8a. Cork and the War of Independence, 1920

View from Woodford and Bourne street corner, St Patrick’s Street, c.1910, from Cork City Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Dan Breen
View from Woodford and Bourne street corner, St Patrick’s Street, c.1910, from Cork City Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Dan Breen

Against the backdrop of the local elections of January 1920, the first week of January 1920 witnessed another scaling up of agitation by the general headquarters of the Irish Republican Army of its local brigades. Following the failure of the Independence petition at the Paris Peace Conference, the continued banning of non-violent republican organisations and the outlawing of Dáil Éireann, offensive action was officially sanctioned against crown forces. In the counties of Cork, Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Kerry, Clare, and Dublin attacks on police patrols escalated.

From January 1920 arms raids of Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks began. Those barracks in rural areas were the first to be targeted as many of them were not overly defended. Successful arms raids and the taking of mail for intelligence purposes gave many local IRA units purpose without real exposure to injury and death. Historian Dr Joost Augusteijn in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution details that by the summer of 1920, almost one third of all RIC barracks had been evacuated. By the end of 1920 a total of 553 Barracks were destroyed. Many of the attacks have been written about at length by local historians across the country and the events remembered as appropriate throughout the decades and live on in folk memory. 

Regional newspapers such as the Cork Examiner wrote at length on countrywide events in its crammed editorial sections. Journalists had to submit their work to the national censor’s office for fear of offence against the Defence of the Realm Act (1914 and its extensions). Whilst turning each page of the Cork Examiner from 1916 to the end of 1920 for research for this column from 1916 to the end of 1920, there is an apparent loosening up of what Republican activity stories could be published. It is clear that more and more information on IRA activity was published throughout 1920. That is despite the threat in September 1919 when the Cork Examiner suffered under the Crown’s censorship for advertising the Dáil Éireann Loan Scheme. However, agitation and harassment were felt by both sides through the IRA and through Crown officials.

Entering the Cork Examiner newspaper on 1 January 1920 does not show a structure to the war of the day, but chaos and frustration as those on both sides tried to hold fast to their values – on one side the case of the Westminster imperial administration and the other the Sinn Féin party and the Irish Republican Army looking to advance their cause. However, one cannot help but look at a historic map of the city in 1920 and see how small the physical size of the city is. Every day both sides were in close proximity to each other, walking the same streets, and knowing each other’s background and ethos. There are complexities to their relationships, which should not be reduced to an ‘us and them’.

Reading through the Cork Examiner each day for 1920 shows the boiling frustration between all sides of the growing conflict. Tit-for-tat violence became common place. For example, on 10 March 1920 District Inspector McDonagh was shot dead by IRA members. The response by the RIC was the ransacking of Sinn Fein clubs and the homes of key members such as Seán O’Sullivan and Professor William Stockley. On 19 March 1920, RIC Constable Joseph Murtagh was shot and killed by the IRA near the City Centre. The RIC response was quick and this time Brigade Commander and Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain was to be the target. He was murdered later that night.

As the news got out into the public realm after the murder of Tomás MacCurtain it sent shockwaves throughout every household – he had been Lord Mayor for less than 50 days an just 36 years old. People began to discuss their relationship with Tomás within Cork City. Some revered his character and work. Others saw his work as another part of the way of life of a busy port city, which had many activities happening on any given. But for a time in Cork, his murder brought the city and region to a standstill. This was another intensification of all-out war held across the streets of Cork that in time would be named the Irish War of Independence.

Lord Mayor Alderman Tomás MacCurtain on his mayoral election night, 30 January 1920 (source: Cork City Library)
Lord Mayor Alderman Tomás MacCurtain on his mayoral election night, 30 January 1920 (source: Cork City Library)
VIEW: Tomás MacCurtain Centenary Remembrance, Blackpool, Cork, 20 March 2020

A War Rages On:

Michael Murphy, Commandant of 2nd Battalion of IRA Brigade No.1, in his witness statement (WS1547) in the archives of the Bureau of Military Archives outlines several examples of activity his battalion were involved in. On 5 April 1920 Togher RIC barracks was evacuated and a short time later was burned down. On 1 June Blarney RIC barracks burned down. On 24 June 1920, Blackrock RIC barracks, having been evacuated, was also burned by men of the 2nd Battalion.

By late June 1920, the time had come for focussed attacks on the city’s RIC barracks – led by the active 2nd Battalion of the Cork No.1 Brigade. The targeting of city centre barracks was seen as much riskier affairs. Michael Murphy in his witness statement retells his side of the story to bomb the RIC Barracks on MacCurtain Street on 30 June 1920. This barracks was one of the principle stations in the city and was connected to the murder of Tomás MacCurtain some weeks previously. The street has just been renamed by Cork Corporation as well from King Street to MacCurtain Street.

The barracks was occupied by a garrison of from 20 to 25 policemen and several Black and Tans. The barrack was quite visible but quite difficult to get close to. It was the second last of a block of five houses at the right hand side as one enters the street from Summer Hill or Glanmire Road. The first house was the residence of Dr O’Donovan, Medical Officer of Health of Cork Corporation. Then was the barracks, and next door above in order were the Grosvenor Hotel, Corrigan’s Hotel and the Windsor Hotel.

Michael Murphy relates in his witness statement: “To my mind, the best way to do the job was to explode a land mine from the adjoining house. I fixed the time for the explosion at about 5pm when I knew that the garrison would be inside at tea. At about 4.30pm a few of us entered the dwelling house adjoining and, having removed the occupants elsewhere, placed a large mine at the dividing wall between the house and the barracks day room. The mine was exploded and blew a large breech in the dividing wall, hurling debris into the dayroom of the barracks. This being done, I signalled to the Volunteers to withdraw, as we could not possibly hope to engage the garrison with any chance of success”.

The Cork Examiner in interviews with local people recorded that they witnessed young men in groups of two, or in some cases individually approaching everyone going along and warned them to pass quickly, “to get off the street”. Some who had made up their mind to see films thought no more of it and went into the nearby Coliseum. Others obeyed the warning, and more were inclined by curiosity to loiter It was only through warning gunshots in the air that people moved on with speed.

Stephen Foley, Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion, Cork no.1 Brigade, in his witness statement (WS1699) tells that he was told to take up position at the Coliseum Cinema for an attack on the RIC barracks, which was just across the road from that cinema. He was armed with a revolver. Other men, who were here and there across MacCurtain Street, were also armed. Michael Murphy outlines that men such as Stephen manned the whole adjacent district and were armed with revolvers. In addition, Michael relates that the vicinity of Union Quay barracks and Blackrock Road barracks was patrolled by his men – so that all bridges crossing the River Lee were similarly held by the brigade prior to the mine explosion.

The Cork Examiner records that the attack on the barracks was directed principally from Dr Donovan’s residence. Volunteers called to Dr Donovan’s house and they insisted that he should leave along with his cook and maid.It was thought that 10 lbs of gelignite were used to cause the explosion. At the time of the explosion there were ten policemen in the dayroom. As gunshots were fired up in the air outside to clear the streets, they suspected something was up and rushed to the front door and hence avoided the heart of the explosion.

Postcard of King Street, now MacCurtain Street, with RIC Barracks shown on the right, c.1900 (source: Cork City Library)
Postcard of King Street, now MacCurtain Street, with RIC Barracks shown on the right, c.1900 (source: Cork City Library)
The red brick building is the former RIC Station site on MacCurtain Street, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
The red brick building is the former RIC Station site on MacCurtain Street, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

The breach was nine feet by three feet in the dayroom wall with some breaking of glass in the windows. Apart from that the barracks was otherwise undamaged. The records and documents were intact. However, in Dr Donovan’s house the second floor and the hallway were absolutely destroyed, and the floor of the third storey collapsed causing the furniture to crash down onto the floors below. As the front walls had very serious cracks from the blast, it was thought that the remaining walls of Dr Donovan’s house would have to be pulled down.

Such was the force of the explosion that the walls of the Coliseum on the opposite side of the street were extensively dented with marks of stone and splinters, bits of timber being even stuck into the walls. The coliseum filled with powder smoke and dust. The lights were still up as the exhibition of ‘pictures’ had not started. In a second the larger portion of the audience, which comprised of women and children shrieked with terror and scramble to the exits.

Such was the force of the explosion that the walls of the Coliseum on the opposite side of the street were extensively dented with marks of stone and splinters, bits of timber being even stuck into the walls. The coliseum filled with powder smoke and dust. The lights were still up as the exhibition of ‘pictures’ had not started. In a second the larger portion of the audience, which comprised of women and children shrieked with terror and scramble to the exits.

A fortnight later on 14 July 1920, Blackrock Road RIC barracks was evacuated by the RIC and was burned a half an hour after the garrison leaving. The RIC garrison was sent to the Bridewell and Union Quay barracks, which meant that Elizabeth Fort and Union Quay were now the sole remaining occupied barracks in the 2nd Battalion area.

For fears of a sequel to the MacCurtain Street event, many citizens owning large shops in St Patrick’s Street and other thoroughfares took precautionary measures in the way of putting up temporary shuttering on their premises. Patrols were supplemented by posses of military carrying rifle bayonets. A number of miniature Union Jack flags were hung from the windows of the MacCurtain Street RIC barracks and the wall of the dayroom was stuffed with sandbags.

Assassinating Commissioner Smyth:

The targeting by IRA Brigade No.1 of RIC Cork City barracks in early July 1920 turned into targeting by mid-July 1920 of high ranking RIC officers. By far the most sensational shooting of a Government official occurred in Cork as a late hour on Saturday evening, 17 July 1920, at the County Club on the South Mall. Colonel Gerard Bryce Ferguson Smyth was a First World War veteran from the Royal Engineers and newly appointed Chief Commissioner of the RIC.

Almost a month earlier at Listowel, County Kerry on 19 June 1920, his campaign strategy against the IRA shocked even the toughest of his RIC officers. Smyth noted that no co-operation meant shoot on sight. Many RIC men, from County Inspectors to Constables, resigned in protest against the task assigned when presented with Smyth’s note.

“…Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout ‘Hand up.’ Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down … We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Féin”.

In the second week of July 1920 Smyth was called to England and appeared at the Irish Office where he was queried on newspaper accounts of his speeches made in Listowel and Killarney. On his arrival back to Ireland he went to Kerry on business related to the holding of the Assizes. He arrived to Cork on Friday 16 July to be present for the Cork City Assizes, to be held the following Monday.

The Cork Examiner records that on Saturday evening, 17 July 1920 at 10.30pm, a party of men, whose numbers were between twelve and fifteen entered the County Club building by the usual entrance on the South Mall. All carried revolvers in their hands, and some wore masks or other disguises. Some of the men approached the hall porter Edward Fitzgerald, pointed revolvers at him and warned him not to make any noise. He was ordered to walk in front of the party into the vestibule, presumably so that the men would not be visible from the entrance. In the vestibule at the bottom of the stairs about eight or ten of the men remained, still covering Mr Fitzgerald.

Hibernian House, formerly Cork City’s Country Club, built 1829, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Hibernian House, formerly Cork City’s Country Club, built 1829, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

The others of the party proceeded to the smoking room and throwing open the door entered. Only four men were in the room at the time. There were Commissioner Smyth, County Inspector George Fitzgerald William Craig, Mr Barker, secretary of the club and one other member. The men hesitated at the doorway for a second or two, and cried out, “Where is he?”. Another evidently catching sight of Colonel Smyth fired at him. In all five or six shots were fired. Mr Smyth got out of the room but collapsed in the passage outside of the door. County Inspector Craig was also wounded in the leg.

Michael O’Donoghue, Engineer Officer with the 2nd Battalion of the Cork No.1 Brigade, in his witness statement (WS1741) in the Bureau of Military History, outlines that his men were involved in the targeting of Colonel Smyth. He outlined that his men on coming into the room of the County Club said to Colonel Smyth – “Your orders are to shoot at sight”. “Well, so are ours”. Thenshots rang out.Michael outlined that the young men having their mission accomplished, pocketed their revolvers and retired to the streetmingling with the crowd, which was then leaving a nearby cinema, and disappeared. 

An armoured car and military lorries and swarms of police descended on the South Mall within minutes and surrounded the area to carry out an intense but after a fruitless search they cleared the streets. Later that night soldiers and Black and Tans proceeded through the streets of Cork City, firing in all directions as they proceeded. An IRA volunteer, Blarney Street resident James Bourke, who was an ex-British soldier, was shot dead at about 3am at North Gate Bridge. Over twenty other local citizens were injured.

Eighteen jurors were called to attend the inquest of Colonel Smyth the following day, Sunday 18 July 1920, but only nine attended. After a number of hours delay the numbers had not been assembled to swear in a jury. The Coroner abandoned the inquest.

On Sunday evening 18 July, Michael O’Donoghue recalls further chaos on the streets of Cork. At 7pm he was passing the Courthouse and the streets ahead were almost completely deserted. Crossing from Patrick Street towards Castle Street the next moment, he heard the roar of lorries tearing down Patrick Street and bursts of rifle fire. Looking back, he saw several of hurrying stragglers drop to the ground. An armoured car entered Parade from St Patrick’s Street, machine guns roaring. As Michael reached the safety of the hallway of our digs, he could hear the whine of bullets along the Grand Parade outside. Stealing to a window overlooking the Grand Parade, he ventured to look down north and south along the thoroughfare. Five figures still lay huddled on the pavement near Castle Street corner, and two others on the street near Singer’s Corner.

Michael notes in his witness statement: “The military have been given a free hand this night and all the police have wisely being kept in barracks. Later, an ambulance from Fire Brigade Station drove down the Parade and picked up the victims”. It was the first and the bloodiest of the many nights of terror, which Cork citizens were to witness in the ensuing weeks and months ahead.

Landscapes of Chaos:

During July 1920 alone Cork No.1 Brigade hit hard upon City RIC Barracks, targeted Black and Tans, and carried out the assassination on 17 July 1920, at the County Club on the South Mall, Chief Commissioner of the RIC Colonel Gerard Bryce Ferguson Smyth. On 19 July Major-General Strickland issued an order of a curfew between the hours of 10pm and 3am for Cork City. A permit was required from the 21 July to be able to be on the streets outside of those times. It applied to all those within a radius of three miles of the GPO on Oliver Plunkett Street. Application for permits had to be made in writing to the County Inspector at the RIC Barracks at Union Quay. On night one, the Cork Examiner records that sixty arrests were made.

Such was the impact of the roaming military lorries with trigger happy Black and Tans, a week later the arrests in the city during the curfew are recorded as been down to their teens. An account in the Cork Examiner on 2 August further relates activities such as rifle firing, bomb-throwing, the smashing of glass windows. A good deal of damage was done. 

Sinn Féin Councillor and businessman Liam De Róiste remarks in his diary entry of 31 July 1920 (also in Cork Archives) of landscapes of chaos. “The war is going fast and furious now. Real engagements between Óglaig and English reported, though on a small scale, are keeping with guerrilla tactics…Bandon, Macroom and other towns and villages are, like Cork and Dublin, under curfew law”. The cityscape was rapidly becoming a war zone. Risky manoeuvres by the IRA created even riskier manoeuvres as ultimately the IRA took the war to the RIC and Black and Tans.

The Arrest of Terence MacSwiney:

The military activities in and around Cork City Centre for late July and early August culminated with a raid on City Hall on 12 August 1920 and the arrest of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney and eleven other prominent Sinn Féin members. They were meeting generally on Cork Brigade No.1 plans and adjudicating at the Sinn Féin courts or acting as officers thereof. Upstairs in the Council Chamber and Committee Room, courts were about to start and several litigants, including many women with children were in the building. Members of six families in a tenement were present to contest their landlord seeking possession.

Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, Spring Summer 1920 (source: British Pathé still)
Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, Spring Summer 1920 (source: British Pathé still)

The Cork Examiner reports that a large military party in two lorries came over Clontarf Bridge and disembarked near City Hall, which they immediately surrounded. All passerbys were arrested. But in a short time a large crowd had assembled in Anglesea Street, along Albert Quay and Lapp’s Quay, and even on the South Mall. Traffic was stopped. When City Hall was surrounded the soldiers entered the building with rifles and fixed bayonets and a search commenced. Considerable emotion ensued as women and children fled from the encroaching soldiers into the darkening corridors of City Hall. The ante-room off the Council Chamber got the most attention. Here it was known that Gaelic League classes were held regularly, and it was also the office of the Dáil Éireann courts. Presses and desks were minutely searched, and some papers were taken away.

One of those arrested in City Hall was Michael Leahy, Officer in Command of the Fourth Battalion (East Cork) of Brigade No.1. In his interview within the Bureau of Military History (WS1421), he relates he was present by accident as he was looking to speak with Florence O’Donoghue to plan an assassination of a RIC Sergeant in Cobh. At City Hall earlier in the day of the 12 August, Terence MacSwiney told him that there was to be a meeting of the senior officers of the Cork brigades that evening in City Hall, about 8pm. Although Michael only ranked as a battalion commandant at the time, Terence ordered Michael to stay and attend the meeting. In the main hall of the City Hall the Republican Court was in progress while their meeting was on.

In his witness statement Michael Leahy recalls just some of those present at 8pm – Seán Hegarty, Vice-Officer in Command, Joseph O’Connor, Brigade Quarter Master, Dan Donovan, Officer in Command of 1st Battalion, Florence O’Donoghue, Brigade Intelligence Officer, Dom Sullivan, Brigade Adjutant, Liam Deasy, officer in Command of Cork No.3 Brigade, and Mick Murphy, Officer in Command, 2nd Batallion, Cork City.

The 8pm group meeting was not very long in session when word was brought that the military had surrounded the building and had begun searching it. Michael relates: “We left the room and made for a concealed exit to a hiding place somewhere between the ceiling and the roof. I remember a key to this hideout being missing and Terry MacSwiney sending someone to another room to get it. The soldiers, meantime, were getting closer to where we were, so it was decided to get out into the back yard and the work-shops to the rear of the City Hall”.

In the hope of getting away in that direction, Michael went to climb a gate out of the yard when a bullet, fired by a soldier in the laneway outside, whizzed past his head. He jumped back into the yard. He now realised that escape was impossible, so the group got into one of the carpenter’s workshops where they were captured by the military.

The dozen arrested Brigade members were conveyed in three military lorries to Victoria Barracks. The Lord Mayor was in the first lorry with three of the others. They were surrounded with soldiers with fixed bayonets and each side of the lorry was lined with soldiers having their rifles ready for combat. Similar conditions were seen in the other two lorries.

The following day at the detention barracks section Michael Leahy relates that eleven of the group gave false names when questioned, with the exception of Terence MacSwiney, who gave his correct name and title of “Lord Mayor of Cork”. They were kept in Cork detention barracks for a day when they went on hunger strike. This was pursued in solidarity to over 60 IRA men who were on hunger strikes in Cork County Gaol, off Western Road.

Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, Spring- Summer 1920 (source: British Pathé Still)
Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney, Spring- Summer 1920 (source: British Pathé Still)
VIEW: British Pathé film on Terence MacSwiney, July-August 1920

The twelve were then transferred to the military barracks, where they were again interrogated by military intelligence officers. There they denied having any connection with the IRA or Sinn Féin. After five days in the barracks, Michael and his group were surprised to learn that they were to be released with the exception of Terence MacSwiney.

The eleven in number could scarcely credit their good fortune on being released and they lost no time in getting out of the city. Not two hours after they had left the barracks, a most intensive round-up took place in the city. Thousands of soldiers were engaged searching every conceivable building. It was Michael’s firm belief that the British military intelligence was so poor at the time and that, with the exception of Terence MacSwiney, who was a well-known public man, the military had no idea as to who the prisoners really were.

Terence was not so fortunate. He was charged with sedition having an RIC cipher in his possession and documents relating to Dáil Éireann. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Terence was transferred to Brixton Prison in England. Within hours he began his hunger strike, which was to last 74 days before his eventual death.

Coffin of Terence MacSwiney being taken from the North Cathedral, 31 October 1920 (source: Cork City Library)
Coffin of Terence MacSwiney being taken from the North Cathedral, 31 October 1920 (source: Cork City Library)
VIEW: British Pathé film on Terence MacSwiney’s funeral, 31 October 1920
READ ABOUT the Burning of Cork, 1920 here: 8b. The Burning of Cork City, 1920 | Cork Heritage

Explore 1920-1921 with Kieran’s Our City, Our Town columns:

Click here for the index to the 2019 series entitled, Tales from 2019http://corkheritage.ie/?page_id=4991

Click here for the index to the 2020 series entitled, Remembering 1920, http://corkheritage.ie/?page_id=5202

Click here for the index to the 2021 series entitled, Journeys to a Truce, 2021 Journeys to a Truce 1921 | Cork Heritage