Cork 1920 – The Burning of a City Exhibition

Cork 1920 – The Burning of a City is a year-long exhibition hosted at St Peter’s Cork that explores the tumultuous events of that year in the city and its role in the Irish struggle for independence, culminating with attempts by British Forces to burn down Cork city. The exhibition opened on 31 January, 2020 and runs until the end of 2020.

A former church, St Peter’s Cork is now a tourist attraction and exhibition space on North Main Street, Cork. we were commissioned by St Peter’s to create the exhibition on a somewhat overlooked chapter of Irish history. We were responsible for the text and graphic design of all the panels, the production of two bespoke pieces of audio-visual content used in the exhibition as well as the design of the overall installation within St Peter’s.

We worked with SystemPlus Elements to create a unique hanging installation which would allow for the entire exhibition to be disassembled and reassembled should the venue need to be used for other one-off events.

To tell the complex Cork 1920 story in an engaging and impactful way, we grouped the hanging panels into thematic chapters. The installation lead visitors on a chronological path through the year 1920 by creating a winding corridor through the otherwise open exhibition space constructed by layers of hanging white muslin. Throughout the day, natural light passes through the various layers of muslin to create a feeling of immersion and suggest the opacity of a smoke-filled sky.

The text was written after much research and generous access to UCC’s Special Collections Unit and its many witness statements, handwritten documents, rare publications and historic reports before being verified and approved by a team of local historians and academics.

To illustrate the global impact of events in Cork, we designed a world map which details the reach of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney’s influence on politicians in America, India, South Africa and beyond. A map of Cork City in 1920 gave visitors a deeper understanding of the night of the burning.

We brought the people of 1920 to life with two astonishing colourised photographs from the Cork Examiner and Michael Lenihan’s collections. The burned-out buildings, shocked bystanders and the smoke-filled air brought the reality of the destruction home.

Two immersive video installations helped tell separate stories of the year. The first, Rebel Women, shone a spotlight on the tenacious women of 1920s Cork using the women’s own Bureau of Military History testimonies to tell their remarkable stories.

The second transports the visitor back to the night of the burning itself. Using RTÉ’s recorded recollections of witnesses from 1960, Pathé footage and an emotive score, we told the story of the panic, fear and destruction through the voices of those who were there.

Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr John Sheehan commented, upon viewing a preview of the exhibition, “I am sure everyone who visits during the year will agree that (St Peter’s) creative approach gives a poignant insight into 1920”.