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The War of Independence in Cork in 1920


The War of Independence in Cork 100 Years Ago             Gerry OShea

Great Britain, clear victors in the First World War and controlling the biggest colonial empire in the world, faced a major challenge to its authority a hundred years ago, in the final months of 1920. The Irish War of Independence was in progress and three events that happened as part of that conflagration rattled the British Empire, and all of them were related to the insurgency in the city and county of Cork.

Munster was identified by the top leaders of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as an active war zone where “most of the fighting was done” in the words of the popular ballad, The Black and Tan Gun. Between January 1917 and December 1921 political violence claimed 2141 lives in Ireland with more than half coming from the province of Munster. There were 495 deaths in Cork, 152 in Tipperary, 136 in Kerry, 121 in Limerick, 95 in Clare and 36 in Waterford.

In Cork, 450 men have been identified as active IRA fighters in those years. The comparable levels in other counties in Munster show 125 in Kerry, 100 in Tipperary and 150 in Limerick.

Cork’s history of supporting political separatism from Britain and its emphasis on revolutionary ideals were rooted in a strong Fenian tradition. While the Fenian revolts amounted to no more than a few skirmishes, their political organization was strong, stressing a clear common purpose: the expulsion of the British from Ireland.

 The anti-landlord agitation during the Land War in the final decades of the previous century also evoked deep patriotic feelings among the large farming community in the county.

Unlike the other Munster counties, a majority of people in the southern capital did not support John Redmond’s constitutional nationalism. In the 1910 elections William O’Brien’s All for Ireland League defeated Redmondite candidates in seven of the eight Cork constituencies. The League attracted an unusual coalition of moderate Southern unionists, old-time Fenians and trade unionists.

After the 1916 Rebellion nearly all of these O’Brien supporters gathered around the nascent Sinn Fein organization which was very clear about its separatist philosophy. The failure of Cork to provide any help for Pearse and Connolly in Dublin during the Easter Rising rankled with many local nationalists.

 The main reason for the inaction related to conflicting orders from Dublin, but some of the local young Republican enthusiasts felt that it was shameful that no blow was struck in Cork during the Easter rebellion. Consequently, new leadership gradually came to the forefront in the county with names like Tomas MacCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Tom Barry, Sean Moylan and Liam Lynch.

In late March of 1920, shortly after a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was killed in Cork city, masked men, widely thought to be rogue policemen, broke into the house of IRA brigadier and mayor of the city, Tomas MacCurtain, and shot him dead in front of his wife.

The new Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney, was a close friend of MacCurtain and also an IRA leader with a reputation as an accomplished essayist and playwright. He attended the Christian Brothers high school known as the North Mon, but dire family circumstances forced him to abandon his formal education at 15. He continued to study while holding a full-time job and was eventually awarded a degree in Mental and Moral Science by what is now University College Cork.

MacSwiney was deeply involved in promoting Irish drama in Cork, and in 1915 he wrote and produced a play, The Revolutionist, which explored one individual’s efforts to respond with integrity to demanding political situations. This anticipated his own predicament when he was imprisoned for possession of “seditious articles and documents” In August 1920. A military court sentenced him to two years in Brixton Prison in London.

MacSwiney immediately went on hunger strike, protesting that he should have been tried in a regular civic court. He was an exceptionally impressive and determined individual which in conjunction with his important position as Lord Mayor of a major Irish city meant that his starvation protest, lasting 74 days, got wide and indeed mostly sympathetic press coverage. There were vibrant protests demanding his release in France, Germany, the Catalan area of Spain as well as in some South American countries – and, of course, there were angry threats by Irish leaders in New York and Boston of closing down trade between Britain and America.

The British Empire was under close scrutiny during MacSwiney’s hunger protest. Was this their best effort to deal with an idealistic young Irish academic, claiming freedom for his country, convicted in a military court of a relatively-minor offense? The Lord Mayor, a true idealist, told his captors that “it isn’t those who inflict the most but those who can suffer the most who will triumph.”

More than 30,000 mourners passed solemnly by his bier in England, which was only a fraction of the numbers that attended the funeral in his native city. Terence MacSwiney’s conviction and premature death did immense damage to claims about superior Westminster democracy and drove many young Irish people into the ranks of the IRA.

The prime minister, Lloyd George, read MacSwiney’s clear and powerful explanation for his sacrificial death: “I am confident that my death will do more to smash the British Empire than my release.”

A few weeks after the MacSwiney funeral Lloyd George assured a London audience that “we have murder by the throat.” He was satisfied with the assurances of Hamar Greenwood, the chief secretary for Ireland, that the revolutionary situation was under control.

The RIC had two groups sent by the leaders in Westminster to help them to maintain order, which meant defeating the IRA. The name of one of these groups, the Black and Tans – in common parlance, the Tans - lives in infamy to the present day because of the way they terrorized the people. The second contingent was called Auxiliaries or just Auxies for short.

These men were even more hated than the Tans because they added a sense of arrogant superiority as they strutted from town to town, asserting their authority. They were deemed the cream of what London had to offer, all trained as officers and paid the generous salary for the time of one pound a day.

On November 28th, Tom Barry, commander of West Cork’s Number 3 Brigade, ambushed a contingent of Auxiliaries in Kilmichael, located between Macroom and Bantry. It was a savage encounter that ended with the deaths of 17 Auxies after heavy fighting that included some hand-to-hand combat. One IRA man was killed in the early exchanges and two others were shot in controversial circumstances. Seemingly, some Auxie leaders shouted that they wanted to  surrender but when two rebels responded by emerging from their cover, they were shot.

This was a major setback for the elite of the British forces in Ireland. It was a military massacre by the IRA who left seventeen bodies strewn on a country road, laying down a marker for the serious revolutionary intent of the Irish forces. Predictably, a fortnight after Kilmichael, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary were placed under martial law.

The third event, which like the treatment of Terence MacSwiney,  seriously blemished Great Britain’s international standing, was the burning of Cork city over two days from December 12th. This was the Auxies’ revenge for the carnage at Kilmichael. In their frustration and hatred they damaged or destroyed eighty commercial buildings as well as City Hall and the Carnegie Library. Pictures of the city in flames caused by out-of-control policemen were shown all over the world.

 Lloyd George admitted that he was deeply embarrassed when he was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury and others to square policemen burning a city they were supposed to protect with claims that British colonial policies were about civilizing the native population.   

The IRA in Cork also had setbacks, especially when, before Christmas of 1920, Bishop Daniel Cohalan from the local diocese announced that he was excommunicating all members of the IRA because of his total opposition to their use of violence. However, his words had little impact because the conflict got more expansive and reached its apogee during the first six months of 1921, the deadliest period of the whole war.

 The British realized that they were in a worsening no-win situation, so on July 12th, 1921, they signed off on a truce, acceptable to the IRA, with no binding conditions on either side. The actions of Terence MacSwiney, Tom Barry and of the Auxiliaries who burned the city of Cork played major roles in the declaration of the truce, which ended the War of Independence.

Gerry OShea blogs at



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