John m. Regan

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The ‘Bandon Valley Massacre’ as a Historical Problem

University of Dundee
Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

Over three nights in late April 1922, eighteen people were killed in west county Cork, in Ireland. All save one of the dead were Protestants. This article re-examines one of the most iconic and contested pieces of Irish historical writing to appear in recent decades: Peter Hart’s chapter ‘Taking it out on the Protestants’, published in his award winning monograph, The IRA and its Enemies (1998). It has long been acknowledged that there were problems in Hart’s use of sources supporting his thesis, that the massacre was a sectarian-inspired event. But the extent of these problems only becomes apparent when the primary sources are examined in detail. Doing this allows us to deconstruct Hart’s methodology and narrative, thereby identifying the criteria for his selection of evidence, alongside examining how he addressed anomalies in the evidence, which questioned whether what motivated the killings was indeed sectarian hatred. We cannot know what precisely happened in West Cork during the massacre. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify an ahistorical methodology at work in Hart’s chapter, which props up an unambiguous, and for that, an equally ahistorical narrative of random sectarian murder.

Recognition of this sends a stark warning to the wider community about the necessity of verifying sources when reviewing historical writing, in order to check interpretative problems and academic fraud.

In a review of Peter Hart’s classic study of Irish revolutionary violence and community in county Cork during the years 1916–23, The IRA and its Enemies (1998), Brian P. Murphy, queried Hart’s use of sources.1 Among the problems Murphy believed he identified, was the use of evidence relating to the killing of thirteen Protestant loyalists in West

Peter Hart died on 22 July 2010 aged 46, before we had any opportunity to discuss this article. He was among the very brightest of our generation of Irish historians and perhaps its most talented writer. We disagreed on most things, oftentimes fundamentally so. But in our exchanges, at conferences and in journals, I greatly appreciated the keenness of his intellect, and sharpness of his responses. Among his peers, he was the historian I most enjoyed debating history with. I would like to thank Sean Kane, Deirdre McMahon, Brendan O’Leary, Jim Tomlinson, Richard McMahon and the journal’s editors and referees for their critical comments on earlier drafts of this article. The ‘Protestant Identities Workshop’, organized by Linda Connolly at University College Cork on 26 May 2011, provided an appropriate testing ground for some arguments advanced in what follows.
1 Brian P. Murphy, ‘The IRA and its Enemies’, The Month (Sept.–Oct. 1998), pp. 381–3 [hereafter Murphy, ‘The IRA’].
Cork at the end of April 1922. This horrific affair, sometimes known as the ‘Bandon Valley massacre’, is an exceptional event in modern British and Irish history, because of the high number of a single religious minority killed in one local incident. In the war between the IRA and the British administration (1919–21), and in the Irish civil war which followed (1922–3), no incident outside Ulster compared to what happened to the Protestant community in West Cork, between 27 and 29

April 1922. Even Belfast, the epicentre of sectarian violence between 1920 and 1922, produced only a few events of comparable scale among the more than 450 deaths occurring there.2 After the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish ‘treaty’ by the Sinn Fein Dail in January 1922, the British army and police constabularies began to withdraw or disband in the twenty-six counties of Southern Ireland (after December 1922, the Irish Free State).3 The treaty agreed to establish a dominion Irish Free State inside the British Commonwealth, and made provision for the establishment of a new Irish government and constitution. Northern Ireland could, and quickly did, opt out of this arrangement, preferring to continue with home rule inside the Union. In between the British withdrawal in the south and the much later establishment of the new Dublin government’s authority, Southern Ireland fell into a kind of administrative limbo. And in the absence of any alternative in early 1922, the only effective institution for ensuring order became the IRA. However, like the rest of the revolutionary movement, the rebel army fractured over the treaty into ‘treatyites’ accepting the Free State,

‘anti-treatyites’ who still demanded an Irish republic, and ‘neutrals’.

During the first half of 1922, rival factions of the IRA threatened a civil war, which eventually erupted in June. The Bandon Valley massacre of

late April followed closely the withdrawal of the crown forces from West

Cork, during a period of increasing lawlessness and instability. It also

happened during a truce between British and IRA forces, which had been

somewhat unevenly observed since the July of the previous year. There

can be no doubt that the Protestant victims were all murdered, but what

has always been disputed is the reason why and by whom.

Refuting allegations that the victims had been killed because they had

previously informed on the IRA to the British authorities, Hart vehemently

argued that the massacre was borne of sectarian hatred directed

against the religious minority by Roman Catholics in the IRA. This

interpretation was central to Hart’s challenge to the hitherto more celebratory

accounts of the republican struggle in county Cork and elsewhere,

which he suggested denied sectarianism was an important

motivation for IRA violence. Hart brought a fresh, not to say radical,

perspective to the study of the revolutionary period, and helped change

perceptions of both the IRA and its victims. The Canadian-born historian

came to Trinity College Dublin in the late 1980s, after studying at
2 Robert Lynch, The IRA and the Early Years of Partition (Dublin, 2006), p. 227; see below, nn. 42, 43.

3 John M. Regan, The Irish Counter-revolution 1921–36 (Dublin, 1999).

Memorial University in St John’s Newfoundland, and Queen’s University, Ontario, and as a postgraduate at Yale in the United States. He quickly established a reputation as an exceptional graduate student with

provocative seminar papers and scholarly articles.4 At Trinity he was

supervised by David Fitzpatrick, who in 1977 authored an acclaimed

study of county Clare, Politics and Irish life 1913–21.5 This became a

model for Hart’s doctoral work on the IRA in county Cork.

By contrast English-born Brian P. Murphy is an independent scholar

who belongs to the Roman Catholic Benedictine community, at Glenstal

Abbey, county Limerick. A graduate of Oxford and Trinity College

Dublin, he completed his doctorate at University College Dublin, publishing

part of it in 1991, as Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal.6

Murphy has written extensively on Irish republicanism, British propaganda

in Ireland during the 1920s, and on historiography.7 In particular,

Murphy has been critical of what he calls ‘modern revisionism’, which he

has identified in the work of four influential historians, Patrick O’Farrell,

F. S. L. Lyons, Oliver MacDonagh, and, most pointedly, Roy Foster.8

Typically, this revisionism, Murphy claims, was ideologically led and

sometimes exaggerated the Catholic sectarian component of separatist

nationalism, attributing anti-Protestant and Anglophobic values to cultural

nationalist institutions such as the Gaelic League. In an article

published in the journal Studies in 1993, he claimed the supposed bias

manifesting in Lyons’s, MacDonagh’s and Foster’s work could be traced

to O’Farrell’s 1971 book, Ireland’s English Question.9 And further, that

some of O’Farrell’s conclusions rested on faulty readings of primary

evidence and its context. In a self-consciously ‘cranky’ response,

O’Farrell took issue with what he took to be a personal attack on

his reputation, and those of other historians.10 He counter-challenged

4 See Peter Hart, ‘Youth Culture and the Cork IRA’, in Revolution? Ireland 1917–23, ed. David Fitzpatrick (Dublin, 1990), pp. 10–24.

5 David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life 1913–21: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution

(1st edn., Dublin 1977; 2nd edn., Cork, 1998) [hereafter Fitzpatrick, Politics].

6 Brian P. Murphy, Patrick Pearse and the Lost Republican Ideal (Dublin, 1991).

7 Brian P. Murphy, The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland in 1920 (Aubane,

2006): ‘“The wind that shakes the barley”: Reflections on the Writing of Irish History in the Period of the Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence’, in The Impact of the 1916 Rising among the Nations, ed. Ruán O’Donnell (Dublin, 2008), pp. 200–20.

8 For surveys of what ‘revisionism’ might mean in Irish historiography see: Ciaran Brady (ed.),

Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism 1938–1994 (Dublin, 1994); D. G. Boyce and Alan O’Day (eds.), The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy (1996); Evi Gkotzaridis, Trials of Irish History: Genesis and Evolution of a Reappraisal,

1938–2000 (2006); Giorgos Antoniou, ‘The Lost Atlantis of Objectivity: The Revisionist Struggles

between the Academic and Public Spheres’, History and Theory, Theme Issue xlvi (2007), pp. 92–112;

John M. Regan, ‘Southern Irish Nationalism as a Historical Problem’, Historical Journal, i (2007),

197–223 [hereafter Regan, ‘Southern Irish Nationalism’].

9 Patrick O’Farrell, Ireland’s English Question (1971); Brian P. Murphy, ‘The Canon of Irish Cultural

History: Some Questions concerning Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly

Review, lxxxii (1993), 171–84.

10 Patrick O’Farrell, ‘The Canon of Irish Cultural History: A Reply to Brian Murphy’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, lxxxii (1993), 487–98.

Murphy’s reading of sources, notably identifying that Foster had cited

another book of his as an important influence, and not Ireland’s English

Question, the focus of Murphy’s criticism. O’Farrell went on to praise the

rolling advance of professional revisionist historical scholarship was

making in Ireland against ‘myths, intransigence and conviction of rectitude’.

He further noted, ‘the price of continuance is that of vigilantly

(and, apparently, eternally) opposing the revival of reactionary mythologies

– something that polite, tolerant and bored Irish academic historians

may be in danger of forgetting’.11 This was a call to defend academic

ramparts against the likes of Murphy, and in 1993, as later, it was one

many professionals were willing to answer.12

Amid the broadly positive reception of Hart’s book within the academic

community, what made Murphy’s intervention notable was his

familiarity with some of the sources Hart used. And immediately Murphy

identified what he believed to be discrepancies in Hart’s methodology. In

particular he questioned Hart’s interpretation of the massacre happening

around Bandon as being inspired by naked sectarianism, and supporting

this, Murphy cited a document, also used by Hart, the Record of the

Rebellion in Ireland in 1920-1, and the part played by the army in dealing

with it (Intelligence).13

Produced by the British army as a critical evaluation of its military

intelligence’s performance in the Irish war, the Record is generally

regarded as a reliable account. Written as a closed document for authorized

access only, its importance is enhanced because the author or

authors were privy to secret information. Murphy wrote: ‘moreover, by

maintaining that Protestants did not have sufficient knowledge to act as

informers, Hart heightens the suspicion that they were killed for religious

motives’. And Murphy drew attention to Hart’s use of the Record, where

Hart wrote: ‘the truth was that, as British intelligence officers recognised,

“in the south [of Ireland] the Protestants and those who supported the

Government rarely gave much information because, except by chance,

they had not got it to give”’.14 This was probably a reliable statement of

fact, and it galvanized Hart’s thesis that anti-republican espionage was

uncommon among the Protestant population in county Cork. Instead of

being killed for informing, as the IRA often claimed, Hart developed a

fascinating thesis arguing that the IRA commonly targeted victims on

grounds of social status, deviance from society’s norms, and importantly

for his treatment of what became known as the Bandon Valley massacre,

11 Ibid., p. 491.

12 See Murphy’s ‘Poisoning the Well or Telling the Truth? From Peter Hart’s IRA and its Enemies

to RTE’s Hidden Histories Film on Coolacrease’, in Brian P. Murphy, Niall Meehan with

introduction by Ruan O’Donnell, Troubled History: A 10th Anniversary Critique of Peter Hart’s ‘The

IRA and its Enemies’ (Aubane, 2008) [hereafter Murphy et al., Troubled History], pp. 30–44.

13 Record of the Rebellion in Ireland in 1920–1, and the part played by the army in dealing with it

(Intelligence), 2 vols. [hereafter Record], ii (1922), Jeudwine papers 72/82/1, Imperial War Museum

[hereafter IWM].

14 Murphy, ‘The IRA’, p. 383.

their Protestant religious identity.15 But Murphy noted the sentences

from the Record immediately following those Hart quoted, which were

not cited:

An exception to this rule was in the Bandon area where there were many

Protestant farmers who gave information. Although the Intelligence

Officer of the area was exceptionally experienced and although the troops

were most active it proved almost impossible to protect those brave men,

many of whom were murdered while almost all the remainder suffered

grave material loss.

These omitted sentences raised problems for Hart where he wrote: ‘The

Protestant community in Bandon and elsewhere in Cork had, with very

few exceptions, been notably reticent during the Tan War [1919-21] and

provided far more frustration than support to the Crown Forces’.16

The Record did not prove that the loyalists killed in April 1922 were

informers. It did, however, query Hart’s assertion that Bandon loyalists

behaved like loyalists elsewhere, and the primary motive behind the April

massacre was necessarily sectarian hatred.

This article is concerned with historical method, and the use of evidence

in what has become an iconic and controversial piece of recent

historical writing, namely, Peter Hart’s chapter on the April 1922 West

Cork massacre: ‘Taking it out on the Protestants’.17 What follows

attempts to explore the tensions between narrativity and historicity, or to

put it differently, between Hart’s narrative of sectarian massacre and

accepted norms of historical method. Important to this is a discussion

of the acceptability of historians using unverifiable sources, where this

invites fundamental problems, notably because verification becomes

impossible. The implications of this practice extend beyond Irish history

and the Irish historical community, to the whole historical profession.

And Hart’s chapter points to the undesirability of tolerating any such

methodology, where it is established there are problems in the selection of

verifiable evidence. This article cannot offer an authoritative account of

what happened during the massacre because there is insufficient evidence,

and vital information is missing. We do not know, for example, the

identity of the individuals who perpetrated some of the crimes and this

presents enormous, arguably insurmountable, problems when attempting

to apportion responsibility or trying to attribute motives for the

slaying. And this observation begins to identify some important tensions

15 Peter Hart, The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916–1923 (Oxford,

1998) [hereafter Hart, Enemies], chs. 12–13, passim.

16 Hart, Enemies, p. 285. The same sentence appears in the PhD thesis; Peter Hart, ‘Irish Republican

Army and its enemies’ (PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin, 1992) [hereafter Hart, ‘Enemies’ (thesis)],

p. 382. I am indebted to Trinity College Dublin’s librarians for providing me with a digitized copy

of the thesis. Cf. Fitzpatrick, Politics (1st edn.), p. 31; and (2nd edn.), p. 27.

17 Hart’s general thesis of sectarian conflict, the centrepiece of which is the West Cork massacre, is

well represented in the comparative literature on ethnic violence: see Charles Tilly, Trust and Rule

(Cambridge, 2005), pp. 129–30; Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War (Cambridge,

2006), pp. 189, 336, 357, passim; Randal Law, Terrorism: A History (2009), ch. 9.

between the available evidence and more emphatic conclusions about the killings. The controversy surrounding the Bandon valley massacre,

alongside other issues, is rehearsed briefly in the next section. In section

II, historical information which complicated or contradicted the narrative

of sectarian massacre is considered. And recognizing that Hart overlooked

important evidence, this prompts in section III a consideration

of alternative interpretations explaining the massacre. The pressures a

sectarian narrative and, equally, an opposing ‘informer narrative’ placed

on the use of evidence are considered in the penultimate section. The

article concludes with an attempt to place the massacre in its broader

historiographical context.


In living memory few books on modern Irish history excited more critical

attention, or drew closer scrutiny, than Hart’s study of the IRA in

county Cork during the revolutionary years 1916-23. Omission of the

Record’s reference to the murder of loyalist informers around Bandon

was one among many anomalies some scholars alleged they had discovered

in Hart’s work. These became the subject of protracted debates

over his conclusions, and the evidence on which they rested. Some of

these exchanges over, for example, Hart’s use of anonymous oral evidence

have been convoluted to the point where even diligent observers

may find the detail baffling. Among the most serious accusations levelled

at Hart was that he had claimed to have interviewed two IRA

veterans of the Kilmichael ambush in West Cork (28 November 1920),

when none were available in 1989.18 By the standards of the Great War

the military engagement at Kilmichael was small, involving about fiftyfour

combatants (eighteen Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Auxiliaries,

and thirty-six armed IRA volunteers). But it had a powerfully symbolic

significance for Irish republicans, and for those in West Cork in particular.

In 1920 Kilmichael established remarkable precedents for both

the British government and the IRA, because it was a set-piece battle in

which the British force, mostly ex-officers with war service, was all but

annihilated. For both sides Kilmichael demonstrated the true potential

of Irish republican violence. In his defence, Hart repeatedly claimed

that any confusion about whom he had interviewed arose from his citation

of sound recordings made by other researchers.19 Implicitly, this

suggested the mistaken dates were attributable to other interviewers.

While all this still raised valid questions about the possibility of some

of Hart’s interviews taking place with aged and infirm veterans, the

18 Meda Ryan, letter to History Ireland, xiii (2005), 13–14.

19 Peter Hart, ‘Peter Hart and his Enemies . . .’, History Ireland, xiii (2005), 16–19, at p. 19; Meda Ryan, ‘The Kilmichael Ambush, 1920: Exploring the “Provocative Chapters” ’, History, xcii (2007), 235–49 [hereafter Ryan, ‘Kilmichael’].

matter appeared irresolvable while the interviewees’ identities remained anonymous.

Hart’s revision of the ambush at Kilmichael in part rested on anonymous oral testimonies. He provoked his republican critics by concluding that some of the Auxiliaries were murdered in cold blood and their bodies mutilated.20 At the centre of the controversy was whether or not the

Auxiliaries had offered a ‘false surrender’ before being killed. It was

alleged by the IRA commander, Tom Barry, that the Auxiliaries offered

to surrender, but immediately resumed shooting when two IRA volunteers

showed themselves. Both volunteers were fatally wounded. For

Barry, the Auxiliaries’ treachery justified a fight to the end, with no

quarter given, although Hart was shown to be mistaken in his claim that

Barry invented the ‘false surrender’ story many years later in his autobiographical

Guerrilla Days in Ireland (1949).21 It is also true that the

testimony of five republican participants in the ambush recorded in the

1950s also failed to mention it explicitly.22 Neither did the same witnesses,

perhaps less surprisingly, verify Hart’s claims that prisoners had been

murdered and mutilated.23

Joined to this controversy, a long debate ensued over the authenticity

of a report of the action supposedly captured by the British, and allegedly

authored by Barry.24 This too omitted any reference to any ‘false surrender’.

For Hart this was conclusive evidence of Barry’s ‘lies and evasions’

in his later accounts.25 For Barry’s biographer, Meda Ryan, the report

contained too many inaccuracies to be attributed to Barry.26 The document’s

provenance was further queried when Ryan discovered that it

interrupted the pagination of the official document in which it is bound.27

Appearing on page sixty-four, there were two pages numbered sixty-four,

and Ryan reasoned it was a later insertion placed there to secure insurance

claims filed on behalf of the lone Auxiliary survivor, and the families

of the British dead.28 Though few military engagements in modern

history have been scrutinized more forensically than the Kilmichael

20 Hart, Enemies, ch. 6.

21 Dublin. Meda Ryan, Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Cork, 2003) [hereafter Ryan, Barry], pp.49–67.

22 Sponsored by the Irish government, the interviews were recorded by the bureau of military

history. On this and other aspects of the Kilmichael controversy see Seamus Fox’s conclusions;

Seamus Fox, ‘The Kilmichael Ambush – A Review of Background, Controversies, and Effects’ (Sept. 2005 edn.), 

%20Sept%2005.pdf[hereafter Fox]. Ryan has since contended that one of these interviews (Jack Hennessey’s), contrary to Fox, does describe a false surrender, although he does not use the phrase. Ryan, ‘Kilmichael’, p. 242, n. 21.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Hart, Enemies, p. 36.

26 Ryan, Barry, pp. 57–60.

27 Hart, Enemies, p. 36; Ryan, Barry, pp. 65–6.

28 Meda Ryan, ‘Peter Hart and Tom Barry’, History Ireland, xiii (2005), p. 13.

ambush, it has to be conceded that none of these arguments proved conclusive.29

On the tenth anniversary of the publication of The IRA and its Enemies, Murphy and Niall Meehan, a persistent critic of Hart, and Ruan O’Donnell, a historian at Limerick University, authored a pamphlet summarizing criticisms of Hart’s work.30 Meehan claimed that by

cross-referencing the anonymized oral testimony in Hart’s book with the

same testimony in Hart’s 1992 doctoral thesis, and through known biographical

information about participants in the events described, he

could identify Hart’s two anonymous Kilmichael ambush interviewees.

Meehan argued that the original letters Hart used to identify interviewees

in the thesis were the interviewees’ actual name initials (sometimes

reversed). ‘EY’, Meehan reasoned, was ‘Edward (“Ned”) Young’, reputedly

and generally acknowledged to be the sole surviving ambush veteran

after 1986. Despite this, Hart dated an interview with another anonymous

veteran ‘AF’ (otherwise ‘HJ’), six days after Young died on 13

November 1989.31 Hart again responded that not all the interviews were

his own work.32 But this was less convincing where Hart had explicitly

identified himself as the interviewer of ‘AF’ in his book.33 The pamphlet

was distributed at a conference Hart attended at Queen’s University

Belfast, in June 2008. It was published by a ‘local history group’ based in

North Cork, the Aubane Historical Society. This is a spin-off from the

British and Irish Communist Organization, which now professes a united

Ireland nationalist agenda, whereas it was once the best known Marxist

exponent of the ‘two nations’ approach to Irish history.34 Arguably, it is

the purest institutional advocate of the kind of ‘reactionary mythologies’

O’Farrell railed against in 1993. The society interests itself in opposing

what it calls the ‘revisionist movement in Irish history’. And associated

with the publisher Athol Books, it promotes authors like Brian P.

Murphy and Brendan Clifford, who are critical of Irish academic historians.

35 But in Hart’s work their local, national and historiographical

interests combined, and his corpus has remained the focus of sustained

and, it has to be conceded, increasingly damaging counter-arguments.

Some claims advanced by Meehan were reported in the Times Higher

Education, alongside Hart’s rebuttals. Hart never shied away from his

critics, and their exchanges extended across academic journals and the

media. Though repeatedly invited to do so, Hart said little about the most

29 See Fox.

30 Murphy et al., Troubled History.

31 Niall Meehan, ‘Troubles in Irish History’ [hereafter Meehan, ‘Troubles in Irish History’],

in Murphy et al., Troubled History, p. 22.

32 John Gill, ‘Troubles and Strife as IRA Historian Draws Peers’ Fire’, Times Higher Education,

3 July 2008.

33 Meehan, ‘Troubles in Irish History’, pp. 22–3; Hart, Enemies, p. 33, n. 56.

34 See John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images (Oxford,

1995) [hereafter McGarry and O’Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland], ch. 4.

35 Brendan Clifford, Aubane versus Oxford: A Response to Professor Roy Foster and Bernard O’Donoghue (Aubane, 2002).

contested Kilmichael interviewees, until, that is, shortly before his tragically

early death in July 2010. Asked in a television documentary recently

broadcast in Ireland about his interview with the alleged scout ‘AF’, Hart


I can tell you how I came to interview him [AF], and that is that, someone

I contacted and asked for help introduced me. And then they drove me to

the ambush site and he just showed me where things happened. So I

suppose it is possible, that this is some kind of hoax, and that he was a

fantasist, but that seems extremely unlikely.36

Of the revolutionary period Hart wrote: ‘Almost any actor can be identified,

profiled, and tracked through time’.37 The true identity of this

‘interviewee’ should have been verifiable for Hart, if for no one else.

About ignoring sentences in the Record querying a sectarian massacre,

Hart said nothing. And it is to this silence that we now return.

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