Bandon Valley killings

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—Barry Keane (HI 26.2, March/April 2018, letters) expresses concern that the issue of the sectarian nature of the 1922 Dunmanway massacre has resurfaced. He again says, ‘It’s time to give it a rest’, especially as he reckons that it was indeed sectarian but that the motives of the killers are unclear and will remain unproven. It is therefore a pointless debate.

Mr Keane states that Peter Hart claimed that ‘there was no evidence against the victims’, yet avers that there is such in British and Irish archives. His thorough researches have indicated links between the thirteen victims and the ‘authorities’, for want of a better word. He quotes reports, rumours and gossip about each of the dead Protestants. The nastiest aspect is that some of the dead were related to other targets, i.e. ‘any Prod would do’. In some form or other, they were identified as enemy agents, informants, hostile elements, or their deaths were simply collateral damage.

I think he would prefer that historians concentrated on the main aspects of the War of Independence in Cork and the less problematic, but Dunmanway was too great a crime to be a mere ‘stain’ on the reputation of the IRA. It may have been exceptional, but in a war where Protestants understandably feared that they would suffer drastically it was sadly inevitable, probably more so in the post-truce chaos of 1922. The result reported by the Cork correspondent of the Irish Times was that, for many refugees, ‘So hurried was their flight that many had neither a handbag nor an overcoat’.

Like Bloody Sunday, Dunmanway was remarkable for the number of dead and the loss of control by the military. You could argue that Bloody Sunday in Derry was not a planned act of mass killings and I would tend to that view but the consequences were entirely as if it were. In Cork, the perception amongst southern Protestants after Dunmanway was the same—this was the future and it was sectarian. You are often better not to take time to consider the nature of the violence and whether it is ethnic cleansing or a spasm of local rage. You choose flight and think about it afterwards.

Keane insisted previously that there is no evidence of ‘systematic ethnic cleansing similar to that which happened to Catholics in the North’. This attempt to see the North as qualitatively and quantitatively different won’t work. Both outbreaks were generated by similar fears and hopes. The 500+ dead in the North from 1920 to 1923 (including 90 police officers) were from both communities, the larger unquestionably bringing about more of them but the violence was far from one-sided.

The fact remains that in 1922 there were hardly any southern Irish Protestants and next to no Ulster Protestants who would not have been informants or ‘enemy agents’ in some form or other, if only by virtue of thought crime, and thus candidates for such patriotic and, by too many, excusable executions without trial.—Yours etc.,



Sir,—Andy Bielenberg and John Borgonovo (HI 26.3, May/June 2018, letters) criticise me for suggesting that the West Cork murders of 1922 were not sectarian. I did not. I presented new ‘informer’ evidence from my Cork’s revolutionary dead, which suggests that Peter Hart’s claim that ‘these men were shot [exclusively] because they were Protestant’ is now less tenable. Even Hart’s ‘prime target’, Revd Ralph Harbord, was apparently ‘collateral damage’. In the latest tranche of the Military Service Pensions statements Margaret Hyde claims that her brother was a spy. When attacked, the brother jumped the railings into the basement and Ralph was shot.

I’m directed to read their Éire-Ireland article, ‘Something in the nature of a massacre: the Bandon Valley killings revisited’. I’ve read it often: I’m thanked in the footnotes. They wrote that ‘these homicides can be seen either as a sectarian killing spree or as acts of military necessity taken against civilian collaborators’. They continue: ‘neither interpretation fully stands up to scrutiny or answers all the questions’ (p. 8). I agree. They concluded that ‘Three dominant potential motives have been advanced to explain the Bandon Valley killings: revenge, sectarianism, and/or the elimination of informers’. They continue: ‘the significance of each of these potential factors is hard to establish with any degree of confidence [my emphasis] because the perpetrators have not been precisely identified’ (p. 56). Finally, they state that ‘Peter Hart’s conclusion that the killings were sectarian therefore echoed a perception that had been circulating among historians, republicans, and unionists since April 1922. This article has found no sound basis to alter that interpretation’, which seems at odds with the previous point (p. 57). Am I misreading their article? Did they misread my letter? What is needed is a proper seminar to consider and debate the new evidence. Anyone willing to host?—Yours etc.,



Sir,—The difference between Peter Hart’s interpretation and that of Andy Bielenberg/John Borgonovo (B&B, for short) of the 26–29 April 1922 Bandon Valley killings is that the former saw them as the culmination of republican sectarian activity, whereas the latter view them as an exceptional sectarian act (HI 26.3, May/June 2018, letters). This conclusion, in B&B’s otherwise admirable 2016 Eire-Ireland article on the subject, is contradicted by their introduction and much of the discussion.

Hart’s problematic argument is no longer generally accepted. The B&B conclusion is a new twist. The question they do not attempt to answer is: why would republicans contradict three years of anti-sectarian motivation with three days of sectarian bloodlust?

Since they avoid this question, B&B rely on Hart: ‘These [Protestant] men were shot because they were Protestant’. B&B conclude that this ‘leaves little room for doubt about the sectarian nature of the attacks’. In a context in which republicans thought loyalist organisation in the area had a Protestant, that is sectarian, basis, B&B’s argument is weak. If republicans targeted those they perceived to be associated with this group, that might account for why there was ‘not a single Catholic among the fatalities’.

B&B tend to see sectarianism where it was unusual, among republicans, and to ‘unsee’ it where it was an accepted practice, in Orange circles. B&B agree that the Bandon area contained quite a strong Orange and therefore sectarian pro-British tradition. Since an official British history of the conflict recognised a unique contribution to informing among some Bandon Valley Protestants, republicans probably did too. As John Borgonovo previously and masterfully explained, republicans possessed a sophisticated intelligence apparatus.

In the absence of contrary evidence, it may be accepted that the killings were coordinated at a local military level. As B&B argue, the catalyst may have been the killing, on the morning of 26 April, of an unarmed senior IRA commander, Michael O’Neill, by three ‘Protestant loyalists’ (who were themselves then killed). They may additionally have been sparked by the arrest, presumed interrogation and killing of three British intelligence officers in plain clothes in Macroom the following afternoon. After O’Neill’s unprecedentedly large republican funeral that night in Dunmanway, three Protestant civilians were killed in the town. Six more were killed the following night, plus an outlier on 29 April.

B&B dismiss the British intelligence officers connection, but have no more reason to reject it than for accepting the killing of Michael O’Neill as the sole causative act. They might rely on an argument in support of their view in a BMH witness statement by Michael O’Donoghue but cannot, since they reject his additional view that the killings’ sectarian appearance was wholly deceptive. O’Donoghue asserted, emphatically, that the victims were ‘blacklisted’ in an IRA espionage list.

B&B overlooked some evidence. They argue, in what appears to be their strongest point, that ‘at least three men who do not appear to have been republican suspects’ were shot. One (‘at least’) of these victims was deliberately targeted, according to inquest evidence. The others may have been shot owing to guilt by loyalist, as distinct from Protestant, association. Our contemporary disquiet in considering such an outcome is not a basis for jumping to sectarianism conclusions. More importantly, newly released military pension application evidence confirms an intelligence record compiled during the War of Independence and used afterwards.

Cumann na mBan officer Mary Kate Falvey operated an IRA safe house in Castletown-Kenneigh, north of Ballineen-Enniskean, and engaged in intelligence duties. Her 1943 application reported that ‘local unionists’ named ‘Chinnery, Buttimer, Howe, [and] Joe Moore’, ‘suspected of giving information to the enemy’, were kept ‘under observation’. Her application noted also that ‘two or three of these were shot. The others cleared out’. Falvey was referring to April 1922 killings victims: Robert Howe of Ballaghanure (near Ballineen), John Chinnery of Castletown (near Ballineen), and John Buttimer of Caher (near Ballineen).

Another allusive application, by Patrick Carroll from Ballineen, referred in 1936 to four members of the ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society’ ‘executed in the area in Jan–Feb 1921’, but also to others ‘who were not known until later’, when ‘five more’ were killed. This may refer to the five persons killed near Ballineen over 27–28 April 1922. In the latest pensions release, Margaret Hyde suggested that the Revd Ralph Harbord was wounded instead of his brother, an alleged ‘spy’ who escaped.

The fact that those who carried out the killings did not talk is not a basis for characterising the activity as sectarian, any more than republican refusal to discuss or accept responsibility for what happened to the (Protestant) British Intelligence officers made that act sectarian. As Michael O’Donoghue noted, the appearance of sectarianism is not proof of its existence.

I must concede that I cannot be certain of my conclusions. There is so much that is simply unknown. Similarly, however, B&B should also recognise the uncertainties that attach to their conclusions. My ‘Examining Peter Hart’ and ‘The Embers of Revisionism’ essays tease out the wider implications of the issues discussed here.—Yours etc.,

Journalism and Media Faculty
Griffith College


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