With the benefit of hindsight at 100 years remove, and taken in the context of escalating violence and tension throughout that year, it was hardly surprising that a major police retaliation took place in Cork city on the night of December 11th, 1920.
The lord mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, was dead, attacks and reprisals had increased and nighttime curfew had been imposed,
Mac Curtain’s successor Terence MacSwiney’s funeral had taken place after his prolonged hunger strike.
The details of Dr Jeremiah Kelleher's autopsy report on the victims of the Kilmichael Ambush had just been published, martial law had been introduced, and an atmosphere of fear and foreboding was pervasive.
It was only going to take one more incident to ignite the situation and that evening, less than 400 yards from the main gate of Victoria Barracks, it happened.
In the preceding weeks, some patrol activity by the Auxiliaries had become predictable. Two lorries usually left Victoria Barracks at 8pm each night. A decision was taken by the local IRA to exploit this situation and to ambush the patrol as it made its way down the Old Youghal Road.
The location selected provided concealment and cover from fire behind a wall which ran between the houses at Balmoral Terrace and larger buildings further down the road at Dillon’s Cross.
It also offered an excellent escape route which would enable the attackers to literally fire, forget and disappear into the night without much prospect of being caught.
In fact, the first attempt to launch this ambush occurred on the night of December 8th, with 15 IRA members lining up to conduct the attack. They were led by Seán O’Donoghue of Cork No 1 Brigade but the police patrol failed to appear.
However, some days later, information was received which indicated the patrol would again leave the barracks on the night of December 11th and that an intelligence officer known as Capt O’Connor-Kelly would be travelling with them.
At this point, O’Donoghue decided to launch a second operation given that O’Connor-Kelly was what in modern parlance would be considered a high-value target.
At short notice, he gathered together Seán Healy, Michael Baylor, James O'Mahony, and Augustine O'Leary, who took up position behind the wall. Michael Kenny was tasked to stand openly on the side of the road and to behave like a distressed civilian in order to distract the patrol and slow it down.
On schedule, the patrol arrived and Kenny successfully managed to slow it down. He then blew a whistle whereupon the ambushers stood up, threw grenades, and fired their pistols before quickly disappearing into the night.
12 Auxiliary policemen injured
It was over in seconds but left 12 Auxiliary policemen injured with one, Cadet Spencer Chapman, to die later from his wounds. Immediate attempts to track the escaping gunmen failed and shortly after 9pm, a second group of Auxiliary police arrived at the scene and proceeded to enter several houses, forcing the occupants onto the street.
Demanding information, but getting none, a number of buildings were then set on fire.
Word of the ambush soon spread into the city as people were busy trying to get off the streets before curfew, and while the follow-up operation was still going on at Dillon’s Cross, another group of Auxiliaries made their way towards Patrick Street. En route, the last tram to leave the city was intercepted at Summerhill on the pretext of looking for the gunmen.
The passengers were lined up on the road and interrogated, with some physically and verbally abused. The omens were not good.
Shortly thereafter, another group of Auxiliary police assembled at St Patrick’s Bridge and then proceeded down Patrick Street, smashing shop windows and firing indiscriminately.
Some were seen carrying tins of petrol as they forced their way into Grant’s Drapery Store and within minutes the building was on fire. Cash’s Department Store followed suit.
One eyewitness account from Peter Barry, who lived in an apartment over the Munster Arcade, recalled that the police tore a door off the building and then threw a bomb inside, which exploded in the shop beneath him.
Chaos now reigned, with civilians running in all directions to find safety.
Meanwhile, Alfred Hudson, superintendent of Cork Fire Brigade, was on duty at the main fire station at Sullivan's Quay. His equipment consisted of a steam pump, a motor fire tender, and a number of horse-drawn hose reels. He also had access to a number of wheeled escape ladders housed in 'escape stations' throughout the city.
When the fires at Dillon’s Cross were reported, he immediately ordered the duty officer at Grattan Street to deal with it. However, as this group tried to cross the city in a motor-ambulance, they discovered fires now ablaze on Patrick Street and diverted to Sullivan’s Quay to raise the alarm. Hudson was now faced with an impossible situation.
He had neither the manpower nor equipment to deal with this, but, as a first response, he requested the authorities in Victoria Barracks use their own equipment to put out the fires at Dillon’s Cross. Unfortunately, that did not happen, leaving several buildings to burn to the ground.
Hindering attempts to fight the blaze
He then went to Patrick Street where he encountered several members of Auxiliaries actively hindering attempts to fight the blaze. Some reports later suggested that as the firefighters worked their hoses were cut and shots were fired over their heads. In any event, and in spite of their best efforts, the fires in the Munster Arcade and Cash’s soon spread to a number of adjacent buildings.
To make matters worse, several explosions also took place, indicating that the gas supply system underneath the city had also been compromised, and by the early hours of Sunday, December 12th, black smoke and soot filled the air while the streets were awash with dirty water and all sorts of debris.
Later on, and some distance away, another group broke into City Hall and the nearby Carnegie Free Library. Both buildings were set alight and when Hudson received word he could only find a mere seven men to deal with it. Unable to fight the fires, and prevented from gaining access to the fire hydrant, all they could do was watch both buildings go up in flames.
Another incident also took place that night a long way from the centre of the city. At 2 am, a combined military and police search operation took place at the home of Daniel Delaney on Dublin Hill.
His sons Jeremiah and Cornelius, both of whom were members of the IRA, were shot. Jeremiah died instantly and Cornelius was wounded, dying six days later. Both had been accused of taking part in the ambush at Dillon’s Cross – but, as we now know, they had not.
The following morning, the city was covered in a cloud of smoke. Exhausted groups of firemen were still at work hosing down buildings and by the time they had eventually extinguished all of the fires, more than five acres of property valued at £20 million had been destroyed and 1,000 people had also lost their jobs.
In the aftermath, it was abundantly clear who had been responsible but when Sir Hamar Greenwood, the chief secretary for Ireland, was questioned in the House of Commons, he denied the police had anything to do with it. Instead, he blamed the citizens of Cork for starting the blaze.
However, Genl Edward Strickland, general officer commanding (GOC) of 6th Division, knew exactly who had been responsible and he immediately redeployed 'K' Company of the Auxiliaries to Dunmanway in West Cork where, true to form, on December 15th, they shot and killed Canon Thomas Magner and a local man, Tadhg Crowley.
Meanwhile, on December 13th, the British government announced that a military court of inquiry chaired by Gen Strickland would be established to investigate the fires. However, this report was never published.
Another report conducted by the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress was made public and it attributed all blame for the conflagration to elements of the Auxiliaries.
However, that in itself is far too simple an explanation. The reality is that by December 1920, the security situation in Ireland had deteriorated to a point of no return. The arrival of additional police in the form of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans had originally been designed to prevent a full-scale militarisation of the problem – but it didn’t work.
The plan failed
The plan failed primarily because it was not thought out properly in the first place and because those it was designed to deter had no intention of desisting from their campaign of violence.
In all things historical, one can identify cause, effect and impact. It’s no different in this case. The cause can be found in the shock and revulsion amongst the police at what happened at Kilmichael. This never abated and was reinforced dramatically by the attack at Dillon’s Cross.
The effect generated was reversion to a very base instinct which demanded retribution. The impact was a massive reprisal which resulted in destruction of the centre of Cork city on the night of December 11th and 12th, 1920 – which all things considered in context was entirely predictable.
Dr Brendan O’Shea is co-author with Gerry White of The Burning of Cork, Mercier Press, 2006. Both are former Irish army officers