Whoever first said that revenge is best served cold did not live in Ireland in 1920. In Cork city, revenge was a burning hot firestorm and it left many homes, businesses, and lives in its disastrous wake.
At one time Cork was a predominantly loyal Irish city. The Union Jack flew in the town on all city buildings and hundreds of men joined the British armed forces or the Royal Irish Constabulary with no hesitation or fear. However, after numerous revolts that came to a head with the Easter Rising of 1916, attitudes everywhere in Ireland began to change, and that was incredibly apparent in Cork. The English didn’t help matters by floating the idea of conscription and introducing special forces and terror squads like the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans into Ireland to help the RIC maintain control over the natives during the war of Independence.
By 1920 Cork was in full revolt and the war was in full swing. The Irish Republican Army volunteers attacked policemen and soldiers alike, and raided their armories for weapons. The Auxies and the Black and Tans terrorized the countryside, shooting at farmers for no reason and torturing their captives. They arrested everyone they felt like arresting, and it didn’t matter who they were. Cork city lost two Lord Mayors within six months. One was murdered by assassins (later found to be members of the RIC) and the other died in prison on hunger strike. The Republican response to these deaths was strong. Cork’s ‘Flying column’, a mobile IRA unit led by Tom Barry, was dedicated, dexterous, and deadly and they met every attack by the English forces with one of their own. Things got so bad in Cork and other parts of Ireland that a curfew was imposed and in various cities, no one was allowed outside after 10PM. Breaking the curfew was punishable by death.
The Auxiliary forces in Cork were already famous for being out of control. There was no one to rein them in and they escalated the war of attrition that was going on between them and the IRA at every turn. Tom Barry had finally had enough and he planned to ambush the Auxies near the village of Kilmichael. His flying column killed 17 men in that ambush on November 28th, 1920. Cork city braced itself for reprisals after the ambush because no one doubted that they would come.
Martial Law was declared on Dec. 10th and the entire city fell under military rule. Interviews with the town’s population that have been released since clearly state that there was a sense of foreboding in the days leading up to the soldiers’ revenge. Everyone was uneasy and the harassment of (and attacks on) innocent civilians increased quickly. Shots were fired even more frequently than usual and the city was on edge. On the night of December 11th, 1920, the IRA threw a bomb into a lorry that was carrying the Auxiliary troops. They were probably hoping to kill Captain Kelly, the lead intelligence officer for the British, who was traveling in the convoy. This attack failed to kill the spymaster but it was the last straw for the Auxies. They immediately set fire to the houses in the area, not caring whether or not any of the residents were involved in the attack. They watched them burn, making sure that the fire spread and they shot at anyone who tried to stifle the flames.
Meanwhile, in the heart of the city center, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries ransacked and destroyed businesses before setting them on fire as well. They looted the pubs and the liquor merchants first, making sure that the drinks would flow all night among the soldiers. They rounded up anyone who was still hurrying home before the curfew began and they attacked them. One priest was kicked repeatedly because he wouldn’t say “to hell with the Pope,” and the soldiers fired at him as he ran away. Others were thrown to the ground and beaten, while the buildings burned around them. Cork’s fire brigade tried to stop the fires from spreading, but they could only do so much because the hydrants were being guarded and blocked by the Auxiliaries and many of the Brigade’s hoses had been mysteriously cut. Three firefighters were shot as they tried to do their job and eventually the smoke was so thick that no one could do anything at all. The burning blitz continued through the night, getting drunker, louder, and more destructive as the hours went on. A squad of Black and Tans used the melee to carry out a few assassinations of their own. They entered the Delany home and shot two Republican volunteers (the Delany brothers) in their bedrooms. Cork was utterly lawless and essentially destroyed by the very men who were supposed to enforce the law and keep the city safe.
In the wee hours of the morning, English forces set fire to City Hall. It was a clear message to the citizens of Cork. Firemen who were stationed near the building heard the breaking glass and the start of the blaze. They tried to stop the attack but the firefighters had to dodge the grenades being thrown at them and the shots that were fired in their direction at the same time. Eventually they retreated and City Hall and the library nearby went up in flames.
The next day, the hopeless chief of the fire brigade in Cork asked for reinforcements. The Dublin Fire Brigade sent help, but the city had been burned and sacked. They could only help with flareups and try to keep any fires that were still burning from spreading any further. The estimated damage was put at £3 million and in 1920, that was a lot more money than it is today. Five acres of the city center were completely wiped out. More than forty businesses were burned to the ground, and countless more were looted and destroyed. There were at least 300 homes that were torched and many more were irreparably damaged. Miraculously only four people were killed, but the number of injuries and assaults was immeasurable.
In the aftermath of the rampage, citizens and lawmakers alike demanded an independent inquiry into the destruction of Cork. Initially spokesmen for the English government said that the people of Cork set fire to their own homes and shops. Sir Hamar Greenwood tried to claim that the flames at City Hall had spread from Patrick Street, where all the shops had been torched. He clearly didn’t know that there was a river and over half a mile between the two locations. It was a foolish attempt to shift blame away from the government forces and it didn’t work at all, but the impartial, civilian inquiry never came to fruition either.
Eventually worldwide pressure forced an investigation and the English government opened a military inquiry under General Strickland into the event. The inquiry was closed less than four days later with hardly any investigation whatsoever, and its findings were suppressed. However, three independent inquiries carried out by the British Labour Commission, the American Commission on the State of Ireland, and the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress found that without a doubt, the destruction of Cork was carried out by the police and English military forces. Charles Shulze, a former captain in the British Army who was later found to be the organizer of the burning, described Cork’s destruction to his girlfriend as a “sweet revenge.” He and many of the other Auxies and Black and Tans who had been stationed in Cork were removed from the area. Many were placed in Dunmanway where they marched through the streets with burnt corks proudly displayed in their glengarry caps, as if they were badges of honor.
Approximately twenty-three other towns and villages burned within about a month, though none were as decimated as Cork. The War of Independence raged on.