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The Burning of Cork

Looking at the newly refurbished Saint Patrick’s Street it is difficult to believe that on the morning of 12 December 1920 it resembled a scene from a street destroyed during a bombing raid in the Second World War. During the War of Independence Cork was one of the main centres of resistance to British rule. In one of the worst atrocities committed during the War of Independence British forces deliberately set fire to several blocks of buildings along the east and south sides of Saint Patrick’s Street during Saturday night 11 December 1920 and the following Sunday morning. The City Hall and the Carnegie Library were also completely destroyed by fire. 

The loss of the stock of the library and of the records in Cork City Hall was a huge blow to future historians. The Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greewood, immediately denied that Crown forces were responsible for the conflagration. He also refused demands for an impartial enquiry which was called for by several public bodies in Cork. In spite of Greenwood’s obstinacy a booklet published by the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress appeared in January 1921 entitled ‘Who burned Cork City?’ which, on the evidence of eye-witnesses to the events, showed that British forces had set fire to large sections of Cork City. The eye-witness depositions had been gathered by Seamus Fitzgerald and the statements collated by Alfred O’Rahilly, the President of U.C.C. A British Army enquiry subsequently placed the blame for the fire on renegade members of a company of Auxiliaries.

The Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were allegedly taking revenge for an earlier attack on British troops. Among the buildings completely destroyed on Saint Patrick’s Street were Roche’s Stores, Cash & Co., The Munster Arcade, Egan’s, The American Shoe Company, Forrests, Sunners chemist and Saxone Shoes.