1920-1939 | Burning towns and cities

Heavily armed British auxiliary police sack Cork.

St. Patrick’s Street, Cork. Workers clearing the debris.
W.D. Hogan, National Library of Ireland via Wikimedia.

11 December 1920

On the evening of Saturday 11 December 1920, during a few hours of indiscriminate arson and looting, British ‘Black and Tans’ auxiliary police burned down three hundred homes and forty business premises in the city of Cork. The vast majority of residents were Catholics, most of them sympathetic or supportive of the Irish nationalist cause.  The conflagration also severely damaged another 24 businesses, as well as the City Hall and Carnegie Library, while many of the shops which had been fortunate enough to escape the arson attacks, were looted after having their windows smashed.1 A reporter recalled how ‘the scenes during the night were of a terrifying nature. Explosions of bombs, firing of shots and the crash of falling burning structures created consternation among the citizens and people generally were panic stricken.’2

Two thousand residents were left without a job and thousands more rendered homeless. At first the British government accused the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) for igniting the fires. Sir Hamar Greenwood, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, ‘protested most vigorously against the suggestion, without any evidence, that the fires were started by the forces of the crown,’3 but eventually a military inquiry conceded that a unit of the Black and Tans had been responsible.

The orgy of arson and looting followed a nationalist ambush on two lorries of auxiliaries near the city’s barracks during the afternoon, which had seriously injured twelve recruits, one of whom later died.  ‘Half an hour afterwards the city resounded to revolver and rifle fire,’ as ‘passengers were ejected from tramcars’ and ‘men and boys were lined up against walls and searched’ by uniformed Black and Tans.  Shortly after sunset, the city’s street lighting was turned off ‘and the whole of the central thorough fares were plunged into darkness, indiscriminate shooting followed.’4 Within minutes, came the additional sound of explosions and fires were seen in several premises on Patrick Street. By 10 pm ‘a large frontage of shops… stretching back 150 yards… to George Street was blazing fiercely.’5  Over the following few hours the conflagration continued to spread, while additional buildings were set ablaze in several other locations.  Two days later, a newspaper report described how ‘the finest part of the city lies a mass of smouldering ruins with occasional sporadic outbursts of flames.’6

St. Patrick Street, Cork, 20 years earlier –
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. ‘Cork Holocaust,’ the Western Daily Press, 14 December 1920, p. 5 and ‘Cork in Flames,’ the Derby City Telegraph, 13 December 1920, p. 3.
  2. ‘A night of terror in Cork,’ The Scotsman, 13 December 1920 p. 7.
  3. ‘Cork city after the fire,’ The Yorkshire Post, 14 December 1920, p. 7.
  4. ‘Holocaust in Heart of Cork City,’ the Dundee Evening Telegraph, 13 December 1920, p. 6.
  5. Ibid., p. 6.
  6. Ibid., p. 6.

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