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Home Uncategorized Murder on the Bandon River

Murder on the Bandon River

Gerard Murphy

Massacre in West Cork: The Dunmanway and Ballygroman Killings, by Barry Keane, Mercier Press, 288 pp, €19.99, ISBN: 978-1781172032

Much that has been written on the Dunmanway massacre of some thirteen Protestants by the IRA in 1922 over the past fifteen years, and especially on the internet, has been little more than an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. The current Wikipedia page on the subject, for instance, states categorically that eight of those murdered were “suspected informers” and two more were relatives of same. Yet when you check the sources you find that there is no real evidence for this, other than some rather loose speculation. For this reason, I approached Barry Keane’s new book on the subject with some trepidation. Keane, you feel, is a brave man to take on this contentious topic, which of course is only contentious because some people have decided to make it so, largely for political reasons. The good news, however, is that Massacre in West Cork is better than I had feared it might be, and does not add to the growing mountain of bad-tempered material on the subject.

First the facts. On the night of April 25th/26th, 1922 an IRA party broke into the house of Thomas Hornibrook at Ballygroman, Ovens, about seven miles west of Cork city. Hornibrook, a Protestant, had been the object of persistent intimidation over the previous few years because of his loyalism. In the house that night were Thomas Hornibrook, his son, Samuel, and his son-in-law’s nephew, Herbert Woods. Woods was an ex-British army captain with the reputation for recklessness. As the IRA men climbed the stairs Woods, who was armed, fired on them, fatally wounding Michael O’Neill, the leader of the IRA party.

The following morning Woods and the Hornibrooks were arrested by the IRA, charged with the shooting of O’Neill, taken to “an unknown destination” and killed. Over the following few nights ten more Protestants were killed, mostly in the Dunmanway area, and several others were lucky to escape with their lives. Evidence now emerging suggests that the killers were the comrades of the dead Michael O’Neill stationed in the area, suggesting that that the motivation was mostly revenge.

Barry Keane tells us at the outset that his aim is to “tell the story of what happened over the course of these events honestly and fairly”. The book adopts a conciliatory tone and Keane tries to see the tragic events of that week from both the IRA angle and that of its victims. There is none of the spiteful bigotry associated with much recent historiography on the subject. Keane also tracks down some interesting material that sheds new light on the topic.

The strength of the book is that he restores the humanity of those involved. This is particularly the case with his handling of the Hornibrook family, where he managed to find descendants living in England and details the suffering of the family both before and after the dreadful events of April 1922. But he is equally fair on the background of the O’Neills, whose son Michael was shot that night. What he could not have done, since the evidence is only now beginning to emerge, is declare who the killers of the other ten Protestants were, though he does not shy away from naming names of those believed to be associated with the massacre.

Characters emerge from the detail. Herbert Woods, whose shot set the whole thing in motion, is portrayed as a flawed and reckless figure. Keane does not shy away either from detailing some of the character flaws of IRA men alleged to have been involved: Con Crowley, for instance, is described as being notorious for quarrelling and brawling in the post-Truce period. “Conneen was a tough little gunman, always in trouble, always fighting. When in drink he was dangerous, merciless and irresponsible. He was a holy terror when he got going on his mad escapades, and Brigadier Hales was at his wits end to restrain him.” He also gives an account of the lurid rumours that still circulate in Cork about the fate of Woods and the Hornibrooks.

Yet there are aspects of the book which seem rather odd. Woods, for instance, passes over the fact that Herbert Woods was employed by the military during 1920-21. He also challenges the view that Edward Woods, Herbert’s uncle, received a warning from the IRA to clear out of Cork “for having spies under your roof” in June 1921. Keane suggests that Woods Snr was mistaken in his recollection of this and that it happened a year later. But this is not the kind of thing one would forget – particularly when it would have been in Woods’s interest to say that it happened a year later for the benefit of claiming compensation. (The Irish Grants Commission only offered compensation for events that happened after the truce of July 1921.) It is almost as if he is trying to avoid looking for spies in the place you are most likely to find them – the military – in favour of a conspiracy among Protestant families. The Resurrection of the Anti-Sinn Fein League

The major problem with Keane’s analysis is that he uses the killing of the Hornibrooks to resurrect the notion of the “Anti-Sinn Fein League” as a cover name for a cabal of Protestant civilians gathering information on IRA activities. The term was certainly used at the time, but by a group within the security forces – mostly from the RIC, but probably also including the army – to create fear in the population. Notices from the ASFL were placed in newspapers, on hoardings and in other public places. The league was simply a cover name for nighttime British death squads. Labels were placed on the bodies of victims of these shadowy operatives, designed to show that the ASFL was as good at assassinations as the IRA was. Many of the Anti-Sinn Fein threats were first published in the Weekly Survey, the newspaper of the RIC. In fact, to judge by its own claims, the first victim of ASFL “justice” was lord mayor Tomás MacCurtain. “The theory is gradually gaining ground … that Mr MacCurtain, the Lord Mayor, fell victim to a new secret Anti-Sinn Fein Society, modelled and run upon the exact same lines as the famous Ku-Klux-Klan.” The killers, who styled themselves “a private band of avengers” were policemen in disguise. These murder squads, drawn from both police and military, were part of life in Cork during those years. British agents of various stripes, dressed as civilians were responsible for many of the killings of IRA men in Cork city, especially in 1921.

The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet Keane instead chooses to take District Inspector Holmes of the RIC at his word when he claimed that the ASFL was real and that it was not a cover for secret RIC death squads – when in reality he was trying to exonerate his own men from culpability for the burning of Cork city. The Coffey brothers of Enniskeane, who were murdered by one of these squads and had an Anti-Sinn Fein label (using Latin, not the most common language among West Cork Protestants) pinned to them, are a good example of this. But while Keane mentions this, he overlooks its most obvious implication, suggesting instead that it all points to Protestant civilians rather to one of the undercover hit squads that operated out of Bandon RIC barracks and who most likely carried out the killing. He also quotes a police weekly report from March 1921 where the Bandon RIC divisional commissioner reported that a “shed used by Sinn Fein was burnt by the Anti-Sinn Fein Society”. Such British dissimulations, like self-serving witness statements on the IRA side, seem to have been accepted without question.

Keane also takes at face value the claims made by the IRA men who killed city Protestants when they claimed their victims were members of the ASFL. Almost every Protestant who was shot in Cork was claimed by the IRA men responsible as belonging to some version or other of the ASFL. Often in these accounts the two Protestant groups actually targeted in the city, the Freemasons from early 1921 and the YMCA from the spring of 1922, were lumped together into some sort espionage agency. But this was merely a euphemism used to cover all Protestants who were shot.

The book is also bedevilled with minor errors which should have been picked up at the proofing stage. For instance, Jim Greenfield, one of the victims, is referred to as James in one page and John “Greenwood” elsewhere; James Blemens is described as working for Woodford Bourne when he was in fact a horticultural instructor, many family relations and addresses in West Cork are just plain wrong. Keane emphasises a 6th Division Weekly Intelligence report of mid-May 1921 suggesting that there were a wide range of loyalist informers scattered around the countryside and that this indicates how accurate British intelligence was. In fact, in the view of Florrie O’Donoghue, one who should know, the information in the report was rather poor. As for the informers identified in the document and shot by the IRA, these were Catholics and IRA members – and were from counties Clare and Limerick.

Keane says that in June 1921 GHQ asked for “the very discreet collection of the names and current addresses of all resident magistrates, justices of the peace, crown solicitors and petty sessions clerks and there is no doubt that the names of some of the victims would have appeared on this list”. Yet these lists can be found in the O’Donoghue, Mulcahy and Lankford papers and the names of the victims are not on any of them. Another source is the so-called Dunmanway dossier, a notebook left behind by the Auxiliary company which was garrisoned at Dunmanway workhouse. This, it has been claimed, was the list from which the IRA selected its victims. Yet none of the victims are named on that list either, nor are they named on the IRA’s own list of informers. Yet these lists have been used for years to suggest that the victims were spies. There is no evidence for any of this.

Towards the end of the book the author minimises the effects the killings had on the local Protestant population, claiming that less than 10% of the population left as a result.  Yet in paragraph after paragraph, the evidence he presents himself would suggest otherwise.

Keane also refers to the statement of Archdeacon Daly of Galway that ‘until the recent tragedies in the County Cork, hostility to Protestants by reason of their religion has been almost, if not wholly, unknown in the twenty-six counties in which Protestants are in a minority.’ This statement has achieved almost canonical status among certain historians. However, the oft-quoted Archdeacon, who was born in Cork, arguably had a good reason for his denial since his own relatives had been burnt out of County Cork by the IRA in 1921. Like many another Protestant, Archdeacon Daly had reason for keeping his head down and for publicly declaring that all was well.

It is worth noting that Sergeant Hanna, the well-known Dublin barrister said: ‘we are a defenceless minority in Southern Ireland, and all we ask, or have ever asked, is for liberty to live our… lives… But unless this campaign of murder, exile, kidnapping, confiscation and destruction of property comes to an end in Southern Ireland an exodus of Protestants must ensue.

The author also relates how a Protestant delegation met with Michael Collins the following day looking for reassurances for their safety. ‘They brought to his notice many cases in which their co-religionists had suffered persecution in various parts of the country. They asked for assurances that the Government was desirous of retaining them or whether in the alternative it was desirous that they should leave the country.’  Collins of course did assure Protestants of their future in the new state and Protestants were quite well treated when the various wars were over. But the point is that at that stage they were contemplating upping sticks and abandoning the country altogether. They would not have reached this point without reason..

Despite these criticisms the book does have strengths. While it cannot claim to be the definitive account of the massacre since such an account would need full access to the IRA pensions records, Keane is good on internet sources, particularly on genealogy and the Great War. He has unearthed some new and fascinating family connections around the Hornibrooks, though he does miss out on one significant genealogical connection, the fact that Warren Peacocke was a first cousin of Lady Carson, which may also have been a factor in his killing.  And he does try to be fair-minded. His overall conclusions: that the Dunmanway murders were mainly motivated by revenge is hard to dispute, as is his summary that killings had ‘the arrogance of unfettered military power at their centre’.

With one exception, he found no real evidence other than rather loose speculation that the victims were ‘spies’.  (The exception was Francis Fitzmaurice and since he was a partner of Jasper Wolfe, the Crown Solicitor for West Cork, he could hardly be expected to do anything else. He had also been intimidated since 1916 for allowing his car to be used by the RIC.)

That Keane found little evidence of a systematic sectarian plot to drive Protestants out of West Cork should not surprise us either, since this was largely a stick with which to beat Peter Hart, a trumped-up charge in the show trial that constituted much of the ‘debate’ over the past decade. However, his excavation of slender connections between individuals and his pursuit of family associations to the exclusion of military ones makes one wonder if this is perhaps just another example of blaming Protestants for their own suffering. The devil is in the detail. A sincere and honest effort, or a piece of political playacting? We’ll find out if and when his more selective data appear as ‘fact’ in Wikipedia. By their fruits ye shall know them.


Gerard Murphy is the author of The Year of Disappearances, Political Killings in Cork 1921-1922. He is a novelist and historian and lectures in microbiology at the Institute of Technology, Carlow. He has had several novels published, the most recent being The Kindness of Strangers (2013).



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