“A shocking affair occurred, resulting in Acting Comdt. Michael O’Neill, 1st Batt, 3rd Cork Brigade, being shot dead at Ovens, about 10 miles from Bandon. It appears that the deceased, accompanied by some other officers, called at the house of a farmer on some official duty. While the officers were standing in the hallway a shot rang out without any warning whatsoever, and the deceased fell dead.”
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The killing of IRA acting commandant Michael O’Neill, 25, of Maryborough, Timoleague, in the early hours of April 26, 1922, as reported in thethe following day, became the catalyst for a three-day spate of murders in West Cork that left 13 Protestants dead and a controversy over motives that rages to this day.
O’Neill was shot dead by former British army captain Herbert Woods after he and three other men entered the home at Ballygroman, near Ovens, of Woods’ relations, Thomas and Samuel Hornibrook.
O’Neill, whose party had been on “special duty” and had sought to seize a car belonging to Thomas Hornibrook, accessed the house through a window.
An inquest jury in Bandon found O’Neill had been “brutally murdered in the house of Thomas Hornibrook while in the execution of his duty as an officer of the IRA” and that “the fatal shot was fired by a man named Woods in company with two Hornibrooks, Thos. and Samuel”.
Woods, former magistrate Thomas Hornibrook and his son Samuel are then believed to have been executed by the IRA and their bodies buried in Farranthomas bog, near Newcestown.
Though revenge was widely acknowledged as the motive for these three killings, the basis for the murder of a further 10 West Cork Protestants over the course of the next three days continues to divide historians, some pointing to a sectarian agenda, others arguing that the victims were targeted for their real or perceived loyalist sympathies.
The murders, known variously as the ‘Bandon Valley massacre’ or ‘Dunmanway killings’, continued with the targeting of three businessmen on the night of April 26/27 in Dunmanway 'practically inside their own doors' according to thereport.
TheDunmanway correspondent wired the following report: “At a late hour on Wednesday night, a party of armed men visited Dunmanway and soon after, revolver and rifle firing was heard around the streets, which was continued for several hours.
“The inhabitants believed it to be an attack on the local barracks by rival forces, but the morning revealed an appalling state of affairs, three well-known Dunmanway citizens being found shot dead practically inside their own doors.
"They were Francis Fitzmaurice, a solicitor in his 70s, David Gray (37), a chemist, and James Buttimer, a retired draper. Messrs. F. Fitzmaurice, solicitor; D. Gray, chemist, and J. Buttimer, retired draper. All were quiet, inoffensive men, against whom it was believed there was nothing to be alleged.”
Solicitor Francis Fitzmaurice, in his 70s but a “well-known athlete in his time”, was described as having “enjoyed one of the most lucrative practices in the South of Ireland” and “had also a large land agency business, and his sympathy with the tenants in the several properties with which he was connected was well known”.
Chemist David Gray, 37, a married man with three children, was shot and killed at his home on Sackville St. James Buttimer was described as an “ex-naval man” of advanced age, “formerly a draper in the town, where he built up a very fine business, retiring some years ago”.
April 29 brought news of further killings after what theheadline termed a ‘Terrible Night in West Cork’, with strong condemnation from the Dáil, whose Cabinet expressed its “abhorrence” at the violence perpetrated on the Protestant population.
Teenager Alexander Gerald McKinley, shot dead in Ballineen, was initially misidentified as Gerald Peyton and was described as a “mere boy who had been away from home for several years, returning only nine or ten months ago”.
John Chinnery (32), a farmer, from near Castletown-Kinneigh, went to investigate a “loud knocking at the door” in the middle of the night and according to one report was ordered out to the yard and was shot dead, it is stated, by the armed party responsible for arousing him from sleep, to tackle a horse to a car in the shed.”
While so engaged, the report continues, Mr Chinnery, a “fine athlete” in the prime of his life, was shot dead.
The death of Robert Howe, a farmer aged around 56, of Ballaghanure, near Ballineen, was described by his widow, Catherine Annie Howe, at the subsequent inquest.
She heard a knock at the door and “the deceased got out of bed and opened it. Two men followed him into the room and told him to get up and harness the horse, and he said he would not, as he was ill. They asked him a second time and he said he would not go. She then heard two shots. The two men ran out the front door. She then went in and found the deceased dead in bed.”
Robert Nagle, 16, of MacCurtain Hill, Clonakilty, was a post office worker whose father Thomas was the IRA’s primary target. Thomas Nagle was a summons and process server, sheriff’s officer, and Freemason who was the caretaker of the Masonic Lodge in Kent St, Clonakilty.
Thomas’ wife described at the inquest how two men burst down their door and asked for the man of the house. After telling them that her husband was away, one of the men fired a revolver at her son, who was in bed.
The Reverend Ralph Harbord, son of Richard Harbord, Protestant rector of Murragh, near Enniskeane, was shot and severely wounded but survived, contrary to initial reports of his death, while later reports indicated further Protestants were also targeted but escaped serious injury.
A meeting of Cork Corporation reacted to the killings by unanimously adopting a resolution tendering sincere sympathy to their “Protestant fellow-countrymen” on the “cruel and tragic deaths of their co-religionists, and assuring them of their anxiety for the continuance of the splendid spirit of toleration which has always been manifested in the South of Ireland”.
The Dáil Cabinet issued a statement expressing its “abhorrence” at the murders, its president Arthur Griffith offering relatives the “profound sympathy of the Irish Nation”, and Michael Collins, chairman of the provisional government, issuing a plea to “every section of Irishmen” to assist in bringing the guilty parties to justice “and in protecting their fellow citizens who may be in danger of a similar fate”.
There was, however, news of three further deaths, two of them on the farm of John Buttimer at Caher, near Ballineen, early on the morning of April 28, when Mr Buttimer, aged 59, and labourer James Greenfield were shot.
An inquest heard from Mr Buttimer’s widow Frances that after the windows of the house were smashed, she came downstairs and encountered intruders who turned her out into the yard.
“I came back in a very short time, and I met a man and I said, ‘You have killed them, but you cannot kill their souls.’ When I came into the house, I got a light and went through the rooms. I found my husband dead in a sitting position in the boy’s room — that is Greenfield’s — and I found Greenfield dead in the bed.”
Another farmer, John Bradfield, an elderly man who walked with the aid of sticks, was the final victim of the murderous spree, on April 29, at his farm in Killowen, five miles from Bandon.
The modus operandi of demanding the provision of a pony and trap was again employed by the assailants, who smashed a dining room window to gain entry.
Mr Bradfield’s sister Elizabeth testified at the inquest that two men came upstairs, entered her brother’s room, and told him to stand up. “I then heard a shot and a fall,” she said.
Condemnation of the attacks had by this time come from all quarters, most notably from IRA Commandant Tom Hales, who on April 28 issued a military order to all battalion commandants in the 3rd Cork Brigade, that “any soldier in the area was neither to interfere with or insult any person”.
Failure to adhere to the order, he warned, would see those concerned disciplined and “even capital punishment will be meted out if found necessary”.
“In furtherance of an order already issued to the IRA to hand in any arms in their possession, I now order all citizens holding [arms] without a permit, to hand them in to the OC’s Barracks, at Bandon, Clonakilty, Ballineen, Dunmanway, and Kinsale,” he said.
A Dáil statement the same day saw the Cabinet acknowledge that “certain elements in the community are taking advantage of the present transitional period in Ireland to wreak private vengeance in the hope that owing to the unsettled conditions they may escape punishment”.
In Cork Cathedral on April 30, the Catholic Bishop of Cork Dr Daniel Coholan added his own denouncement, setting the killings firmly in the context of the anti-Catholic violence in the North that had accompanied partition.
“Our country, north and south, is being disgraced before the world. When will it all end? And where shall we end ourselves if, in the north, Protestants continue murdering members of the Catholic minority, and in the south, Catholics take reprisals on the Protestant minority?” he asked.
“We shall find ourselves moving in a vicious circle of crime: we shall be involved in a succession of murderous reprisals and counter-reprisals.”
Sectarianism, the settling of old scores, suspicions of Loyalist sympathies or informant activities, and a breakdown in law and order in the period preceding the country’s descent into civil war have all been propounded as factors in this brief but bloody chapter in Irish history.
Whatever their motives, the perpetrators of the massacre sparked by the killing of Michael O’Neill were never brought to justice and in the wake of the murders, the exodus of Protestant families from West Cork, already in train due to the British military withdrawal, continued to gather pace.