Loading Exhibition

Small Lives: At Home in Cork in 1920

In this online exhibition we discover Cork in 1920 through the lives lived inside and outside the North and South Presentation Convents, ordinary lives set against the tumultuous backdrop of the revolutionary war in this city. These lives are revealed through the rich archival materials we hold here with additional material from public and private collections.

The South Presentation Convent Community photographed in c.1909.

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Presentation Sisters Congregational Archives.

The Presentation Sisters

The South Presentation convent was founded for the purposes of ‘charitable instruction’ by Nano Nagle in 1775. The Presentation Sisters had been enclosed since 1805, meaning that they did not leave the grounds of the convent for any reason giving them an unique perspective on the historic events happening outside their walls. The Sisters’ way of life was monastic, with prayers wrapped around the school day.

‘Guerilla warfare is raging between some of our poor countrymen and auxiliary troops sent over by the English Government. Many are the outrages committed on both sides and many innocent people have lost their lives. Even we are living in terror of what is going on around us; explosions in or near the city, and night is almost hell-like from the firing of machine and other guns and from burnings, as when the troops tried to fire the city. But God has wonderfully protected us and we have suffered nothing worse than fright. Deo Gratias.’

South Presentation Convent Annals, December 1920-1.

Schools at South Pres

Education was central to the Presentation Sisters lives and mission. There were 2 schools at South Pres in 1920, an infant boys’ school and a girls’ school. The girls ranged in age from ‘little women of 3 summers, full of the importance conferred by the nuns, up to the graceful lissom girls of 16 or 17.’ Girls could only stay in school past 6th class if their families did not need them to go out and earn a wage. The boys stayed in South Pres until they made their Holy Communion and then went to another junior school, either the South Mon next door run by the Presentation Brothers or to the Christian Brothers on Sullivan’s Quay.

Class photographs are rare in the South Presentation Collection before 1950, thus a set of photographs dating from 1926 are all the more interesting.

Schools at North Pres

In the late 1700s Nano Nagle founded seven schools across Cork city, three of these were north of the River Lee. In 1799 it was decided to establish a convent near Shandon, on Philpott Lane, to take care of these schools.

By 1920, North Presentation Convent was established in a substantial house on Gerald Griffin Street, the Sisters had 3 schools, an infant boys’ school, an infant girls’ school, and a junior girls’ school. The North Presentation Sisters not only engaged in academic education, but also taught practical subjects like cooking and sewing, and ran evening classes for parents.

We have few images of North Pres, this is the infant school room of St Vincent’s School, a north side school run by the Sisters of Charity. This image gives an impression of the size of the classrooms and number of students taught, which might be above 200.

Small Lives

Mary Hayes was born in 1907 to Bridget and Battie Hayes. In 1911, they lived at 2.3 Grattan Street, a tenement building, meaning they lived in one room, sharing the building with 3 other families.

Her father, Battie joined the British Army in 1912 and was deployed to France in August 1914. He was killed in action on 7th November 1914. On the anniversary of his death Bridget and Mary posted an advert in the Irish Examiner fondly remembering him. At a time when they would have been struggling financially, this expenditure shows how much Battie meant to them.

In the winter of 1916, Bridget remarried. Bridget, her new husband and Mary moved to a one room tenement on 25 Henry Street. Mary started school at the North Pres in 1920 but did not stay for long, by 1922, she had left and was working as a servant.

Published on 3 November 1915 in The Irish Examiner, Mary and Bridget remember Battie on his one year anniversary.

A study carried out in Cork in 1917 found that the city had higher instances of ‘primary poverty’ than either London or York. A symptom of primary poverty was the need for families to withdraw children from school so they could work. This little girl, with her bare feet, basket and cloak, looks as if she is at work, not at play.

Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum, Cork.

Small Lives

Michael and Joe O’Hara both started school at South Pres in September 1920, aged 4 and 5. Their father was a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force in Ireland until 1922. The 2 brothers lived in RIC accommodation at Elizabeth Fort. Life in a barracks was difficult, everyone had to follow military rules and children had to always be well behaved.

RIC families were also subject to relocation. Michael and Joe had been born while their father was stationed in Wexford. They then moved to Cork in 1919, Carlow in February 1921, before coming back to Cork in May of the same year.

Safety would have been a concern for Michael, Joe and their family. During the War of Independence, the RIC were often a target of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 1920 saw the IRA increase attacks on RIC barracks, usually raiding them for weapons before burning the building to prevent reoccupation.

A group of RIC officers photographed outside Union Quay Barracks in July 1921. The man wearing the hat and smoking the pipe is Head Constable Michael O’Hara, father of Michael and Joe. Image courtesy of the Jim Herlihy Collection

“The Police cannot go on patrol except in considerable force and on the slightest opportunity they are held up. It is difficult for them to get provisions and fuel & light in many places. Their condition of life in barracks with light and air shut out by sand bags, shell boxes and steel shutters is very irksome and disagreeable. At night they cannot sleep during the dark hours apprehending an attack at any time.”

June 1920 report from RIC county inspector in Galway quoted in D. Leeson, The Black and Tans (Oxford, 2012), p.42.

Click images to zoom in

These incredible images are part of the Kendrick Collection, photographs taken in and around Fethard, Co. Tipperary, between 1895 and 1915. They show members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (left and right) and Royal Field Artillery (centre) living ‘in barracks’ with their families. The images act as a stark reminder that many of the barracks burnt during the War of Independence were homes occupied by both serving officers and their families.

At Home in a Housing Crisis

In the 1920s, almost 10% of Cork’s population lived in tenements. While Dublin’s tenements were known as ‘the Calcutta of the west’, one commentator noted that ‘it is an open secret that the slums of Cork are relatively as bad as those of Dublin’.

Tenements were for many families the last option, providing accommodation at relatively cheap rent, but with this came overcrowding and poor conditions.

Describing a Cork tenement house in 1917, researcher Aengus MacSweeney noted:

‘I know of one case at least where the father and mother and 6 children occupied 1 room in which they slept and worked and took their meals and washed. In addition to the overcrowding there was extreme poverty accompanied by extreme neglect and dirt. Behind each tenement was a miserable yard bestrewn with all kinds of refuse, with 1 water closet and 1 tap.’

In many tenement houses the attic rooms were cheapest to rent. Here we can see the steeply pitched roof of an old Cork townhouse where there seem to be 2 beds - suggesting multiple occupants.

Image courtesy of the Henry Ford Archive, Dearborn, Michigan.

Safe Home?

A safe, private home is one of the markers of democratic civilization. The hope that once the front door is closed your home becomes safe and impenetrable is something we can all identify with. In Cork city in 1920 this was not the case.

As the year wore on, the city and county were in a state of violent conflict. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) used guerrilla tactics against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who were bolstered by reinforcements, the ‘Black and Tans’ in March and ‘The Auxiliaries’ in July. A pattern of attack and reprisal developed.

By summer a ‘shoot to kill’ policy was in place for civilians who disobeyed orders and a curfew of 10pm was imposed.

Newspaper headlines taken from the Irish Examiner from July to December 1920

Home Safe?

Martial Law was declared in December 1920. A new rule made it essential for households to list the occupants’ names, sex, ages and occupation on the back of their external door. With this move the Cork military authorities had the excuse to knock on any door and demand entry.

The first mention of homes being attacked in Cork city in 1920 is on 11th March. When RIC Constable Timothy Scully was shot dead in Glanmire, a series of attacks and reprisals began. On the morning of the 20th March the RIC burst into the home of the Lord Mayor of the city, Tomás MacCurtain, and shot him dead in front of his pregnant wife and family.

Tomás McCurtain, his wife and family.

The assassination of the Lord Mayor caused widespread public outrage. The pattern of attacks and rebuttals continued and by the end of 1920, caused one of the most devastating events in Cork’s history.

Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum, Cork.

Last night in Cork was such a night of destruction and terror as we have not yet had. An orgy of destruction and ruin: the calm sky frosty red – red as blood with the burning city, and the pale cold stars looking down on the scene of desolation and frightfulness.

Liam de Róiste personal diary entry, 12 December 1920, quoted in T. McCarthy, Rising from the Ashes: The Burning of Cork’s Carnegie Library and the Rebuilding of its Collections (Cork, 2010), pp. 6-7.

The Burning of Cork

On the evening of 11th December, a party of Auxiliaries were attacked at Dillon’s Cross. Later that night brothers Jeremiah and Cornelius Delaney, who were not involved in the ambush but were known republicans, were shot in their beds. This was possibly because weapons used in the ambush at Dillon’s Cross were tracked to their farm.

In retaliation for an IRA ambush the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries looted and burned numerous buildings in the main commercial areas of Cork city: St Patrick’s Street, Winthrop Street and the Grand Parade. Alan J. Ellis, an eyewitness described...

‘Fred Huston, chief of the Cork Fire Brigade … told me bluntly that all the fires were being deliberately started by incendiary bombs, and in several cases, he had seen soldiers pouring cans of petrol into buildings and setting them alight.’

The Burning of Cork: An Eyewitness Account by Alan. J. Ellis
(The Aubane Historical Society, 2004), pp.7-8.

‘If you were dumped down in Patrick St now, you wouldn’t know where you were.’

Letter from Sylvester Hendrick to his son Michael in August 1921, P. Hendrick (ed.) Letters to New Zealand: The Story of a Cork Family (privately published), pg. 86.

Cork citizens survey the damage of St Patrick’s Street, Dec 1920.

Image courtesy of Mercier Archive.

After the City Burned

The fires which consumed much of St Patrick’s Street left over 400 people homeless. Many owners and apprentices ‘lived over the shop’, mercifully none were killed.

The British government at first denied their involvement in the burning of Cork, claiming that the fires had been set by the IRA. The subsequent Strickland Enquiry, which investigated the cause of the fires, was highly critical of the Auxiliaries and concluded that they were responsible. The findings of the enquiry were suppressed as they were believed to give ‘greater scope for rebel propaganda’ and they were not released to the public until 1998.


A bustling St Patrick’s Street, Cork in the early part of the century, showing Munster Arcade and Egan’s jewellers. Image courtesy of the Irish Examiner.


The same view of St Patrick’s Street, showing the ruins of the Munster Arcade, Sunner’s Chemist and Egans, 1920. Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum, the Michael Lenihan Collection.

The Impact of the Burning

Physical Impact

The burning of Cork had a huge impact on its citizens. 6,000 people were left unemployed with more than 40 business premises, including Cork City Hall and The Carnegie Free Library, destroyed by the fires.

The process of planning and rebuilding the city took much longer than initially anticipated with the main thoroughfare remaining in ruins for many years. City Hall was the last building to be completed in 1936 meaning the effects of the Burning of Cork were felt for 16 years.

Map showing the destruction of the burning of Cork, 1920.

Image courtesy of Michael Lenihan.

The Impact of the Burning

Impact on Businesses

The fires on the night of 11th December caused over £3 million worth of damage, the equivalent to €150 million in 2020.

Canny local businessman William Roche soon put up a large calico sign announcing a ‘salvage sale’ a few days after the burnings, trading from a side entrance. Many local businesses commissioned temporary wooden premises, so trading could continue while planning and reconstruction were underway.

However, unsurprisingly, some retailers never recovered from the burning of their premises. These included Sunner’s Chemist, the Lee Boot Company and Old London House.

A view of Egan’s jewellers and the Munster Arcade’s temporary wooden structures, 1921. Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum, Cork. Egan’s was one of the businesses to erect a temporary premise, Munster Arcade’s temporary structure is also visible in the background, 1921.

Image courtesy of Cork Public Museum, Cork, the Michael Lenihan Collection.

The Spanish Flu

In 1918 - 1919, Ireland experienced an influenza epidemic. The Spanish Flu came in 3 waves: the first hit in Spring 1918, the second in October - November 1918 and the last in Spring 1919. The flu spread across the globe rapidly due to the return of soldiers after the First World War. In Ireland, the outbreak of the first wave is traced to Cobh when the USS Dixie docked there in May 1918.

Irish Examiner, 16 July 1918

‘Ireland … did share in poverty and pestilence, which under the harmless name of influenza, had all the signs of Plague, carrying off many in a couple of days. This disease spread over the earth, and caused more deaths than even the war, whole families were wiped out and the young and strong were the chosen victims, though no age escaped.’

‘Our schools had to be closed three different times on account of this epidemic, but God preserved the Community wonderfully, not one death resulting from it. The few Sisters who did contract the disease got it lightly.’

The South Presentation Convent Annals, December 1918-19.

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Presentation Sisters Congregational Archives.

The Spread of the Spanish Flu

The first wave of the flu was mild but the next 2 onslaughts were to be more deadly. One major reason for the rapid spread of the Spanish Flu was the living conditions in slums.

Overcrowded and unsanitary tenements with entire families living in 1 room, sharing an outside tap and toilet with other families, were conducive to the rapid spread of the flu among the poorest in society.

‘To Prevent Influenza!’ from Illustrated Current News, 1918.

Image Courtesy of U.S National Library of Medicine.

The Impact of the Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu claimed at least 23,000 lives in Ireland and infected 800,000 more people across the country in just over 12 months. One unusual feature of this flu is that it had the worst effect on those aged 25 to 35, those over the age of 65 were largely immune.

As quickly as it came, the Spanish Flu disappeared. This epidemic isn’t well documented in Irish history. The ‘collective amnesia’ surrounding the deadly virus is largely due to the War of Independence and political tensions which superseded the flu’s effect on Irish society.

Emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas treating patients for the Spanish Flu, 1918. Image Courtesy of Cork City Library.

Image Courtesy of Cork City Library

1920 vs 2020

1920 was a truly chaotic period of Irish history between political upheavals, arson, and assassinations. Cork citizens must have wondered when the trauma would end. While we cannot directly relate the Spanish Flu and its effects onto our experience of Covid-19, it is interesting to mark the parallels between these diseases and their effects on our society.

After 1920, Cork re-emerged as a fine city. In 2020 we are dealing with similar uncertainties. How will we look back on this period of history a century from now? Will Cork city emerge a finer place to live?

Early albumen print of St Patrick’s Street c. 1900.

Image courtesy of the Michael Lenihan Collection.

Exhibition Thanks

We would like to especially thank Michael Lenihan for his time, patience and generous expertise. Thanks to Jasmine Shaw, our University College Cork Masters in Museum Studies ‘remote intern’ who made an enormous contribution to this exhibition, not only researching but also transcribing school registers.

Thanks to the Cork Public Museum, Cork Public Library, Jim Herlihy, Jim Coughlan, John Drummond, Gerry White, Sinead McCarthy, the Capuchin Archives, Stephanie Woods, Joe Kenny, Victoria Kingston, Niall Murray, Presentation Brothers Congregational Archives, the sisters and teachers at North Presentation Convent and School, Sr Rosarie Lordan and Tom Lonergan the Presentation Sisters Congregational Archivists, the NNP ambassador team who helped to transcribe and research the school registers, Rob and all the team at Walsh Print & Graphics, and finally to the ever patient and amazingly creative Kasia Uszczynska.