The Burning of Cork & the Propaganda War

The Burning of Cork and the Propaganda War

Almost two weeks after the Kimichael ambush, and three weeks after Bloody Sunday, an IRA ambush at Dillon’s Cross on the northside of Cork city was the spark for one of the War of Independence’s most notorious reprisals – the Burning of Cork. In an orgy of arson, Crown forces torched hundreds of commercial and residential properties reducing much of Cork city centre to ash. Thousands were left without employment or homes. Newspapers and propaganda on both sides of the divide spun their own side of events throughout the Irish War of Independence. In Britain the IRA or ‘Sinn Feins’ were generally described as a ‘murder gang’ and their actions castigated. The actions of the Crown forces were less ridiculed and the official line from the RIC usually supported. The Burning of Cork was somewhat a watershed moment in the media as it became abundantly clear, with little investigation, that those who were tasked with maintaining law and order themselves had lawlessly carried out the destruction of the commercial and civic centre.

In the wake of the general reportage of the Kilmichael ambush concentrating on ‘murder’ and ‘mutilation’ perpetrated by Sinn Féin ‘savages,’ one would expect that reportage of Cork’s destruction might take an anti-republican line in a British media fired by governmental misinformation. Certainly, publications like the Daily Chronicle, published an absurd proposition that the fires had started in the City Hall and spread from there to Patrick Street. Those who are/were familiar with Cork’s geography will know that a quarter mile, and the South Channel of the river Lee separates those two locations. The Chronicle bolstered its claim (which was repeated by Hamar Greenwood in the Commons) by publishing an inaccurate map of Cork which placed the City Hall between Patrick’s Street and the North Channel. [1]

Yet from the beginning, much of the British print media were alert to the possibility of wrong-doing by British forces. In the far away British midlands the Sheffield Independent ran a front page banner headline which declared DEVASTATION BY BOMB AND FIRE IN CORK CITY and beneath it, among a series of sub headlines declared ‘Alleged Reprisal by Forces of the Crown.’ [2] The next day the same newspaper went on to print a column from its own reporter in Cork:

The spectacle which Cork presents is nothing less than staggering, it is as though the very heart had been torn from the city.

Patrick Street, a fine broad artery in the shopping and business quarter is a wilderness of smouldering ruins for nearly one third of its length. All that remains of the handsome shops is a mountain of debris with an occasional gable wall or skeleton house front standing like sentinels. Among the fallen litter of broken masonry choking the streets barricades of tree trunks have been built to keep spectators from the falling beams of tottering stonework.

Smoke still ascends the air with an acrid smell of burning but only an occasional hose jet is necessary to keep the fires in subjection. They have practically burned themselves out. There is no reason to doubt the identity of the incendiaries. The evidence is conclusive that it was a frenzied reprisal for the ambush of cadets at Dillon’s Cross on Saturday evening.[3]

The paper went on to produce what it claimed was eye-witness testimony to the night’s events. A gentleman had watched the fires from his window. He saw auxiliaries drive through the city centre firing indiscriminately and he saw them attempt to interfere with and harass firefighters. Damning testimony for the British administration in their home country.[4]

Other newspapers like the Newcastle Journal were a little more circumspect in apportioning blame. They reported that men in uniform had started the fire but did not specifically state that those men were in the employment of the Crown. This may have appeared obvious to many, but just two weeks previously numerous newspapers had claimed that the IRA wore British uniforms during the Kilmichael ambush. The Tyne-side publication also referred to the ambush at Dillon’s Cross and even to auxiliaries enthusiastically abusing citizens in Patrick Street on the afternoon of the fires.[5]

The Illustrated London News took a similar approach. It published a full-page image of Cork’s charred remains on its front page of 18 December, but in the photo’s caption it conceded confusion prevailed regarding the source of the fires and which faction had started them. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that they had decided not to accept that Irish citizens had torched their own city as had been suggest from officials.

For their part the British government were furiously trying to combat suggestions that Crown forces had been involved. Hamar Greenwood ‘protested most vigorously against the suggestion, without any evidence, that the fires were started by the forces of the Crown.’[6] He was responding to a motion of adjournment moved by Liberal MP, Commander Joseph Kentworthy. During an acrimonious debate Kentworthy produced a letter from an un-named Irish priest accusing Crown forces of arson. Irish MP TP O’Connor also suggested that the fires were started by ‘the Black and Tans.’ With other MPs accusing Kentworthy (a WWI veteran) of treachery Hamar Greenwood issued his denial and informed the house that an investigation had been established by General Strickland and would report shortly.[7] Hamar Greenwood also suggested that there was ‘some evidence that they (the fires) were started by incendiary bombs and that no such bombs were in the possession of Crown forces. Incendiaries were frequently seized from Republicans however.[8] Thus, before any investigation of the fires had reported, the Under Secretary was reported as announcing some rather interesting conclusions. He had already decided on the evidence that might point to republican responsibility.

Unfortunately for Hamar Greenwood, a Labour Party delegation was touring Ireland at the time of the fires and they were able to offer further insight. On 15 December, the Nottingham Journal published a telegram that the delegation had forwarded. Strong suspicions of wrong-doing by Crown forces were now upheld by British parliamentarians:

The statements made by the Chief Secretary in the House of Commons confirming the burning of Cork are greatly inaccurate.

Parliamentary members of the Labour Commission who visited Cork yesterday have announced that the fires were the work of the Crown forces. The suggestion that the fire spread from Patrick Street to the City Hall – a distance of several hundred yards cannot be entertained by anybody knowing the topography of Cork.

We stand by our statements regarding the fires at Cork and can, if the safety of the witnesses is guaranteed produce reliable evidence on the subject.

We therefore demand independent inquiries into the recent incidents in Cork. If the Government refuse the British public will form its own conclusions.[9]

The Labour Party would publish a damning report of British activity in Ireland in January 1921. For its part, Lloyd George’s coalition government failed to publish the results of a military enquiry by General Strickland. Lloyd George and Churchill each agreed that its contents did not reflect well upon Crown forces and might help arm the Sinn Féin propaganda machine.[10]

By 8 January 1921, the Westminster Gazette was bemoaning the government’s failure to publish the report:

It has been widely suggested that the report is unfavourable to the Black and Tans. The authorities could have no motive for withholding it if it were not unfavourable, and if it is held up any longer, the public will draw the obvious conclusion.[11]

The Leicester Daily Post was similarly mystified and suggested that Strickland may have been quite ‘severe’ in his remarks and that the government was ‘now a little repentant of its promise that they [the remarks] should be published unexpurgated.’[12] The Manchester Evening News, reported that many Irish newspapers and Irish people questioned the delay of the report on the burning of Cork, and the publication of a report on the alleged German plot. They considered the appearance of the latter as a distraction from the disappearance of the former.[13]

By now the Labour Party Commission’s report and the non-appearance of the Strickland report was leading substantial elements of the British media to publicly question whether Crown forces may have been involved in the burning of Cork. With martial law declared on the night before the city was torched, and Crown forces now admitting that they had burned civilian properties in Midleton under that same law[14], it is little wonder that the tide of journalistic opinion seemed to turn away from unquestioning acceptance of the British government’s bona fides. If martial law permitted arson by Crown forces, and they admitted the perpetration of such arson in Midleton, why would one doubt that similar things had occurred in Cork city? Even if one accepted the provisions of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act as being legal, one could not justify the destruction of property by Crown forces as legal. Neither the afore-mentioned Act, nor the Act which it re-activated (Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act of 1914) gave specific legality to the destruction of property. Instead they authorised the military to make regulations (proclamations) which might include such destruction. At the time of Cork’s burning, no such regulations had been made. It is possible that those who burned Cork did not indulge in such legal analysis, and considered their actions authorised by the passage of the Restoration of Order Act alone.

The burning of Cork was not the only occasion where mass destruction of civilian property had taken place. Similar reprisals had occurred in several places, most infamously during the ‘Sack of Balbriggan.’ Many buildings in Cork City had already been torched in the weeks and months prior. However, the attempts to suggest that Irish people had destroyed their own city, made Cork’s destruction a seminal part of the propaganda war. By January, in the absence of any official report, and after the publication of a Labour Party report, the British press were simply disinclined to believe the suggestion of their own government. Britain had scored another spectacular own goal. This time the action itself may well have proven less self-destructive than the attempted denials of same.

[1] Michael Linehan, Cork Burning, Mercier Press, Cork, 2018, p174.

[2] Sheffield Independent, 13 December 1920.

[3] Sheffield Independent, 14 December 1920.

[4] Ibid

[5] Newcastle Journal, 13 December 1920.

[6] Portsmouth Evening News, 13 December 1920.

[7] Nottingham Journal, 14 December 1920.

[8] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 14 December 1920.

[9] Nottingham Journal, 15 december 1920.

[10] Lenihan, Op Cit, p176.

[11] Westminster Gazette, 8 January 1921.

[12] Leicester Daily Post, 14 January 1921. Bracketed text is the author’s.

[13] Manchester Evening News, 10 January 1921.

[14] Lancashire Evening Post, 8 January 1921. Yorkshire Post, 8 January 1921.

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