The Dunmanway Killings, curiouser and curiouser……..

Like Brendan Clifford in his review of the book, The Battle For Cork by John Borgonovo,  I was also intrigued by Borgonovo’s reference to the “unknown IRA gunmen” who carried out the 10 killings in Dunmanway in late April 1922. Unknown to whom, I wondered? Mr. Borgonovo goes on to say that the killings only stopped when Brigade Commandant, Tom Hales “threatened publicly to execute any IRA man involved in any new attacks” (p37).

This is a misleading summary of the Hales statement. It gives the impression that he, Hales, was confirming that IRA members were responsible. But that is not what Hales said.  He clearly did not know who had carried out the killings.  The whole point of his statement was to lay down the law for all, military and civilian. This is abundantly clear when the statement is read in full.  Here it is:

“On Friday, 28th April, I issued a definite military order to all Battalion Commandants in this Brigade for transmission to all men under their command that any soldier in the area was neither to interfere with nor insult any person.

If said order will not be rigidly adhered to by all units, those concerned will be dealt with in a manner not alone upholding the rigid discipline of a military force, but in justice to the glorious traditions of the officers and men of the Brigade. Even capital punishment will be meted out if found necessary.

In the case of civilians all such offenders will be vigorously hunted up, and handed over to the constituted tribunals acting under Dail Eireann.

I promise to give all citizens in this area, irrespective of creed or class every protection within my power. In furtherance of an order already issued to the IRA to hand in any arms in their possession I now order all citizens holding

[sic], without a licence, to hand them into the O.C.’s Barracks, at Bandon, Clonakilty, Ballineen, Dunmanway and Kinsale.

Anybody found in possession of arms in this area after this date will be severely dealt with.



The statement does not specifically target the IRA, as suggested by Mr. Borgonovo:  it applies to everyone.

Mr. Borgonovo suggests that Tom Hales made some kind of distinction between the treatment he would mete out to killers of victims who were hardly cold—some killed that very day—and the killers involved in “new attacks”. He did not do so and it is despicable on Borgonovo’s part to suggest he did. This is reminiscent of the Peter Hart methodology which Borgonovo has hitherto done a lot to expose and discredit.

The Unionist Cork Constitution on May 1st commended Hales’ statement unreservedly—and they would have been more than willing to find any shortcomings in it if any could be found. And that paper did not suggest that IRA members had done the killings. If it had done so, or if anyone had—no doubt Hales would have demanded to see their evidence. Moreover, the statement makes clear what could happen to anyone if found guilty.

I am sure Hales knew all his IRA members and could easily confirm the identity of many others outside his area of responsibility if necessary.  I think the combined knowledge of Barry, O’Donoghue, O’Hegarty and plenty of others would know every single member who could be relevant. Local Commanders of Armies usually know their soldiers and the IRA Volunteer Army was at the time a more intimate army than most. There was not likely to be any unknown—or unknowable—members to its leaders.

Mr. Borgonovo could not have written as he did, if he had quoted the Tom Hales order, in whole or in part.

In checking out the Tom Hales order, I happened to look at the Inquest reports on the victims.

As far as I know these reports still provide the most immediate and direct evidence we have about these killings. And in one case we are given a specific reason for the killings, a reason given by one of the killers on the spot.  Surely that should be the end of the matter—should it not?

Giving evidence on the killing of her husband it is reported that:

“Mrs. Alice Gray, widow of the deceased presented a most pitiable spectacle, and completely broke down in giving her evidence in response to queries by the Coroner and Mr. O’Mahony, Co. Inspector. Shortly, her evidence was that in response to repeated knocking her husband came down and the door was burst in. She heard three or four shots fired, and voices saying loudly “Take that you Free Stater, you Free Stater, you Free Stater; take that, you Free Stater” repeating the words “Take that you Free Stater” several times. Then they left and there seemed to be a good number of them, judging by the noise they made” (Cork Examiner, 1 May, 1922).

If this is all as it seems, and we cannot assume that Mrs. Gray had any reason to make up a pack of lies within a few days of the atrocity, it means, for a start, that the history of Ireland should really be re-written somewhat. Certainly, there were conflicts and tensions due to accidents and misunderstandings over the ‘Treaty’, usually relating to the evacuation of barracks but these were usually sorted out. But I would suggest that the organised shooting of civilians who were, allegedly, Free State sympathisers was something that was qualitatively different from anything else that was happening at the time. Indeed, they should be looked on as the first killings of what is called the ‘civil war’. In other words the time the ‘civil war’ started really needs to be brought forward by about two months. Although a failed attempt to set off the War proper, it was a real deliberate attempt to precipitate a shooting war between the two sides by a marauding gang of murderous anti-Treatyites!

It must be remembered that this killing was done, despite all the non-stop contemporaneous efforts by both sides to avoid war, before the agreed Election Pact between both sides, before the agreed Constitution between both sides, and two months before the attack on the Four Courts. This ‘Civil War’ motive does not therefore seem credible in the circumstances. But it is curious that our academic historians have not drawn attention to this aspect of the killings.

Why would a known Unionist/Loyalist be shot for being a Free Stater by a republican in April 1922? That would not be his defining characteristic to any anti-Treaty Republican, or to any kind of Republican, by any stretch of the imagination. It would be about the most irrelevant fact about him.

And why are the killers so vocal about their motive? Ensuring their political beliefs were well known to the world?  It looks distinctly likely that the killers were protesting too much about their motives. In other words it is suspiciously like an attempt to ‘set up’ anti-Treatyites. And who would want to do that? Hardly the governing pro-Treatyite IRA and hardly the neutral IRA. So who?

As this Inquest report was public knowledge at the time, it would certainly have limited the suspects for the anti-Treatyite Tom Hales. If he had taken it at face value, it would have focussed his inquiries on the type of anti-Treatyites who would go on a killing spree against those who tended to support the Treaty within a relatively small area within his command in West Cork.  Such people would surely have stuck out like the proverbial ‘sore thumb’—being on Commandant Hales’ own side of the ‘Treaty’ division. He must have been very inefficient or indifferent to his responsibilities in not being able to trace such culprits, given these very pointed leads. But those characteristics do not fit the man.  So why no arrests?

There was a personal issue here for the anti-Treatyite Tom Hales. His brother, Sean, who was one of the governing pro-Treatyite TDs, would no doubt have been concerned for his own safety if Treatyites were being assassinated, and he would also have taken a very keen interest in identifying the perpetrators who were out to kill people like him. The Hales were the classic case of brothers taking opposing sides on the ‘Treaty’—but they would have been at one on finding these killers. Combined they were a formidable force and yet nobody was apprehended, or identifiably suspected!

Consider again the scenario: there was a murderous marauding gang prepared to kill Free Staters and roaming around a small rural area, one which had a tried and tested Army, Police and Court system, but which could not identify or locate them? If this was really so, one might ask—as the German character did in Fawlty Towers —’how did they vin the var?’

There is another Inquest report on the truly callous killing of young Nagle, one that might give some clues. Nagle’s mother stated that the killer had asked him where “he was employed”. She also said that: “She did not know either of them and did not think they were from Clonakilty or district” (Cork Constitution, 1st May, 1922).

These and other details provided by Mrs. Nagle could be significant, in that they show that the killers did not seem to know much about their victim and were not local. The killing of Nagle gives a distinct feeling that suggests the behaviour of professional killers.

Borgonovo mentions Jasper Ungoed-Thomas who wrote on the killings in his biography of his grandfather, Jasper Wolfe, the State Prosecutor at the time and therefore a prime public enemy of the IRA—who attempted to assassinate him three times and also to burn him out. Borgonovo says that Jasper Ungoed-Thomas “argues that the killings were political rather than sectarian”.  But what was the political purpose?  And that assessment does not exactly convey the full story of either Jasper Wolfe or Jasper Ungoed-Thomas’s views on the matter. What both noted about the killings  was that “they had few, if any, of the signs of a planned IRA operation”. They also noted that the killings occurred across three Battalion areas and were clearly in defiance of the “alpha males” (their descriptions) who commanded these areas. That is a highly significant point. Army commanders do not easily tolerate any such unauthorised actions ‘on their patch’, as they represent a distinct challenge to their authority. This suggests that they were not likely to accept such action without finding out—at least—who was responsible.

(Readers should be reminded that Wolfe, the terror of the IRA, went on to be a noted defender of IRA members in the 1920s and was later elected to the Dail for West Cork on a number of occasions. His life and career is a standing rebuttal of the sectarian thesis about the War of Independence.)

There can be all kinds of assumptions and speculations about these killings, based on the few facts available:  but two things are indisputable and always need to be borne in mind: none of the killers have been identified, then or since, and the only definite and indisputable fact about IRA involvement is that it helped stop the killings.

Jack Lane

Propaganda as Anti-History:  Peter Hart’s ‘The IRA and its enemies’ examined. Owen Sheridan. 100pp.   ISBN  978-1-903497-41-8. AHS, 2008.  €15,  £10.

Troubled History:  A 10th Anniversary Critique Of The IRA & Its Enemies by Brian Murphy osb and Niall Meehan.  Introduction Ruan O’Donnell.  48pp.  ISBN  978-1-903497–46-3. AHS.  May 2008.  €10,  £7.