The first comprehensive detailing of 528 people killed in Cork during the War of Independence shines a light beyond the better-known deaths of IRA fighters and British Crown Forces.

In the latest collaboration between the Irish Examiner and University College Cork to highlight the history of the period, Cork’s War of Independence Fatality Register gives the circumstances of each episode, including the stories behind 166 civilian killings between 1919 and 1921.

It is the latest addition to the free historical resources available on The Irish Revolution website set up last year by the newspaper and university. The database was compiled by UCC school of history senior lecturer Andy Bielenberg and University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor of history James S Donnelly Jr.

Cork's significance in the War of Independence has long been established, with at least one-fifth of all violent deaths happening in the county. This latest research also offers analysis of the trends and timelines around different types of fatal incidents.

But Bielenberg and Donnelly have gone beyond the comprehensive work of other historians on Cork’s violent deaths almost a century ago, like the controversial late Peter Hart, to enumerate War of Independence deaths. The register uses official death registrations to expand on previous research.

Cork IRA commander and Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain with his family, soon before he was shot dead by police at his Blackpool home in March 1920. Picture: Irish Examiner photographic archive
Cork IRA commander and Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain with his family, soon before he was shot dead by police at his Blackpool home in March 1920. Picture: Irish Examiner photographic archive

The descriptions of each episode take account of the likely exaggerations in, for example, republican accounts of Crown Forces losses. The register also offers objective findings, after considering the likely biases or contradictory perspectives of different official and unofficial reports, whether they were produced in the weeks immediately following the events or decades later.

The names are listed chronologically, beginning with the death of 35-year-old former Cork GAA County Board member James Down after an assault by four ex-soldiers on St Patrick’s Street in February 1919. The final entries give details of two young suspected spies, abducted and killed by the IRA on the day of the Truce in July 1921.

But visitors to the research collection can also group deaths by category, or search the files for names, locations or organisations.

A novel aspect of the project is that it brings together details in one place for the first time of all known civilian deaths, often overlooked or given little attention by comparison to the more famous episodes in which Irish revolutionaries killed police or military targets, or were killed themselves.

In February 1921, for example, the 93 deaths recorded made it the worst month of the conflict for deaths. But the 39 IRA deaths were almost matched by 30 civilians who died, including eight killed on February 15 in the IRA’s disastrous Upton train ambush.

Upton train station in west Cork, where three IRA volunteers and eight civilians were killed on February 15, 1921. Picture: Irish Examiner photographic archive
Upton train station in west Cork, where three IRA volunteers and eight civilians were killed on February 15, 1921. Picture: Irish Examiner photographic archive

“It’s one of the most egregious examples of commemoration, where three IRA volunteers who were killed are regularly remembered. Eight civilians died when the train carrying British personnel was attacked, but hardly anything is ever mentioned of that,” said Mr Bielenberg.

Up to July 1921, civilians were more likely to be killed by the IRA than by British police or military forces. This controversial aspect of the Irish revolution has already been well explored by the work of Bielenberg and Donnelly in the Cork Spy Files, an examination of known or alleged informers killed by the IRA and published last year on The Irish Revolution website.

Cork’s War of Independence Fatality Register is online at theirishrevolution.ie.

Andy Bielenberg will give a free public lecture on the project at UCC’s civil engineering building this Wednesday, May 17, at 6pm

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