The events of the night of 11/12 December 1920 in Cork probably had their origins in the killing of seventeen members of the Royal Irish Constabulary on 28 November in Kilmichael. Of course these were not any ordinary members of the RIC, an organisation not greatly beloved of the plain people of Ireland in the first place.
The victims of Tom Barry’s flying column at Kilmichael were members of the RIC Auxiliary force, recruited in the summer of 1920 from former and serving British Army officers and touted as an elite counter-insurgency group. Counter insurgents they undoubtedly were but their elite status took something of a drubbing as an IRA unit with a fraction of their military experience wiped out a detachment of the force, that became reviled in Ireland as ‘the Auxies’, a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin.
What happened in Cork on 11 December, however, had a more proximate cause. The local IRA had observed that a force of Auxiliaries always left Victoria barracks on the outskirts of Cork and headed for the city centre at 8.00 pm. every evening. An ambush was laid for them at Dillon’s Cross which led to the death of one of the RIC ‘Temporary Cadets’, as they were formally known.
In the first wave of retaliation the Auxiliaries entered a local pub, terrorized the occupants, seized one of them, and in an egregious exhibition of military valour, stripped him naked and forced him to sing God save the King in the middle of the road. That was only the start of their nocturnal frolic.
At 9.30 they returned to Dillon’s Cross, raided a number of houses, forced the occupants into the street and burned down their homes. The spree of mindless violence then continued in the city centre. There the Auxiliaries were joined by their only slightly more wholesome cousins, the Black and Tans. Together, in and out of uniform, they went on the rampage. Among other notable establishments, Grant’s department store was set alight. When the fire brigade arrived to fight the blaze the firemen were prevented from doing their jobs by the Temporary Cadets and their allies – nicknamed, appropriately, after a pack of hounds. The fire fighters were threatened, shot at, and their hoses were cut.
At 4.00 am. Cork City Hall and the Carnegie Library went up in flames. In terms of historical records this did for Cork what Ernie O’Malley later allegedly accomplished on a national scale when the Public Record Office in the Four Courts was atomized during the Civil War. When more fire brigade units arrived they were denied access to water by the security forces and were also fired upon when they attempted to do their jobs. At some point that night two members of the IRA, the brothers Con and Jeremiah Delany were taken from their beds and shot out of hand.
In all five acres of the city were destroyed, comprising forty business premises and three hundred homes. Over three million pounds worth of damage was done – which equates to around two hundred million euros today. Two thousand people were left out of work.
The British government blamed the entire episode on the IRA and were aided and abetted in this by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, who threated to excommunicate IRA volunteers who continued their involvement in the War of Independence. His Grace was accused by Cork politicians of ‘adding insult to injury’. Ironically the only report into the affair, sanctioned by the British government, took the opposite tack and pointed the finger at K Company of the Auxiliaries based at Victoria Barracks. When the British government refused to publish the so-called ‘Strickland’ report the Prime Minister and Irish Secretary were berated in the House of Commons by one of the few remaining Irish Party MPs, T.P.O’Connor, who sat for one of the Liverpool constituencies.
K Company of the Auxiliaries thereafter sported burnt corks in their hats as a provocative reminder of their penchant for pyromania and wreaking havoc. The unit was, to the regret of none, other than its members, disbanded in March 1921, four months before the War of Independence truce.
Much of the centre of the city of Cork was razed to the ground by the British security forces ninety-five years ago, on this day.