In December 1920, with Ireland in the throes of the War of Independence, the city of Cork suffered a disastrous series of fires which obliterated famous department stores and left whole blocks of buildings destroyed, writes Mary Rose McCarthy.

There is no doubt that 1920 was a turbulent year in the history of Ireland’s fight for independence. Nowhere was this turbulence more evident than in Cork. Tensions had been building in Ireland’s second largest city for much of the year.

In March 1920, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain was killed as an act of revenge for the shooting of an RIC constable. His successor, Terence MasSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixton after refusing food for 74 days. His supporters declared Britain had mistreated a prisoner of war. But at no time did the English government concede that the violence in Ireland was an act of war.

Donal O’Callaghan, the third republican Lord Mayor of Cork, narrowly escaped arrest by fleeing to the US.
The Irish Constabulary was established in 1836, the first Irish police force set up in Ireland. They earned the prefix ‘Royal’ in 1867 for suppressing the Fenian Rising. The Royal Irish Constabulary was reviled, boycotted and ostracised by the local population. They were also subject to random attacks though the large majority of them were themselves Irish.

By early 1920, members were resigning, as they feared for their lives. Recruitment from the local population dwindled. To address the deficit in numbers a recruitment drive commenced in Britain in July 1920. Most of those applying had served in the British Army during WW1. Initially they wore a combination of the dark green jackets of the RIC and khaki trousers of the army. This earned them the nickname ‘Black and Tans’.

Further recruitment was deemed necessary in late autumn 1920. Personnel were drawn mainly from the officer class who had also served in the British Army in WW1. Chief of the RIC, Joseph Byrne, objected to bringing former soldiers into the police force, as he was concerned that police discipline would not suit them. He was overruled and suspected of being too soft on Sinn Féin. Eventfully he was removed from his post.

The second batch of recruits were formally called the ADRIC – the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. They were billeted in RIC barracks with the regular RIC. Locally they were referred to as ‘Auxies’. For many people, including political leaders of the day, distinctions between the ADRIC and the Black and Tans were often blurred.

The Black and Tans garnered a reputation for brutality. Eventually any reprisals carried out against the republican guerrilla war was attributed to the Black and Tans. In time, history revealed that in fact many acts of violence were carried out by the Auxies.

Tensions were running so high in Cork towards the end of 1920 the city was garrisoned. The regular RIC and British army units were supplemented by K Company of the Auxiliaries, stationed at Victoria Barracks (now Collins Barracks) in the North side of the city.

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