New ballad recalls heroism of English fire chief during Burning of Cork

Alfred Hutson sought to battle blaze as drunken Auxiliaries shot at fire crews 100 years ago

The story of the Englishman who led the effort to save Cork from being burned to the ground by Crown forces 100 years ago today has been recalled in a new ballad by an English folk singer who has made Leeside his home.

Cliff Wedgbury was a familiar figure in the folk clubs around London in the 1960s where he performed with the late, great Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, among many other singers.

In 1971 he moved to Cork and is now helping his adopted city to remember one of its worst days.

Mr Wedgbury has written a song entitled The Ballad of Alfred Hutson, which tells the story of his fellow countryman who, as fire chief in Cork, led his men as they battled to prevent a fire started by Auxiliaries in retaliation for an IRA ambush from destroying the city centre.

"Singer-songwriter, John Murphy rang me one day and said he was making a CD about Cork and asked me would I write a song about Alfred Hutson who was an Englishman and the fire chief in Cork in December 1920 when a group of drunken Auxiliaries went on the rampage," said Mr Wedgbury.

“I’ve always know about the Burning of Cork since I moved here, but I just googled Alfred Hutson, and all the information came up – he was 71 at the time, but he was very courageous, leading his men into a burning city teeming with drunken Auxiliaries angry over an IRA ambush at Dillons Cross.

“Reading about Hutson, I ended up with huge respect and admiration for him and his firemen – they were all very brave that night because they were being shot at and intimidated, but they had a job to do, and they just went and did it with little heed for their own personal safety in order to save Cork.”

In his essay in History Ireland, Pat Poland, historian of the Cork Fire Service, described how Mr Hutson remained methodical and fearless as he led his men into a city centre teeming with drunken Auxiliaries.

In The Single Greatest Act of Vandalism of The Irish War of Independence, Mr Poland describes how by 11pm more than 20 buildings on the south side of Patrick Street were on fire, spreading down side streets to Oliver Plunkett St while Cork City Hall and the nearby Carnegie Free Library on the other side of the South Channel of the River Lee were also ablaze.

According to Mr Poland, as Mr Hutson and his men set out to fight the biggest fire in Cork in 300 years, “they galloped into a city centre teeming with volatile, drunken veterans of the Western Front, armed to the teeth with revolvers, rifles, bayonets, bombs and jerrycans brimming with petrol”.

Cliff captures that sense of terror in his song as he quotes Hutson urging his men to stay true to their task despite the Auxiliaries firing bullets and throwing bombs at them as they sought to contain the conflagration, which ultimately destroyed five acres of property at a cost of £20 million.

“With the crack of blazing timber, the burst of bullets sound/To quench the flame is the fireman’s game, with destruction all around/This night consumed with hatred, the firemen bring their care/As bullets fly, the hosepipes try, quenching ruin everywhere,” sings Mr Wedgbury.

'The Ballad of Alfred Hutson' is one of 12 original songs composed by Cliff and fellow songwriters, John Murphy and Tim O'Riordan which feature on a new CD, Cork 1920: A City in Flames produced by John O'Leary from Cork City Libraries which commemorates the War of Independence in Cork.

Meanwhile Cork composer, Paul Frost has also marked the centenary with an orchestral suite, The Burning of Cork, also intended as a tribute to the firefighters and the Delany brothers who were also shot that night. It will be broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM at 7pm on Friday, December 11th.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times