The shooting dead of 13 Protestant men and boys in west Cork 100 years ago this week was almost certainly carried out by the anti-Treaty IRA and was a co-ordinated reprisal for the killing of a local IRA leader by three unionists, a Cork historian has claimed.
Barry Keane, author of Cork's Revolutionary Dead 1916-1923, said that while most people at the time believed the Bandon Valley massacre was sparked by the killings of Catholics by Protestants in Belfast, he believed the killings owed their origins to local events.
“At this stage, there is little doubt that the anti-Treaty IRA carried out these attacks or that they were a co-ordinated reprisal for the death of Michael O’Neill, acting commandant of the Cork No 3 IRA Brigade who was shot by a unionist in Ovens,” he said.
“While most people assumed at the time that these events were in response to the Belfast ‘pogroms’, this was probably at most a secondary motive in the killings but that in no way excuses what happened,” he added.
Noting that the Church of Ireland community in west Cork will mark the Bandon Valley Massacre with a private memorial service on Wednesday in St Mary's Church, Dunmanway, Keane recalled events of the last week of April 1922 around Dunmanway.
“More than 30 men of both religions, Catholic and Protestant, were targeted, shot at, or forced to flee over the same three days from April 27th to April 29th but all those killed were Protestant,” he said
"The IRA commandant at Bandon, Tom Hales, rushed back from Dublin and ordered all guns to be handed in. He had been negotiating a truce between pro- and anti-Treaty forces, with Michael Collins among others, when he heard of the murders."
Keane believes what started the retribution was the shooting dead of acting commandant of the Cork No 3 IRA Brigade, Michael O'Neill from Timoleague, by capt Herbert Woods at Ballygroman House in Ovens in the early hours of April 27th, 1922.
Members of the IRA surrounded the house and after an intense gun battle, the occupants – Thomas Hornibrook, Samuel Hornibrook and Herbert Woods – were arrested by the Irish republican police and taken to Newcestown where they were held for a few days.
All three men were shot by the IRA and buried in nearby Farranthomas bog. But some years later the bodies were buried quietly in a nearby Church of Ireland graveyard, said Keane, adding “there was little doubt that the motive was straight revenge” for O’Neill’s death.
The next night marked the start of attacks on mostly Protestant families across west Cork. This level of attack on defenceless civilians was unheard of in the War of Independence, and, as virtually all the victims were Protestant, it raised fears the killings were sectarian, he said
"On the night of April 26th-27th three men were shot and killed in Dunmanway – local solicitor Francis Fitzmaurice was killed at 12.15am, chemist David Grey at 1am and retired draper James Buttimer at 1.20am. All were shot on their doorsteps," said Keane
"According to David Grey's wife, his killers called him a Free Stater several times while they were shooting him – all within 100m of the police station in Dunmanway, which was controlled by the anti-Treaty IRA under Peter Kearney, who failed to stop the shootings."
During the second night of violence, April 27th-28th, next door neighbours John Chinnery and Robert Howe were shot in Castletown-Kinneigh to the north of Ballineen with both killings following the same patten when gunmen ordered them to harness a horse, he said.
Howe’s wife, Catherine, told his inquest that he was attacked in the bedroom of his house at about 10.30pm, having refused to harness a horse. When he refused a second time he was shot and killed while John Chinnery was shot while harnessing a horse for the raiders.
Keane said that on the same night Alexander Gerald McKinley, the son of an RIC constable also named Alexander McKinley, was shot in the back of the head as he lay sick in bed in Ballineen after his aunt was put out of the house by gunmen just after 1.30am.
Later that same night, at Caher, 3km west of Ballineen, John Buttimer and his farm servant, James Greenfield, were shot at 2am when a man pushed back Buttimer's wife Frances on the landing and she later found both men shot dead in an upstairs room.
According to Keane, Church of Ireland curate Rev Ralph Harbord was shot but survived following another attack by unidentified men at Murragh rectory, east of Enniskeane at the home of his father, Canon Richard Harbord, on the same night.
"It now appears from the evidence of a Mary Hyde to the Military Service Pensions Collection that the intended target was Rev Harboard's brother, John, who had been standing next to him and survived by jumping into the dry moat of their Georgian house."
Robert Nagle (16) was killed in Clonakilty after 11pm when two men called to the house, questioned him about his age and shot him. He was shot in place of his father, Tom, the caretaker of the Masonic Hall, and on the same night the Masonic Hall was burned, he said
The final victim was John Bradfield of Killowen Cottage at Carhue, 4km west of Bandon, who was killed at 11pm on the night of April 29th-30th by a group of men who asked for his brother, William, but shot John instead, said Keane.
Keane said the killings prompted strong condemnation from Arthur Griffith while anti-treaty leader, Eamonn De Valera also denounced them: "Let us not tarnish that glorious record that was unequalled by any country in the world by acts against a helpless minority."
Almost a century later, polemicist Eoghan Harris speaking at the West Cork History Festival in 2017 lamented the fact that the Protestant community in west Cork felt unable to hold any commemorations of the killings which led many Protestant families to flee the area.
But now Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Dr Paul Colton is to mark the event and remember those who died by carrying out pastoral visits to the parishes where the 13 men were shot after local clergy consulted with the descendants of those who died.
Asked at the weekend during a visit to Millstreet if it is perhaps time for the State to hold an official commemoration to mark the killings, Taoiseach Micheál Martin would not be drawn but he did commend Bishop Colton for marking the events with a series of pastoral visits.
“I welcome the initiative of Bishop Paul Colton – Paul is a good friend of mine and I think the way he is approaching this from a diocesan point of view without, as he said himself, being a historian to judge way or another. I think his decision is a very good decision,” he said.
“I would commend Bishop Colton because he has worked since 2014 to be part of an inclusive centenary programme, marking the various events of the decade of centenaries and that’s something I will continue to work with the Church of Ireland and other churches.”