In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the father of a British soldier sent a letter from his home in Stretford, Manchester, to Ireland seeking information on his son who had been disappeared by the IRA during the War of Independence. This was sent to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal and survives in Department of Justice files (held in National Archives, Dublin).
My son aged 17 years & 11 months with two other younger lads of the Band 1st Bn. Manchester Regt. Were kidnapped by Sinn Fein Forces from or in the vicinity of the Military Barracks at Ballincollig, Co Cork on or about June 5 1921. The lads were quite unarmed but on some pretence of being spies were executed and I understand buried in a field about one mile from Kilcrea in Co Cork. I will get a week's holiday from 11 to 18th next month (August) and am intending crossing to Cork to try and locate their poor bodies and have them buried in a cemetery . . .'
This letter was one of many from relatives in Ireland and Britain seeking information on persons who had gone missing between 1920 and 1922. These letters constitute a vital source for tracing the identity and establishing the circumstances of persons disappeared by the IRA between 1920 and 1922.
In this instance, Mr Carson's communications eventually paid off. With the assistance of the civic guards at Bandon and Innishannon, he successfully located the remains of the three boys. However, since his son was Catholic and the other two were Protestants, they could not be buried in consecrated ground together as he had wished, so when they were disinterred, they were then reburied together in the Bandon Union Workhouse burial ground on August 18th, 1923.
But over the following year, the parents of the bandboys did not rest easy and sought to have the bodies repatriated to England. After numerous communications, arrangements were made for yet another disinterment in September 1924, and the remains were then transported to Cobh and shipped back to England and Matthew Carson, Charles Chapman and John Cooper were finally laid to rest in Hurst Cemetery at Ashton-under-Lyne in Tameside in the Greater Manchester area, with thousands attending the funerals.
According to subsequent IRA testimony, the bandboys had been spotted and chased across country by IRA volunteers from the Srelene Company, 3rd Batallion, Cork 1 Brigade. They were eventually found hiding in the ruins of Kilcrea Abbey, surrendering without a fight. It was their misfortune to have been mistakenly identified as members of the infamous Essex regiment based in Bandon, operating under Maj Percival, as this IRA company area, although actually within the Cork 1 Brigade, was on the border of Cork 3 Brigade (west Cork), where the Essex was operating. On notification of their capture, orders were sent from brigade headquarters that they were to be shot, and following this they were hastily buried nearby.
How typical was this episode of disappearances carried out by the IRA in these few short years? A little more than 100 have been documented to date all over Ireland between 1920 and 1923. This is evident from research to be shortly published, which I have undertaken with Dr Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc; the information on Cork in this article is largely drawn from research undertaken with Prof Jim Donnelly, which can be found in the Cork Fatality Register during the War of Independence on the 'Irish Revolution' website.
64 disappeared in Co Cork
The three Manchester bandboys were among 64 disappeared in Co Cork alone, where the practice was resorted to on a far greater scale than elsewhere. Within Co Cork, most (75 per cent) were carried out by the Cork 1 Brigade, and the bandboys disappearances fell within the borders of this area.
However, within Co Cork at large, of those disappeared by the IRA which have been documented to date, 27 were members of crown forces and 37 were civilians (15 of whom were ex-crown forces). So the majority of victims in Cork at least had an association with crown forces (past or present).
Of the 64 disappeared, documented to date in Co Cork, only two were women, which were both controversial as they transgressed IRA regulations. This includes the most notorious disappearance in Ireland in this period, the case of Mrs Lindsay, who had passed information which led to the tables being turned on IRA volunteers at the Dripsey ambush early in 1921, resulting in a number of captures which ultimately led to executions.
Lindsay was held in captivity in various cottages as a hostage against their lives, but when the executions proceeded in any case and the bodies were never returned to relatives (but dumped in Cork prison grounds, now part of UCC), Mrs Lindsay and her driver, Mr Clarke, were shot and buried together in a bog near Donoughmore in mid-March 1921.
GHQ by regulation were averse to executing women, even if found guilty and her death was therefore kept secret in Cork until after the truce. But then the recovery of her body became part of the propaganda war.
The fact that she was both a Protestant and a women made her case noteworthy on the British side for those promulgating the message that the IRA was conducting a war on helpless civilian Protestants. Her case was raised in the House of Commons and in the columns of the Morning Post, and a memorial service was held in her honour by the British army in both Ballincollig and Limerick a year after the Dripsey ambush. Her body was never recovered despite the best efforts of the Irish government and the civic guards, since shortly before they acquired the correct location, some of the perpetrators moved it from the original burial site, this time making sure her partially decomposed body was disposed of in a manner that made it irretrievable.
While Cork civilian targets were more typically suspected of being engaged in spying and informing and evidence to that effect had been turned up by the IRA, crown force disappearances included a number of more opportunistic killings. The bandboys episode outlined above seems to have fallen into this category, as no evidence has yet surfaced that they were engaged in spying; moreover their regimental status was mistaken, suggesting that little or nothing was known about them, other than that they were in the British army. So they were not entirely typical of the wider pattern of disappearances.
To clarify matters after the truce with regard to who precisely had been executed, information was subsequently sought by IRA GHQ from each locality, presumably to answer the numerous letters coming in from people seeking information on their next of kin. As a consequence, it is apparent that lists were being drawn up of those who had been ‘executed’ by the IRA, which included a number of the disappeared in 1920-21 (which can be found in the Collins papers, Military Archives, Dublin).
It is apparent that significant efforts were subsequently made to locate the burial place of many of the British soldiers disappeared, with discrete lists drawn up of this category alone, in cooperation with the British government. Both the civic guards and the National Army went to some lengths to retrieve bodies of crown forces, but not all those of British origin were sent back to Britain.
For example, British army officer Maj Lee Compton-Smith, captured by IRA volunteers at Blarney on April 28th, 1921, was held in Donoughmore and then shot and disappeared. He was later located in 1925 by the civic guards at Barracharing wood and his remains were brought to Cork city. Communications were made with his family but his wife had made enquiries into the circumstances of his death and it transpired he was about to rendezvous with a nurse in Blarney. His widow soon remarried and evidently had no further desire to bring home his remains. Compton-Smith, it transpired, was an atheist, so instead of going into a church graveyard, he was finally laid to rest in Fort Carlisle Military Cemetery (now Fort Davis) overlooking Cork Harbour.
While a number of civilian disappeared were also located and reinterred in response to letters from the next of kin, a substantial number of the victims across Ireland (roughly half) have never been recovered and still lie in unmarked graves. This was certainly one of the darkest aspects of the IRA campaign during Irish revolution.
Comparisons between the 16 disappearances carried out by the Provisional IRA during the recent Northern Irish troubles, challenges the argument that the old IRA was operating on a much higher moral plane, in the matter of disappearances at least.
The huge disparity between Cork and the rest of the country reveals the greater ruthlessness of the Cork 1 Brigade in particular. At least one of those directly involved in a number of disappearances in this brigade area, Martin Corry, went on to become a long-serving Fianna Fáil TD for east Cork over many decades.
In the recently released Brigade Activity Reports (IRA pension files, Military Archives), Corry claimed his own Knockraha company alone had executed 27 persons.
To date, hard evidence has only come to light of a far smaller number of cases disappeared in and around Knockraha, but given other dubious claims Corry made in this file, significant exaggeration appears likely, which is not uncommon among ex-volunteers gunning for a pension.
Corry’s IRA claims nonetheless (both true and false) were seemingly an electoral asset. There was a somewhat indifferent attitude to disappearances after the Irish revolution in east Cork and elsewhere; it was a matter that went largely unspoken.
This was in stark contrast to the aftermath of the recent Northern Troubles, when locating and returning most of those disappeared by the IRA became part of the process of reconciliation.
Andy Bielenberg is a senior lecturer at the School of History in UCC