Cork’s War of Independence Fatality Register

 

 

Introduction

By Dr Andy Bielenberg, UCC, and Professor Emeritus James S. Donnelly, Jr, UW-Madison

 

The Irish War of Independence in geographical terms was defined by certain regions that experienced very high levels of violence and by other areas (far more typical) with relatively limited degrees of violence. Death provides the most quantifiable measure of extreme violence; it was generally noted by the military protagonists, in state records, by relatives of the victims, in burial records, and by local and national newspapers, so that most fatalities can be successfully captured from the host of sources available. Recent research has revealed heavy concentrations of fatalities in the vicinity of the three major urban centres on the island (Belfast, Dublin, and Cork), making case studies of these three epicentres worthy of more detailed scrutiny. In the case of Cork violence extended to many parts of the surrounding county and did so to a greater degree than in the hinterlands of the two larger cities. In absolute terms County Cork recorded the highest number of deaths among all counties in Ireland as well as somewhat more than one-fifth of all fatalities on the island during the War of Independence.1 This makes Cork an especially important case study within the conflict as a whole.

 

Peter Hart, as part of his pioneering 1998 thematic study of the revolution in Cork, was the first scholar to enumerate all conflict-related deaths in the county between 1917 and 1923. Unfortunately, he did not publish a list of the names of victims (though scores of those killed appear in his text), so it is impossible to verify many of his findings concerning all of those killed.2 Nonetheless, Hart built up a catalogue of total fatalities broken down into British soldiers, RIC members, civilians, and IRA Volunteers, in addition to disaggregating the various periods within the revolution at large—the War of Independence, the Truce, and the Civil War. His tabulations suggested that the War of Independence accounted for over two-thirds of all deaths in County Cork in the years between 1917 and 1923, and that civilians constituted the largest single category of victims (almost 38 percent of the total in 1920-21).  

 

Our enumeration of deaths here for the War of Independence alone (at 528 in total) is not too far from Hart’s aggregated findings for this period, although our definitions of conflict-related fatalities and the balance between groupings are slightly different from his, since (among other reasons) he did not include fatal military accidents.

 

Objectives and Methods

The primary objective of this fatality register is to identify as far as possible those killed in connection with the conflict, as there remains uncertainty with regard to some of the fatalities, and a number of those killed no doubt remain unidentified. Identification of deaths is not always a straightforward matter, for while an incident where people were badly wounded might have been recorded in the press, the subsequent fate of the casualties is frequently not at all clear.3 Though we have gathered data based on the registration of deaths by the state, a task taken over in 1920 by the British army in County Cork, which became the director of ‘military inquests’, this procedure was by no means comprehensive and could be subject to military interference and even to omissions in cases where crown forces were directly involved. A wide range of other sources were consulted to bridge this deficit, and these often provided conflicting accounts of the circumstances of death, reflecting the biases of the protagonists or the purpose for which a given type of source was created. Republican memory of major ambushes, for example, dramatically exaggerated British fatalities in many instances. Compensation claims were shaped primarily to secure monetary awards within the terms of reference of the claim pursued; newspapers might have reflected the political biases of the paper or their correspondents; IRA and crown-force sources commonly presented conflicting or contradictory perspectives. Moreover, numerous sources were gathered decades after the episodes in question. These delays frequently helped to give rise to multiple interpretations of the same death. We have attempted to ascertain details of the initial incident leading to any given death; we have also recorded in the description the date, time, and location of death (as far as possible). The victim of an ambush or shooting, for example, may have been fatally wounded in one location of the county but then died weeks later in a hospital at another location. We have highlighted the former incident while also taking note of the latter where possible.

 

Fatalities in County Cork during the War of Independence

This map furnishes a detailed portrait of the geographical distribution of fatalities across County Cork during the War of Independence. Cork recorded the highest total of any Irish county in absolute terms during the conflict; Cork also registered the highest homicide rate per 10,000 persons during the height of the conflict. The map reveals the significance of major urban centres across the county. Not surprisingly, Cork city features very prominently, but deaths were spread across the county as a whole. Cork city centre registered a heavy toll, with many civilian casualties and with thirteen republican prisoners executed at Victoria Barracks and other Volunteers dying in custody. The more dispersed pattern of killing across County Cork resulted in part from the death toll in or near secondary urban centres. In addition, key events such as Crossbarry, or IRA ambushes at Kilmichael, Cloonbannin, and other sites, or successful operations by crown forces at Clonmult and Ballycannon (where the tables were turned), all occurred in rural locations. With certain important exceptions such as the Upton train ambush, civilian killings were usually far more dispersed than those of combatants, with many more incidents resulting in only a single victim. In geographical terms the killing of suspected civilian spies broadly follows the wider civilian pattern, except that there was a heavy concentration of killings in the southern districts of the city. Episodes where single, double, or triple killings occurred in both urban and rural contexts also account for discernible concentrations in specific parts of the county. The more densely populated southern half of County Cork figures more prominently than the northern half or the far west. The two heaviest concentrations of killing outside the city emerged in two zones, one extending west-north-west through the area of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, the second pushing into the Cork No. 3 Brigade area. Notably, the Cork No. 3 Brigade area recorded an additional line of fatalities across West Cork’s coastal communities. A similar pattern of concentration is evident in east Cork, and others are visable in and around the urban centres of north Cork. We have accounted for deaths resulting from wounds at the place of wounding (e.g., an ambush site) rather than at the place of death (e.g., a hospital or prison). We indicate executions at the place of execution.

 

About the Researchers

 

Andy Bielenberg is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, University College Cork, where he lectures on Irish social and economic history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He also teaches about and undertakes research on the First World War, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, with a special focus on County Cork. He received his doctorate from the London School of Economics in 1992. His recent publications include Ireland and the Industrial Revolution, 1801-1922 (2009), which summarizes many years of research on Irish industrial history; An Economic History of Ireland since Independence (2013), co-authored with Raymond Ryan; and “Exodus: The Emigration of Southern Irish Protestants during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War,” Past and Present, no. 218 (Feb. 2013).  

 

James S. Donnelly Jr is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught modern Irish and British history from 1972 to 2008. He authored The Land and the People of Nineteenth-Century Cork: The Rural Economy and the Land Question (1975) and The Great Irish Potato Famine (2001). He co-edited (with Samuel Clark) Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (1983) and (with Kerby Miller) Irish Popular Culture, 1650-1850 (1998). His latest book Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824 was published in the fall of 2009. He serves as co-editor (with Thomas Archdeacon) of the book series ‘The History of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora’ at the University of Wisconsin Press (17 volumes published to date). He has been co-editor of the journal Éire-Ireland since 2001.

 

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