Cork Burns

By 1920 Cork had become the epicentre of the War of Independence. That year the city had lost two mayors to murder and hunger strike in a short succession of time. Cork was still reeling for their deaths, as well as other atrocities in the form of reprisals by the Crown forces since the war began in January 1919.

On the night of December 11 1920 The IRA carried out an ambush on a party of British Auxiliaries at Dillon’s Cross. At least one member of the forces was killed and many more wounded. Reprisal was immediate, two IRA members were killed and the British military and police forces went on a government sanctioned rampage which resulted in the burning of Cork.

Members of the Black and Tans who were noted for their brutality, joined by the RIC went torched the city’s commercial district. Many were drunk, swigging from whiskey bottles while more tore down awnings, which were put up each night by shop owners to protect their property due to the escalating violence that the city had become subject to. Pouring cans of petrol in the buildings they set the shops well stocked with Christmas merchandise alight causing millions worth of damage.

The fire brigade were called out but their job hampered, their hoses cut and were even shot at by crazed auxiliaries, who were given leave to do as they wished. The firemen were even denied water to quench the flames. Looters were free if they dared to help themselves to what they were able to grab from the burning buildings or salvage from the char.

"It will be represented no doubt, that this was part of the campaign of unauthorized reprisals by servants of the Crown. What seems to us more more probable is that this was the reply of the rebel element to the proclamation re Martial Law." 

Five acres of the commercial centre of Cork was razed to the ground, causing millions of pounds worth of damage and thousand’s lost their livelihood as a result. The City Hall and Carnegie Library were completely destroyed, and the epicentre of the fire was likened to O’Connell Street in Dublin after the Easter Rising.

In the initial inquiry the British government denied that the Crown forced were responsible for the fire, instead blaming the IRA, but later conceded that it was in fact the Auxiliaries.

It did not take long for ditties to be composed such as Greenwood’s Logic below, which appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on December 14th 1920:

Freeman’s Journal 14 December 1920

Read More:


Irish Times 13 December 1920

Dublin Evening Mail 13 December 1920

Western Mail 14 December 1920

Freeman’s Journal 14 December 1920

Bloody Sunday 1920

The above headline was one of the many gracing the newspaper columns on November 20th 1920. It drummed up a fever for the All-Ireland Final that was due to take place the following day. The headlines of the 22nd of November, however, did not report on the football match or announce the winning team instead they described a horrific massacre. One of the darkest day in the Irish War of Independence, which went down in history as Bloody Sunday, was the news of that day.

On Sunday morning, 21 November 1920, Michael Collins gave the command to his team of assassins, the Squad to kill 12 alleged British intelligence agents at their lodgings on Dublin’s South Side. The plan was to scupper the intelligence operations of Dublin Castle. Retaliation was inevitable.

Tension permeated the air of the capital as news of the morning’s massacre did the rounds. Everyone knew that there would be reprisal, in the eye for eye tooth for tooth war which was growing more vicious by the day. Could anyone have guessed that it would happen so soon? Within hours armored trucks pulled up outside Croke Park, while the game was going on. Nobody in the field, as it was not a staduim at the time were caught completely unawares, when the police began firing directly into the crowd. The gunfire that lasted only ninety seconds claimed the lives of fourteen. Among the dead were people from Dublin and the country alike, men women and children. In all, 30 people died that day.

Bloody Sunday 1920 was one of the darkest days in the Anglo Irish War but it was not the last, as the conflict would endure for another eight months.


Dublin Evening Telegraph 20 November 1920

History Ireland, Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 11

The Graphic 27 November 1920

Anita McMahon gets Sentenced in Galway

One hundred years ago, Emily’s friend Anita McMahon gets sentenced in Galway District Court, after being charged before a court-martial, the previous month. Anita stood silently before the jurisdiction, and was not represented by a lawyer, as she refused to recognise the court in which she was brought before, a British Court. Her address was given as Keel, Achill.

Keel, Achill where Anita McMahon was arrested in 1920

Anita was arrested on September 30th at her home, where a copy of the West Mayo Brigade Orders, the local Branch of IRA, dated 10th September. Among the documents were a pamphlet entitled “The Faith and Morals of Sinn Fein” and various other papers that were considered seditious. A week or so later the house, which was by then under surveillance by the local RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary), was searched again. More ‘seditious’ papers were found, this time a typewritten sheet, containing subversive phrases, enough to have Miss McMahon, hauled off to the local RIC station, possibly at Dugort or Achill Sound and then on to Galway.


Irish Times 15 November 1920

Irish Times 13 November 1952

Kevin Barry

The day after the burial of Terence MacSwiney another Nationalist lost his life to the cause for Irish freedom. On November 1st 1920, young Kevin Barry walked bravely and without falter to the scaffold, to die for his country. His last reported words;

“It is nothing, to give one’s life for Ireland. I’m not the first and maybe I won’t be the last. What’s my life compared with the cause?”

Kevin Barry was an 18 year old medical student who joined the IRA as a boy of 15. He was sentenced to death by court- martial for the murder of a British soldier during a Sinn Fein attack. On the morning of 15th August 1920 Kevin Barry joined a party of IRA Volunteers who had been ordered to ambush a British army vehicle and capture their weapons. As the group surrounded the truck, a shot was fired and, in the hail of gunfire that followed, three soldiers were killed. Barry was the only Volunteer captured. Read more

Women praying outside Mountjoy on the morning of the execution

On the morning of his execution thousands gathered outside Mountjoy Prison, praying and hoping for a reprieve, that never came. Instead the prison bell tolled, sending out the message that his young life had ended. When the official announcement of execution was posted outside the prison wall it was torn down by the crowd. Armored cars were sent in and the crowd dispersed. Emily, who was living in Dublin at that time, would certainly have been in that crowd hanging on for a last moment pardon.

Following his death, he was buried unceremoniously within the prison walls, somewhere between the male and female wings, where it lay for eighty more years. The only people present at his death an original burial were two Catholic clergymen and the prison guards. His family and friends deprived of accompanying him on his final journey.

Leeds Mercury 02 November 1920

Kevin Barry finally got the was denied, although it took 80 years. With the permission of the Irish government his body and that of ten others who were executed in the course for Irish Independence to be exhumed and reburied. On October 4th 2001 “The Forgotten Ten” were afforded full state honors with a private service at Mountjoy Jail, followed by a requiem mass at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. As the cortège passed through Dublin, thousands lined the streets to Glasnevin Cemetery, where they were re-interred along with Michael Collins and those in the Republican Plot.

Kevin Barry’s short life was immortalised in Ballads, poetry, songs, and prose.


Leeds Mercury 02 November 1920

Dublin Evening Telegraph 01 November 1920

Sheffield Independent 03 November 1920

The Funeral of Terence MacSwiney and the Aftermath

Terence MacSwiney and his wife Muriel

MacSwiney’s 74-day hunger strike captured the attention of the international press and raised the profile of calls for an independent Ireland. It also kicked off protests in cities around the world such as New York. At the time Eamon de Valera was on an eighteen month tour of America on a mission to establish the Ireland as a Republic and to help raise finance for the independence movement. The event of the Lord Mayor’s death garnered a lot of support from the American’s. He was the second Lord Mayor of Cork to die in the dark days of the War of Independence. In March On 20 March 1920, his was shot dead Thomas Curtain by the RIC, (Royal Irish Constabulary) in front of his wife and child. It was his thirty-sixth birthday.

His death, the second death of a Cork mayor that year, made headlines around the world and brought international attention to the campaign for Irish freedom.

After his death further his family suffered the further fear that his body would be, like most prisoners interred in the grounds of Brixton Prison, as his funeral would certainly be a huge political affair. The British Home Office allowed his body to be put on board a ship and be sailed directly to his hometown Cork, bypassing Dublin completely. If it were to go to the Irish capital MacSwiney would certainly be given a state funeral, which would only turn up the heat on the political situation. His family won out in the end and they were granted permission to bring his coffin to St. George’s Church in London. It was the first of three funerals for the patriotic Lord Mayor. Thousands, many British filed by his remains before being removed to an awaiting ship to make his final journey home to the country he gave his life for.

His body was brought from the Cathedral in London, put on a train, accompanied by a large group of mourners, it was also accompanied by police, which arrived at Hollyhead early. The ship, which his family, mourners and Nationalists hoped would dock in Dublin for a funeral there, but it was not to be. His body was taken directly to Cork, vetoed by the authorities, to avoid large demonstrations in Dublin. Incensed Nationalists were not deterred from giving MacSwiney the funeral he deserved. A day of mourning and funeral procession went ahead even without a body. A Requiem Mass was said at the Pro-Catherdral attended by a crowd that spilled out onto Marlborough Street.

An hearse, without a coffin followed by thousands of mourners, made its way along the lined streets of Dublin to Kingsbridge Station, the same route that would have been followed if a real funeral was permitted. All the same it was followed lorries of British soldiers and met at the station by an armored car.

Terence McSwiney’s body arrived in Cork city. His family with guard of Irish Volunteers brought the body to Cork City Hall, where it lay in state for the citizens to pay their respects. His funeral at the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne on October 31 attracted enormous crowds. He was buried in the Republican Plot of St Finbarr’s Cemetery, where Arthur Griffith gave the oration.

MacSwiney’s hunger strike instead had an international effect. The British Government was threatened with a boycott of goods by Americans, countries in South America pleaded with the Pope to intervene, while protests took place in Germany and France.

Terence McSwiney’ death was a source of inspiration to freedom fighters such as Gandhi, who also used hunger strike as a quiet power against the British government. he also inspired writers and poets such as Lousiene Murphy below:

His writing was published after his death such as the poem below.

The death of Terence MacSwiney was one of a myriad of events that lead to the burning of Cork, a pivotal event in the War of Independence a little over a month later.


Freeman’s Journal 26 October 1920