A leading Irish academic has speculated what would have happened to west Cork Protestant and leading GAA figure Sam Maguire if he had been at home in Dunmanway in April 1922 when ten of his Protestant neighbours were murdered by unidentified gunmen.
Events began on April 26th, 1922, when anti-Treaty IRA man Michael O’Neill, was shot dead in the home of Thomas Hornibrook in Bandon. O’Neill had led a party to seize Hornibrook’s car.
Later a mob returned to the house, kidnapped Hornibrook, his son Samuel and nephew Capt Herbert Woods. Woods, who shot O’Neill dead, was executed on the spot. Father and son were made dig their own graves. Their home, Ballygroman House, was burned to the ground. Their bodies were never found.
Brian M Walker, professor emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, told the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen he believed the killings of the Protestant men in the Bandon Valley were “completely unjustified sectarian murders and should be seen as such”.
Prof Walker said it seemed reasonable to believe the killings were in reprisal for the killing of IRA man Michael O’Neill when he was shot at the home of the Hornibrooks in Aherla by Capt Herbert Woods, who was later abducted by the IRA and shot along with James and Samuel Hornibrook.
Protestants James Buttimer, David Gray, Francis Fitzmaurice, Robert Howe, John Chinnery, Robert Nagle, Alexander Gerald McKinley, John Buttimer, James Greenfield, and John Bradfield were all shot dead in the Bandon Valley by gunmen between April 26th and April 28th, 1922.
“Dunmanway was not only the home of these people, it was also the hometown of London-based Sam Maguire, a member of the Church of Ireland and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who swore Michael Collins into the IRB and in whose honour the GAA have named the Sam Maguire Cup,” Prof Walker said.
“Sam Maguire is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Dunmanway, as are some of the dead of 1922 — we can only speculate if Sam Maguire had been home at the family farm near Dunmanway on the night of April 27th, 1922, there might be no Sam Maguire Cup today.”
Prof Walker said that the Bandon Valley killings should be seen in the context of the time, for while they happened during the Truce, Ireland was a dangerous place with armed men roaming all over the countryside as the Church of Ireland Gazette noted at the time.
“A week before these killings, on April 21st, 1922, the Church of Ireland Gazette stated: ‘Just now, Ireland is in the grip of the military habit, the country is full of young men, some in uniform, some in civilian attire, all bearing arms and going through military evolutions. The dangers are very real’.”
Prof Walker pointed out that sectarian strife was rife in Belfast where just a month earlier, in March 1922, six members of the Catholic McMahon family were shot dead by Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) men under renegade inspector John Nixon in retaliation for an IRA killing of two USC colleagues.
Later that summer, the IRA under future Fianna Fáil politician Frank Aiken killed six Presbyterians at Altnaveigh in Co Armagh in retaliation for the killing of two IRA men by the USC, while in Cork during the War of Independence, IRA leader Tom Barry had spoken about targeting loyalists.
“Tom Barry who was involved in the targeting of loyalist homes after the Burning of Cork by Auxiliaries in December 1920, later wrote “our only fear was that as time went on, there would be no more loyalist homes to destroy,” he said.
Prof Walker said he did not agree with those who believed at least some of those shot in the Bandon Valley were shot because they had passed information to the British during the War of Independence, and he noted that some Bandon councillors had claimed they had sheltered IRA men.
“The first six months of 1922 saw a rise in sectarian and political violence in the North which included the expulsion of many Catholics from their homes in Belfast — these events including the murder of the McMahons, got great coverage in the southern press.
“The Cork Examiner reported on “the wild orgy of murder that is disgracing the name of Belfast”, and the Irish Independent reported on the ‘sad plight of Belfast Catholics’ so there was great awareness in the South of what was happening to Catholics in the North.”
Prof Walker said although most were agreed that the killing of IRA man Michael O’Neill was the spark that triggered the Bandon Valley killings, it seemed to him that almost everyone at the time saw them in the context of reprisals for what was happening to Catholics in Belfast.
These include a local Catholic priest, Canon Hayes, who condemned the killing of Protestants in west Cork, declaring unequivocally, that “if a mad Orangeman murdered a Catholic in Belfast, he saw no reason why an innocent Protestant should be shot in the South in reprisal”.
His comments were echoed by the-then Catholic bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr Daniel Coholan, who asked “where would they find themselves, if in the North, Protestant continued murdering members of the Catholic community and in the South, Catholics took reprisals on the Protestant community?”
Eamon de Valera condemned the killings when speaking in Longford while Michael Collins, who was TD for west Cork, met a Church of Ireland delegation to assure them the government would ensure that “civil and religious rights” would be protected.
One of the strongest condemnations came from republican Erskine Childers in the anti-Treaty newspaper, Poblacht na hEireann, where he said: “nothing more deeply shocked the conscience of Irish nationalism of all sections than the brutal murder of Protestants in Co Cork”.
“We do not forget the provocation, the daily slaughter of Catholics in Belfast massacres such as the shooting down of women and children. But nothing, not the most terrible barbarity ever practised, can justify this horrible episode in a county where the bravery and chivalry of Irish men has been so nobly proved during the war.
“Sectarian crime is the foulest crime and is regarded as such in the tradition of our people for it violates not only every Christian principle but the very basis of nationality as well.”
Prof Walker commended Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Dr Paul Colton for marking the centenary of the killings by visiting the graves of all those who died in the last week of April 1922, including Michael O’Neill and the bog where Woods and the Hornibrooks were buried.
He agreed with former Fianna Fáil minister, Martin Mansergh when he recently commented in relation to an attack on a Protestant orphanage in Clifden by republicans during the Civil War that “we don’t have to defend everything in the past from whatever side in the national cause”.
“This approach should be taken in the Dunmanway murders, they should be taken for what they were — we owe this to the victims 100 years ago and we also owe to their descendants who had to endure allegations and insinuations about their ancestors in the past,” said Prof Walker.
“Hopefully, as we come to the end of the Decade of Centenaries that we will have learned to take a more truthful, a more repentant and a more compassionate approach to the past — it is important as we move to the future,” he said.