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Authors: Barry Keane

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Ireland, #irish ira, #ireland in 1922, #protestant ireland, #what is the history of ireland, #1922 Ireland, #history of Ireland

Massacre in West Cork

BOOK: Massacre in West Cork
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3B Oak House, Bessboro Rd

Blackrock, Cork, Ireland.

© Barry Keane, 2014

ISBN: 978 1 78117 203 2

Epub ISBN: 978 1 78117 254 4

Mobi ISBN: 978 1 78117 255 1

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

For Louise and Ella

The geography of West Cork © Barry Keane


No book is ever written by one person and this book is no different. I first was encouraged to pursue this subject while a postgraduate in the Geography Department of University College Cork and, even though it took a little longer than planned, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Emeritus Professor W. J. Smyth, Professor R. J. N. Devoy and Dr K. Hourihan for their help at that time. More recently Dr Andy Bielenberg, Dr John Borgonovo, Dr John Regan, Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, Dr Gerard Murphy and Niall Meehan have all been generous in sharing their research with me. Many of the more knotty problems have been resolved by their input.

The staffs of the Cork City Library, Cork County Library, Cork City and County Archives, UCC, National Library of Ireland, National Archives of Ireland, National Archives UK and the Military Archives of Ireland are often not acknowledged, but in this story it was their encouragement, courtesy and unfailing kindness which made many of the linkages possible. Their knowledge of what they had in their boxes of dusty documents, and their willingness to make them available, made the hard slog of raw research much easier than it might otherwise have been. My colleagues and friends in Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh also deserve praise for listening and contributing to the story as it developed. To each and every one I am deeply grateful.

Other people deserve special mention. Thomas Hornibrook’s great-grandson, Martin Midgley Reeve, provided a wealth of new information which forms the core of this book and was willing to engage with a story which could only have been painful for him to revisit. My great friend Henry O’Keeffe both listened to the story as it developed and critically read the documents along with me as they were found. Seán Crowley, Dr Martin Healy, Donal O’Flynn and Nora Lynch all took time and energy to tell their version of the story on more than one occasion when they had better things to do; they deserve special praise for their willingness to help. The photographs of Herbert Woods and Michael O’Neill provided by Donal O’Flynn are especially important as they rescue these men from being forgotten by time.

Mary Feehan and the staff of Mercier Press have proved to be exceptional publishers. Wendy Logue deserves special praise for her sterling editorial work and immense patience. Initially, this book was only 35,000 words long and it was a great risk for Mercier to take it on as a project. I am delighted that Mary had the vision to see behind the initial manuscript to what was hidden and was able to get me to tell the entire story.

Last, but not least, my family, Louise and Ella, have been fantastic supporters of this project. Research eats into all parts of family life and there has been more than one weekend wasted driving around the graveyards of West Cork looking for the right headstone. Ella has spent many ‘happy’ afternoons in the County Library, with all the patience of a six-year-old, and without Louise’s help this book would never have got past the initial stages.

Permission for use of images was given by Dr Martin Midgley Reeve, Cork City Library, Irish Examiner Publications, the Military Archives of Ireland and Donal O’Flynn.



As you may know much better than I do, trying to research Irish history is not easy, especially when you don’t live in Ireland. My mother died on 12 June 2004, shortly before her eighty-fourth birthday. Amongst her papers I found a number of menu cards that had been on the tables of her wedding breakfast in 1939. The backs of these cards contained the signatures of all, or I assume most, of her guests. Some of the names were very familiar to me and others brought back vague memories of people I had met many years before. I set about trying to discover who the people were and if any were relations of mine. I contacted distant cousins of my father and some of my mother’s relations, and slowly I started to build family trees. Finding my English relations was relatively easy, but my Irish relations have been much more difficult.

On 6 May 1928 my English grandfather, Dr H. Midgley Reeve, died of a heart attack, and in the following months his large house was put on the market. It was bought by Edward Woods, who had been born in Bandon, County Cork, and his family. The Reeve family then moved to a smaller house nearby and a friendship arose between the two families. In 1939 Beryl Woods, the third daughter of the late Edward and Matilda Woods (daughter of Thomas Hornibrook), married Bernard, the second son of Dr H. Midgley Reeve and his wife, Mabel.

I am one of the five grandchildren who are descendants of the four daughters of Edward and Matilda Woods. Sadly only four of us are still alive and none of us ever knew our Irish grandparents. My Irish grandfather died in 1933 and my grandmother died just over a year later, in 1934. She was aged forty-eight, and it was said that she gave up living after her husband’s death. My mother was daughter number three. She was born in Cork city in August 1920, some four months before my Irish grandfather’s shop was burned to the ground during what is known as ‘The Burning of Cork’. My Aunt Doreen was the youngest daughter and she was born in Essex, where the family first moved when they had to leave Ireland; she was the last of the four daughters to survive and she died in January 2012.

Apart from my mother and her sisters, the only other Irish relation that I have met and been able to talk to about family history was one of the sons of Fred Nicholson, a cousin of Matilda Woods. His son’s knowledge about my family history was very limited. In more recent times I have ‘met’ other relations on the Internet and they have helped to fill in many of the gaps in my knowledge.

It has been a difficult journey for me to find out about my Irish heritage, but visits to Ireland and reading have helped to fill in a few small pieces of a very large jigsaw. This new book by Barry Keane has greatly added to my knowledge of these events and the jigsaw puzzle is starting to take shape!


On 26 April 1922, at 2.30 a.m., Captain Herbert Woods fired a single shot from his Bulldog 45 revolver at Irish Republican Army (IRA) Commandant Michael O’Neill on the stairs of Ballygroman House, Ovens, County Cork, during the Truce period following the cessation of the Irish War of Independence, and killed him. Later that morning Thomas and Samuel Hornibrook, along with Captain Woods, were taken from Ballygroman and almost certainly killed by the anti-Treaty IRA. Over four nights, from 26 April to 29 April, ten local Protestants were shot in their homes by unknown men and four British soldiers were shot in Macroom. These killings have been cited by some modern commentators as a sign of sectarian ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the IRA in Cork, yet many of the details surrounding the deaths remain shrouded in mystery and numerous questions remain unanswered.

Who exactly was Herbert Woods and why did he shoot an unarmed man? Who was Michael O’Neill and what was he doing inside the house at that hour? What connection had this event with the killing of ten Protestants in West Cork over the next four nights in what are commonly known as the Dunmanway killings? Are these killings linked with the shooting of three British intelligence officers, their driver and a dog in Macroom during the same period? What exactly happened to Herbert Woods, Thomas Hornibrook and Samuel Hornibrook, who were arrested by the Irish Republican Police and disappeared, undoubtedly killed by members of the anti-Treaty IRA? What was the effect on the local Protestant minority? Did thousands of people flee West Cork as a result of these killings, driven out by a rising tide of sectarian hatred?

My aim is to tell the story of what happened over the course of these events honestly and fairly, presenting the various strands of evidence and inviting the reader to draw their own conclusions. I examine the origins and history of the two men at the centre of the incident, Michael O’Neill and Herbert Woods, and show that many of the claims surrounding these linked events have little basis in fact. I also introduce newly uncovered IRA evidence from the Bureau of Military History (BMH) collection and from various British archives, which throws new light on the Dunmanway killings.

Having taken a chance in contacting Martin Midgley Reeve, the grandson of Thomas Hornibrook’s daughter, Matilda Warmington Woods, I was delighted when he responded. Martin provided a wealth of details which were able to clear up any doubts about the accuracy of my research and were essential aids when I was looking at the history of the Hornibrook family after they left Ireland. Without his input many of the details in this book simply would not have been uncovered.

It must always be remembered that these events involved real people, some of whose children are still alive. It is not my intention to cause offence or hurt through the writing of this book, but the true history of these events needs to be revealed. If anybody has information that can add to our knowledge of these happenings I would be glad to hear from them.


Everything about the killings carried out over those four days in April 1922 is contentious – even the names of things are different depending on which ‘side’ of the divide people are on. As the majority of readers will probably have been brought up in the Irish nationalist tradition, I have chosen to use the language that they will be familiar with. For example, the term ‘War of Independence’ is used in preference to any of the other equally valid terms used to describe this period of Ireland’s history, such as ‘the Anglo-Irish War’, ‘the Irish Revolution’ or ‘the Irish revolutionary period’. I have tried to avoid the old cliché of Protestant equalling unionist where possible. It does occur on occasion, for example when ‘Protestant unionist’ appears in some of the quotations and cannot be avoided. The terms ‘loyalist’ and ‘nationalist’ are preferable, but even these will be problematic for some readers. Another problem is that the term ‘IRA’ is used over the period 1919 to 1923 to mean different groups. The differences in usage pivot on the ‘Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland’ (‘the Treaty’), signed in December 1921 to bring the Irish War of Independence to a formal end. Up to the vote on the Treaty in January 1922, the term ‘IRA’ referred to the military arm of the independence movement. After this, in most documents, it referred to the part of the IRA that was against the Treaty (‘the anti-Treaty IRA’), which is how it is used in this book. Finally, the name ‘Black and Tans’ is often used in popular culture as the blanket term for the militarised police in Ireland during the War of Independence. However, it was the Auxiliary police (‘the Auxiliaries’), a distinct section of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at this time, who dominated the story in West Cork.

Place names are given as they appear on the Ordnance Survey maps and refer to townlands, district electoral divisions or parishes. As the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches often use different names for the same place, I have tried to ensure that both names are given where necessary. For example, the Roman Catholic parish of Kilbrittain is called Rathclairn by the Church of Ireland. Personal and family names are given as they appear in the documents, but if different documents spell the same person’s name differently this is mentioned.

In recent years the digitisation of the BMH’s collection of witness statements and other documents relating to the period 1916–1923 has allowed researchers to search these sources using keywords, allowing them to find previously unseen references to events such as the Ballygroman and Dunmanway killings. This has allowed a new consideration of these events. The sources collected by the BMH provide a unique and priceless window into the mind of the local IRA volunteer and a detailed history of one side of the conflict.
As with all primary sources, the collection has to be treated with caution, as the witness statements were collected many years after the events they recall and can include half-remembered facts and some obvious self-justification.
However, I have read, referenced and cross-referenced more than 900 of these statements. In most cases what is surprising is the accuracy of people’s recollections, rather than the opposite. Statements may get dates wrong, miss people out, or sometimes gild the lily, but generally when a statement has been cross-checked against an available independent source it has proven to be broadly accurate. For example, comparison of the Cork IRA Monthly Reports in Piaras Béaslaí’s papers against the later witness statements shows that these statements are very accurate in these cases.
It should be noted though, that the sources held by the BMH present only one side of the argument and more work needs to be done in UK archives to reveal the British side of the story of the War of Independence and the Truce period.

Given that both sides in the War of Independence were very adept at propaganda, researchers need to be highly cautious when using primary sources, which often have different agendas behind them. For example, information about the Dunmanway killings was carried in the nationalist Southern Star and the loyalist Cork & County Eagle & Munster Advertiser (Cork & County Eagle hereafter) and both have differing opinions on what actually happened.

Researchers should not allow personal prejudice to dismiss sources simply because they appear unbelievable. A good example of this was my own initial reaction to Kathleen Keyes McDonnell’s There is a Bridge at Bandon. What appeared to be one of her more incredible claims concerned ‘the sack of Castletown-Kinneigh’ and initially I dismissed this as exaggerated. McDonnell claimed that Lord Bandon evicted tenants of the village and five townlands for electing a member of parliament (MP) named Fergus O’Connor instead of his own chosen candidate. These Roman Catholic tenants were replaced by Protestant tenants from Bandon.
Most researchers would be sceptical of this account, but when I checked the sources it became clear that the facts of the story are actually correct, even if the linkages between one event and the other are not necessarily so. Fergus O’Connor was elected for County Cork in 1832 in the first election in which Roman Catholics had a vote, ousting Lord Bandon’s candidate. In 1837, when the middleman landlord of Castletown-Kinneigh died, his lease on the four townlands, along with 247 under-tenants, reverted to Lord Bandon. Without warning, troops appeared at the doors of the houses and evicted the tenants. They were replaced with twenty-four farms of between 50 and 200 acres.
Unusually, the story made the House of Lords, and Lord Bandon was criticised for his heartlessness by the Earl of Mulgrave.
Among the families cleared were the Murphys, Nyhans, Hurleys, Crowleys and Sullivans. All these became leading names in the IRA’s West Cork Brigade.

It is now possible to access archival material online, including newspapers from across the globe (such as the extraordinary Trove Collection of digitised Australian newspapers for the entire period covered by this book), printed and manuscript census data, cabinet minutes and situation reports, House of Commons and Dáil debates, individual letters, church histories, 25-inch Ordnance Survey maps of Ireland showing individual houses, and previous research. This access represents a revolution in historical research; it liberates the nuts and bolts of history, allowing researchers wonderful freedom to follow a story in a way that was not possible even ten years ago. As a result much new information about incidents has been discovered. Of course, much information has not been digitised and still requires trips to the archives, but the task is now much easier than was once the case.

Generally, I have referenced only those sources which are easy to access for other scholars, are referenced in previous works, or are in my personal possession. I have a preference for primary sources, where possible including documentary, taped and filmed evidence, rather than second-hand oral testimony. However, where the only sources are secondary or oral history I have included these. I have also included information gathered from local historians; in every case, I have either seen the documentary evidence upon which their story is based or recorded an interview with the historian. If information is in anyway dubious or unsupported, I have mentioned this in the text, usually using the phrase ‘it is suggested’. This does not mean that I am willing to go beyond the verifiable facts. I am satisfied, for example, that, based on circumstantial evidence, I know who one of the people who committed the Dunmanway killings is. However, as there is no direct proof, it would be entirely improper to publicly ‘out’ him.

For clarity, the structure of this book works from the national perspective to the local. I consider the broad history of the period as a background to the main focus of the book: the April 1922 massacre and its consequences. Up until July 1921 the Irish were fighting the British Empire, and if this is forgotten some of the action and inaction by the leading players is difficult to understand. It is very easy to see the Irish War of Independence and its aftermath as central to British concerns at the time, but the truth is that the British prime minister spent much of this time at the Versailles conference and subsequent meetings which only ended in the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923. In the weeks before the Truce the British cabinet was working incessantly to stave off a general strike and resolve the British War Debt to the USA.
Ireland was only third on their agenda.

It may seem strange initially that I have chosen the somewhat obscure ‘Curragh Incident’ or ‘Curragh Mutiny’ in 1914 as the beginning of the story. However, the importance of this event for our story is that it demonstrated to all sides in the ‘Irish Question’ that the British government could be forced into concessions by a threat. Combined with gun-running at Larne and Howth, it changed the dynamic of the Irish question by bringing the physical force tradition back to the centre of politics.

BOOK: Massacre in West Cork
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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