Book on 1922 massacre of Protestants at Dunmanway ‘overplayed significance of sectarianism’, historian says

‘The propaganda war was a hugely important of the War of Independence’, says Dr Andy Bielenberg

Canadian historian, Peter Hart was correct to identify the Bandon Valley Massacres where 10 Protestants were killed in April 1922 as sectarian but he was wrong to see it as indicative of a broader sectarianism in Cork during the revolutionary period, according to a prominent Irish historian.

Dr Andy Bielenberg of the School of History at University College Cork told the West Cork History Festival that establishing the truth of what happened and the motives of those involved in the Bandon Valley Massacres was “fraught” because it was caught up in the propaganda war of the time.

“It was part of the propaganda war, and the propaganda war was a hugely important of the War of Independence and the British intention in the propaganda war was to try and show the republican campaign was a sectarian campaign and that they were killing Protestants.

“So, every time a spy was shot, it was a Protestant that was mentioned in the papers but if the person was a Catholic, that was not mentioned”, said Dr Bielenberg who has done detailed research in the Cork Spy Files on the killing by the IRA of 78 suspected British spies in Cork in the period.


Speaking during a panel discussion on the Bandon Valley Massacre when nine members of the Church of Ireland and one Methodist were shot around Dunmanway in the last week of April 1922 during the Truce, Dr Bielenberg said Peter Hart’s work had sparked huge interest in the incident.

In his book, The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923, published in 1998, Dr Hart concluded the primary motivation behind the killings of the 10 men around Dunmanway and the Bandon Valley, as well as the killing of three Protestants in nearby mid-Cork, was sectarian.

In a chapter entitled “Taking it out on the Protestants”, Dr Hart — who died in 2010 — stated: “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.”

New currency

Dr Bielenberg said that the importance of sectarianism in the Northern Troubles had raised the whole issue of sectarianism in the War of Independence and the Civil War and had given it a new currency, particularly in relation to what happened in West Cork.

“The issue of sectarianism was given new currency from the important work of Peter Hart — I think Peter was right on Dunmanway in terms of its sectarian significance, but I think he overplayed the significance of sectarianism in the whole revolution.

“Cork was not a deeply sectarian society, pre-first World War. It certainly did not have the same sectarian problems the North had, which makes the Dunmanway episode stand out so much,” he told the panel discussion with fellow historians, Prof Brian Walker, Dr Gemma Clark and Don Wood.

In his paper to the West Cork History Festival, Dr Bielenberg said he had looked at each of the 13 killings and other attacks in West Cork in the last week of April 1922 and tried to assess what happened from the testimony of victim compensation claims and IRA pension application evidence.

It was generally agreed the killings of Herbert Woods and James and Samuel Hornibrook at Ballygroman House near Aherla could be seen as a reprisal for the killing of IRA man, Michael O’Neill by Woods when the IRA tried to seize a car belonging to the Hornibrooks on April 26th, 1922.

Over the next three nights, Methodist, James Buttimer and Protestants 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 Dunmanway, Bandon and Kinneigh.

Dr Bielenberg said that Crown Force intelligence in West Cork tapped loyalist civilian sources along with many other sources, including Catholic informers for information while they also obtained information from captured documents and IRA prisoners.

In its reprisal campaign, the IRA attacked scores of households either as targets of assassination or with the intention of simply clearing them out.

“The Protestant profile of almost all these households further adds to the sectarian dimension of the whole episode,” said Dr Bielenberg who has established that only three of those ten shot dead were on an IRA suspect list while four of those killed “were definitely not informers”.

Dr Bielenberg said: “It would seem, that the IRA in Ballineen-Enniskeane and Dunmanway had developed a view that a group of Protestant civilians were primarily responsible for supplying information which led to British counter-insurgency measures against them in 1920-21.

“Despite the wide range of sources drawn up by British intelligence to carry out such measures, this group of Protestants suspects took all the blame in this area — this, in my view, explains why these Protestants households were targeted in April 1922.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times