A Christmas Eve ransacking at the Cork Examiner
In 1920, a mob raided the newspaper’s offices after the publication of a controversial pastoral letter
The ‘Burning of Cork’, St Patrick’s Street, Cork, 1920. Photograph: National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons
The offices of the Irish Examiner - then the Cork Examiner - were empty, save for a caretaker left in charge of the building and a handful of employees cleaning up. It was Christmas Eve, and with no paper due in the morning, staff had gone home for the evening.
Just after 8pm, as the doors were being shut for the night, a gang of men armed with revolvers, sledge hammers and explosives arrived at the gates and forced their way into the building in Cork city.
The mob, about 30 in number, cut the telephone wires. Two stood guard over the caretaker, and the rest “went quickly to the printing room and bombed the machine used in connection with the printing of the evening edition of the Examiner - the Echo”, according to an Irish Times report three days later, on December 27th, 1920.
“In a few moments the machine was in flames, the inking cylinders burning fiercely, together with the electric motor,” reads the report.
With the machine destroyed, the raiders - dressed in civilian clothing, but “slightly disguised” with scarves covering their faces - moved quickly, crossing a footbridge to the main machine room. They set upon two of the newspaper’s rotary machines, taking sledge hammers to the mechanism: “In this way vital parts of the machinery were smashed to pieces, and great damage was done.”
After indulging in what the paper described as a “wanton orgy of destruction” for about half an hour, the attackers “left as silently and as rapidly as they had entered”.
“Before taking their departure, however, they laid nearly half a dozen sticks of gelignite in the interior of one machine, but, fortunately, the means of exploding them was defective, and the gelignite was found unexploded: otherwise the damage would have been much greater.”
The damage to the machines was “not irreparable” and the fire was not as serious as intended by the mob, partly owing to the failure of the last dose of gelignite to ignite. The blaze was quickly put out by the fire brigade.
The raiders had not long left when the police arrived from Union Quay barracks; a small shoot-out ensued and one man was “slightly wounded”.
‘Orders of the Irish Republic’
A motive was clear from the outset. An account from the Press Association’s Cork correspondent, printed in the same edition of The Irish Times, said that on entering, one of the mob announced it was acting “under the orders of the Irish Republic”.
The paper’s supposed crime against the Republic had been made just days before, when it published a pastoral letter by the Catholic Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork, who had condemned violence of all sides of the War of Independence and issued a threat of excommunication.
Bishop Cohalan served from 1916 to 1952, and in that time witnessed both the War of Independence and Civil War. Cork in particular saw significant loss of life.
In late 1920 and amid the War of Independence, murders, acts of violence and inevitable reprisal became common. In November 1920 Republican forces carried out an ambush at Kilmichael, which sparked further killings and violence on the part of the Crown.
On the night of December 11th, 1920, following the killing of a British soldier in another ambush at Dillons Cross, Crown forces intentionally burned the centre of Cork city, looting shops and setting fire to large sections of Patrick’s Street. The City Hall and the Carnegie Library on Anglesea Street were completely destroyed. The damage was estimated to have cost about £2 million and led to the loss of some 2,000 jobs in the city.
The next morning, during his Sunday homily at the Cathedral, Bishop Cohalan issued a decree of excommunication on any perpetrators of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, ambush and arson.
Writing in Irish Theological Quarterly in 2002, Padraig Corkery points out that the bishop had previously supported the goal of Irish independence as a “just cause” and “argued that the British mode of government had ‘no sanction in the moral law’ and judged continued British presence to be an act of injustice and oppression against the Irish people.”
In a move that proved unpopular with the public and other Catholic priests, the pastoral letter issued and read a week later at all Masses in the Diocese did not distinguish the perpetrators by political alignment.
The letter, published on December 20th in the Cork Examiner, said the chain of reprisal murders had “become like a devils’ competition in feats of murder and arson between members of the Volunteer Organisation and agents of the Crown.” The bishop sought to instil “patience” among those resisting the British government.
“I would ask you to consider what has the country gained politically by the murder of policeman and by the burning of barracks and of historical or costly buildings?” he asked, adding that “the killing of policemen was morally murder and politically of no consequence, and the burning of barracks was simply the destruction of Irish property.”
Corkery’s paper notes Bishop Cohalan was the only Irish bishop to issue a decree of excommunication on those involved in violence during that period. Violence in the diocese would continue; just days after the bishop’s first pronouncement, a parish priest at Drunmanway, Canon Thomas Magner was shot dead, alongside a farmer’s son, by British forces.
Another newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal, was attacked by arsonists on Christmas morning, hours after the assault on the Examiner. The fire was started by a group of men who were admitted early in the morning by a housekeeper. Little lasting damage was done before the fire brigade extinguished the flames, though The Irish Times reported that “electric wires were, however, fused, and candles were used by the clerks on duty last night.”
Despite the attack, the Cork Examiner published on Tuesday, December 28th, reporting the story of the ransacking on page four of its morning edition.
In total, the report says, three machines were smashed.
“Much consequential damage was done by water, and that the fire did not get any hold is due to the tact and courage with which the few employees on the premises at the time got the hoses ready to play, the promptitude with which the fire brigade under Capt Hutson arrived, and the excellent way in which they did their work.”
This story is part of the Lost Leads series - a revisiting of lesser-known stories that have made the pages of The Irish Times since 1859. What can you find? Let us know on Twitter: @irishtimes or @deanruxton. For more information on subscribing to the archive, see www.irishtimes.com/archive.