Remembering the Burning of Cork

When we hear of troops raising towns and villages to the ground as a reprisal for an act of resistance, it’s usually in the context of WWII; despicable Nazis and Gestapo taking revenge against innocent communities for the blow that their fascist occupying forces took from a brave resistance movement. In that context, we know that the bad guys are the Nazis and the good guys the Allies. But what about when these despicable acts of revenge, these war crimes, are played out by British troops against innocent Irish civilians? Somehow these things aren’t really taught about in British schools are given the same moral certainty.

Today marks the centenary of the burning of Cork, which saw some 40 business premises, 300 residential properties, and civic buildings such as the City Hall Carnegie Library destroyed by fire. Some of this devastation was started by incendiary bombs and the economic damage cost well over £3 million (€155 million in today’s money), 2,000 citizens made unemployed overnight and many more homeless. The perpetrators were the British occupiers of Ireland in the guise of its army and the notorious Auxiliary unit, the Black & Tans, who subsequently looted and robbed their way through the destruction and violently impeded all attempts by firefighters to tackle the blaze. Make no mistake, in situations such as this, the British were no better than the Nazis they would go on to fight some twenty years later.

The burning of Cork was retaliation for an ambush earlier that day at Dillon’s Cross. A unit of six IRA volunteers led by Seán O’Donoghue had lain in wait at the crossroads situated between Victoria Barracks and the city centre for the 8pm nightly Auxiliary patrol. At around that hour, the unit came into contact with two lorries each carrying 13 Auxiliaries and a gun battle commenced which cost the British Army twelve wounded men; one of which, Spencer Chapman, a former officer in the 4th Battalion London Regiment, died shortly after. Once the IRA had made good their escape, the remaining Auxiliaries carried their wounded to the nearest cover, O’Sullivan’s Pub, breaking its windows and holding the innocent drinkers at gunpoint. The men there were searched, rounded up and forced to lie on the ground. One of their number was dragged out onto Dillon’s Cross, stripped naked, harried and ordered to sing ‘God Save the King’ until his collapse.

Terrorising and degrading the drinkers in O’Sullivan’s was not enough for the occupying British forces however. The order came down from Charles Schulze, an Auxiliary, former British Army Captain in the Dorsetshire Regiment and veteran of WWI, to burn the centre of Cork. At 9.30pm, just ninety minutes after the ambush at Dillon’s Cross, several lorries containing Auxiliaries and British soldiers left Victoria Barracks with vengeance in their hearts. Breaking into seven houses along the route, they herded their occupiers out into the street and forced them to watch at gunpoint as as they burned their homes to the ground. Anyone who tried to intervene was savagely beaten and/or fired upon. When one house was discovered to be owned by Protestants, the fire was swiftly doused by the apologetic British forces.

As the 10pm curfew approached, terrified citizens of Cork began to run for cover as the British began firing indiscriminately at passers by. A tram at Summerhill was intercepted by the Tans who smashed its windows and forced all its passengers to disembark. Gathered out on the street, these passengers – three of whom were women and one of whom was a Catholic priest – were then kicked and struck by rifle butts before being forced to line up against a wall and, under constant physical threat and a barrage of verbal abuse, were relieved of their money and belongings. Another tram was set alight by rampaging British forces, whilst the some 14 to 18 Black & Tans were reported to have spent twenty minutes firing wildly at anyone in sight on MacCurtain Street. On St Patrick’s Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, a mix of uniformed and partially uniformed men, alongside those in civilian clothing, were seen firing into the air, smashing windows and throwing incendiaries into the Munster Arcade, which contained several residential quarters. Escaping the bomb blast, these tenants were quickly detained by their aggressors and subjected to similar torrents of physical and verbal abuse as the tram passengers had experienced.

Shortly before 10pm, the Cork City Fire Brigade were alerted to both the blaze at Dillon’s Cross and a subsequent fire at Grant’s Department Store in the city centre. His resources stretched, the brigade Superintendent, Alfred Hutson, seemingly oblivious to the identity of the perpetrators terrorising his city, placed a call in to the Victoria Barracks. He requested the army’s help in tackling the fire at the crossroads, freeing him up to focus his attentions on the city centre. Unsurprisingly, the barracks took no heed of his request and, as the city became engulfed, Hutson realised that he would have to make some pretty difficult choices regarding what could and could not be saved. Overseeing the operations in the city centre, he was horrified to discover that the wide-scale arson had been started by a mix of incendiary bombs and by soldiers equipped with petrol cans and matches from the nearby Union Quay Barracks. Firefighters attempting to do their duty at City Hall were pinned down by gunfire by the Tans and two of Hutson’s men were wounded as a result. Acts of wanton vandalism such as the slashing of hoses and fearsome intimidation would also scupper the brigade’s chances of tackling the infernos that raged across the city well into the early hours.

At around 2am, at least eight armed Tans dressed in civilian trenchcoats encircled a Dublin Hill farmhouse belonging to the Delaney family on the northern outskirts of the city not far from Dillon’s Cross. The farm was home to Daniel Delaney, his two sons Cornelius and Jeremiah – each of whom were members of F Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Cork Brigade IRA – and an elderly relative, William Dunlea. Earlier on in the evening of December 11th, the farmhouse had been visited by the brothers’ commander Seán O’Donoghue and a volunteer, James O’Mahony, each fresh from their successful operation against the British Auxiliaries. Stashing grenades at the farmhouse, the two men then went their separate ways.  It is thought that, while searching the site of the ambush, Auxiliaries had found a cap belonging to one of the volunteers and, using bloodhounds, had been led to the Delaney home. Breaking in, they made their way to the brothers’ bedroom and instructed Cornelius and Jeremiah to stand up. According to their father, the intruders asked, in English accents, each sibling their names and, upon hearing them, they opened fire. Jeremiah was killed outright, whilst Cornelius succumbed to his wounds on December 18th. Dunlea, the elderly relation, was also wounded in the attack.

By 4am, the Black & Tans delivered their coup de grâce, detonating high explosive in City Hall and Carnegie Library. With the Auxiliaries and soldiers refusing them access to water and training their guns upon them, firefighters could do nothing but stand and watch as the civic buildings – complete with the city’s public records – were raised to the ground. Two hours later, at 6am on the morning of December 12th, a group of policemen looted and burnt Washington Street’s Murphy Brothers’ clothes shop. It was to be the last act of arson in a night of terror that had lasted for almost nine hours and had affected over five acres of Cork city. Florence O’Donoghue, intelligence officer with 1st Cork Brigade IRA, witnessed the ruins of the city on the morning of Decemeber 12th and said; “Many familiar landmarks were gone forever – where whole buildings had collapsed here and there a solitary wall leaned at some crazy angle from its foundation. The streets ran with sooty water, the footpaths were strewn with broken glass and debris, ruins smoked and smouldered and over everything was the all-pervasive smell of burning.” The overstretched fire brigade, now left in peace by the British troops, continued to pour water on the smouldering wreckage in order to prevent re-ignition as reinforcements from Dublin and Limerick brigades came to Cork’s aid. It wasn’t just buildings that suffered of course; fatalities across 11th-12th December included an Auxiliary killed by the IRA, two IRA volunteers killed by Auxiliaries, and a woman who died from a heart attack when Auxiliaries burst into her house.

At midday mass on December 12th, the Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, took the opportunity to condemn not only the arson but also what he called “the murderous ambush at Dillon’s Cross”. Cohalan further nailed his colours to the mast by threatening excommunication for anyone involved in IRA activity. It was a warning that was to be largely ignored by the Bishop’s priests and chaplains who were, in the main, pro-republican and ultimately, no excommunications were issued. Members of Cork Council were more vociferous in their reaction to Cohalan’s edict; at a meeting later that same afternoon, councillor JJ Walsh and future Postmaster General of the Irish Free State, condemned the Bishop’s assessment of the Irish people as the ‘evil-doers’ in this incident and cited his inactivity and ambivalence towards the very real suffering his congregation routinely faced at the hands of the British. Walsh’s words were met with agreement and, believing that Cohalan’s sermon offered insult to the injury of the burning of Cork, the council proposed that a telegram be sent to sympathetic European states and the USA to highlight the injustice they had endured at the hands of the British.

On December 15th, three days after the cruel and sadistic retaliation waged upon the people and city of Cork, the British forces were to lay Spencer Chapman, the officer who died of his injuries from the Dillon’s Cross ambush, to rest. Two lorry-loads of Auxiliaries were travelling from Dunmanway to Cork for the funeral, whereupon the convoy came across a broken down vehicle in the road. Father Thomas Magner, an elderly priest, and a young man named Tadhg O’Crowley were in the proocess of repairing the car when the Auxiliary commander, Vernon Anwyl Hart, alighted from the convoy with the aim of questioning them. Matters swiftly got out of hand. Hart began to assault O’Crowley before raising his pistol and shooting him dead. He then turned towards the priest, forced him to his knees and murdered him also. A military court of inquiry later heard that Hart had been a close friend of Chapman’s and had turned to alcohol since his death. Although Hart was found guilty of murder, he escaped capital punishment with a diagnosis of insanity. In a subsequent investigation, one of the reasons given for Hart’s murder of Father Magner was that the priest had refused to killing the priest was that he refused to toll the have the parish church bells after the Kilmichael ambush of which had occurred a month prior to Dillon’s Cross and had resulted in the death of 17 Auxiliaries.

As is always par for the course following British war crimes, the government refused to accept they had any involvement and pointed the finger at the IRA itself as the perpetrators of the mass arson. Sir Hamer Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, was unmoved by calls for a public, independent inquiry when raised in the House of Commons and, ignoring eye witness accounts, claimed that the houses set alight on Dillon’s Cross were the result of firebombs being thrown at the police. The reports of the firefighters attacked and held up by the British were similarly ignored in his verdict which recorded that “Every available policeman and soldier in Cork was turned out at once and without their assistance the fire brigade could not have gone through the crowds and did the work that they tried to do” The Conservative leader Bonar Law recommended a military inquiry to be carried out by General Peter Strickland, though Cork Corporation instructed its employees to take no part in it. The findings of the inquiry lay the blame with members of the Auxiliaries’ K Company, stationed at Victoria Barracks. The Strickland Report claimed that it was the Auxiliaries who burnt the city centre in reprisal for the IRA attack at Dillon’s Cross. The British government promptly responded to the findings with the decision not to publish them. For his part in giving the order, K Company Auxiliary Charles Schulze’s motivations lay clear in a latter to his girlfriend in England which said that Cork was “sweet revenge” for the Dillon’s Cross ambush. Writing to his mother, the WWI veteran recorded that “Many who had witnessed scenes in France and Flanders say that nothing they had experienced was comparable with the punishment meted out in Cork” Just let that sink in for a moment. Here is a testimony from the chief perpetrator which gloatingly attests that the havoc, carnage and terror his men carried out that night was far greater than anything seen on the battlefields of Flanders. In Flanders of course, Schulze and the rest of the British Army were fighting the Germans in a ‘just’ war. In Cork that night, they were fighting their Irish cousins – and literally too, as many a soldier could lay claim to Irish ancestry and familial links. In the wake of the burning of Cork,K Company itself was subsequently moved from its base at Victoria Barracks in the city to Dunmanway where, in an act of sickening unrepentant crowing, they took to the habit of wearing burnt corks in their caps to signify their part in the destruction of the city. Their contempt for the citizens of Cork was thankfully shortlived. In January 1921, The Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress published, with the help of University College Cork’s President Alfred O’Rahilly, a pamphlet entitled Who burned Cork City? a damning work which drew on evidence from hundreds of eyewitness which claimed that the British were the culprits. As a result of their crimes K Company was disbanded on March 31st, 1921.

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