Cork Fatality Register

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—The evidence presented by David Fitzpatrick in his letter (HI 25.6, Nov./Dec. 2017) questioning my rejection of Peter Hart’s sectarian thesis in 1920–1 does not stand up to scrutiny. While I agree that the Dunmanway massacre (in April 1922) was sectarian, I reject Hart’s wider conclusion that ‘Looking over the whole span of the revolution, we can see the main themes of the West Cork massacre—conspiracy theories, land, and sectarian vengeance—were prefigured in the executions of “informers” carried out in the previous two years’ [i.e. before the Dunmanway massacre in late April 1922] (The IRA and its enemies, p. 314). This sectarian contention is not supported by our Fatality Register (http://theirishrevolution.ie/cork-fatality-register), identifying 71 civilian suspects killed by the IRA in County Cork during the War of Independence. This indicates that 49 (69%) of the suspected spies and informers killed were Catholics, thus ruling out sectarianism as a potential motive for this significant majority of victims. It remains unproven that the balance (22, or 31% of the total who were Protestants) were killed for sectarian reasons.

Above: Leo McMahon, from St Luke’s, Cork, in British Army uniform. He was abducted and presumed killed by the IRA as an informer in May 1921. As a Catholic ex-serviceman, he fell within the most typical category of suspects killed by the IRA in County Cork during the War of Independence. (Martin MacMahon and Nickie Cohalan

The basis of Fitzpatrick’s rejection of my conclusions is achieved by some curious statistical manipulation, which essentially removes from consideration ex-servicemen, by far the most important category of suspects. Even if we remove ex-soldiers (as Fitzpatrick advocates), this reduces the Protestant fatalities to sixteen in 1920–1. Allowing a further 9% (of the 71 victims) to account for the Protestant share of Cork’s population (which could be deemed non-sectarian killings under Fitzpatrick’s schema), this removes another six victims, bringing the number down to ten potential (but unproven) sectarian killings. These are small numbers to support such a thesis, and hardly as centrally important as Hart concludes, in the wider context of a conflict in which 528 fatalities have been identified in the county.

Protestants constituted a higher share of the loyalist population of Cork than their share of the county population. One would expect IRA suspect victims to be drawn more from this loyalist element, which evidently included many Catholics, leaving aside those who were paid or innocent. A connection with Crown forces was the dominant characteristic of those civilians killed by the IRA. Hart’s analysis of the conflict divisions (‘a civil war within and between communities’) does not take sufficient account of this Catholic element, while significantly overstating the Protestant dimension. He concludes, ‘the IRA were tapping a deep vein of communal prejudice and gossip; about grabbers, black Protestants and Masonic conspiracies, dirty tinkers and corner boys, fly boys and fast women, the Jews at no 4’ (p. 314). This non-Catholic emphasis is not evident in the figures for civilian suspects killed by the IRA in 1920–1.

Turning to the Truce period (July 1921 to May 1922), aside from the quite exceptional Dunmanway massacre (condemned as sectarian by some key republican leaders at the time), only a handful of Cork Protestants were killed by the IRA. Is there a hidden smoking gun in the Civil War? Preliminary research uncovering a slightly higher level of civilian fatalities than Hart between the Truce and the end of the Civil War has not unearthed scores of Protestant killings by the anti-Treaty IRA in Cork, which we don’t previously know about.

Hart’s conclusions continue to ‘perplex’ because they remain difficult (if not impossible) to verify. Unfortunately, he did not name the 73 Protestant civilian suspected spies and informers he alleged to have been shot by the IRA in Cork between 1919 and 1923 (p. 304, table 37). The sectarian thesis regarding the Cork IRA between 1919 and 1923 as postulated by Hart hinges on this group. Until such time as they can be individually identified and confirmed as killed by the IRA as suspected informers, the debate (if there is one) cannot progress. That is, if history is a discipline that proceeds on the basis of verifiable evidence, as opposed to unverified evidence, hypothetical possibilities and ‘truthiness’, arising from the slipstream of the Northern troubles.—Yours etc.,

ANDY BIELENBERG
UCC

Sir,—David Fitzpatrick now accepts that more Catholics than Protestants in Cork were shot for spying and informing by the Republican Army in its resistance to Britain’s campaign to crush the popularly elected national government, Dáil Éireann, and popularly elected local governments and their supporters and sympathisers between 1919 and 1922. He does not appear to acknowledge that Dáil Éireann was popularly elected nor that most local government authorities elected in 1920 repudiated British rule and recognised the authority of Dáil Éireann. That was an indisputable part of the context.

Another part of the context was that most Irish Protestants did not support Irish nationalism, even when nationalists wore British uniform. Perhaps even less of them supported Sinn Féin and its 1918 republican manifesto. And it is virtually certain that some Southern Protestants still gave their allegiance to King George V rather than to the Irish Republic, even after the Republic’s democratic establishment, and that some felt duty-bound to assist in the suppression of the Republic by any means available.

For 100 years after the Germans shot Nurse Edith Cavell in Belgium for passing information to British intelligence, the British government lied about the circumstances. Her name was inscribed on the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints. The Times of London in early 1916 declared that her martyrdom was worth several army corps to the British, as scores of thousands of chivalrous men flocked to their colours. In September 2015, exactly a century after her execution, Dame Stella Rimington, a former director of MI5, confirmed that Edith Cavell had indeed been passing information to British intelligence and that the Germans had got her bang to rights.—Yours etc.,

DONAL KENNEDY
London

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