Sonny O’Neill's Béal na Bláth account says nothing of shot that killed Collins

Sonny O’Neill, the man believed to have killed Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth, described being there when applying for a military pension 13 years later — but said nothing about the gunfight or firing the fatal shot.

The absence of any detail and the apparent lack of questions about what transpired to be one of the country’s most significant military engagements, is described by a historian as very telling.

The military pension file of West Cork-born Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill — an ex-RIC policeman who served for three years in the British Army, including the last year of the First World War — was published online yesterday, along with those of more than 1,100 other Easter Rising, War of Independence, and Civil War veterans. The 350 pages on O’Neill in the Defence Forces’ Military Archives include a transcript of his May 1935 sworn statement to an advisory committee referee considering applications for those claiming pensions for service in the period.

Asked about his anti-Treaty forces activities in the early stages of the Civil War, O’Neill spoke of being based in Macroom and Bandon after Cork City was taken over by the National Army in early August 1922. He said he was called to meet IRA Brigade headquarters staff at Newcestown, where a divisional army meeting was to be held on the Monday morning, the day before the evening ambush on August 22 a few miles away at Béal na Bláth.

“We accidentally ran into the Ballinablath thing, Tom Hales and myself,” he told the 1935 committee.

It is unclear if the incorrect placename spelling is down to his pronunciation or an error in the transcript.

He said they had heard about Collins’ party going through in the morning after taking a wrong turn. Most historians’ accounts say an IRA sentry at Béal na Bláth crossroads gave directions to the small cavalcade taking Collins west to Bandon earlier in the day, leading to debate among local IRA figures whether to set an ambush for their return.

“We went down to look at the position in Ballinablath. We took up a position there, and held it till late in the evening,” said O’Neill, who died in 1950 after settling in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. But the exchange then moved straight on to questions about his family and his later activities.

Source: Defence Forces Military Archives

Gabriel Doherty of UCC’s school of history, said the apparent absence of further questions speaks volumes. “It’s striking that, in a discussion of the ambush that killed the commander-in-chief of the pro-Treaty forces, that one of the principals in that ambush was not asked a single question about what happened,” he said.

An army intelligence description of O’Neill after the Civil War —when anti-Treaty fighters were still closely watched — said he was “a first-class shot and a strict disciplinarian”. “A very downcast appearance, hardly ever smiles, never looks a person in the face when speaking,” said one 1924 dispatch from army headquarters.

Source: Defence Forces Military Archives

More in this section