‘The arrogance of unfettered military power’

Massacre in West Cork: The Dunmanway and Ballygroman Killings by Barry Keane (Mercier Press, €19.99 / £16.99 – also available as an eBook).

Ian d’Alton

On the nights of April 26 to 29, 1922, eighteen men were shot in the Dunmanway and Macroom areas of west Cork.  Ireland, between truce and independence, was in a state of flux and confusion.

It was not clear who was in charge – the British, the provisional government, or the anti-Treaty forces.  The latter were increasingly resorting to violence and disorder – occupation of buildings, destruction of railway lines, sporadic murder. On the night of April 26, Captain Herbert Woods shot dead Michael O’Neill, an IRA commandant, an intruder at Ballygroman House, Ovens. This set in train a series of reprisals in which Woods and two companions ‘disappeared’, 10 local Protestants were killed and three undercover British intelligence agents, with their driver, were also presumed murdered. 

It is the killing of the 10 Protestants that has raised the historical temperature, with the late historian Peter Hart (in his 1998 book The IRA and its Enemies) claiming that it represented a species of ‘ethnic cleansing’. 


This has been fiercely contested. The war has spread out into Hart’s historical integrity. Sides have been taken, trenches dug, sniping commonplace. 

Barry Keane, a Cork teacher, attempts to put some narrative order on the story while, at the same time, discussing the historians’ and polemicists’ positions. The book is a highly-recommended, engaging and well-written read, and a most useful synthesis of the story, the sources and the arguments to date. He uses some new material from the Bureau of Military History, although he might have been wise to wait until all the Military Pension papers were also made available online. 

It is very difficult to enter into the mindset of west Cork Protestants in that dreadful spring of 1922 unless you were of that community. 

Keane implies that Catholic memories of persecution in the Bandon valley were long ones, citing political clearances of tenants by Lord Bandon in the 1830s.  What is less appreciated, though, is that there is no reason why Protestant memories of the murders and mayhem perpetrated against them during the Whiteboy agitation of the early 1820s might not have been equally potent. 

Ethnic cleansing

Peter Hart’s contention of ‘ethnic cleansing’ may thus be relocated in the then-contemporary, in the sense that on 30 April 1922, not knowing what the future would hold, it seemed reasonable to west Cork Protestants that this might have been its start…again. 

Considerable numbers temporarily fled the area in response. They didn’t know then the murky details of family background, alleged informers, spies and intelligence operations outlined admirably in this work.

It wasn’t entirely obvious that this was largely a one-off operation by an out-of-control IRA unit – the emphasis in newspaper reportage at the time was that 10 Protestants had been murdered.  Religion seemed the obvious common denominator. 

With hindsight we now know that it was a one-off aberration, and that ascribing targeting to the purely sectarian is problematical. But whatever their motivations, the perpetrators broke an ethical rule of war – that any response must be proportionate. 

As Barry Keane concludes – in words that have a relevance everywhere in the world today – “…these killings have the arrogance of unfettered military power at their centre”.