Brian M Walker writes: The recent TG4 documentary Marú in Iarthar Chorcaí (shown on December 7th) looked at the killings of thirteen civilians which occurred in West Cork in April 1922. The fact that all the victims were Protestant has drawn special attention to these events. The programme highlighted the controversy over the deaths. We heard various explanations for what happened. But other accounts, especially those expressed at the time, are also worth exploring.
Part of this controversy relates to the late Canadian historian Peter Hart, who wrote about not just these particular killings but also the whole revolutionary period. He was the author of a number of important articles and books on the IRA, especially in Cork. He also looked at the experiences of Southern Protestants at the time, the first historian to do so in a significant way.
In his work, Hart dared to write that not all members of the IRA were pure good-hearted heroes and also that Protestants suffered at the hands of republicans, especially after the treaty and during the civil war. These views aroused heated criticism, against not just his work but him personally.
Hart’s views have often been exaggerated and selectively quoted. It has been claimed that he wrote of widespread ethnic cleansing and that the IRA were a sectarian force. In 2003, however, in The I.R.A. at war 1916-23, he rejected the idea that there was “full-scale ethnic cleansing” of Protestants and acknowledged that the IRA was “formally non-sectarian in membership and constitution”. But he argued there were instances of “what might be called ethnic cleansing”. He also stated that while the IRA organisation was non-sectarian there were republicans who acted in a sectarian manner. This was certainly the case in West Cork in April 1922.
The basic facts are these. Early in the morning of April 26th a group of anti-treaty IRA volunteers arrived “on special duty” (unspecified) at the Protestant Hornibrook family home at Ballygroman House, Ovens. When refused entry, their commandant, Michael O’Neill, tried to break into the house but was shot dead by one of the inhabitants. Later that morning a larger IRA party returned, seized and then killed the two Hornibrooks and another family member, Captain Herbert Woods. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves which remain undiscovered to this day. In the following two days and nights republicans carried out a series of attacks on members of the Protestant community in Dunmanway and surrounding areas. Ten were shot dead, their ages ranging from sixteen to eighty-two. Another twenty, eighteen of them Protestant, were targeted but escaped with their lives.
How do we explain these killings and attacks? Clearly the death of O’Neill acted as a sort of spark. But most are reluctant to see it as the main cause, because his death had already been avenged by the killing of the Hornibrooks and Woods.
In the recent television documentary there was little or no attempt to name the killers. Why? Instead, efforts were made to explain the deaths of victims as a result of their alleged former involvement as informers, connections to the British army or membership of some anti-Sinn Féin society.
No doubt there were informers in the area but no firm evidence emerged to label these victims as such. It is doubtful that an anti-Sinn Féin society existed in1922. Mention on an IRA list of “suspects”, which included dozens, was hardly damning proof. Allegations made were often tenuous or not meaningful. Even if such claims are valid how can they explain these killings? The War of Independence had been over for nine months. This was April 1922, not July 1921.
The principal argument, however, against believing that these people were killed for such reasons is that at the time not a single person said this. No comments or speeches about these events, as recorded in the press, make these allegations. For some, claims of this kind would have explained, or even excused, the murders. But they were not made. Indeed, others spoke up to the contrary. At a meeting of Bandon District Council, chairman Sean Ó Buachalla stated that he could personally bear testimony that many, “most wanted by the enemy”, were sheltered by their Protestant neighbours. This claim was later backed up by another councillor, Timothy Murphy, who said that some of the victims had “sheltered our brave men”.
To understand these killings we must see them in their contemporary context. The early 1922 months were a lawless period, with the winddown of the RIC and withdrawal of the British army. Efforts were under way to create a new police force but An Garda Síochána was not yet formed. Divisions over the treaty led to different factions seeking control over particular areas, affecting discipline and good order.
Events in the North impacted on the south. The press carried many reports of Northern violence, especially attacks on Catholics in Belfast. On March 22nd, the Cork Examiner talked of “the wild orgy of murder that is disgracing the name of Belfast”. An Irish Independent article on April 26th was headed “Sad plight of Belfast Catholics”. Sectarian attacks in the North would lead to sectarian reprisals in West Cork. Reprisals were a very nasty feature of the revolutionary period. Innocent members of a community were targeted because of the actions of perceived other members of their community.
In Belfast six members of the Catholic McMahon family were murdered in March in reprisal for the death of two Ulster Special Constabulary members. At Altnaveigh near Newry, seven Presbyterians were murdered in June in reprisal for the death of two IRA members. In 1920 Cork city was burnt by British auxiliaries in reprisal for IRA actions. In his book Guerrilla Days in Ireland, West Cork IRA leader Tom Barry recorded targeting homes of loyalists in reprisal for British army actions. He wrote: “Our only fear was that, as time went on, there would be no more loyalist homes to destroy.”
This background helps to explain the murders. At the time they were widely condemned and viewed as sectarian and reprisals for murders in the North. Erskine Childers, in the May 1922 anti-treaty propaganda sheet Poblacht na hÉireann, wrote: ‘We do not forget the provocation, the daily slaughter of Catholics in Belfast such as that of the McMahon family…. But nothing… can justify this horrible episode.” Unhesitatingly, Childers declared: “Sectarian crime is the foulest crime, and is regarded as such in the tradition of our people, for it violates not only every Christian principle but the very basis of nationality as well.”
Similar statements were made by many others. On Sunday April 30th, a local priest, Canon Hayes, stated: “If a mad Orangeman murdered a Catholic in Belfast, he saw no reason why an innocent Protestant should be shot in the South as a reprisal.” The Catholic bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, asked: “Where would they find themselves if in the North Protestants continued murdering members of the Catholic community and in the South Catholics took reprisals on the Protestant community.”
On May 12th, Michael Collins, a West Cork TD, met a Church of Ireland deputation in Dublin and sought to give reassurance about this event and other incidents targeting the Protestant community. Collins referred to the “brutal murder of Protestants in County Cork”. He declared that “it was obvious that the revolting murders in Belfast had an effect on the current situation: but the Belfast massacres could not be considered any justification for the outrages to which the deputation had alluded”. He stated that “the government would ensure civil and religious freedom in Ireland”.
Given the strength and range of these views, it is reasonable to argue that the attacks in Dunmanway and district were sectarian reprisals by elements of the IRA for sectarian attacks in the North, and were probably sparked off by the shooting of O’Neill. Through no fault of their own, Dunmanway Protestants were targeted because of their perceived links as Protestants with Northern Protestants and events in Northern Ireland.
These murders had immediate consequences in West Cork, with reports of large numbers of Protestants fleeing the area. They also raised concerns in the broader Southern Protestant community. Before long, of course, the whole country was consumed in the violence of the civil war. Most Protestants were not directly involved in this conflict but many in different parts of the country were affected by violence for political, economic or sectarian/religious reasons, described by Hart, which caused considerable numbers to leave.
Comments by Bishop Cohalan in February 1923, confirm the harsh treatment of Protestants at this time as well as showing his strong condemnation of these events. He described how “Protestants have suffered severely during the period of the civil war in the South” and urged that “charity knows no exclusion of creed”. Speaking at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin on May 15th, on the eve of the meeting of the general synod of the Church of Ireland, Bishop JL Peacocke spoke of the recent experiences of church members: “Very many of them, who would have been good and loyal subjects of the Free State, and who only asked to live quietly in their homes, had been driven from home and everything, out of the country.”
These killings in April 1922 (not April 1921) were completely unjustified sectarian murders and should be seen as such. All the victims were Protestant. All were civilians. Their murders were carried out by members of the IRA. The actions were widely condemned at the time.
On July 3rd this year former Fianna Fáil senator and TD Martin Mansergh had a letter published in the Sunday Independent about another sectarian incident during these months. This involved the burning by anti-treaty forces of the Ballyconry Protestant orphanage at Clifden, Co Galway at the very beginning of the civil war. He dismissed allegations which have surfaced recently trying to give some legitimacy to this action, as have allegations concerning Dunmanway. He wrote: “One hundred years on, many attitudes have evolved and we do not have to defend everything in the past, from whatever side, in the national cause.” This approach should be taken to the Dunmanway murders. They should be accepted for what they were ‑ sectarian murders. We owe this to the victims of one hundred years ago. We also owe it to their descendants today, who have had to endure crass allegations and insinuations about their ancestors. Hopefully, as we come to the end of the decade of centenaries we will have learned to take a more truthful, a more repentant and a more compassionate approach to our past. This is important as we move to the future.
Brian M Walker, Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, is author of Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration (2019).