Martin Midgley Reeve, a great grandson of Thomas Hornibrook and a relation of Captain Herbert Woods, who were both shot alongside Thomas’s son, Samuel, in retaliation for the shooting in West Cork of IRA Commandant Michael O’Neill in 1922, said it would mean a great deal to his family if their remains could be found.
“When you haven’t got a grave, you have nowhere really to grieve,” Mr Midgley Reeve said during a visit to Cork yesterday. “I would appeal to anyone with information, if they do know where any bodies might be, to come forward.”
Cmdt O’Neill was shot dead by Capt Woods, a twice-decorated First World War hero, when he entered the home of Capt Woods’ relations, Thomas and Samuel Hornibrook, at Ballygroman House, on April 26, 1922.
Thomas, 79, Samuel, 45, and Capt Woods, 30, later surrendered to the IRA when the house was surrounded. They were killed and buried, but their bodies have never been found.
Cmdt O’Neill’s shooting resulted in the killing of a further 10 Protestant civilians, all men aged 16 to 82, in the Dunmanway, Ballineen, Clonakilty, Murragh, and Bandon areas over the next four nights.
The West Cork massacre has been the source of immense controversy since Canadian historian Peter Hart published The IRA and its Enemies in 1998, which ascribed sectarian motives to the killing spree.
However, Cork history teacher Barry Keane, who accompanied Mr Midgley Reeve, his wife Noreen, and their son yesterday, has challenged Mr Hart’s theory in his book, Massacre in West Cork, published earlier this year by the Mercier Press.
He drew on statements given by IRA veterans to the Bureau of Military History, as well as local oral histories to argue that political affiliation, rather than religious background, was the crucial targeting factor. He said all the victims were shot in revenge for Cmdt O’Neill’s killing and because they were perceived to have been hostile to the nationalist cause by elements of the IRA in the Bandon area.
Mr Keane said the killings were best summed up by IRA man Michael O’Donoghue, who went on to become GAA president.
“All were Protestants. This gave the slaughter a sectarian appearance,” said Mr O’Donoghue. “Religious animosity had nothing whatsoever to do with it. These people were done to death as a savage, wholesale, murderous reprisal for the murder of Mick O’Neill.”
Mr Keane brought Mr Midgley Reeve to visit the remains of the house in Ballygroman, before the group travelled to Bandon to meet local historians.
Capt Woods’s family, who lived on Crosses Green in Cork City, ran a wine shop on Cook St which was looted and burned by the Black and Tans in December 1920, forcing the family into hiding afterwards.
Mr Keane said the time is right, with Anglo-Irish relations on their best footing, for the family to get closure.
“This was a Cork family. They were all Corkonians,” said Mr Keane. “We believe the bodies of the three were buried in a large bog in the Farranthomas area of Newcestown.”
Mr Keane has visited the two-and-a-half acre site with archaeologists but said it is virtually impossible to know where to start digging without local knowledge. “We have a rough idea of where the remains might be but we just don’t have the resources to search,” said Mr Keane. “If anybody has information, it would help us narrow it down.”
He also suggested the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, which help find bodies of the Disappeared in the North, could offer expertise. “Maybe they could take this on,” said Mr Keane. “There are about 25 or 30 disappeared from all sides from the War of Independence era.”