the fire at the block between Robert Street and Cook Street was well alight. I stayed in bed until a very violent explosion took place which shook the building. 

The original report from the Cork Examiner, December 13, 1920

Cork has never experienced such a night of horror as that of Saturday. The residents in every part of the city were terrified by the rifle and revolver firing, bomb explosions, extensive outbreaks of fire, the breaking and smashing of windows and business premises, and crashing of walls of buildings. 

These alarming incidents were to progress until the break of dawn, and it was then found that portions of the city were masses of smouldering ruins.

Valuable business premises had been razed to the ground, while many other establishments were brought to a state of ruination. It was an indescribable experience for residents throughout the city, and it is indeed miraculous that the results of the devastating fire that raged in the principal thoroughfare were not more acute and destructive.

In view of recent occurrences, the principal streets were not paraded by such large numbers as is customary on Saturday nights, but many people were out of doors when they were startled by the discharge of revolver and rifle shots.

This firing, which was intermittent, continued until close to ten o’clock, when curfew began.

As soon as the firing commenced the thoroughfare quickly cleared, pedestrians having proceeded with all haste to their homes, and with the exception of the armed parties, the flat of the city presented a deserted appearance in a very brief period of time. Between half-past nine and ten o’clock volleys of musketry reverberated through the city and created considerable alarm, and when several explosions followed a feeling of intense anxiety was created.

The people sought their homes, extinguished all lights, and then passed through many hours of terrible suffering and fear.

It was hoped that when curfew hour was reached there would be a cessation of the firing and explosions, but such hopes were not realised; in fact, as the night advanced the situation became more terrifying, and the people, especially women and children, were rendered helpless amid fire and shot.

It was an awful experience, and will forever be remembered by all who passed through it. Ten o’clock had only arrived when a serious conflagration broke out in the fine business premises of Messrs A Grant and Co on Patrick Street.

 
 
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An advertisement that appeared in the Cork Examiner after the Burning of Cork.

 
 

The flames raged with great intensity, and within an hour the building was reduced to ruins. Every effort was made by the fire brigade to deal with the outbreak, and it was indeed creditable that the firemen, notwithstanding the many trying ordeals through which they were forced to pass, succeeded in confining the flames to Messrs Grant’s premises.

The fire has only been a short time in progress when rifle and revolver firing was renewed along Patrick Street and other thoroughfares in the flat of the city, and the firemen had to conduct their operations under such extraordinary conditions.

It was evident that the affected premises could not be saved from the destruction, and the Fire Brigade devoted their energies towards preventing the spread of the flames to the adjoining premises. In these efforts they were successful, though the buildings on each side of Messrs Grant’s establishment, and particularly that of Messrs S Haynes and Sons, was considerably damaged.

 
 

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Crowds of onlookers throng Patrick Street on the day following the burning of Cork city centre by crown forces.

 
EYEWITNESS
10pm Dec 11, 1920
WITNESS:
Resident of Grand Parade
ATTACK ON JENNING'S SHOP
icon I saw a group of men in civilian dress tearing down the shutters from Mr. Jennings's Shop opposite me. They smashed the windows with the shutters, and threw two bombs into the shop, and these exploded with a loud noise.

Premises situated in Market Lane, and running within close proximity of Messrs Grant’s premises were also damaged to a considerable extent. The splendid building of Messrs Grant’s with its very valuable stock, was reduced to ruins. Throughout yesterday, the debris was still smouldering.

During the outbreak the smashing of glass and breaking of shutters on premises in different parts of the city, particularly in Patrick Street, Oliver Plunkett Street, Grand Parade, and South Mall resounded through the air, and intensified the consternation of residents in the flat of the city.

It is, however, right to mention that the curfew troops rendered every possible assistance in connection with the fire at Messrs Grant’s premises, and also in the direction of checking the smashing and looting of shops that was being conducted throughout the city.

Their efforts, however, were not successful, as this appalling state of affairs continued until the early hours of Sunday morning. The state of terror prevailing in every part of Cork can therefore be realised.

The sensation coming from the huge flare illuminating the sky as the result of the configuration at Messrs Grant’s establishment had scarcely died down when there was another alarming outbreak of fire, and at this time it was presumed that the Munster Arcade and other places towards Patrick’s Bridge had been fired.

Firemen promptly proceeded towards this portion of the principal city thoroughfare.With remarkable suddenness the extensive and valuable premises of Messrs Cash and Co and the Munster Arcade burst into flames.

These were two terrific outbreaks and as the flames shot towards the sky they could be seen for many miles beyond the city – in fact, the entire city and county was illuminated.

Owing to the inflammatory nature of the materials in these premises, or as the result of petrol having been sprinkled within the buildings, the conflagrations became most fierce and the blocks of buildings running between Patrick Street and Oliver Plunkett Street on one side and Cook Street and Merchant Street on the other side became involved.

 
 
 
 

It was impossible to subdue such outbreaks, military and brigade joined in working at the flames in the hope of confining them to a limited area, and though they were successful in this respect, havoc was caused to numerous fine and valuable buildings within the area mentioned.

The premises from Messrs Cash and Co to the New York House were completely destroyed, as were also the establishments between Winthrop Street and Cook Street and running into Oliver Plunkett Street and Merchant Street and Maylor Street.

It was only when dawn arrived that an idea of the terrible devastation could be obtained.

 
 
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Firemen dealing with the aftermath of the burning of Cork.

The premises of Messrs Cash and Co were reduced to ruins, only one wall being left standing, while the other establishments reaching to and including New York House, at the corner of Merchant Street, were completely gutted.

The Munster Arcade, as well as the other premises on each side between Winthrop Street and Cook Street, were razed to the ground and all the shops on the eastern side of Cook Street were similarly affected, as were other establishments within this area in Oliver Plunkett Street.

 
 
 
 
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Aerial view of the devastation around Cork city in the aftermath of the burning.

 
EYEWITNESS
10.10pm Dec 11, 1920
WITNESS:
Ex officer staying at hotel on MacCurtain Street
LOOTING ON PATRICK'S STREET
icon At 10.10 pm, I was having supper when the waitress rushed into the dining room and said all Patrick Street was on fire. I finished supper and went upstairs to a window at the top of the hotel and saw a great fire burning in the direction of Patrick Street.  At 10.20 pm,  approximately 13 or 14 men came from Summerhill direction and went down King Street. Two of the number were dressed in Auxiliary RIC uniforms, one man in a grey lounge suit and wearing no cap or hat; the remainder wore the regular uniform of a RIC constable. All except the man in civilian clothes were armed with rifles or revolvers, four or five of the number carried oil tins.Some time after they had passed a large explosion occurred and the fires in Patrick Street seemed to extend more. As time went on a series of small explosions could be heard, followed by rifle or revolver shots and an occasional burst of machine gun fire.

As a matter of fact, with few exceptions, the establishments from Cook Street to Merchant Street were reduced to ruins.When dawn came an appalling spectacle presented itself. 

Residents of Cork were then able to see the picture of Saturday night’s work of devastation.

A portion of the city, embracing valuable business premises had been devastated, and nothing but smouldering ruins could be seen.

It was an appalling and terrifying spectacle.

Fine buildings, with highly valuable stock, had been wiped out, and thousands of people had been rendered idle.

The total loss must reach a few million.It was approaching six o’clock when it was found the work of destruction continued.

At that time the City Hall and Carnegie Library became ablaze. Both of these buildings were gutted, only the walls being left standing.

The upper portion of the City Hall, including the clock tower, fell in.

Notwithstanding the fact that these fires, each of which assumed most extensive proportions, took place in different areas, the firemen worked in a most energetic fashion, and it was solely due to their efforts that the entire of the flat of the city was not demolished.

In their work they received all assistance from the military.

However, the fires raged with such fierceness and intensity that it was only to be expected that the devastation should have been enormous.

The curfew troops remained on duty around the smouldering buildings until a late hour on Sunday.

Along Oliver Plunkett Street, Grand Parade, South Mall, Patrick Street, Bridge Street, MacCurtain Street, and other thoroughfares many premises were forcibly entered and valuable stock was removed.

In this respect, very large losses were sustained by the proprietors, as the establishments were fully stocked with Christmas goods.

 
 

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Funeral passing through Patrick Street shortly after the burning of Cork.

 
 

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Workmen clearing up the debris after the burning of Cork city centre by British Auxiliaries.

 
 

Throughout Sunday large crowds inspected the affected area and were appalled at the terrible destruction that had been caused.

It was indeed most horrifying to look at the ruins of such fine buildings.

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The ruins of the Munster Arcade following Burning of Cork

 
EYEWITNESS
1.40am Dec 12, 1920
WITNESS:
Firemen V, W, X, Y, Z
BURNING OF CITY HALL
icon About 2.45am, three of us went out to Albert Quay and saw two men carrying petrol tins coming from the direction of Union Quay. These men went into the City Hall. We again retired to the station. Shortly after that we perceived that Mrs. Cassidy's room was on fire. About 4.30 am, we heard a man shout, "stand clear," and an explosion occurred in the City Hall - this was followed by ten or twelve intermittent explosions during the next half-hour.

Patrick Street, the principal thoroughfare of the city, has been subjected to terrific havoc, and the numerous ruined establishments bear testimony to the fierceness with which the fires must have raged.

One can form a good idea of the intensity of the flames when it is stated that the woodwork on the premises on the opposite side of the street was considerably damaged.

When the conflagrations were first discovered the frightened inhabitants in the danger zone made their escapes as best as possible and proceeded to other parts of the city and suburbs, where they were accommodated.

It was indeed miraculous that numerous lives were not lost.

It is generally believed that some persons must have perished in the flames, but no definite information can be provided as regards loss of life until a few days.

Many of the premises destroyed were still on fire on Sunday, and firemen were kept busily engaged in pouring water from hoses on the flames.

Their operations were watched by large crowds, but the entire scene was one of absolute desolation.

 
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Cork City Hall in the aftermath of the burning of the centre of Cork by forces of the crown.

 

During Sunday, from early morning until late at night, many touching and affecting scenes were witnessed.

Residents in flats in the vicinity of the destroyed buildings were to be seen removing their household goods in all kinds of vehicles for transfer to some other part of the city or suburbs, where they intended to make their abode during the present appalling times.

Business premises that had escaped destruction were also attended to by many willing helpers, and their stocks were removed to other districts.

The plight of the residents in a humble walk of life who resided in apartments within the scene of desolation was indeed pitiable.

Everything possible was done by all classes to provide for their comfort.

The shock created by such awful happenings was tremendous, and must have most serious effects on many residents in the city, particularly women and elderly people.

 
 
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William Egan & Sons Ltd. 

 
 

Throughout Sunday, many willing helpers rendered assistance to the firemen in their arduous duties, while members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were engaged in preventing anxious people from gaining too close access to the destroyed buildings.

Some soldiers were stationed outside the premises of Messrs Grant and Co during the afternoon, and were most helpful. During Sunday afternoon armed soldiers were posted along Patrick Street.

Pedestrians were warned “to keep their hands out of their pockets,” and they were also notified not to congregate in the streets.

The presence of the military was welcomed, and their warnings were generally observed. The soldiers were withdrawn after a few hours.

It is estimated that the total losses sustained as a result of the destruction of the different buildings must reach between two and three million pounds.

* First published in Cork Examiner, December 13, 1920

 

List of Buildings Destroyed

J O’Sullivan & Co Tobacconists

J Woulfe, Ladies Outfitter

Roches Stores

Lee Boot Manufacturing Co.

Scully O’Connell & Co. Children’s Outfitters

Cash and Co. Ltd, Drapers and General Warehouse

T. Thompson & Co. Hosiery & Fancy Warehouse

R. Cudmore, Fruitier

Burton & Co. Men’s Outfitters

Saxone & Sorosis, Shoe Co.

R&J McKechnie, Dyers

O’Regan & Co. Hosiers

Brooks Hughes, Photography

Munster Arcade, Drapers and General Warehouse

R. Summer, Chemist

W. Egan & Sons

Forrest and Co. Silk Merchants

Hayes and Sons, Watchmakers

A. Grant & Co, Drapers

James Hackett, Jeweller

Mis Frewen, Vintner

Miss O’Shea, Dress & Mantle Warerooms

Robert Walsh, Vintner

Cash & Co. Upholstery Warehouse

J. Ryan Ltd. Paper Merchants

D. O Sullivan, Brush Maker

J.W. Green & Co. Corn Merchants

Lee Cinema. Picture House

Tomkins & Sons, Ltd. Wine & Spirit Merchants

Tyler & Sons, Boot Shop

M. Murphy, Fruitier

Munster Arcade, Laundry

Shandon Printing Works

D. Mulcahy, Iron Works

Hagan, Maurice, Barber

Patrick Noonan, Vintner

E. Woods, Wine & Spirit Merchants

J.W. Green & Co. Corn Merchants

Cashman & Co. Grocers

P. O’Connell, Restaurant

Michael Martin, Fruitier

Miss O’Shea, Tobacconist

Miss Herlihy, News Agent

Munster Arcade, Cabinet Factory

M. Doyle, Vintner

K. Ahern

C. Bateman, Boot Factory

H.J. O’ Callaghan, Vintner

Patrick Forde, Vintner

E. McGrath, Farrier

Messrs Marah’s Garage

John Daly & Co. Wine and Spirit Merchants

W. Mackessy, Vintner

J. O’Sullivan, Dining Rooms

T. Kinneally, Vintner

City Hall

Carnegie Library

 

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