On a few occasions over the course of my “coverage” of the Irish War of Independence I have touched on the topic of sectarian killings as part of that conflict. For the most part, when discussing this subject I have been talking about the north of the country, where something akin to a religiously-motivated hate war was taking place from the summer of 1920 onwards. But the south was not immune to such things, and there are plenty of examples of violence that may have had a sectarian motivation during the war in all parts of the country. A controversial topic even today, one of the most well-known examples that has drawn a sectarian descriptor are the so called Bandon Valley or Dunmanway killings, that took place in the latter days of April 1922.
In many ways, the War of Independence just re-started in the general area of West Cork in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty being ratified by the Dail, as it became one of the biggest heartlands for anti-Treaty sentiment. IRA units there were quickly operating more or less under their own authority, and attacks on RIC and British military began again in earnest (at the time of the events we are about to go into, up to seven British Army members were being held prisoner by the IRA, and some of those would be executed). By the time the Civil War started properly in the summer of 1922, an additional 31 members of the Crown Forces had been killed there, as the IRA resumed its activities of raiding, assassination and ambushes. Most of the British military in west Cork were gone by the end of February, or staying inside the walls of barracks buildings in Cork City; any efforts they made to re-establish themselves in the countryside were piecemeal and ineffective. For all intents and purposes, the anti-Treaty IRA was in control of this part of the country.
This particular part of Cork had a higher-than-usual proportion of Protestants in its population, somewhere in the region of 15%. While often at pains not to describe itself as such, the IRA was almost entirely Catholic and it was inevitable that, as it had for centuries, the cause of militant Irish nationalism at the time would become wrapped up in a Roman Catholic identity. Protestants were often seen at best as non-factors in the struggle, and at worst as collaborators with the British government. They were, fairly or not, synonymous with an often hated landlord class, that was part-and-parcel of the British administration.
There is some evidence to suggest that, in west Cork, this was not just a sectarian viewpoint without any foundation. Documents captured after Crown Forces had left the area indicated that local Protestants had formed a “Loyalist Action Group” that attempted to actively help the British during the War of Independence in terms of supplying information, and that this group was tied to the so-called Anti-Sinn Fein League and Orange Order. Details of local IRA personnel and structures found in this trawl of intelligence was accurate enough that it was considered to have been a well-run operation, but it is difficult to give a firm judgement nowadays. The IRA killed many Protestants in the course of the war on charges of being informers (they killed more Catholics it must be said), but none of those people had been named in the captured documents. Of course, this does not mean that every Protestant in west Cork was supplying information to the British, but in the high tension days of Spring 1922, it became increasingly easy to see enemies everywhere.
What started the killings appears to have been an encounter at Ballygroman, a townland near Ballincollig, to the west of Cork City. On the 26th of April, a group of IRA men led by a Michael O’Neill, commander of the No 3. Cork Brigade’s 1st battalion, came to the home of Thomas Hornibrook there. Hornibrook, a Protestant, was a former magistrate and with him at the time was his son Samuel and a nephew named Herbert Woods. Woods, a former British Army officer, was apparently staying with the Hornibrook’s after they were the subject of intimidation from the local community. The IRA were there to commandeer Hornibrook’s car. Hornibrook didn’t want to allow this. An argument broke out, Hornibrook’s home was forcefully entered, and in the course of this O’Neill was shot dead by Woods.
The IRA left with the body of their dead comrade. Within a few days both of the home in question was burnt down, the Hornibrook men and Woods went missing, and they were never seen again. Stories about the nature of their abduction and deaths vary wildly with some claiming they were taken after a gunfight with a 100 Volunteers, and that Woods was drawn and quartered for his killing of O’Neill. More likely that they were taken by a smaller group of IRA, transported to an isolated part of the countryside and shot. Their bodies, more than likely dumped in bogland, were never recovered.
Before the three men were even dead, their actions and the actions of the IRA at Ballygorman appear to have been the inciting incident for a wider ranger of similar killings, that took place over the next few days. These happened mostly in and around the small west Cork village of Dunmanway and its surrounding townlands. The shooters were undoubtedly IRA Volunteers. The victims were a mixed lot; there was a solicitor, a draper, a retiree, a farmer, a reverend. In some cases, it would appear that the children of intended targets were attacked in the absence of the actual target, which meant some of the dead were teenagers. Ten people were killed, for the most case shot in or near their own homes and workplaces under the cover of night: more again were shot but lived, or were able to just about escape the intended bullet. Along with the three men killed at Ballygorman, and those that survived with wounds, the only obvious link of the 13 was their religion.
The directing force of this sudden spate of shooting is unclear. Much of the established IRA leadership for the area was not present at the time: Tom Hales was in Limerick taking part in the stand-off there for example, while Tom Barry and Liam Deasy were attending a meeting of anti-Treaty IRA officers in Dublin. It has been extremely difficult to determine who exactly ordered or carried out the attacks as a result, just as it is difficult to determine the exact motivation. They have been described as simple revenge killings following the death of Michael O’Neill, or perhaps in response to the sectarian violence engulfing Belfast at the time. It has also been claimed that the attacks had a military purpose, as the victims were well-known loyalists, some of whom were accused of passing information to Crown Forces or being part of those aforementioned groups of organised opposition to the IRA.
The more extreme claims are that the killings were part of an concerted campaign of what was essentially ethnic cleansing: that Catholic IRA Volunteers were actively attempting to remove Protestants from west Cork, either by killing them or by forcing them to leave via intimidation. Certainly, hundreds of Protestant families that lived in the area departed afterwards in fear of their lives, many carrying only a meagre amount of their possessions. Unionists media claimed the killings were simply the latest in a long line of sectarian land-grabs that stretched back to 1641. But we simply cannot be in any way sure that such an idea motivated the men who pulled the triggers on those nights.
What we can say is that the killings were not popular nationwide. Men like Barry and Hales rushed home when the news came to them, and issued grandiose proclamations offering “every protection” to all citizens in the area before posting guards to protect Protestant homes and abandoned livestock. Both sides of the Treaty divide in the Dail condemned the killings, and it is fair to say that there was no continued targeting of Protestants in the area, or in most of the rest of the country, in the days and weeks that followed. There was a recognition in such things that the killings were a step too far.
The Bandon Valley killings, much like Kilmichael, have inspired what has been, at times, a bitter academic debate about their inspiration. Peter Hart’s description of the deaths as sectarian killings carried out as revenge for things like O’Neill’s death and the Belfast pograms has been strongly contested by others, like Meda Ryan, who argue that the killings had a legitimate military value in terms of targeting informers and the “Loyalist Action Group”. We will never know for absolute certain, but if pushed I would say that we should be open to a middle ground: that perhaps some of these men were killed because they were informers, suspected or otherwise, but that a certain hatred based on religious differences played a part also, motivating a group of low-ranking IRA men, operating without higher direction, into performing the killings. The death of O’Neill could be seen as the moment that incited an operation that may well have been in the works for some time. But this is just speculation on my part.
Bandon Valley is a dark aspect of the struggle, that can certainly be included with things like the death of Mary Lindsay in terms of the Irish revolutionary period’s more sordid events (it’s hard to say anything else, when teenage boys are murdered for the supposed sins of the father). They did the anti-Treaty IRA few favours in terms of their public image, making the situation in Cork seem irretrievably lawless. The deaths actually came at the end of a month where the larger national situation had escalated rapidly: by then, it seemed more a case of when fighting between pro and anti-Treaty would break out, as opposed to if. In the next entry we go back a few weeks and centre in on Dublin, where the anti-Treaty side was looking back to 1916 for inspiration.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.