Few controversies from the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921 have raged with as much vigour, resilience and fury as the late Peter Hart’s 1998 claim that the IRA in Co Cork, especially West Cork, conducted a sectarian murder campaign against Protestants disguised as a war against British spies. In this 2015 paper, Cork historian Barry Keane examines the evidence:
The IRA response to loyalist co-operation in County Cork during the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921.
By Barry Keane
Abstract: The existence of an Anti-Sinn Fein League of local residents in Cork city and county during the Irish War of Independence is controversial among historians. The late Peter Hart initially claimed that the name was really a cover for RIC/British Army death squads and dismissed long stated IRA claims that many of those they killed were spies, informers and spotters for the British government. IRA commander Tom Barry’s biographer Meda Ryan provided copious references to the Anti Sinn Fein League in her replies to, and dismissal, of Hart’s assertion. Hart in turn dismissed Ryan’s claim and almost twenty years later the controversy continues. While many of the sources and assumptions upon which Hart based his theory have been shown to be more nuanced and complex than he suggested, other aspects of his analysis have received less attention. One of these neglected topics is this issue of the extent of loyalist co-operation. While much has been written about this, it is often only part of polemics on either side of the debate and often is not considered on its own merits. This paper examines much of the available British and Irish evidence and invites the reader to consider both the quality of that evidence and how significant this co-operation actually was.
History is difficult: it is always subject to revision as new archives are opened which lead to different interpretations of events. This revisionism is both necessary and welcome provided that the historian remains true to the documents. Difficulties arise when documents are misinterpreted, misread or selectively quoted but often it is the ambiguity of the documents that is the greatest difficulty. These problems increase exponentially when dealing with intelligence or covert warfare where the holders of the information have a vested interest in keeping it secret or actively produce inaccurate information to cloud the actual events. Often it is impossible to make a full judgement in this secret world and historians are only able to analyse what they are allowed to see sometimes centuries after the event. The opacity of this secret world places an extra burden on the historian to verify the facts as much as possible and to be cautious in their analysis.
This article re-examines the question of the existence and make up of a local civilian loyalist Anti-Sinn Fein League working secretly with the British forces in opposition to the IRA in Cork during the Irish War of Independence. This issue is very much part of what might be called the ‘Peter Hart War’ which has raged through Irish historical scholarship since the publication of The IRA and its enemies in 1998. His dismissal of significant loyalist cooperation, combined with his identification of events approaching ‘ethnic cleansing in Southern Ireland and his obvious contempt for West Cork IRA commander General Tom Barry brought his work centre stage in the study of this period. It won him critical acclaim, honours and vilification in almost equal measure. Part 1 of this paper briefly outlines the current position in the discussion about Hart’s theses while Part 2 deals specifically with the evidence of loyalist co-operation with British forces in Cork.
Part 1: The Peter Hart Wars- an end?
In 1998 Peter Hart sparked off controversy among Irish historians when he published The IRA and its enemies about the conduct the Irish War of Independence and Civil War in Cork. He made three controversial claims. The first was that after the Kilmichael ambush on November 28 1920 IRA commander, Tom Barry, invented a ‘false’ surrender to explain why 16 Auxiliary Police were wiped out and no prisoners taken. The second was that a campaign approaching ‘ethnic cleansing’ took place across southern Ireland between 1921 and 1923 and that this resulted ‘in the single greatest movement of a native population within the British Isles since the seventeenth century’. Finally, he stated that the vast majority of individuals shot as ‘informers’ by the IRA were innocent easy targets on the margins of society and that most of the information supplied to the British actually came from within the IRA or their supporters. Hart was inviting the reader to re-imagine ‘the four glorious years’ of the Irish revolution in Cork as a squalid sectarian conflict where a ‘veil of silence was drawn over the continuing persecution and dispossession of the Protestants of West Cork’ as ‘Protestants had become “fair game” because they were seen as outsiders and enemies not just by the IRA but by a large segment of the [Roman] Catholic population as well’. Unsurprisingly, as Hart’s theories struck at the non-sectarian vision of the foundation of the Irish state and the folk memory of the Cork IRA brigades they set off a storm of controversy. Much has been written since about this topic and it is reasonable to look at the current position on all these issues before continuing.
1 The Kilmichael Ambush
While there is ample evidence that the false surrender at Kilmichael was always part of the story this evidence will always be ambiguous at best. Seven months after the ambush, the British magazine Round Table reported that the Auxiliaries were wiped out after ‘a white flag was raised’ and then they ‘recommenced firing’ to explain ‘the unique barbarity of the event’. The Bureau of Military History (BMH) statement of John (Jack) Hennessy, who fought at Kilmichael, states that some Auxiliaries attempted to fire after a ceasefire was called by Barry. The evidence of Hennessy is very clear, but in truth it is impossible to analyse a fire-fight on such limited information. It is also a fact that IRA soldier Pat Deasy was shot in the abdomen and the chest by an Auxiliary after he came down on to the road around the same time that Jack Hennessy took cover and John Lordan, who was next to him was shot in the ear. Two other volunteers lay dead, or dying next to these men before this. It is highly likely that Tom Barry was entirely honest about what he thought he saw (three volunteers stand up and get shot) while at the same time incorrect about what he actually saw. William H. Kautt’s argument that there is no contradiction between Tom Barry’s evidence and the evidence of the other witnesses is convincing.
Secondly, after a bruising, needlessly snide, disparaging and personalised debate it is now accepted by most historians that Hart’s claim that the decline of the native Protestant population in southern Ireland was mostly attributable to IRA violence during the War of Independence and Civil War was incorrect. David Fitzpatrick’s succinct summary of the current position is,‘The spectacular depopulation of Protestants in southern Ireland (1911–26) has led some historians to claim that sectarian elements in the IRA were responsible for forced emigration amounting to ‘ethnic cleansing’. Such theses are difficult to test in the absence of detailed returns of migration giving religious affiliation. This paper presents new evidence from Methodist records to document the trajectories of families who left West Cork between 1920 and 1923, indicating that excess emigration accounted for only a small part of net depopulation. It also records the reactions of Methodist clergy and leaders to the threats posed by revolutionary conflict, confirming the impressive resilience of the community despite murders and intimidation’.
This broadly agrees with the statistical analysis presented separately by both Andy Bielenberg and myself from the published census material. The excess Protestant decline in West Cork, for example, was in the order of 10% between 1911 and 1926, and as this includes other factors then the correct figure for ‘forced’ migration during the short period between 1919 and 1923 is likely to be less than this. It is also notable that the annualised rate of decline in Cork between 1911 and 1926 was only marginally greater than the previous ten years if the departure of the British military and their families is excluded. No reasonable historian would disagree with Fitzpatrick’s observation that ‘the spectre of Protestant extermination has distracted debate about revolutionary Ireland for too long, and should be laid to rest’.
As the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross directly addressed the issue in 1923 (immediately after the war was over) and said that during the war ‘Churchmen [members of the Church of Ireland] had lived in friendliness and good-fellowship with their Roman Catholic neighbours, and Roman Catholics and Churchmen have proved mutually helpful to each other all over the diocese’ this should never have been an issue. This is despite the fact that in 1922 he commented that,
‘During the past two and a half years our population has declined by 8%. It is serious, but does not call for despair. Many of our people have gone. Neither we nor their country could afford to lose them. Their homes have been burned. Destruction has marched through the land. The ruins of Ireland may well make all who love her weep. But notwithstanding all our losses we are not going to be chilled in inactivity, or give way to depression’’
While these words have be seen by some as evidence of sectarianism it may also be observed that the Church figures further contradict the claims of Peter Hart that the majority of the 43% Protestant decline in Cork occurred between 1920 and 1922.
3 Protestant victimisation
However, on the linked topic of deliberately targeting and harassing Protestants as a group, rather than particular individuals over active loyalty to Britain, no such consensus (even on the facts) seems possible. While there is ample evidence of attacks on Protestants from the public record and within the IRA’s own evidence, the difficulty has always been trying to divine a corroborated motive for individual attacks and deaths. The IRA claimed such attacks were political while loyalists suggested they were sectarian. Peter Hart was initially unequivocal in his view that this was a firstly a religious war,
‘Religion may have provided the starting point for the conflict, but class prejudice, patriotism, and personal grudges all fuelled the development and continuation of widespread violence… the book explores the motivation behind such activity. Its conclusions not only reveal a hidden episode of Ireland’s troubled past but provide valuable insights into the operation of similar terrorist groups today’.
While Hart retreated from claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ Professor Fitzpatrick apparently still shares Hart’s belief which he claims was that ‘certain republican activists, at certain times, made a concerted attempt to drive Protestants and “loyalists” out of West Cork’. The problem remains: how can you prove this? Obviously, Fitzpatrick’s interpretation of Hart’s views is much weaker than Hart’s original one of a final reckoning between ‘settler and Gael’, but his comment that ‘Republican terror—venomous, cruel, and brutal though it was—lacked the power to break the spirit of minorities such as the Methodists of West Cork’, is not supported by evidence that this was the intention of the IRA in its campaign against British rule. Equally, his question that ‘ even if Southern Protestants were not subjected to “ethnic cleansing”, is it not credible to apply such a term to the Methodist families actually displaced from revolutionary West Cork?’, can only be answered in the negative.
While there is no doubt that at the time of the Dunmanway killings in April 1922 most locals (and leaders of the nationalist community in the south) believed that they were sectarian attacks in response to the Belfast anti-Roman Catholic ‘pogroms’ of that year, the paltry circumstantial evidence does not actually point in that direction (despite the fact that as all the fatalities were Protestant the outcome was in effect sectarian) when the selective nature of the more than thirty other targets is considered. In reality, as the majority of loyalists in Cork were Protestant then if the IRA attacked loyalists they had to attack some Protestants. The evidence from many of the survivors of the 1922 West Cork attacks (Gilbert Johnston in Bandon, the Bennett brothers in Ballineen, William Jagoe, the Wilson brothers, James McCarthy, Thomas Sullivan and W.H. Fitzmaurice in Dunmanway, Thomas Nagle and R.J. Helen in Clonakilty), for example, shows that they were all targeted as Protestant unionists, loyalists or (in the latter two cases) informants, which suggests that the attackers were at least as interested in their politics as their religion. Much of this will never be resolved because: the evidence is apparently not there, has not been made available to historians or remains undiscovered in family documents and archives. This even extends to the most basic issues. Anyone looking for the gravestone of James Beale, shot in 1921, and his wife Sarah (who lost her father, brother, and husband at the hands of the IRA) in St. Luke’s churchyard in Douglas, Cork will not find it because their names are not on the grave.
There may well have been a sectarian element in the actions of some individuals during the 1922 murders, as Professor Fitzpatrick now suggests, but there is little evidence of a systematic sectarian campaign or that the response of the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership on all sides was anything other than an attempt to protect against, and apologise for, these attacks. It is a fact that what happened during the 1922 murders was by definition not ‘ethnic cleansing’ or even ‘something approaching ethnic cleansing’. Nevertheless, despite a plethora of new research, some scholars seem unwilling to adjust their position.
Overall then, it seems clear ‘there was in Hart’s work a compulsion not only to exaggerate, but also to simplify’ and it is this, combined with an unfortunate habit of selectively quoting the sources that underpinned some of his claims, that led to the difficulty many historians have with his work. The recent research on the topic has clarified much of the true history of the war and there is no doubt that the release of new documents in the seventeen years since the publication of The IRA and its enemies would have caused Hart to substantially modify his opinion. It has always appeared to me that too much focus has been placed on one book and historians of the period have a duty to move on from Hart by returning to their key role of interpreting the sources.
Part 2: Loyalist co-operation and the Anti Sinn Fein League-real or imagined?
The main focus of this paper is on one element of the ‘victimhood by group’ theory: the Anti-Sinn Fein League. This section of the article re-examines the topic and invites the reader to consider how significant loyalist cooperation with the British forces was during the war in Cork. Inevitably, if it can be shown that the individuals shot by the IRA had been providing information to the British then doubt must be cast on the sectarian hypothesis. The reader will have to judge the evidence and decide.
In his autobiographical account of the war, the leader of the 3rd (West Cork) Flying Column, Tom Barry stated that if Protestants and Loyalists remained ‘aloof’ from the struggle they were not harmed by the IRA, but those who actively supported the British could expect no mercy. While the IRA leadership was adamant that there was, historians dispute the existence of local civilian loyalist organisations providing information to the British, and claim that at most only a few loyalist farmers in West Cork or Cork city residents were involved.
Hart and the Anti Sinn Fein League
The ‘non-civilian’ make-up of an Anti-Sinn Fein league or society was an important building block in Hart’s thesis that the IRA had targeted people who were ‘outsiders, undesirables, people living on the margins of the communities and thus very likely considered to be real or imaginary informers and enemies of the Republic: “Freemasons, tramps and tinkers, corner boys, fast women, ex-servicemen, etc” ‘. To underpin his thesis it was necessary to show that the Anti-Sinn Fein League was actually a cover name for RIC/military death squads and that the victims of IRA violence were targeted in error.
Others agree. Gerard Murphy, for example, recently stated that the Anti Sinn Fein League ‘was simply a cover for night-time British death squads’ and that the ‘evidence for this is overwhelming’. Murphy accepts the possibility that some local loyalists assisted the British with intelligence gathering but refuses to include any as part of a league. He may be correct but this does not mean that some local loyalists did not assist these ‘death squads by spotting for them’. The shooters may well have been RIC and military, but, in my opinion, to divorce the intelligence gathering operation from the ‘death squad’ seems extremely tenuous if not entirely illogical. There is no doubt, for example, that George Horgan was shot for spying on the IRA and that his disappearance was the subject of a threat by loyalist forces which was copied on the wires and published in The Mail in Adelaide, South Australia. The threat was to the point,
‘‘LONDON, To-day’ If Horgan is not returned by 4 p.m. on Friday, rebels of Cork, beware, as one man and one shop will disappear for every ‘hour after the given time’.
The Auxiliaries are the most likely source for the notice, but there is equally no doubt that George was local as he was born in Killarney in 1889 to a Cork mixed marriage. His father had died by 1911. Coincidentally, the night after the notice appeared, Saturday 11 December 1920, the centre of Cork city was burned down by Auxiliaries and other British forces as a reprisal for other incidents that day. It seems likely that a long planned reprisal had degenerated into an all-out orgy of drink and looting sparked off by the bombing of an Auxiliary convoy almost at the gates of the British headquarters at Victoria Barracks in the city.
Others dismiss Hart and Murphy and point to the wealth of evidence in IRA documents about the Anti Sinn Fein League. There is no doubt that this IRA evidence is problematic as there are few corroborating documents, but it seems odd that many IRA veterans would all concoct the same lie in different parts of Cork. Possibly, this could be put down to paranoia (or more benignly a willingness to be suspicious and trigger-happy) or possibly they are telling the truth. While no loyalist claimed membership of the league in their compensation claims at the Irish Grants Committee, as the IRA claimed that they wiped out the members of the league by February 1921 this neither proves nor disproves anything as membership of the league was meant to be secret. Much of this has already been covered by John Borgonovo’s Spies, informers, and the Anti Sinn Féin League, Murphy in his book, Peter Hart’s IRA and its enemies and to a lesser extent in Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter, but as new sources have become available it is reasonable to revisit the evidence. Other recent articles have also gone a long way to explaining what happened during the Dunmanway murders of 1922 and these also need to be considered.
In West Cork
In West Cork the claim was that a second RIC/Military murder gang operated in the Bandon area while ‘dressed up as old farmers’ and that this was the ‘real’ Anti Sinn Fein League there. This directly contradicted and dismissed IRA Commander, Liam Deasy’s, comment that the 1921 murder of the Coffey brothers in Enniskeane was carried out by this hit squad guided to the location by two local civilians and that the IRA had discovered the existence of an Anti Sinn Fein League in that part of the Bandon valley. Lest there be any doubt, Deasy accepted the existence of a British Army/Police group who did the actual shooting but stated that they were helped by locals. However, on examination the Hart claim is based on a single source and this therefore demands close scrutiny.
The specific claim about the Bandon ‘murder gang’ refers to the statement by ex-RIC Constable McIvor which was recorded in Brewer’s The Royal Irish Constabulary: an oral history. As he was discussing Cork IRA commander Frank Busteed immediately before moving on to McIvor ‘stationed in Bandon (an area which saw a large number of IRA deaths)’, Hart’s editing (in italics below) gives the impression that the ex-RIC Constable was discussing a special squad stationed in Bandon. The full quote says,
‘We had no truck with the Auxiliaries at all. They were a force unto themselves. I think they were the ones who got the most hatred really. They were tough chaps indeed. I think they made the RIC’s job harder. The Black and Tans they weren’t as bad as the picture that is painted of them. Of course if they were ambushed, and had a lot of them shot, well then they retaliated. One man a Head Constable, he took charge of a squad, he was always in plain clothes, never wore uniform, and they had a big price on his head. He was an ordinary police officer, he was ex-army, and they had a thousand pounds on his head, dead or alive. But they never got him and he went to Canada, I believe after disbandment. Well he was on a special squad, he had his men with him, four or five of them, dressed up like old farmers, they gathered the information. Oh, there was quite a lot of undercover work. There was one man along with me in Bandon at that particular time and he was a sergeant, and he said, ‘I have a sort of a presentment that they’re going to get me’. ‘Ach’, I says ‘sure everybody thinks that at some time or other’. And so they did, they got him whenever he come back to Dublin. They shot him coming out of chapel’.
But what exactly does the source say? Has anyone traced this Head Constable, who should be relatively easy to find? Where was this Head Constable operating? Were the men dressed up as old farmers involved in reprisals? Most importantly did this squad operate in Bandon? Was the Bandon Sergeant a member of the ‘bunch of old farmers’? When did this sergeant move to Dublin and when was he shot? In short, is it evidence of a military/police ‘death squad’ in Bandon? Is it proof that there was no local Anti Sinn Féin League in Cork city or county? Is it proof there was a local Anti-Sinn Fein League in Bandon? Is it proof that the Anti Sinn Fein League was only and exclusively an RIC/Army hit-squad? The reader will have to decide for themselves but it is difficult to see how the quote could support any of these interpretations.
Secondly, while Hart eventually conceded that ‘a few, but not many’ loyalists were providing assistance in West Cork, in 1998 he failed to mention British evidence that loyalist cooperation in the Bandon valley was exceptional and that many loyalist farmers in this valley ‘were murdered while almost all the remainder suffered grave material loss’ for providing information to the British. It might also be observed that ‘a few, but not many’ spies of all religions were killed. Unlike Hart, Murphy accepted that the Record of the Rebellion refers to ‘the half a dozen or so loyalist farmers who were shot by members of Tom Barry’s column, and others who were driven out in fear of their lives’ but categorically denies that this cooperation was significant or ‘widespread’.
Murphy presents a second piece of evidence about a British Army/RIC ‘death-squad’ in West Cork. He states that a local man ‘Dan Leary was caught and nearly flogged to death by masked and armed men, almost certainly RIC men in disguise, or British intelligence men in mufti’. In fact, the Cork Constitution report that Murphy refers to states: Lynch was flogged in Caheragh 30 kilometres to the west of Bandon; the flogging occurred the previous November and not after the shooting of Thomas Bradfield in February 1921 and the man was flogged for non-payment of the IRA arms levy. The perpetrators were unidentified but it is extremely unlikely that they were British forces.
As these are the only pieces of evidence presented in The IRA and its enemies or the The Year of Disappearances about the members of a Bandon ‘murder gang’ Murphy’s claim that he ‘proved pretty much beyond doubt that the members of the so-called Anti-Sinn Fein League were British security operatives and not so called loyalist spies’ seems to be stretching the evidence beyond reason.
There is, of course, other evidence that there was a ‘death squad’ operating in West Cork. The BMH witness statement of Richard Russell, for example, identified retired British Army Lieutenant Colonel Warren Peacocke, who lived in Innishannon, as a guide for the ‘death squad’. Russell states that the squad included Essex regiment members and nobody has ever suggested otherwise. The claim has always been that the squad was being guided around West Cork and assisted with information provided by local spies like Peacock and his neighbour Fred Stenning who was also shot.
Tom Barry’s biographer, Meda Ryan is categorical that an Anti-Sinn Fein League existed in West Cork and has presented a wealth of evidence to support her argument in an article in History. However, when this evidence is examined it does not identify members of the league so it is circumstantial at best, and this is precisely where the difficulty in this debate lies. Equally, as only Ms. Ryan has seen all the documents in question, and some are no longer available to other historians, this has allowed some writers to cast doubt on her research.
The problem with all these versions of the same events told from different perspectives is that the sources are no longer allowed to speak for themselves. In reality the only sources that claim to identify individual members of an Anti-Sinn Fein League in county Cork are Irish (mostly Bureau of Military History witness statements) but these are often questioned or dismissed by historians who believe that the society was a myth, usually without explaining why they should be. David Fitzpatrick alludes to ‘the ubiquity of serious factual errors and self-justifying distortion in much republican testimony such as that collected by the Bureau of Military History’ without further comment but those historians who have examined the BMH in detail have a somewhat less dismissive view of the archive. I have read more than 900 Bureau of Military History statements and cross-referenced them where possible with the other sources. Generally, they are broadly accurate, especially when there is more than one statement discussing the same incident. The least we should do is to invite the reader to consider the evidence in detail and to make up their own mind, but it must be stressed that as many pieces of evidence are frustratingly ambiguous the archives must be treated with reasonable scepticism at all times.
The IRA evidence
Patrick Collins lived in later life on College Road in Cork. He was highly respected in the community. College Road had a large Church of Ireland congregation but if there were any residual tensions from his role as an IRA Officer in Cork City they were never evident amongst the close knit community. He often spoke about the ‘troubled time’ and his story was well known in the locality.
In his Bureau of Military History statement Patrick Collins discusses the Anti-Sinn Fein League and says that it was made up of local Freemasons and YMCA members. He says its secretary was [James] Charles Beale who managed Woodford Bourne, wine merchants in Cork. James Beale came from England a few years before the War of Independence and was the brother-in-law of James and Edward Blemens who worked in Woodford Bourne. Suspicion initially fell on these men when an IRA man (Din Din O’Roirdain) who had been passing information to the British was interrogated and then shot by an IRA group at the Chetwynd Viaduct just outside Cork city. Edward and his father James Snr. were kidnapped and killed by the IRA in late November 1920. Senior Cork commander Michael Murphy [who had also interrogated Din Din] recalls in his BMH statement that their ‘names were given to me by Parsons. We also had information about them from letters captured by our lads in raids on postmen for mails’. Michael Murphy spoke in far greater detail to Ernie O’Malley about his investigation into the group and said that he had listened in the backyard of Blemens house while the Anti Sinn Fein society was meeting. He told O’Malley that he ‘saw them and heard them’ and this is why they were shot. James Beale was shot in February 1921. A probable attempt to kill him in late January had been unsuccessful as he had not been at home when the killers called. Referring to Beale Patrick Collins said that papers found on his body identified the other members of the league and these were shot, or ordered out. These papers were thought to be so valuable that they had to be retrieved from under a flowerpot where they had been stashed when Buckley, the IRA member carrying them, had been captured.Mr. Collins is not alone in his recollection. Jeremiah Keating also relates a version of the same story. Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story is equally direct about what happened in its timeline of events which says that ‘a number of civilians organised into a spy ring by the British military authorities were executed’ in November 1920 which does not leave any room for ambiguity on its part.
Another Cork City IRA man, Willam Barry, explains his role in the shooting of Alfred Reilly the manager of Thompson’s Bakery who was picked up outside the building on what is now McCurtain Street and driven in his own pony and trap to the gates of his house in Douglas where he was shot and his body dumped. Barry says that Reilly was the paymaster of the Anti-Sinn Féin League. Cork IRA spymaster Florence O’Donoghue also stated that such a league existed, it was not very successful, and that any people who started to ‘show signs of becoming dangerous were quickly eliminated’. Michael O’Donoghue (later President of the G.A.A.) also discusses the Anti Sinn Fein League and states,
A secret society known as the “Anti-Sinn Fein Society” was formed. Its principal members were wealthy imperialists in Cork – drawn from industrial, commercial and retired British governmental servants, both civil and military. They were almost exclusively non-Catholic; a fact which later gave a curious religions slant to I.R.A. counter-activities to suppress them. This society collected and sifted information, by discreetly using some of their employees as spotters and touts, which they passed on to the Auxiliaries and military. Warning notices and fearsome threats of murder and reprisals were actually published in Cork City newspapers and in posters in the name of the “Anti Sinn Fein Society”. These notices were invariably handed in by armed Auxiliaries who ordered publication at the point of a gun…I.R.A. Intelligence were not long in unmasking three of the A.S.F. principals, two in Cork and one in Youghal. They were promptly executed and this alarmed the rest.’
O’Donoghue confirms Auxiliary involvement in the league but also confirms that local loyalists were shot for their involvement. As we will see O’Donoghue later states bluntly the men shot during the Dunmanway killings in April 1922 were members of this Anti-Sinn Fein League to explain why they were targeted by their killers. Finally, also in West Cork, William Foley of Timoleague stated that loyalists had organised themselves into an Anti-Sinn Fein League as early as 1919 but does not present any further evidence.
The case of T.J Bradfield is of particular significance and needs to be considered in detail. The Cork 3rd Brigade passed through Carhue, 4 kilometres to the west of Bandon, towards the end of January 1921 on their way to attack British forces in Bandon. They came across a man called Michael or Denis Dwyer from Newcestown who mistook them for Auxiliaries. He gave them information about the local IRA. He was ‘tried, convicted of spying’ and shot. His body was left on the road as a trap for the Essex regiment or ‘K’ Company of the Auxiliaries. While they waited they were billeted with local farmers some of whom were loyalist. When they came to the house of T.J. Bradfield, a member of the Cork, Cloyne and Ross Diocesan Synod, he also mistook them for Auxiliaries and also gave them information about the local IRA. According to Denis Lordan Bradfield said, ‘I’m not like the rest of them round here at all. The Reverend Mr Lord is my man, and I give him the information. You fellows should come round at night I’d show you round.”
Lordan’s statement to the Bureau of Military History goes much further and states that ‘he also arranged to give further information [to the Auxliiaries] later on through his local clergyman and pressed very hard for the immediate capture and execution of certain local boys who were members of the IRA’. Bradfield’s clergyman was Lord. Like Dwyer, Bradfield was ‘tried, convicted’ and shot. There is no dispute about this among the sources.
Bradfield had implicated the Reverend John Charles Lord of Bandon. According to IRA Intelligence Officer, Flor Begley, the minister in Bandon was ‘next on the list’ but Major Percival sent word that the ‘PP or a neighbour (or a brother) of the Bishop would be shot’. Even so, according to Begley the minister woke up one night to find men with revolvers at the foot of his bed which can only have been a warning to desist. The problem with this is that with the exception of Denis Lordan’s reported comments there is nothing else to link Lord definitively by name with Bradfield.
The recent publication of The men will talk to me: West Cork Interviews which transcribes Ernie O’Malley’s interviews with some of the most senior IRA veterans including 3rd Brigade intelligence officer Flor Begley, the ‘Piper of Crossbarry’ is an important addition to the source material. Begley’s interview amplifies and corroborates Frank Neville’s statement to the Bureau of Military History that he had been captured by Percival and Lieutenant Hotblack (killed at the Crossbarry ambush in March 1921) at the farm of ‘a Protestant farmer called Jagoe’. Percival listed out all of Neville’s activities over the previous few days and when Neville denied this he simply replied ‘I have my own intelligence service around here and I know everything’. Neville recalled that he was badly beaten and then was to be murdered by the Essex, ‘shot while trying to escape’. Begley confirms that he interviewed J[agoe] and that the man claimed that he had been gossiping at church to account for the information Percival had about Neville. Begley sardonically observed that this ‘did not explain how Percival knew that the rifles had been left in J[agoe]’s shed for a night’. Jagoe left the following day and was not seen again in West Cork according to Begley. Neville pulled no punches and stated, ‘Jagoe was a loyalist and had given information. He left the country shortly after when be found we were on his track’. On the face of it Percival was quite open with Neville about the quality of his information as he knew he was going to be murdered. Once Neville survived and told his story, Jagoe would inevitably have been shot by Begley and it seems he departed.
The ‘Dunmanway’ killings
Thirteen Protestants were killed in West Cork between April 26th and April 29th 1922. Long after the 1922 killings Michael V. O’Donoghue stated that the victims were shot in reprisal for the death of IRA Vice-Commandant Michael O’Neill and that the targets were chosen because of their loyalty to Britain and their membership of the Anti-Sinn Fein League in West Cork.
‘Several prominent loyalists – all active members of the anti-Sinn Féin Society in West Cork, and blacklisted as such in I.R.A. Intelligence Records – in Bandon, Clonakilty, Ballineen and Dunmanway, were seized at night by armed men, taken out and killed. Some were hung, most were shot. All were Protestants. This gave the slaughter a sectarian appearance. Religious animosity had nothing whatever to do with it. These people were done to death as a savage, wholesale, murderous reprisal for the murder of Mick O’Neill. They were doomed to die because they were listed as aiders and abettors of the British Secret Service, one of whom, Captain Woods, had confessed to shooting dead treacherously and in cold blood Vice-Commandant Michael O’Neill that day near Crookstown in May 1922. Fifteen or sixteen loyalists in all went to gory graves in brutal reprisal for O’Neill’s murder’.
O’Donoghue was in no doubt about the existence of the Anti-Sinn Fein league or, in this case, its membership, but as we are not able to interrogate the quality of the information on which he based his claim, given the fact he was in Donegal at the time, then it must be treated with reasonable scepticism.
There is other evidence in various archives which names (or links) the individuals shot in April 1922 as enemy agents, loyalists, and pro-British supporters. W.H. Fitmaurice reported in his compensation claim that both he and his brother Francis, who was shot on April 26th, gave information to the British government forces in Dunmanway during the War of Independence. Thomas Nagle, whose son Robert was shot, and R.J.Helen, who escaped, were named in a 3rd Cork Brigade list of enemy agents in July 1921. The nephew of another victim, James Buttimer, was named in the same list and another nephew was named in the ‘Dunmanway Diary’. [John] Bertie Chinnery, [Robert or William] Howe, [John or James] Buttimer and John Moore are named in the Military Service Pensions Collection claim of Mary Kate (Nyhan) Falvey as spies at Castletown-Kenneigh. She states ‘‘two or three of these were shot’. Ms. Falvey’s statement also confirms her as the source for identifying Michael Dwyer as an enemy agent. As we know Mr. Dwyer was shot in Carhue in 1921 by the 3rd Brigade Column after being interrogated. As Liam Deasy accompanied Ms. Falvey at her interview and Tom Barry wrote she ‘gave information regarding spies’ there can be no doubt that her evidence had the full imprimatur of the leaders of the 3rd Brigade. Barry in another letter to support her appeal stated ‘this is one of our very best women’. In 1949, Risteard Ó Glaisne wrote to Tom Barry stating that John Chinnery had been identified as a British spy when he dropped a letter he was posting to the British. Finally when John Bradfield was shot the killers were actually looking for his brother Henry, who had been passing information to the British. Initial reports stated that a John Shorten, who lived next door, was the victim. All this may explain why these men were picked out for reprisal after the death of Michael O’Neill: it does not excuse the killings nor does it confirm except in a couple of cases that these victims were giving information to the British. There is less substantive evidence about the targeting of the other victims such as Alexander McKinley who was killed in Ballineen or David Gray who was killed in Dunmanway.
This is virtually all the Irish evidence of a Cork based Anti-Sinn Fein League or of loyalist co-operation with the British military in West Cork and the reader will have to decide how honest these men are in the story they tell. Generally the BHM statements tell us who shot whom because in most cases the gunmen say who they shot. Michael O’Donogue, for example, states that he shot a soldier coming out of a sweet shop on St. Patrick’s Street in Cork city during the general attack on British soldiers after the first of the Dripsey Ambush executions and this was Private William Gill of the Hampshire Regiment who was indeed shot coming out of a sweet shop according to the news reports. In my view this points towards their credibility in these statements: others may believe differently. However, for the sake of argument, let us reject this evidence in its entirety.
The British evidence
If the IRA evidence is rejected then we must look elsewhere for the existence of an Anti-Sinn Fein League and for significant loyalist cooperation with the British. The obvious place to look is in British records. First and foremost there is no doubt that only a small percentage of local loyalists assisted the British which is hardly surprising given the risk to life and property if locals were suspected. While the British claimed that only one of the people shot in 1921 was an informant, in West Cork the existence of an organised Anti Sinn Féin League is actually irrelevant as there is direct British evidence that some loyalists were supplying information to Essex Regiment Intelligence Officer Major Arthur Percival who was stationed at Bandon. His post war lectures to Staff College were published by Cork historian William Sheehan in 2005. For some reason while most subsequent scholars refer to Sheehan few seem to have actually read all of what Percival said. And what he said about his methods of obtaining information is very important,
‘The most profitable methods [my emphasis] were as follows:
(i) Most important of all, an I.O. must move about the country and hunt for information. It will not come to him if he sits in his office all day.
(ii) He must keep in close touch with the loyalists- especially those who are not afraid to tell them what they know.
This is not always an easy thing to do, as if the IRA suspected a Loyalist of giving information or being too friendly with the Crown Forces, it meant certain death for him. It was our usual practice therefore to approach their houses after dark and very long night journeys had to be made in order to do this.’
Undoubtedly, Percival says that some loyalists in West Cork were actively providing him information and he believed that it was valuable enough to undertake long night journeys to get it. We already know that according to the ‘extremely experienced intelligence officer’ many farmers in the Bandon valley provided information, some were shot, and others suffered grave material loss. Eve Morrison recently questioned whether loyalists were the main source of information for Percival but ‘most profitable’ cannot be ignored. The Record of the Rebellion continues that the intelligence branch had, ‘been considerably developed and better able to deal with any information which came to hand and that ‘at the same time the proclamation of Martial Law had undoubtedly frightened a large number of civilians and made them more willing to give information to the Crown forces. This fact, apparently, was realised by the rebel leaders as, commencing in February, a regular murder campaign was instituted against Protestant Loyalists and anybody who might be suspected of being an ‘informer’, quite irrespective of whether he really was or not. This campaign was intensified as time went on, and it had the result of making information very hard to obtain.’
At least six of the Cork Protestant loyalists who were shot in 1921 had provided information which was damaging to the IRA. These were Mathew Sweetnam, William Connell, Mrs. Mary Lindsay, James Clarke, T.J. Bradfield, and Thomas Bradfield. As has been stated Francis Fitzmaurice, who was the first person murdered during the Dunmanway killings in April 1922, had providing information during the War of Independence because his brother mentions it in his statement of claim to the Irish Grants Committee. In these cases it appears the IRA was correct. In fact, Colonel Ormonde Winter, the head of British Intelligence in Ireland specifically mentioned Mrs. Lindsay in his final report when he said that some loyalists ‘like the notorious case of Mrs. Lindsay, have paid for their loyalty’. Whether these killings were moral is another matter, but the effect of all these shooting was that the supply of information to the British became ‘very hard to obtain’. In pure military terms it was a successful tactic.
The District Commissioner at Bandon reported on 2 February 1921 that John Dwyer and Thomas (T.J) Bradfield who had been shot a few days before had been ‘suspected of giving the information to the Crown forces’. He further commented while ‘the murders were most cold-blooded and revolting, there [stems] from them the conclusion that the IRA fear civilian information being given & it is being given freely and it is believed it will be still given [my emphasis]’.
A month later on 3 March 1921 he discusses the February attacks and says that ‘The war against loyalist civilians has also resulted in the death of five, while three others have been shot. The motive in the civilian murders is to intimidate loyalist opinion, which was asserting itself, out of existence’. He then lists the incidents including the murders of Thomas Bradfield (Methodist) and Robert Eady (Roman Catholic) for ‘giving information’ and the shooting of Gilbert Fenton (Methodist) ‘for being a loyalist’. However, it must also be noted that the District Commissioner states throughout his reports that Protestant loyalists were being attacked and intimidated in West Cork and that many were selling up and leaving because they had given up hope of getting any protection from the Government, a point echoed by Percival in his review of the war.
A few weeks earlier, in December 1920, Major Holmes in Cork City unequivocally told Mark Sturgis about the Anti-Sinn Fein League . He said ‘The Anti-Sinn Féin League does exist and is not a myth to cover the “Armed Forces of the Crown”’. Again Murphy and Hart claim that Holmes ‘was simply defending his men in the wake of the burning of Cork’ so he presumably invented the civilian league for consumption by Sturgis. There is no doubt that Holmes was trying to push blame away from any official involvement when he says the Cork fires were, ‘almost certainly started not by any organised body but by single individuals who got together casually, as it were, for mischief- An odd subaltern perhaps, a policeman, an odd Auxiliary doubtless, some civilians, and after the start many real hooligans out for real loot’,but as he admits military, police and Auxiliary involvement it is not much of a defence.
Equally important are comments by the British Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, General Sir Nevil Macready. On February 19 1921 General Macready reported to the British Cabinet that, ‘Information continues to come in more freely and the murder lately of several men believed by the IRA to be informants points to the feeling of insecurity existing amongst them’.
The essential point is that Macready states that information is coming in freely and, while the IRA may or may not have been correct in shooting these men, the report clearly refers in part to the Cork shootings.
Again at a very detailed meeting with a delegation of eminent British ‘peaceniks’ in April 1921 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Birkenhead replied,
‘Question 26: Does this mean that you are getting support from the population?
Answer: Generally speaking, it cannot be said that we are getting support from the population. We are undoubtedly getting more information than we were, and the large increase in Sinn Fein murders of those whom they think to be informers and label “Convicted Spy” shows that they are alive to the fact and uneasy about it’.
And there is indeed evidence from within the regimental histories of the troops stationed in Cork city and county Cork that there was widespread co-operation with, and assistance from, local loyalists. The second battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckingham Light Infantry was stationed in Victoria Barracks in Cork city in 1919 before moving to Buttevant in north Cork in December 1919. The first battalion replaced them in Victoria Barracks. The regimental records of their time in Cork and Limerick are fulsome in their praise of the loyalist community but it will also be noted that the soldiers recognised how irrelevant and precarious their position was.
‘For their hospitality and kindness we cannot thank them enough. Consisting as they did of people with everything to gain and nothing to lose by preserving an attitude of neutrality; in constant danger of seeing their houses burned and their motor cars purloined, even if they escaped actual physical violence; they continued to invite us to dances and tennis parties, and do everything possible for our entertainment. Their courage was undoubted, but for any influence they had on the opinions and actions of the population as a whole (even their own employees) they might just as well have been living in another country. Indeed their absence would have made our task more easy. Their number and situation made the provision of any kind of protection extremely difficult. They were hostages in the hands of the enemy, a fact the Sinn Feiners were quick to realise’.
In many ways Colonel Winter deserves the final British word. Looking at all the evidence his summation of what happened is not too far off the mark,
‘…in the rest of Ireland, the Protestant, both laymen and clergy, did little to assist the forces of the Crown. The majority of loyalists remained inarticulate. There have been, however, a few notable exceptions, and to these persons all credit is due…Had it been possible to provide protection for more of the loyalists, it is possible that more assistance might have been obtained.’
The reader will again have to weigh up and decide whether they believe these British officers but whatever about members of the IRA possibly getting things wrong thirty years after the event most of the British evidence is contemporary, or written with a year or two, when events were still fresh in the officers’ minds. There is a clear chain of command in the British evidence stretching from the District Commissioner of the RIC and the Essex Regiment’s Intelligence Officer in Bandon through Strickland the Officer Commanding in Cork to Macready the Officer Commanding in Ireland and on into the British cabinet in the form of the Lord Chancellor. Each in his turn accepted the accuracy of the information presented to them. Why, then, should it be rejected?
As has been stated there is little doubt that T.J. Bradfield, who was shot by the Flying Column in late January 1921 when he mistook them for Auxiliaries was passing information via Rev. Charles Lord in Bandon to the Auxiliaries. The evidence for what happened to Bradfield does not come from the IRA alone and T.J. Bradfield’s family complained bitterly about the impossible position in which they had been placed by the British Commander in Cork, General Strickland’s, order of early January 1921 to provide evidence or face prosecution.
However, there are many other cases. We have, for example, not examined the shooting of his cousin Thomas Bradfield a week later who also believed Tom Barry was a British Officer and started to give him information about the Flying Column. Neither have we discussed the IRA shooting of Thomas Bradfield’s brother-in-law John Good on March 10th 1921 who was also shot as a spy. Equally, Innishannon Protestants Warren Peacocke and Fred Stennings, who were shot by the IRA in the first half of 1921, are clearly identified in British archives as ‘loyalists’ as opposed to ‘probable loyalists’. In an era when ‘loyalty’ was the trigger for compensation then the British would not identify these men as their own active supporters without reason as to do so would cost money. It each of these samples it appears that the IRA was correct.
It is wise to accept whatever evidence is presented with a large amount of scepticism unless it can be corroborated and it should always be approached with an open mind. Yet there also has to be some evidence to persuade the reader that someone is not telling the truth. What does all this evidence tell us? The Anti-Sinn Féin League of local loyalists in Cork City might well be a myth but for this to be the case we must reject the detailed and specific evidence of Patrick Collins and the others on the Irish side. Should we? Are they liars?
Equally, in West Cork does the existence of a formal Anti Sinn Fein League really matter? While it certainly mattered to Michael O’Donoghue, when he was commenting in 1952 that the men shot in 1922 were members, the fact is that Major Percival (who should know) says that the British were actively seeking and getting information from local loyalists. Should we also ignore or dismiss Major Percival and the other British evidence? Are they also lying? It is after all the Record of the Rebellion in Ireland which both praises Major Percival for his exceptional efforts in the Bandon valley and states of the ‘many Protestant farmers who gave information…it proved almost impossible to protect those brave men, many of whom were murdered’.
Of course, none of this proves beyond doubt that any of the people shot in 1921, or in 1922, were members of anything. Tom Barry was happy that the shooting of thirteen spies in February and March 1921 ended local loyalist cooperation with the British and this fact was confirmed by the British at the end of March 1921.
There is no doubt that the British believed that around Bandon loyalist cooperation was exceptional. There are also claims on all sides that a local Anti-Sinn Fein League existed with the express purpose of assisting in reprisals against the IRA. The Anti Sinn Fein League was responsible for the murder of the Coffey brothers at Desertserges in February 1921. What is not absolutely certain is whether the membership was exclusively police and military or whether local civilians were involved. The IRA said they were (Warren Peacocke, for example), but the British for the most part denied this. Based on the available evidence it seems illogical to claim that an Anti-Sinn Féin League of local unionists assisting the British forces did not exist in County Cork but neither can anyone prove beyond all reasonable doubt (which is not the standard required) that it did. The evidence shows that an increase in information in 1921 resulted in an IRA response that stopped the flow of information by the end of March that year. The more recent evidence available, particularly in the Bureau of Military History and the Military Pensions collection, also clears up many of the ambiguities about how the victims of the April 1922 massacre came to be chosen. Most of those killed (bar two- McKInley and Grey) had been identified before their murder as ‘enemy agents’ by the 3rd Cork IRA intelligence service. The other victims were close relatives of suspected agents. This should no longer be in dispute. Ultimately, the reader must decide for themselves what happened depending on how much ‘faith’ they place in the evidence.
Barry Keane © October 2015