Bandon massacre showed roots of internecine violence ran deep

Shooting dead of 13 men in 1922 led to mass exodus of Protestants from that part of Cork

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The year 1922 was one punctuated in Ireland by three massacres which illustrated a depth of internecine violence that haunted communities on either side of the Border.

The murder of six members of the McMahon family in Belfast in March by rogue RIC officers and the Altnaveigh massacres by the IRA in June were part of the savage sectarian conflict in the newly-created Northern Ireland which led to 350 deaths in the first half of the year.

The third massacre, known colloquially as the Bandon Valley or Dunmanway massacre, is the most inexplicable, occurring in the South as it did in the relative peace between the truce of July 1921 and the outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922.


In the space of three nights between April 26th and 2th, 13 men, all Protestants, were shot dead in west Cork.

By whom it has never been clear, but the attack was an affront to the ideals of republicanism as expressed by Wolfe Tone in his vision of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter sharing the common name of Irishman however much the new state would confound that rhetoric. It was also an affront to the self-image of the new southern state as a non-sectarian one unlike its Northern equivalent.

Events began on April 26th, 1922, when an 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 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.

Those three killings were at least explicable as being in response to the death of O’Neill, but the motivation for the other 10 has never been definitively established. Were they innocent Protestants, loyalist spies or members of a clandestine loyalist group?

The youngest were teenagers: Andrew McKinley and Robert Nagle, both 16. The oldest was James Buttimer, an 82-year-old almost blind man who was shot through the letter box of his home. Buttimer was a Methodist and supporter of John Redmond.

Twenty-six houses in total were targeted over the space of three days; 24 of the houses were owned by Protestants.

"The spectre of mass murder had long haunted the unionist political imagination: when it arrived, the reality struck with the force of a nightmare," observed the late historian Peter Hart in his seminal and often controversial book The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in County Cork 1916-1923, published in 1998.

The killings led to the mass exodus of Protestants from that area of Co Cork. Some returned; others never did it.


The killings were condemned by the pro- and anti-Treaty sides and in the Dáil. There was genuine revulsion in most of nationalist Ireland, as articulated by the president of the provisional government, Arthur Griffith.

“Dáil Éireann, so far as its powers extend, will uphold, to the fullest extent, the protection of life and property of all classes and sections of the community. It does not know and cannot know, as a national government, any distinction of class or creed. In its name, I express the horror of the Irish nation at the Dunmanway murders.”

Articles appeared in the unionist and British press suggesting that Protestants were being deliberately targeted in the new Irish state. The strains between pro- and anti-Treaty sides were already apparent, but they were united in condemnation of such actions.

Tom Barry, the instigator of the Kilmichael ambush, the bloodiest defeat of British forces during the War of Independence, rushed back from Dublin to defend the homes of Protestants who he believed to be at risk. He would assert until the day he died that the Cork IRA had never targeted anybody because of their religion and that most of the informers shot during the War of Independence were Catholics.

Local IRA commander Tom Hales issued a public statement promising to protect every citizen in his area “irrespective of creed or class”.

The culprits were never caught. Hart named them as committed republicans and anti-Treaty IRA men acting on their own initiative. The killings happened at a time when the nascent Irish state had neither the will nor the authority to deal with such outrages.

Hart concluded: “Behind the killings lay a jumble of individual histories and possible motives. In the end, however, the fact of the victims’ religion is inescapable. These men were shot because they were Protestant. No Catholic Free Staters, landlords, or ‘spies’ were shot or even shot at. The sectarian antagonism which drove this massacre was interwoven with political hysteria and local vendettas, but it was sectarian none the less.

“Within this rhetoric of ethnic intolerance can be detected the quasi-millenarian idea of a final reckoning of the ancient conflict between settlers and natives. To some republicans, revolution meant righting old wrongs, no matter how old, and establishing the republic entailed the reversal of the old order.”

Hart further stated that the Dunmanway killings had been foreshadowed by the killing of many Protestants during the War of Independence as alleged informers.

History teacher Barry Keane’s book Massacre in West Cork – the Dunmanway and Ballygroman Killings concluded that the killings were in revenge for the death of O’Neill. Those targeted were known to be loyalists, but their religion was incidental, he believed. All were known to be hostile to the IRA in the Bandon area who were in strict need of control at the time.

Historians John Borgonovo and Andy Bielenberg believe the killings were carried out by mid-level IRA leaders without the permission of their senior officers. Moreover, they maintain the killings were a solitary event and not representative of the treatment in general handed out to Protestants in the new State.

‘Big houses’

Yet the Civil War would see further acts of tribal spite which involved the burning of the ‘big houses’, the homes of the Anglo-Irish landed classes.

Some 275 big houses were destroyed between 1919 and 1923. They were perceived as belonging to the classes that had oppressed Ireland for centuries. Although there was some truth in that, the burnings were widely condemned and remain a source of embarrassment to nationalist Ireland.

During the War of Independence they were burned in retaliation for the burning of the homes of republicans. Though morally dubious, there was at least a logic to the activities of the IRA in the War of Independence.

No such logic attended the burning of 199 big houses during the Civil War, destroyed in retaliation for the executions of republicans. Currygrane House, the family home of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, was burned to the ground in August 1922, four days after the two men who assassinated him, Reggie Dunne and Joe O'Sullivan, were hanged for murder. The Wilson family had already left Ireland and never returned.

According to anti-Treaty IRA leader Liam Lynch, the homes of imperialists were legitimate targets, even if their owners had nothing to do with prosecuting the Civil War.

“All Free State supporters are traitors and deserve the latter’s stark fate, therefore their houses must be destroyed at once,” Lynch declared after a number of anti-Treaty prisoners were executed.

Two days later the home of pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TD Sean McGarry was burned to the ground, and his seven-year-old son died in the blaze. William T Cosgrave’s home in south Dublin was burned out in January 1923. A Free State army report from that month concluded: “With depleted numbers, lack of resources and unified control and almost complete ineffectiveness from a military standpoint, their [anti-Treaty IRA] policy of military action is slowly changing to one of sheer destruction and obstruction of the civil government.”

In the years between the censuses of 1911 and 1926 (there was no census in 1921 because of the political unrest) the Protestant population of the 26 counties declined by a third from just over 10 per cent of the population to 7 per cent. The reasons for this decline have been a matter of often fractious historical dispute ever since. Did the withdrawal of the British army play a role? Did the Protestant population leave for the same reason that many Catholics left – for better opportunities elsewhere? Was the notorious Ne Temere decree by the Catholic Church, promulgated in 1907, which insisted that the children of mixed marriages be brought up as Catholics, also a factor?

Whatever the truth, it is undeniable that southern unionist families did not feel comfortable in the Irish Free State. Ireland was materially and socially poorer for their exile.