Casualties of the Irish Civil War in County Cork

The funeral of a Free State soldier in Cork city, 1922.

Counting the cost of the Civil War in County Cork. By John Dorney

This article is an attempt to count the fatal victims of the Irish Civil War in County Cork.

County Cork was by far the bloodiest county in Ireland during the War of Independence of 1919-1921.

The latest count has put the total fatal casualties there at 528 from January 1919 up to December 1921. This was far more conflict-related deaths than the next most affected location – Dublin – which saw about 300 deaths.

There have been counts of fatalities in County Cork during the subsequent Civil War of 1922-23, notably Peter Hart’s figures in his 1998 book, The IRA and its Enemies, which put Civil War deaths in Cork at 180 deaths.[1]

However, we now have far more, and better, sources from which to compile Civil War casualty figures. The most important of these is undoubtedly the Military Service Pensions Collection, which is now online here.

Careful search of this database, along with the IRA Roll of Honour, The Last Post, the Irish Times archive and cross-checked with Barry Keane’s Cork’s Revolutionary Dead, has produced a minimum figure of 220 deaths in County Cork from the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921 until the end of 1923.

Breakdown of Cork Civil War fatalities

Free State gunners in Cork city August 1922

The largest single category of fatal victims in Civil War Cork was the Free State’s National Army, who suffered at least 95 killed in that county.

The next highest category was civilians, at least 61 of whom were killed. Who was responsible for their deaths will be broken down later in the article.

The anti-Treaty side’s combatants suffered only just over half as many fatalities as their pro-Treaty opponents in Cork.  A minimum of 53 anti-Treaty fighters were killed, almost all of whom belonged to the IRA. One was a member of the youth group, the Fianna and one of the women’s group Cumman na mBan.

At least 220 people died as a result of the Civil War in County Cork.

While these three categories, National Army, IRA and civilians, account for the vast majority of post-Treaty fatalities in Cork, there were also 11 victims among British forces, who were still present there in the first half of 1922. Five British Army soldiers and 6 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (including recently retired members) were killed there in 1922.

Almost all of the dead were male, with only 9 female fatalities out of 220. All of them, except for one Cumman na mBan member, were civilians who were killed unintentionally in the crossfire of armed engagements.

Whereas almost all of the anti-Treaty IRA and civilian dead in Cork were from that county, the origins of the National Army casualties killed in Cork were far more diverse. About a third were from Cork, another third from Dublin and the remainder from at least 15 other Irish counties and three were born in Britain.

A full breakdown, with a source for each casualty, is online here.

Adding all these victims together amounts to 220 total Civil War fatalities in County Cork. This puts Cork only slightly behind Dublin (which saw at least 258 deaths) as the bloodiest county in absolute terms in the Civil War. It is, however, well below (less than half) the fatal casualties seen in Cork during the struggle between the IRA and Crown forces between 1919 and 1921.

Context: The Civil War in Cork

IRA guerrillas from Cork no. 1 Brigade.

County Cork, for reasons that are still debated, developed the most active and militant IRA units during the War of Independence. Most of these came out against the Anglo-Irish Treaty, even after it was accepted by the Dail in January 1922.

In the ensuing period the anti-Treaty IRA was left in occupation of most of the County as the British forces retired first to Cork City and then evacuated all posts in the County except for the Treaty Ports at Berehaven and Cobh. However they were not under the control of the Provisional Government or of IRA GHQ as it had existed down to January 1922.

These seven months, from the Dail’s acceptance of the Treaty to the formal outbreak of Civil War on June 28 1922, though there was no declared state of war, County Cork saw a considerable level of political violence. At least 29 people were killed in this period of ostensible truce in County Cork, mostly at the hands of the anti-Treaty IRA.

The first six months of 1922 saw 29 deaths in Cork despite it being officially a time of truce.

Eighteen of these deaths occurred in a three day period from April 26 to 29. Four British soldiers (three intelligence officers and their driver) were arrested and later shot by the IRA at Macroom.

Another 14 deaths took place in the same period in and around Dunmanway. First an IRA commandant Michael O’Neill was shot dead by a local loyalist, whose car he was trying to seize. Apparently in retaliation, the three men in the house where O’Neill was shot, Herbert Woods and Thomas and Samuel Hornibrook were arrested, shot and secretly buried. Over the following two nights another 11 civilians were shot in the vicinity. Most were known as loyalists and all were Protestant by religion.

The identity and motivations of the perpetrators continues to be the subject of bitter debate but it seems most likely that it was the local anti-Treaty IRA units who were responsible, taking revenge for the death of Michal O’Neill, though possibly acting without orders. Nevertheless, the incident represents that most sustained deliberate attack on civilians during the Civil War period in Cork.[2]

In this period also, five RIC officers (four recently retired) and one other British Army officer were killed, presumably by the IRA, though most of the killings were unclaimed.

The vast majority of Civil War deaths in Cork occurred between August and December 1922.

These shootings were essentially a continuation of the conflict of 1919-1921. Civil War violence as such in Cork, that is between pro and anti-Treaty nationalist factions, did not, as it did in some other localities, claim lives before the start of the Civil War on June 28, 1922. After this date, however, it became the primary focus of violence.

The only pro-Treaty garrison in the county at Skibbereen was quickly taken by the anti-Treaty IRA, who also occupied Cork city, which was held to be the capital of the anti-Treaty ‘Munster Republic’.

Anti-Treaty Cork IRA units also fought on fronts at Waterford, Wexford and Limerick, and a number of Cork Volunteers were killed in those locations, but intensive clashes did not begin in Cork itself until the National Army landed by sea at Passage West and Youghal on August 8-10, 1922. In this two-day period, sharp fighting took place outside of Cork city at Rochestown and Douglas in which at least 10 National Army soldiers and four anti-Treaty IRA volunteers were killed.[3] Another four people died in fighting elsewhere in the County on August 10.[4]

Free State troops arrive in Cork, August 1922.

Following a decision taken by Liam Lynch and Liam Deasy, the anti-Treaty forces decided to withdraw from Cork city rather than fight in its streets, undoubtedly sparing many lives, but surrendering without a fight Ireland’s second city to Free State forces.

While some at the time took this to mean that the Civil War had ended in a quick victory for the Free State side, it was not so.  The anti-Treaty or Republican forces had been dispersed rather than destroyed and, mainly operating from rural areas in the mountainous west of the County, for several months they waged a determined guerrilla campaign against the pro-Treaty forces.

The August death toll in Cork was 30 killed, among whom was National Army commander in chief and leading pro-Treaty figure Michael Collins, who was killed in an ambush at Beal na Blath on August 22, 1922. The monthly death toll rose to 38 killed in September 1922, and by the end of the year, 182 people had been killed in the County, most of them (about 150) in a five-month period since the landings in the second week of August.

The greatest number of casualties in a single incident, after the initial fighting at the August landings, took place at Carrigphooca, near Macroom on September 16, in which 7 National Army soldiers including Dublin Guard commandant Tom Kehoe, were killed by a boobytrap mine explosion.

This period saw large, well-armed anti-Treaty columns operating in rural areas as a well as a consistent campaign of small-scale attacks in Cork city. National Army commander in the south, Emmet Dalton reported that the situation, particularly in the west of the County, was ‘very bad’ with concentrations of about 1,000 armed ‘irregulars’. [5]

Violence suddenly and dramatically declined from January 1923, but took a long time to cease entirely.

There were several IRA attacks in relatively large numbers on country towns such as Bantry (August 30), Balineen and Enniskeane (November 4, 1922) and Millstreet (January 5, 1923) in which both sides suffered significant casualties. In addition, much of the hill country around Ballyvourney in West Cork remained firmly under the control of the anti-Treaty guerrillas, who successfully fought off National Army attempts to secure the area.

Had this pattern of relatively intense violence continued until the IRA ceasefire of May 1923, one could have expected the Civil War to have produced another 150 fatal casualties in Cork at least. However, 1923 saw a dramatic falling off in violence. January 1923 saw only 8 deaths and the bloodiest month of that year was February which saw only 12 deaths due to the war in the County. Only 38 people died as a result of Civil War violence in Cork in all of 1923. In other words, a drop of 75% on conflict-related deaths compared to 1922, which saw 182 killed in Cork.

After the attack on Millstreet on January 5; an attack that included large IRA columns from both Cork and Kerry and the use of improvised mortars; there were no further anti-Treaty IRA operations on that scale in the County for the remainder of the Civil War. What firefights took place after this point were generally when anti-Treaty units were cornered and facing arrest.

There were a number of possible reasons for this rapid and sudden decline in lethal violence. One was the anti-Treaty guerrillas concentrating on less risky tactics such as destroying homes, roads and railways. Another was their losing heart after the Free State embarked on a policy of executions in late 1922.

However, as only one execution was carried out in County Cork, this is unlikely to have been the decisive factor. Another factor was the cold and wet weather which forced the larger columns to dump their arms and disperse in order to seek shelter over the winter of 1922-23.

Probably more important, though, was the overwhelming numerical dominance of Free State forces by this point and the widespread arrest of a great many anti-Treaty IRA activists and fighters in Cork. Anti-Treaty guerrillas were less likely than Free State troops to be killed in action but much more likely to be captured or arrested. National Army files show over 1,700 Cork men interned in Free State camps by mid 1923. [6]

The Free State forces, in Cork as elsewhere, had far better sources of information among the public than had British forces before them, and therefore managed to capture many anti-Treaty personnel, generally without a fight, breaking up the remainder of the anti-Treaty units into smaller and smaller fugitive columns.

That said, while violence declined sharply in 1923, it took a long time to die out in Cork completely and the final killings due to the conflict took place well after the IRA ‘dumps arms’ order of May 1923.

The character of Civil War Violence in Cork

Free State troops with prisoners.

By Irish Civil War standards, the National Army suffered heavy casualties in Cork. At least 70 soldiers were killed in combat in that county.

The vast majority of these men were killed in the five months from August 8 1922 until the end of that year. The most common cause of death by hostile action was by bullet, but a significant number were also killed by ‘mines’ or improvised explosive devices. Most combat encounters were small in scale, with only rare incidents of more than two fatal casualties on either side.

Another 25 Free State soldiers died in firearms or other accidents. This was sadly typical of the experience of the well-armed but ill trained Free State forces around the country, where between 25 to 30% of all casualties were self-inflicted.

National Army soldiers were nearly twice as likely as their opponents to be killed in action and perhaps as result, were more likely to kill prisoners.

Unlike counties Dublin or Tipperary, assassination was not a common cause of pro-Treaty deaths in Cork. Only one soldier was deliberately killed while alone and unarmed in Cork; Private Denis McCarthy of Cork city, who killed on 29 August 1922 in Barrack Street, Cork. McCarthy was a former member of the Royal Irish Regiment of the British Army. He was shot dead outside his home when visiting his family. [7]

Of the 53 anti-Treaty IRA dead, 41 were killed in action, that is while armed and engaged in fighting with Free State forces, but ten were killed after being taken prisoner. This is consistent with patterns elsewhere in the country, where pro-Treaty troops were more likely to be killed in combat (which usually took place at ambushes and attacks initiated by the guerrillas) and often took out their frustration on captured anti-Treaty prisoners.

The anti-Treaty side remarked on a number of disturbing cases in Cork. One was the killing of James Buckley of Macroom by Dublin soldiers in revenge for a mine explosion that had killed seven of their comrades.[8] Another was the killing of three anti-Treaty prisoners at Upton on October 4, 1922, after they had surrendered.  The men’s commander, Tom Barry later alleged to the military pension board that a National Army Chaplain had executed them.[9]

Still more disturbing, and little known, was an incident at the village of Newcestown on February 3, 1923, when an anti-Treaty IRA prisoner, Patrick Murray and several local civilians were forced by pro-Treaty troops to clear a mined barricade. Murray and two civilians, A. Park and John Desmond, were killed and seven more injured when the mine exploded. The episode in some ways prefigured the notorious reprisal killing of anti-Treaty prisoners at Ballyseedy and elsewhere in Kerry with mines the following month. [10]

Tom Barry, leader of the IRA Third Cork Brigade’s flying column

For all of this viciousness, there were in fact far fewer reprisals in Cork than were carried out by National Army troops in counties such as Dublin or Kerry. Moreover, only one man, William Healy, of Donoughmore, was formally executed in Cork, out of 81 shot by firing squad across the Free State during the Civil War. [11]

The relative restraint of pro-Treaty forces in Cork seems largely to have been down to the moderation of locally raised Cork troops. After the killing of James Buckley for instance, Cork troops mutinied and refused to go out on patrol if the Dublin soldiers who had carried out the reprisal were not sent out the county, which they duly were.[12]

David Reynolds, the young Cork man who took over from Emmet Dalton as commander of National Army troops in County Cork discouraged reprisals. According to one of his enemies, ‘he was decent and did not want executions’. [13]

Killing civilians

A National Army checkpoint at Rochestown.

That the National Army killed somewhat more unarmed combatants than the anti-Treaty IRA did not mean that that the IRA in Cork had clean hands. In fact the latter’s treatment of civilians was considerably worse than the National Army’s in County Cork.

The anti-Treaty IRA was responsible for the deliberate killing of at least 28 civilians in Cork in 1922 and 1923 (including the 14 killed in and around Dunmanway in April, but not including retired RIC officers).

At least 6 of these were killed as alleged informers including two men, Patrick Burns of Knockbeg Whitechurch and Daniel O’Hanlon of White Cross, Cork who were taken from their beds on October 4, 1922 and shot dead. They were ‘discovered tied together in Turnip field’ at Whitechurch Co Cork. They press reported that the killings were ‘thought to be related to boycott of an anti-Treaty farm’. [14]

The anti-Treaty IRA was responsible for considerably more civilian deaths in Cork than were Free State forces.

Some other civilians seem to have been shot in reprisal for the execution of IRA members by the Free State. On 16 March, 1923, for instance, a civilian William Goff Beale, a Quaker, aged 51, was shot dead in Cork city ‘by two men saying it was reprisal for the executions’. He died in South infirmary on March 20. [15] The following day, civilian Ben McCarthy aged 16 of Bantry was taken from home by four armed men and shot dead, a ‘convicted spy’ IRA notice was fixed on his body, reading ‘Shot as a reprisal for our four comrades executed this week’. [16]

The anti-Treaty IRA in Cork therefore was far more likely to target civilians than their comrades elsewhere, in Dublin, or Kerry, who killed no civilians as informers in the Civil War, and more likely too than the IRA in Tipperary, who killed five.

A further 8 of the civilian deaths in Cork were killed by unknown perpetrators, who in some cases were most likely affiliated to the IRA. For instance, on 17 December 1922, a civilian farmer Eric Wolfe, an ex-British Army soldier, was shot dead near Kinsale as he was riding in a horse and trap. He was stopped by armed men and shot multiple times. The press reported ‘No motive is known’. [17]

On top of this the responsibility for the deaths of many of the 14 civilians who died in the crossfire of armed engagements, must be laid at the door of the anti-Treaty forces. This was particularly true of those who died in gun and grenade attacks carried out on busy shopping streets in Cork city.

To take two particularly sad examples, on 18 October 1922, Ellen Gallagher aged 13 was killed as a result of grenade attack on troops on Patrick Street, with bomb splinters in her brain and on 19 December Katherine Feehily (24 years old), who was wounded in grenade attack on troops, also on Patrick Street, Cork city, and died in Mercy Hospital. [18]

The National Army, as far as I can tell, deliberately killed only four civilians in County Cork, but killed another seven who ‘failed to halt’ at checkpoints. Therefore the National Army killed considerably fewer civilians in Cork than either their Civil War adversaries or either British or Republican forces before the July 1921 truce.

Another five civilians died in accidents in Cork during the Civil War, usually when they came across abandoned guns or explosives.

However, civilian casualties both as an absolute number and in proportion to total casualties were well down on what they had been during the War of Independence in Cork. Before the truce the IRA in County Cork had deliberately killed 83 civilians while Crown forces had killed 66. Thus, civilians were more than twice as likely to be targeted in the War of Independence in Cork as in the Civil War.[19]

Conclusion

Memorial Cross to Michael Collins at Beal na Blath.

The project to establish how many died in the Irish Civil War remains ongoing.

The findings of this article with regard to Civil War casualties in County Cork are fairly consistent with those of counties Dublin and Tipperary. Casualties were less in all of those counties in the Civil War than in the War of Independence.

Civilians were far less likely to be targeted in 1922-1923 than in the preceding conflict, but the Cork IRA continued its record from the War of Independence of killing civilians much more readily than their comrades elsewhere in the country. By contrast the National Army generally did not target civilians for lethal violence.

National Army deaths in combat were nearly twice as common as anti-Treaty deaths, and deaths of Free State forces by accidents were nearly five times as common. Pro-Treaty forces were far more likely to kill prisoners than were their enemies, but Anti-Treaty fighters and activists were much more likely to be imprisoned than killed.

Despite being overall less than in the struggle against the British, the level of violence, particularly at the height of the Civil War in Cork in late 1922 was as bad if not worse than anything in the longer-lasting War of Independence.

The prevalence of reprisal and counter reprisal, though less marked in Cork than in locations such as Dublin and Kerry, also helps to explain the peculiarly long lasting bitterness that was the long term result of the Irish Civil War.

 

Appendix: figures for Civil War deaths by county, where available.

Dublin, 258

Cork, 220

Kerry, 172

Tipperary, 126

Sligo, 54

Wexford, 50

Kildare, 45

Kilkenny 26

Offaly, 22[20]

Total so far: 973.

 

References

[1] Peter Hart, IRA and its Enemies p. 121, Harts figure were 180 killed and 295 wounded in that county. Of which fatal casualties, 1 was British Army, 70 were National or Free State Army, 51 were Anti-Treaty IRA, 28 were civilians and 30 were of unknown status. , These have now been superseded.

[2] For a level headed discussion of the affair, see John Borgonovo, Andy Beilenberg, and James S. Donnelly. 2014. “Something of the Nature of a Massacre: The Bandon Valley Killings Revisited”. Éire-Ireland. 49 (3-4): 7-59 http://muse.jhu.edu/article/562151

[3] Barry Keane in Cork’s Revolutionary Dead (p.292-293) cites 12 National Army soldiers killed in this fighting, but two, Michael Collins, nephew of Michael Collins the National Army commander in chief, and soldier named Flood, I have been unable to verify.

[4] They included one IRA volunteer killed near Skibbereen, Two National Army soldiers killed in actions at Clonakilty and Macroom respectively and a civilian killed in the crossfire of a firefight near Fermoy.

[5] Military Archives, CW/OPS/01//02/06, Radio reports to GHQ

[6] Military Archives CW/P/13/09. And this figure may be an underestimate, leaving out those held in Cork city Gaol and women’s prison (which was also used for men in the Civil War). This figure may also not cover the female activists from Cork who were imprisoned.

[7] Irish Times Aug 31 1922. Military Pension File, 2D413

[8] See Buckley’s military pension file DP888

[9] Michael Hayes, Military Pension file DP4256 The other two were, Daniel O’Sullivan (DP6907) and Patrick Pearse (DP1908) were killed in the same incident. Barry’s allegations against the chaplain are in pension file DP4256. The story was also covered in the Irish Examiner here.

[10] Patrick Murray IRA of Enniskeane, Military pension file. DP8356. Irish Times February 10, 1923, Barry Keane, Cork’s revolutionary Dead, p.348-349) says NA troops rounded up local civilians after mass and made them remove mined barricade. Cites three deaths and 7 injured.

[11] William Healy executed by the National Army on 13 March 1923 at Cork County Prison Military Pension file DP4295

[12] For a discussion of the incident see Sean Boyne, Emmet Dalton, pp. 262–3

[13] Michael Hopkinson, Green Against the Green, The Irish Civil War, p.239.

[14] Irish Times October 9 1922

[15] (Irish Times March 24 1923). Barry Keane Cork’s Revolutionary Dead, p.354 says possibly targeted because his cousin Joseph Pim was a judge in the Free State.

[16] Irish Times March 24 1923

[17] Irish Times Dec 20 1922.

[18] Irish Times Oct 25 1922 and 20 Dec 1922.

[19] Cork’s Revolutionary Dead, Research Findings. http://theirishrevolution.ie/cork-fatality-register-2/#.XSowP0d7nIU

[20] John Dorney, Casualties of the Irish Civil War in Dublin. Dorney, Casualties of the Civil War in Tipperary. Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies, p 121, Aaron O Maonaigh, The Killurin Ambush and the Civil War in Wexford. Doyle, The Civil War in Kerry, p.328-331 Michael Farry’s The Aftermath of Revolution: Sligo 1921–23, Phillip McConway, The Civil War in Offaly, Offaly Tribune, 2 January 2008. James Durney, the Civil War in Kildare, p14-15, Eoin Swithin Walsh, Kilkenny in Times of Revolution (2018), p.249.

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