- “Something of the Nature of a Massacre”*:The Bandon Valley Killings Revisited
Between 26 and 29 April 1922 a series of killings in West Cork shocked Ireland. Over three consecutive days unidentified gunmen shot dead thirteen civilians, all of whom were Protestants. Ninety-two years after what has become known as the “Bandon Valley massacre,” historians still do not know precisely who carried out these killings or why. The identities of the perpetrators and their possible motivations remain hotly contested. The late Peter Hart’s pioneering work, The IRA and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916–1923, advanced a sectarian explanation of the April 1922 violence. He concluded: “Behind the killings lay a jumble of individual histories and possible motives. In the end, however, the fact of the victims’ religion is inescapable. These men were shot because they were Protestants.” But he also noted, “Many of these men had been marked out as enemies [of the IRA] long before April 1922.”1 This latter feature drives a republican counternarrative best articulated by Meda Ryan in her biography of West Cork IRA leader Tom Barry. She argues that the April victims were killed because they had provided information to British forces, [End Page 7] not because of their religion.2 These polarizing historical interpretations of the event have reproduced two long-standing popular perceptions.3 The homicides can be seen either as a sectarian killing spree or as acts of military necessity taken against civilian collaborators.
Closer investigation, however, shows that neither interpretation fully stands up to scrutiny or answers all the questions. This article draws on new evidence to reassess the circumstances in which the killings occurred. It will address the modus operandi of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British army and consider the relations of both with the loyalist population of West Cork. The violence in the Bandon Valley will next be examined in its local components at Ballygroman, Dunmanway, Ballineen/Enniskeane, and Clonakilty. The backgrounds of the victims and intended victims will be explored along with the public reception of the “massacre.” The distinctiveness of social, political, and military conditions in West Cork during the Irish Revolution relative to those in the rest of the county will also be considered. Finally, we will explain why this episode has been so controversial in Irish historiography.
The IRA and the Loyalist Population of County Cork
IRA units were structured geographically; a number of “companies” formed a “battalion”; a number of battalions formed a “brigade.” During the War of Independence, County Cork was comprised of three brigades: Cork No. 1 Brigade (Mid-Cork and Cork city); Cork No. 2 Brigade (North Cork); and Cork No. 3 Brigade (West Cork). Just before the Truce of 11 July 1921, the Cork No. 3 Brigade was subdivided, with a new Cork No. 5 Brigade taking over units in the greater Beara peninsula and nearby coastal areas. The Cork No. 3 Brigade was now confined to the Bandon Valley and the Cork coast stretching from Kinsale to Clonakilty.4 The brigade fell within the [End Page 8] First Southern Division, which commanded all IRA units in West Limerick and counties Cork, Kerry, and Waterford. IRA brigades in Cork and elsewhere were autonomous and largely responsible for arming and financing their own operations. The geographical boundaries of unit areas were usually respected.
During the War of Independence County Cork was the most violent county in Ireland, suffering the highest number of deaths. The county saw the largest armed encounters of the conflict, with some guerrilla actions drawing hundreds of participants. More police and military could be found in County Cork, and they suffered more fatalities than their counterparts anywhere else in the country. British counterinsurgency in Cork was violent and intense, with numerous Cork IRA Volunteers dying in military or police custody. IRA brigades in the county enjoyed the highest membership in Ireland, enrolling some 18,000 Volunteers.5 The Cork IRA also seemed to have developed the most sophisticated guerrilla organization in the country.6 Cork brigades manufactured their weapons, developed...