West Cork killings should be admitted as sectarian, says historian

Killings in 1922 were removed from history for decades and ‘silence was not broken’ until Canadian historian published controversial work in 1990s, says Prof Brian Walker

The killings of 13 Protestants in Dunmanway, Co Cork in 1922 and attacks on nearly two dozen more were sectarian acts carried out by republicans provoked by attacks against Catholics in Belfast and should now be admitted to as such, a leading historian has declared.

The killings in April 1922 were sparked after a local IRA leader, Michael O’Neill, was shot dead by Herbert Woods after O’Neill and his men had attacked the home of Samuel and Thomas Hornibrook near Kilumney, Cork, searching, it is said, for weapons.

The killings were removed from history for decades, including from the history of the Church of Ireland itself, and the “silence was not broken” until a Canadian historian, Peter Hart, published controversial work during the 1990s, Prof Brian Walker said.

In recent decades, it has been argued that the Protestants were attacked because they had passed on information to the British authorities of the time or that they had been involved in an “anti-Sinn Féin/IRA society”. However, those charges were not made at the time, Prof Walker said.


“I stand with Michael Collins, Erskine Childers, with Éamon de Valera, who agreed that these attacks were reprisals by elements of the IRA for sectarian attacks in the North, probably sparked off by the shooting of one of their men,” he said.

Childers condemned the killings as “a horrible episode” that went against Christian principles and those of nationality, and said they could not be justified even though republicans would not “forget the provocation, the daily slaughter of Catholics in Belfast”.

Meanwhile, Collins considered the killings to be “an outrage” and moved quickly in the weeks afterwards to meet with a Church of Ireland delegation to assure them that the new State would protect civil and religious freedoms.

Collins, Childers and de Valera disagreed on many things, but they agreed on this, said Prof Walker, who questioned why the reputation of the Protestant victims, which was so strongly defended in the days and weeks after their killing, is not defended now.

In part, he said, this is explained by a “partitionist” attitude taken by some writers in the Republic, and due to a determination to reject any suggestions that any republican during the revolutionary years could possibly have been sectarian.

The killings, nine months after the ending of the War of Independence, have been linked by some to alleged local fears of a British invasion, or because of alleged connections between some or all of the dead and the British army.

“No doubt there were informers in the area, but no firm evidence emerged to the name of these victims,” he said, adding that no “damning proof” has emerged in the decades since, though “there are still people searching or fishing for such links”.

“Curiously, nearly all the attention is focused on the victims, and virtually nothing on the killers,” he said, adding that the informer charge was not made then. “Why weren’t people talking about that? No one did. People were keeping quiet for a very good reason. And that was because these were sectarian murders.”

Prof Walker was speaking in Dublin at a conference organised by the Dunmanway Discussion Group, which was set up by some of the descendants of Protestant families who were affected by the 1922 killings, following the Government’s decision not to mark the anniversary last year.

Pointing out that the bodies of the Hornibrooks have never been found, Jeffrey Dudgeon, a human rights activist and author whose great-grandparents, William and Elizabeth, were forced to flee Dunmanway after an attempt was made on William’s life, said the Commission for the Disappeared should now play a role in trying to find them.

Some people, he said, take “a militaristic view of the centuries-old conflict” and see loyalists and most Protestants of the time as “effectively collaborators”, though, in many cases, those same people had served their neighbours well.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times