Dangerous but rarely deadly: Fire as protest in modern Ireland

Gemma Clark
University of Exeter


Arson is the criminal act of setting fire to property with the aim to cause damage; yet, whether or not incendiaries also intend to harm people, fires often result in ‘tragedies involving burns and scalds’, as documented by this blog. In November 1991, during the Northern Ireland Troubles, two young arsonists ‘motivated by sectarian hatred’ killed Kathleen Lundy, a Catholic convert through marriage, and her 15-year-old son, Colin, residents of the predominantly Protestant area of Glengormey, near Belfast. (Another son, Gerard, aged 19, was injured.) Mark Whyte, 18, and Richard McKay, 19, claimed at Belfast Crown Court that they believed the family was staying with relatives on the night they ‘poured petrol through the letterbox’ of the Lundy home and ‘set it alight’.[1] In a seemingly-weak defence of a life-threatening act, McKay ‘thumped the dock with his fist and shouted out – “Nobody was meant to die”.’[2] Mr Justice Nicholson ‘had a “slight doubt” as to whether they intended to kill’, sentencing the pair, in February 1993, to concurrent fifteen-year sentences for arson and manslaughter.[3]

As a historian of arson, I explore similarly difficult questions around personal and collective motivations for malicious fire setting, focusing specifically on its function as a tool of protest and intercommunal violence. One of the core and perhaps unexpected findings in my research area, Britain and especially Ireland since c.1800, is that this inherently dangerous strategy has claimed relatively few casualties, especially when compared to modern, sinister usages of fire, such as ethnic cleansing and inter-religious/racial violence, elsewhere in the world.[4] There have been racist and suspected-racist arson attacks in modern Britain; the New Cross house fire, in London, 1981, for example, claimed thirteen young lives and shaped Black British identity.[5] However, the relative scarcity of lethal arson, particularly in the British/Irish protest sphere, is surprising because arguably incendiarism works so effectively – as intimidation and insurgency – precisely because of its lethal potential. Humans learn from a young age ‘that fire can hurt us. It can burn our body and lay waste to our home’;[6] I have found that politically-motivated arsonists historically have traded on this primal fear, of losing everything to the flames, to induce action and compliance with demands.

Arson was a paramilitary tool of the Irish Republican Army (IRA): apparatus of the British state in Ireland was burned during the War of Independence (Image: Custom House, Dublin, on fire, 1921, public domain).

In nineteenth-century Ireland – a predominantly rural economy, outside industrialised Ulster – arson featured prominently during outbreaks of agrarian unrest. As violence peaked before the Great Famine (1845–52), ‘Rockites’ and other rebel groups used fire (or the threat of burning homes and crops) to intimidate employers engaged in what were perceived collectively to be unfair practices, and to frustrate in their duties magistrates, tithe-collectors, Crown witnesses, and other representatives of British governance, which had been re-established in Ireland by the 1800 Act of Union.[7] Arson also played a role in twentieth-century independence struggles, as a paramilitary tool of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – to which British forces responded in kind, most famously with the burning of Cork city, 1920.[8] Ireland’s Revolution, 1912–23, culminated in a bitter Civil War in which republican and rural agitators reclaimed Irish land from English and Scottish colonisers by burning Protestant and (former) British loyalist owned ‘big houses’.[9]

Realising the symbolic and functional power of arson to undo Plantation via the building of ‘big houses’, the IRA burned many of these seats of Protestant and (former) British-loyalist privilege during the Irish Revolution, c.1919-23 (Image: Moore Hall, Lough Carra, County Mayo in 2010, public domain).

These historic campaigns of fire were highly destructive; arson attacks contributed to estimated material losses of £50 million during the Civil War alone.[10] Ireland’s natural/built environment is one important factor in explaining the prominence of property damage over interpersonal harm. In a damp climate, rural fires were fairly easily contained at the target site; retribution via the burning of an enemy’s haystack, for example, which typically stands away from the main farm, in a haggard, can be achieved with little risk to neighbouring properties. Control is more difficult to exercise in towns and cities where people live closely side by side. While serious sectarian rioting in Derry, in 1870 and 1883, for example, involved arson, rarely were whole homes burned; instead, gangs removed furniture and burned it in the street, suggesting the function of urban arson was to expel and (re)claim property from the rival denomination, while preventing fire spreading to one’s own community’s housing.[11]

British counter-insurgency forces retaliated against the IRA’s campaign of fire by burning homes and businesses of supposed Sinn Fein (republican party) supporters in Cork city, 1920 (Image: National Library of Irelandno restrictions).

After Partition (1920), the Northern Irish police force (the ‘Specials’) and loyalist paramilitaries used arson to terrorise Catholics and drive out the minority from the nascent state.[12] During the intense violence of the more recent Troubles, the primary function of incendiarism has also been to intimidate the enemy, not kill him. I calculated that a tiny fraction (0.004%) of Northern Ireland’s 3,531 conflict-related deaths, 1969–2001, were directly attributable to arson: eight died in attacks on private residences (including Kathleen and Colin Lundy, above); two in fires at commercial premises; two following injuries sustained on a burning bus; and two after inhaling fumes as bystanders during petrol-bomb attacks.[13] Fire was used instead during the conflict to destroy forensic evidence relating to murder by other means, as seen during the ‘Cabbie Killings’ of the early 1990s (Northern Irish taxi drivers became particularly vulnerable to this pattern of murder and cover up, during reprisals between nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries).[14]

In researching the danger posed to life by fire, I distinguish between arson-related deaths (smoke and soot inhalation usually kill before heat does, though some victims die from burns),[15] and fatalities caused by the release of energy, and pressure-driven projectiles, such as building debris, when a bomb explodes, as happened in Birmingham in 1974; excellent histories of bombing are available elsewhere.[16] Medical literature shows that death by fire is protracted; perhaps for this reason, psychiatrists also report that self-immolation is a rare suicide method.[17] To put it bluntly, fire is not an efficient means of killing someone; victims might also have to be held captive in a burning building to ensure death. An especially cruel and unusual punishment, then, historically fire has thus served as an ‘emblem of complete hostility’,[18] a ‘purifying’ flame to cleanse a racial/ethnic/religious enemy.[19] During the brutal violence and naked sectarianism of Ireland’s 1798 insurrection against English rule, for example, Catholic insurgents locked 200 Protestant civilians in a barn in Scullabogue, County Wexford, and burned them to death.

The 1798 insurrection against English rule in Ireland saw brutal sectarianism including a rare case of lethal arson: the burning to death of Protestant civilians in the Scullabogue massacre (Image: George Cruikshank engraving, 1845, public domain).

Yet, even during the intense inter-communal violence of the later Irish Revolution and Northern Ireland Troubles, explored in this post, on the whole the intention of protest-arson in Ireland has been to cause fear, not death, which contrasts with, for example, modern American race riots. When a labour dispute became violent in East St Louis, Illinois, in 1917, white mobs with ‘lighted torches’ intended to kill Black migrant-workers; firefighters attempting to quell the flames were attacked and the dead or dying thrown back into their burning homes.[20]

A torched car burns in Paris, 2006: Anti-CPE protests opposed to labour laws in France that allowed employers more easily to hire and fire young workers. As an illustration of property damage as political violence, here a car is set alight because of its proximity to gathered news photographers, rather than its intrinsic, material value (Image: fair use).

The murderous intentions underpinning lethal arson attacks in historic and ongoing ethnic cleansing across the globe have been comparatively scarce in modern Ireland where property (including access to and ownership of land) has been highly prized and bitterly contested. Since the nineteenth century especially, in the context of changing social attitudes towards and legal treatment of offences against the person, the destruction of property has been a prominent feature not only of Irish criminality, but also resistance against British colonial rule. In a new project funded by a British Academy-Leverhulme Small Research Grant, ‘Exporting Arson: Incendiarism as Protest in the Global Irish Diaspora’, I will explore further the apparently Irish propensity for certain (non-lethal) strategies of dissent. In the meantime, I hope this brief history has shown the power of intimidation short of interpersonal harm: incendiarism is heavily imbued with symbolism and latent threat that explains the efficacy of arson (and its close cousin, petrol-bombing) both in historic protests and the photogenic fiery spectacles played out in the media today.[21]

Dr Gemma Clark is Senior Lecturer in British/Irish History, at the University of Exeter, and author of Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2014). She has also published on gender-based violence and arson, in Ireland, and is currently researching a global history of incendiarism as protest.

[1] ‘NI men get 15 years for killings’, The Irish Times, 12 Feb. 1993.

[2] ‘Accused claims killings a mistake’, The Irish Times, 2 Feb. 1993.

[3] ‘NI men get 15 years for killings’.

[4] Gemma Clark, ‘Arson in modern Ireland: Fire and protest before the Famine’, in Kyle Hughes and Donald MacRaild (eds), Crime, violence and the Irish in the nineteenth century (Liverpool University Press, 2017), 211–26 at 222.

[5] Alexis Akwagyiram, ‘Did the New Cross fire create a black British identity?’, BBC News, 18 Jan. 2011: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12182927

[6] Robert Tsai, ‘Fire, metaphor and constitutional myth-making’, Georgetown Law Journal, vol. 93 (2004), 181–254 at 183.

[7] Clark, ‘Arson in modern Ireland’.

[8] Clark, ‘Fire as revolution and repression: revolutionary Ireland in perspective’, in Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds), The Oxford handbook of colonial insurgencies and counterinsurgencies (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[9] Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Chapter 3.

[10] Clark, Everyday Violence, 28.

[11] ‘Religious conflict’, in S.J. Connolly (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Irish History (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2002); Clark, Everyday Violence, 59–60.

[12] Clark, Everyday Violence, 57–60.

[13] ‘Sutton Index of Deaths and Draft List of Deaths’, Conflict Archive on the Internethttp://cain.ulst.ac.uk/sutton/.

[14] Peter Millership, ‘Taxi Drivers Brave a Menacing Gauntlet in Belfast’s Bomb-Scarred Ghettos of Fear’, Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1991.

[15] H. Gormsen, N. Jeppesen, A. Lund, ‘The causes of death in fire victims’, Forensic Science International, vol. 24, issue 2 (Feb. 1984), 107–111.

[16] Mike Davis, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007).

[17] Alireza Ahmadi, ‘Suicide by self-immolation: Comprehensive overview, experiences and suggestions’, Journal of Burn Care and Research, vol. 28, issue 1 (Jan./Feb. 2007), 30–41.

[18] D.L. Horowitz, The deadly ethnic riot (University of California Press, 2001), 113.

[19] E.M. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917(University of Illinois Press, 1964), 48.

[20] Malcolm McLoughlin, ‘Reconsidering the East St Louis race riot of 1917’, International Review of Social History, vol. 47 (2002), 187–212.

[21] Clark, ‘Burn after reading: A short history of arson’, The Conversation, 4 Dec. 2014: https://theconversation.com/burn-after-reading-a-short-history-of-arson-32161; Matthew Lewis, ‘The petrol bomb’s incendiary – and uncertain – history’, The Conversation, 25 Sept. 2014: https://theconversation.com/the-petrol-bombs-incendiary-and-uncertain-history-31850.