Eoghan Harris looks at a new book by Gerard Murphy that describes the ‘descent into savagery’ by the Cork No 1 Brigade of the IRA in 1920 and 1921

MY GRANDFATHER, Pat Harris, spoke proudly of marching to Macroom on Easter Monday, 1916, and of being arrested with Terence MacSwiney on August 12, 1920, at a meeting of the officers of Cork No 1 Brigade in Cork’s City Hall. But he never spoke about what the First Cork Brigade did in the two years that followed.

Gearóid Murphy’s The Year of Disappearances, Political Killings in Cork 1921-22, explains my grandfather’s grim silence. According to Murphy, these two years saw a "descent into savagery" by the Cork No 1 Brigade. Led first by Sean Hegarty and later, and more murderously, by Florrie O’Donoghue, it carried out a frenzied campaign of civilian killings that Richard Mulcahy and Michael Collins tried vainly to restrain.

Murphy’s book will cause shock and anger in Cork republican circles. But the author cannot be dismissed as a West Brit revisionist. He is racy of the republican soil, an Irish-speaker from Carrignavar, and has no agendas. He modestly calls his massive chronicle a "best-fit" account, and accepts that future historians may amend his findings. But it will be hard to argue away his core conclusion.

From early 1921, Florrie O’Donoghue’s hit squads killed or "disappeared" at least 85 civilians, 33 of whom were Protestants, a terror campaign which traumatised the Cork Protestant community, caused hundreds of them to leave their native city forever and the descendants of those who stayed to keep their mouths firmly shut, to this day.

Murphy puts major moral question marks over three Cork republican icons: Martin Corry, the IRA’s chief executioner in the killing fields of Knockraha, near Watergrasshill; Connie Neenan (of St Finbarr’s Hurling and Football Club fame) who was involved in the shooting of teenage boy scouts; Florrie O’Donoghue, the Cork No 1’s intelligence officer, who masterminded most of these killings and later manipulated the historical record to hide his tracks.

Murphy’s story really starts in August 1920 when Sean Hegarty, and Florrie O’Donoghue, his intelligence officer, took over from Terence MacSwiney and started to shoot "spies" on a scale so large, and on evidence so flimsy, that it bothered both visitors like Ernie O’Malley and Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy at GHQ.

The chief killing ground was at Knockraha, near Watergrasshill.

Murphy believes 27 bodies are buried in the bogs of the Rea, an area of forested upland, with another 10 around the Glounthaune farm of Martin Corry, later to be a popular Fianna Fáil TD.

As a boy, Gerard Murphy could see the Rea from his bedroom window. So he was sceptical, when he started researching local rumours, that so many bodies could be kept secret. But as he found out, "it was not a secret, it was well known to the last generation and when they were gone it was forgotten".

Murphy found his first clues in a chronicle compiled by local historian Jim Fitzgerald called Foras Feasa an Pharóiste, based on interviews with IRA survivors.

It told how Martin Corry and his death squads used a vault in Kilquane graveyard, known as "Sing Sing", as a prison, before taking their victims to the Rea for execution and burial in Carroll’s bog.

But the Corry story, although sensational, has no political significance compared with the long-term effect of two other campaigns carried out by Florrie O’Donoghue after he assumed effective control of the Brigade in 1921 while Hegarty was in mid-Cork.

THE first campaign marked down teenagers who were members of the Protestant YMCA or Boy Scouts, as "trackers", or "spies". On the basis of a "confession" tortured from a YMCA teenager called Parsons, nine teenagers were abducted, shot and secretly buried.

Perhaps the most tragic victims were three teenage Protestant Boy Scouts who in April 1921 came across an IRA dump at Mount Vernon, where they were accustomed to train before the Troubles.

Connie Neenan, now a local hero, shot them out of hand, and buried them secretly, leaving this laconic obituary in his papers. "They confessed their trackings and were killed." O’Donoghue’s second campaign seems even more depraved. While living on the Old Blackrock Road, he and his sinister wife, Josephine – whose murky work as an IRA mole in Victoria Barracks needs more sceptical evaluation – were complicit in the shooting of seven of their Protestant neighbours. This caused 155 Protestants in the townland of Knockrea (the tiny triangle taking in some of the Old Blackrock Road and Douglas) to pack up in fear and leave their native city, joining a growing Protestant exodus which Murphy rightly believes changed the character of the city forever.

To put this in context, Gerard Murphy recalls the continuing scepticism in certain republican circles about a systematic IRA campaign against Cork Protestants. In particular he quotes Professor John A Murphy’s jibe that there was "no ethnic cleansing in the South Mall". It is a remark that the professor might want to revisit when he has digested this book.

Gerard Murphy calculates that from summer of 1920 to the start of the Civil War, 33 Protestants were shot in Cork city proper, while another 40 were put to death in the area around the city – a total of 73 Protestant victims from the minority community. Let’s put these killings in a European context.

During the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht, November 28, 1938, no more than 91 German Jews were killed – but these 91 traumatised the entire German Jewish community. Imagine the psychological impact on the Cork Protestant community of the IRA murdering 73 Protestants – a number not far from the German Jewish figure of 91.

Gerard Murphy gives short shrift to the notion that the "South Mall" was spared. He points out that 13 Cork Protestant merchants – a comparatively huge number in a small city – were shot for the crime of being, in Florrie O’Donoghue’s phrase, "loyal loyalists". He also shows that the truce of July 11, 1921, did not apply to civilians who angered the IRA. Of the 33 Protestants killed in the period 1921-22, some seven were killed "before and during" the War of Independence proper, whereas 26 were killed "after" the Truce.

From all of which we can draw two conclusions: the "South Mall" suffered its share of "cleansing" and Cork Protestants, more than most Protestants, were lucky the Republicans did not win the Civil War.

At the same time, Murphy is swift to salute IRA men who behaved with compassion, notably the chivalrous soldiers of Liam Lynch, and later Sean Moylan’s, North Cork Brigade.

Apart from his book being an act of atonement, Gerard Murphy gives us three important insights into the IRA’s actions and their aftermath. First, the dirtiest deeds were done after Florrie O’Donoghue took over and concentrated on his favourite suspects: Freemasons, YMCA members and Protestant Boy Scouts. Second, he confirms a view I have publicly stated in the past: that the IRA singled out Methodists and low-church Protestants for special treatment. Tribal apologists who argue that the IRA’s campaign was not sectarian miss the point. Seen through IRA eyes, the shooting of 73 Protestants might not seem sectarian – but it looked very sectarian when seen through the eyes of frightened Protestants. In some cases, of course, the IRA were indeed motivated by tribal tremors – which persist to this day in surprising places.

Finally Gerard Murphy shows how Florrie O’Donoghue, Connie Neenan and Martin Corry backdated many of the dirty deeds carried out "after the Truce of July 1921, to the period before" the Truce, so as to make them look like part of the War of Independence proper. Furthermore it was not difficult for O’Donoghue to massage his statements to the Military History Bureau because he was its founder.

Gerard Murphy accepts that neither the descendants of republican executioners nor their Protestant victims will thank him for digging up old bones. But Murphy clearly believes his only duty is to the dead. Thanks to his work, the words of Ecclesiasticus will no longer apply to the forlorn ghosts who haunt the fields of Knockraha and the gardens of Knockrea. "And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been."

In Seán O Mordha’s Seven Ages, the historian Tom Garvin, asked why so few Old IRA men spoke about their past, simply said: "Because they had done terrible things, and they knew it."

I hope my grandfather did not do terrible things, but I can’t hope he did not know they were done. So I will simply put his name and a question mark on the margins of Gearóid Murphy’s book of the dead.

Picture: Cemetery registrar Michael Roche at the vault where prisoners were kept during the War of independence at Knockraha, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan