The IRA men who shot dead 13 Protestants in West Cork during the Truce in 1922 were not some rogue unit, but came from different local companies, a leading historian has revealed in advance of the screening of a new TG4 documentary.
Dr Andy Bielenberg of the School of History at University College Cork, said the Bandon Valley Massacre, which is examined in the new documentary Maru in Iarthar Chorcai: Cogadh Saoirse no Cogadh Seicteach (Murder in West Cork – War of Liberation or Sectarian War) was not done by just one IRA unit.
“I think what we know now is that these killings were carried out by the IRA in each of the different localities where the killings took place so the ones in Dunmanway were carried out people stationed in and around Dunmanway and in Ballineen and Enniskeane, likewise and in Clonakilty, likewise,” Dr Bielenberg said.
“These were anti-Treaty IRA members, but they weren’t a separate unit that went around and did all the killings and the evidence for that comes from the witness testimonies of those seeking compensation [and] some of the survivors.
“The evidence of these survivors is important – they came to the front door in one case in Dunmanway and the wife slammed the door in their face and the guy escaped but they came back and in his compensation claim, he said he recognised them as local IRA men.
“That was the case too in Clonakilty, where a court proceeding was taken against one of the suspected killers, but the case never went ahead, because witnesses would not come forward, but that person is named and we have evidence that was built up for that trial.”
Dr Bielenberg was speaking during a panel discussion after a preview screening of the documentary by former RTÉ reporter, Jerry O’Callaghan whose father, Denis O’Callaghan and uncle, Jack O’Callaghan were both members of the IRA in their native Newcestown in West Cork.
Mr O’Callaghan said the idea for the documentary came from the controversy triggered by Canadian historian Peter Hart in his 1998 study of the War of Independence in Cork, The IRA and Its Enemies -Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923, in which he asserted the 13 killings were sectarian.
“In the film we to set out to determine as far as we could what happened and who were the people who are killed and why they were killed – we appointed UCC historians, Andy Bielenberg and John Borgonovo as our jury, as it were to assess whether the killings were sectarian,” said Mr O’Callaghan.
Dr Hart asserted in his book in a chapter entitled Taking it out on the Protestants that “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.
“The sectarian antagonism which drove the massacre was interwoven with political hysteria and local vendettas, but it was sectarian nonetheless,” wrote Dr Hart, who was unable to respond to much of the subsequent criticism of his thesis as he died in 2010.
Dr Hart was criticised by historian Dr Brian Murphy who disputed his thesis, arguing 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.
Dr Murphy said the British document stated generally loyalists had little information to give on IRA activities, but Dr Hart had ignored an important line in the document which said the exception was “in the Bandon area, where there were many Protestant farmers who gave information”.
Mr O’Callaghan put this point to Dr Hart in an interview recorded six months before he died, and Dr Hart conceded he had omitted the qualification relating to the Bandon area. “I think you are right. I did omit that, and I feel bad about that, but I did actually repair the omission in a later book,” he said.
Most historians generally agree the Bandon Valley Massacre was triggered by the shooting dead of IRA Commandant, Michael O’Neill (25) when he attempted to seize a car belonging to the Hornibrook family at Ballygroman near Ovens in mid-Cork in the early hours of April 26th 1922.
The IRA returned with reinforcements and forced the surrender of Thomas Hornibrook (70), his son, Samuel (25) and his nephew, Herbert Woods (29), who fired the shot that killed O’Neill. The IRA took them from the house and executed all three, their bodies have never been found.
According to Dr Bielenberg, it was while O’Neill was lying repose in Bandon that anti-Treaty IRA men from three different areas – Ballineen/Enniskeane, Dunmanway and Clonakilty embarked on the killing spree that saw 13 Protestants shot dead in their homes between April 27th and April 29th.
Those who were shot dead included Francis Fitzmaurice (72), David Gray (37) and James Buttimer (82), all from Dunmanway who were killed on April 27th, as well as Robert Howe (60) from Castletownkinneigh and Robert Nagle (16) from Clonakilty who were also shot on April 27th.
The next day, the gunmen shot dead Bertie Chinnery (32) from Ballineen and Alexander McKinley (16) from Ballineen, together with John Buttimer (59) from Cahir, Ballineen and his farmhand, James Greenfield (45) while John Bradfield (69) of Killowen, Bandon was shot on April 29th.
In the documentary, Dr Bielenberg and Dr Borgonovo look at each case separately and examine military records and pension claims. They conclude that in some cases, the victims were shot because they were suspected of being informers but in other cases, they had no link with crown forces.
One of the most striking elements of Maru in Iarthar Chorcai are the interviews with two of the descendants of those who were killed – Josie Buttimer, grandson of John Buttimer and Hazel Baylor, niece of Bertie Chinnery.
Mr O’Callaghan interviewed the late Mr Buttimer, who died in March 2022, in the family home at Cahir in Ballineen where his grandfather, John, was shot dead by the IRA. It was believed that the IRA had come to shoot his father, Willie John only for the younger man to escape.
“They broke in a window and my grandmother heard the breaking of the glass and that was how my father escaped, he went out a skylight and went down the roof. My grandmother confronted them and wanted to give her own life instead of her husband’s, but they wouldn’t have it.”
The gunmen shot John Buttimer upstairs while they also shot the Buttimers’ farmhand, Jim Greenfield, who according to Mr O’Callaghan, had “learning difficulties with little understanding of what was happening in the nearby village of Ballineen”.
Hazel Baylor, who died in September 2022, also spoke to Mr O’Callaghan for the documentary but was sceptical when he put it to her that it had been suggested that her uncle Bertie Chinnery, an ex-RIC man turned farmer, had been shot because he was passing information to the British.
“My mother never said anything about the motive but when I heard it (that he was passing information) I never gave it much heed because I was convinced it wasn’t true… maybe he was killed for being Protestant and the others too – I can’t be certain of that, so I’ll leave it there.”
Maru in Iarthar Chorcai: Cogadh Saoirse no Cogadh Seicteach screens on TG4 on Wednesday, December 7th at 9.30pm