Historical Happenings for December 2020

A DECEMBER TO REMEMBER

by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian

The Burning of Cork City in December 11-12, 1920

According to the Supercentenarian Data table of the Irish Central Statistics Office on 29 November 2020, five woman in Ireland have passed their 110th birthday.  They are among the 456 Irish Centenarians and as little girls of 10 years a century ago, they experienced one of Ireland’s most tragic months – December 1920.

It was a time when the Irish people, inspired by the deeds of 1916, were involved in a War of Independence which  was about to enter its third year.  The new Army of the Irish Republic, made up of members of former Volunteers, Citizen Army, Hibernian Rifles and others was led by Michael Collins’ Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  They had been concentrating their efforts on British military targets like Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks and ambushing British patrols.  The Brits found it difficult to defeat them for Collins fought a guerrilla campaign of hit and run tactics supported by the Irish people.  In March, 1920, the British government introduced the Black and Tans to beef up the RIC with little effect.  Then in July, they introduced the Auxiliaries, a counter-insurgency group of former military officers to act as a paramilitary force and launch reprisals against the civilian population to scare them away from their support of the IRB.  

The Black and Tans were reportedly under the control of the RIC, but the Auxies, as they were known, operated  independently and soon gained a reputation for brutality.  After the summer of 1920, the Tans and Auxies began responding to IRA attacks on military targets by carrying out arbitrary reprisals against civilian targets. This usually involved the burning of homes and farms with gunfire and grenades and the looting of businesses, all accompanied by beatings and killings.   Many villages also suffered mass reprisals, like the Sack of Balbriggan on 20 September.  After an ambush of a military convoy in Rineen, County Clare on 22 September, in which six RIC men were killed,  the surrounding villages of Milltown Malbay, Lahinch and Ennistymon were put to the torch and five civilians were killed.   Also burned were the villages of Kilkee (26 September), Trim (27 September), Tubbercurry (30 September) and Granard (31 October).  In early November, they besieged Tralee in reprisal for the IRA killing of two local RIC men, closing all the businesses in the town, letting no food in for a week and shooting dead three local civilians.  On 14 November, they even abducted and murdered a Catholic priest, Father Michael Griffin, in Galway.  From that time on, the level of brutality was far above the norm.  Then came a deadly December and the most barbarous act of revenge ever perpetrated against an innocent civilian population.

On 10 December 1920, the British government and administration in Ireland put the official stamp of approval on the reprisals by proclaiming Martial Law in counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary and imposing a 10pm curfew..  The next day, 20 Auxies were dispatched by Auxie Captain Charles Schulze in two lorries from Cork’s Victoria Barracks to carry out a series of raids.  The lorries were ambushed near Dillon’s Cross by 6 IRA men trying to prevent those raids and 12 Auxies were wounded; one critically.  At 9:30 pm that evening, more lorries of Auxies and British soldiers were sent to Dillon’s Cross where they broke into houses, herded the occupants onto the street and burned their homes to the ground.  Those who tried to intervene were fired on and some were badly beaten.  After seven buildings were set alight, one was found to be owned by Protestants and the Auxies quickly doused the fire.  Then the arsonists turned their anger on Cork City.

At curfew, witnesses reported seeing them arrive on St. Patrick’s Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.  Some were Auxies, some were British Army while others wore no uniforms at all as they smashed shop windows and set buildings alight.  A group of Auxies were seen throwing a bomb into the ground floor of the Munster Arcade, which housed both shops and flats.  It exploded under the residential quarters while people were still inside.  Those who escaped were detained by the Auxies.  The city’s fire brigade came at once.  On finding Grant’s department store ablaze, they tried to save it.  Fire brigade Superintendent, Alfred Hutson, met Cork Examiner reporter, Alan Ellis, and told him “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.”  Firemen later testified that British forces hindered their attempts to tackle the blazes by intimidating them, cutting their hoses and/or driving lorries over the hoses.  The firemen were shot at and at least two were wounded.  Shortly after 3 am, Ellis found a unit of the fire brigade pinned down by gunfire from Brits who had broken into the City Hall building and  the firemen watched as uniformed men carried cans of petrol into the building from nearby Union Quay barracks.

At about 4 am a large explosion was heard and City Hall and the neighboring Carnegie Library went up in flames, resulting in the loss of a treasure in historic documents and public records.  When more firefighters arrived, British forces fired on them and refused them access to water.  The final act of arson took place at about 6am when a group of policemen looted and burned Murphy Brothers’ clothing shop on Washington Street.  After eight hours of uncontrolled destruction, five acres of the city, including more than 40 businesses and 300 homes were destroyed, amounting to near $11 million  in damage by today’s value while many were left homeless and 2,000 were left jobless.

The final act of vengeance associated with that event took place on 15 December as Auxie officer, Vern Hart, killed Catholic Very Rev. Canon Thomas J. Magner, who had been told to toll his bell for deceased British military on Armistice Day a month earlier on 11 November and he refused.  On a quiet road a mile from the Cork side of Bandon, he was walking with parishioner, Tadgh O’Crowley, when Hart shot them both dead.  Hart was arrested and at his Court Martial it was noted that he had been a close friend of the Auxie killed at Dillon’s Cross and had been drinking heavily since 11 December.  A number of ‘expert’  witness testified that Hart was temporarily insane at the time of the murders and the Court Martial ruled that he ‘was guilty of the offenses with which he was charged, but was insane at the time of their commission.’   He was discharged from the Auxies and sent to an asylum for a year.  He was then retired to South Africa and died in Golden Valley Hotel, Cape Provence in 1937 at age 55.  If that wasn’t rubbing enough salt in the wound, the Auxies took to wearing burnt corks in their caps to taunt the Irish. Auxie Captain Schulze, wrote to his girlfriend in England that it was “sweet revenge“, while to his mother he wrote: “Many who had witnessed scenes in France and Flanders say that nothing they had experienced was comparable with the punishment meted out in Cork.

Some debated whether British at Victoria Barracks had planned to burn the city before the ambush at Dillon’s Cross ever took place, or whether the British Army was even involved and whether those who set the fires were under the command of superior officers.  Florry O’Donoghue, intelligence officer of the 1st Cork Brigade IRA at the time, answered that debate when he wrote: “The ambush provided the excuse for an act which was long premeditated and for which all arrangements had been made.  The rapidity with which 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 various premises was divided amongst groups under the control of officers, gives evidence of organization 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.”  Then, the month ended on 30 December 1920 as Martial law was extended to Counties Clare, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford and the horror began anew. 

We can only imagine what those little girls who lived through that time would have experienced or the trauma they may have endured.  On the other hand, we are happy that they lived to see a partially independent Irish Republic when so many others were denied that privilege.