In March 1920, Tomás Mac Curtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, was shot dead in front of his wife at his home, by men with blackened faces who were seen returning to the local police barracks. The jury at the inquest into his death returned a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George (the British Prime Minister) and District Inspector Swanzy, among others. Swanzy was later tracked down and killed in Lisburn, County Antrim. This pattern of killings and reprisals escalated in the second half of 1920 and in 1921.
On 17 July 1920, a British Colonel Gerald Smyth was assassinated by the IRA in the County Club in Cork city in response to a speech that was made to police officers of Listowel who had refused orders to move into the more urban areas, in which he stated "you may make mistakes occasionally, and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped.
On 9 August 1920, the British Parliament passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act. It replaced the trial by jury by courts-martial by regulation for those areas where IRA activity was prevalent.
Then, on 21 November 1920, there was a day of dramatic bloodshed in Dublin. In the early morning, Collins' Squad attempted to wipe out the leading British intelligence operatives in the capital. The Squad shot 19 people, killing 14 and wounding 5. These consisted of British Army officers, police officers and civilians. The dead included members of the Cairo Gang and a courts-martial officer, and were killed at different places around Dublin.
About 300 people had been killed by late 1920, but the conflict escalated in November. On Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 21 November 1920, fourteen British intelligence operatives were assassinated in the morning; then in the afternoon the RIC opened fire on a crowd at a Gaelic football match, killing fourteen civilians and wounding 65. A week later, seventeen Auxiliaries were killed by the IRA in the Kilmichael Ambush in County Cork.
On 28 November 1920, only a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, the west Cork unit of the IRA, under Tom Barry, ambushed a patrol of Auxiliaries at Kilmichael in County Cork, killing all but one of the 18-man patrol.
On 10 December 1920, martial law was proclaimed in Counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary in Munster; in January 1921 martial law was extended to the rest of Munster in Counties Clare and Waterford, as well as Counties Kilkenny and Wexford in Leinster.
On 11 December, the centre of Cork City was burnt out by the Black and Tans, who then shot at firefighters trying to tackle the blaze, in reprisal for an IRA ambush in the city on 11 December 1920 which killed one Auxiliary and wounded eleven.