Historian disputes sectarian motive for murder of 13 Protestants in Cork


A CONTROVERSIAL study that claimed the murder of 13 Protestants in Bandon in April 1922 was sectarian was challenged at a meeting in Cork attended by more than 500 people at the weekend.

Historian Dr John M Regan of the University of Dundee said the late Dr Peter Hart had omitted significant evidence when concluding the killings of Protestants in the Bandon valley at the end of April 1922 was sectarian in motivation.

In his book The IRA and Its Enemies – Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923, Dr Hart concluded in a chapter entitled “Taking it out on the Protestants” that the primary motivation behind the killings of the 13 men, aged from 16 to 82 years, was sectarian.

“Behind the shootings lay a jumble of individual histories and possible motives. In the end however, the fact of the victim’s religion is inescapable. These men were shot because they were Protestant,” wrote Dr Hart, who died in 2010.

“No Catholic Free Staters, landlords or ‘spies’ were shot or even shot at. The sectarian antagonism which drove the massacre was interwoven with political hysteria and local vendettas, but it was sectarian nonetheless,” he wrote.

However, Dr Regan challenged this interpretation, echoing historian Brian P Murphy’s assertion that Dr Hart relied on a selective interpretation of a British army document The Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1920-21, which reported on loyalists providing intelligence to the British.

Brian Murphy had noted, Dr Regan pointed out, that while the British army document states that generally loyalists had little information to give on IRA activities, it does add that the exception was in “the Bandon area, where there were many Protestant farmers who gave information”.

And Dr Regan accused the late Dr Hart of ignoring this evidence in order to support his thesis that the killings were sectarian. “Hart’s narration of the massacre is a compelling piece of writing . . . [however] Hart’s treatment concentrates more on the atrocity than its context.”

Dr Andy Bielenberg of UCC, who is carrying out research on the killings, pointed out there was much agreement among historians that one of the triggers for the murders may have been the killing of an IRA commandant, Michael O’Neill at Ballygroman in Farran the day before.

Three Protestant men, including Capt Herbert Woods, who shot O’Neill, were abducted by the IRA and killed, while three British army intelligence officers and a driver captured by the IRA in Macroom the same day were also killed two days later.

He suggested the IRA were aware from the abduction of the three British army intelligence officers that the British were attempting to reactivate intelligence gathering in Cork and may have seen unionists as potential allies.

At least some of those killed by the IRA in the Bandon Valley were on old IRA blacklists of suspected informers from 1921, said Dr Bielenberg who pointed out the killings were roundly condemned by both pro- and anti-treaty IRA units in west Cork and by Sinn Féin leaders in Dublin.

Emeritus professor of history at UCC, John A Murphy, said it was impossible to know the motivation of those behind the killings when their identities were not known, but it was impossible to say they were not at least partly sectarian.

Critics of Dr Hart had argued he had exaggerated tensions between Catholics and Protestants in west Cork, but it should be recognised that, throughout the 19th century, Protestants were seen by Catholics as oppressors and it would be “astonishing” if there wasn’t an intense Catholic reaction to such oppression, said Prof Murphy.