The Big Book: The year of disappearances: political killings in Cork 1921–1922

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 19

Gerard Murphy’s new book is the latest examination of the Protestant experience in revolutionary Cork. It offers an engaging narrative, often based on extensive research, that will open new doors for Irish historians. Murphy provocatively argues that the IRA secretly executed up to 40 Cork Protestants in 1922, prompting a sectarian exodus from the city. Yet Murphy’s methodology is so problematic that readers must proceed with caution.


Initially, Murphy examines the execution of suspected civilian informers in Cork, covering the same ground as my book Spies, informers, and the Anti-Sinn Féin Society, published in 2007 (based on my 1997 MA thesis, read by Murphy in 2003). Murphy augments my work by skilfully utilising the 1911 census, the Cork military liaison records and the Criminal Injury Books. Key material also comes from the Irish Compensation Claims Committee petitions, held in the UK National Archives, Kew. Murphy’s hard work rewards him with a series of impressive nuggets, found in forensically researched chapters concerning the Rahinsky House raid, the second ‘Lt Green’ (a British intelligence officer), and IRA intelligence chief Florrie O’Donoghue’s informer employer, Michael Nolan. This compelling new material demonstrates the need for Irish scholars to systematically examine these compensation claims.

Murphy focuses on the IRA killing ground in the East Cork cemetery at Knockraha. The late TD Martin Corry provides a premise pursued through 58 chapters: that he and the IRA secretly shot 35 people there, executions on which Murphy hangs charges of a Protestant purge in Cork. Unfortunately, Corry is an unreliable witness who frequently exaggerated his War of Independence experiences. This is apparent when he reports that the British raided his farm 70 times (p. 17), yet in his 1926 Department of Justice file (also cited by Murphy) Corry claims only twelve such raids. Such a discrepancy would be of minor concern were it not for the precision demanded of Corry’s evidence. Murphy’s thesis of mass Protestant killings rests on the accuracy of Corry’s Knockraha body count.

Murphy emphasises Corry’s testimony found in the local history book Foras Feasa na Paróiste Cnoc Raha. Remarkably, Corry’s Knockraha account (pp 82–90) is directly followed by another Corry IRA anecdote in a chapter titled ‘A Strange Happening at Coolquerisk’ (pp 91–2), in which Corry describes his encounter with a supernatural hell-hound ‘the size of a suckling calf’ that moved ‘mysteriously through the locked door’ before leaping 60ft onto the road. Apart from questioning Corry’s credibility, this story also underlines the danger of Murphy’s over-reliance on local folklore and second- or third-hand accounts of events. Murphy confidently locates corpses and factors them into his overall arithmetic of the Protestant ‘disappeared’, often based on nothing more than hearsay. For example, after an 89-year-old city resident shows Murphy the supposed burial place of three unidentified Protestant teenagers, Murphy dutifully adds them to his vague list of IRA executions, next to ‘six prominent citizens’ and ‘three merchants’ (p. 338).

Similar unorthodox approaches to evidence ultimately derail the second half of Murphy’s book. Here he breaks new ground, as he attempts to show a secret wave of IRA killings just before the Civil War. He makes a convincing case that at least two Cork teenagers were shot during this period, which is an important find. He also provides vivid witness testimony and some inspired sleuthing. But Murphy is ultimately undermined by unsubstantiated accusations of mass murders of Protestants, which he attributes to IRA leader Florrie O’Donoghue. His main evidence is a 1925 Cork Freemason lodge list with 32 names struck off; Murphy argues that ‘the majority of these men probably disappeared’, having been executed by the IRA. Amazingly, the alleged murders are not mentioned by any other sources, including the Freemasons themselves. Murphy should know better than to make charges without strong written evidence, especially in relation to a subject as contentious as sectarian killing in Ireland.

Murphy picks and chooses between empirical inconsistencies to create the best case for his suppositions. Thus the isolated statements by three IRA leaders about ‘the boy Parsons’ and a YMCA spy ring are held to be sacrosanct, while conflicting evidence from them is not. Murphy heralds Cork YMCA records that omit mention of members spying for Britain, but rejects the same YMCA records that fail to describe IRA persecution. The absence of British compensation claims from the families of the executed is evidence of their innocence, while the lack of compensation claims from the families of the (supposedly executed) Cork Freemasons indicates nothing. Cork Freemason lodge membership rolls with names struck off prove mass murder; Freemason records that remain silent about such killings are denounced as cover-ups. Murphy often repeats a quote from Florrie O’Donoghue about ‘Masonic cement’, but is unimpressed that he cannot uncover more blatant anti-Masonic and anti-Protestant sentiments amid thousands of pages of O’Donoghue material.

Murphy’s failure to contextualise events often leads to spurious conclusions. He argues that the Cork IRA destroyed British war supplies as a means to pursue the YMCA. But RIC reports show that attacks on war goods were a national (and very logical) IRA policy. Murphy charges the Cork City IRA commanders (Florrie O’Donoghue and Seán O’Hegarty) with authorising the bloody Dunmanway murders at the end of April 1922 (his proof is a third-hand oral testimony), but those killings occurred when Florrie O’Donoghue and Seán O’Hegarty were concluding IRA peace negotiations in Dublin, a settlement that was jeopardised by the same Dunmanway killings. Murphy believes that an all-out assault on Cork Protestants occurred during May and June 1922; yet that period coincided with a general election in which Richard Beamish, a Protestant popularly associated with Freemasonry, contested the Cork constituency without IRA interference (he narrowly lost to Mary MacSwiney).

Murphy accuses Florrie O’Donoghue of secretly murdering Protestant teenagers in the spring of 1921, after holding them hostage to prevent British executions of IRA prisoners. He cannot name those teenagers, give evidence of their abduction or murder, or provide material indicating hostages being held in Cork during this period. Murphy claims that the IRA secretly executed up to 32 members of the Cork Freemasons in the spring of 1922. He does not provide details of their abductions, confirm their deaths, nor offer evidence of protests or enquiries from families, friends, governments or their fraternal order. He reports that six unnamed Protestant businessmen, ‘probably Methodists’, were assassinated in late March 1922. As evidence, he cites three newspaper reports of unnamed pro-Treaty supporters arrested by the IRA. It doesn’t bother Murphy that (a) he cannot name the men; (b) the event does not appear in Cork, British, IRA or Free State records; (c) the families of the missing never mention the matter; (d) Sinn Féin TD Liam de Roiste (23 March diary entry) identified the prisoners as two local IRA officers arrested for joining the Gardaí. These are only a few examples; there are numerous other specious accusations.

According to Murphy, Josephine O’Donoghue drowned Protestant children in 1921 (pp 307–17). Murphy cannot name the children nor date this crime; he bases his accusation on Josephine’s ‘keenness for sailing’ and a newspaper article that describes a boating mishap involving a woman and child. The 1922 IRA killing sprees alleged by Murphy go unmentioned in British government, Irish government, Protestant, Catholic, IRA and Free State Army records. Murphy attributes this to an intragovernment, cross-border, intercommunity and ecumenical conspiracy for which he offers no evidence.

Even the lack of proof is proof for Murphy. The failure of Cork police to report the alleged abduction of three YMCA boys, according to Murphy, demonstrates British suppression of the incident. Missing Bristol YMCA records indicate that the IRA drowned another Cork Protestant in France. The fact that Protestant Cork Grammar School rolls cannot be found confirms a schoolmaster’s fear that they would ‘be used to compile further death lists’. Munster Freemason leaders omit mention of the mass murder of their Cork brothers so as to make ‘the best of a bad situation’. The absence of protests from the Cork Protestant community at the height of the supposed murder spree exposes its collusion with the IRA. So does a petition signed by 50 leading Cork Protestants during the same period, denying sectarian hostility in the city.

For Murphy, the ‘cunning and devious’ IRA intelligence chief Florrie O’Donoghue lurks near every suspicious boghole. It is he who purges the Southside of Protestants, who exterminates Cork Freemasons and who enlists his wife to murder children. O’Donoghue even falsifies the historical record to cover his nefarious deeds. Murphy shows that a list of 181 Cork Freemasons held in O’Donoghue’s papers includes lodge members who joined after 1922. Rather than argue that O’Donoghue updated an existing list (a habit of his), Murphy believes that O’Donoghue intended to foil future historians with ‘a very clever fabrication’. According to Murphy, O’Donoghue carefully inserted into his papers a forged document that Murphy admits ‘exonerates the IRA from ever having shot members of the lodge’, which is the premise of the entire book. Perhaps O’Donoghue could have invented a simpler method to convince posterity of his innocence? Like faking an IRA order that forbade the persecution of Freemasons?

This book touches on an important debate. The late Peter Hart first asked whether the War of Independence was a sectarian event in Cork, a question my previous work has attempted to engage. I suspect that there was some kind of small loyalist intelligence network in the city during 1920–1; I remain convinced that we cannot be sure about many suspected informers without access to British records at the micro-level. (Macro-reports to the heads of the British administration and British Army are not detailed enough for strong conclusions.) I welcome new material that brings more clarity to the shadowy clandestine war waged in Cork in this period. Murphy sometimes challenges my findings about the accuracy of IRA intelligence with reasonable weighing of evidence. He is correct to read Florrie O’Donoghue’s history books critically; I concur that O’Donoghue was ruthless and that the Cork IRA coldly killed numerous civilians. I recognise the fearful conditions for Cork Protestants in early 1922, which led some to leave the country. Where we differ is the cause for their departure. Murphy attributes it to panic following the IRA’s massive and secret execution of Protestants; I ascribe it to the British evacuation, a surge in social unrest (political, economic and criminal), concern that religious strife was spreading from Belfast, and anxiety over the approaching civil war.

Murphy acknowledges that his book offers ‘at best a theory, or, rather, a series of interrelated theories’, but he also promises that ‘all events described here took place’. In doing so, he poses fundamental questions about what is and what is not history. To be clear, Murphy’s charges about the mass killing of Protestant civilians in Cork during 1922 are unsubstantiated by written evidence. His speculation replaces sound historic methodology. Space does not permit me to identify all the book’s unproven charges, but they are many and they are substantial. As such, this work cannot be presented as serious scholarship. Its shortcomings should be clear to period specialists who read it carefully and completely. Murphy is courageous enough to stand over his most explosive allegations. I hope Irish historians who cite The year of disappearances will be honest enough to do likewise.  HI

John Borgovono lectures in history at University College Cork.

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