IRA Commandant Michael O’Neill

IRA Commandant Michael O’Neill (aged 25) of Maryborough near Timoleague (Ballygroman House near Ovens and Killumney)

Date of incident: 26 April 1922

Sources: CE, 27, 28, 29 April 1922; Evening Echo, 27 April 1922; Belfast News Letter, 27 April 1922; FJ, 28 April 1922; Evening Echo, 28, 29 April 1922; Morning Post, 28 April, 1 June 1922; SS, 29 April, 6 May 1922; CCE, 6 May 1922; II, 3 Sept. 2006; Criminal Injury Book, Cork East Riding, 1920-22, Claim ID37/165 (NAI); Ó Broin (1985), 177; Hart (1998), 273-92; Crowley (2005), 464; Bielenberg, Borgonovo, and Donnelly (2014), 17-21; Keane (2014), 112-42; Keane (2017), 85-89, 285.


Note: In the early morning hours (about 2:30 a.m.) of 26 April 1922, Michael O’Neill, the Acting Commandant of the First (Bandon) Battalion of the Cork No. 3 Brigade, in company with three other battalion staff officers, knocked loudly at the front door of a unionist family named Hornibrook. The Hornibrooks resided at Ballygroman House and occupied the surrounding farm of about a hundred acres near Ovens and Killumney (some 10 miles north-east of Bandon). The four IRA men were there on special duty ‘in compliance with orders received from the staff of the Cork 3rd Brigade’. The precise mission of O’Neill and his three IRA comrades remains unclear, but the prevailing belief appears to have been that they went to Ballygroman to the commandeer Thomas Hornibrook’s car (a Darracq), for which they needed the magneto to start the engine. (The local IRA was known to have seized the cars of certain other well-to-do people in this period.) Michael O’Neill demanded, ‘Please open the door as I want to see Mr. Hornibrook on business.’ The Hornibrooks refused to open the door in spite of protracted knocking and then threats of a forced entry. O’Neill eventually found an unfastened window in the dining room on the ground floor through which he led officers Charlie O’Donoghue and Stephen O’Neill (no relation). With the help of an electric torch Michael O’Neill went from the dining room into the hall and then up the main stairway. As he was doing so, a shot was fired. He ‘turned and came downstairs, making for the dining room again, where he fell on the floor, having exclaimed, “I am shot”, immediately after the shot rang out.’ His comrades O’Donoghue and Stephen O’Neill carried him out the open window and down the avenue to the house gate. O’Donoghue then rushed off to find a priest to administer the Last Rites. By the time that O’Donoghue had returned with a priest, Michael O’Neill was dead. See CCE, 6 May 1922 (inquest). See also CE, 27, 28, 29 April 1922; Belfast News Letter, 27 April 1922; FJ, 28 April 1922; Evening Echo, 28, 29 April 1922; Morning Post, 28 April, 1 June 1922; SS, 29 April, 6 May 1922; Criminal Injury Book, Cork East Riding, 1920-22, Claim ID37/165 (NAI).

The story about the goal of commandeering Thomas Hornibrook’s car was mentioned by Volunteer Denis Lordon, a West Cork man with strong Kilbrittain connections. Lordan stated that ‘the boys’ had gone to Ballygroman House to seize a motor car, that they had been fired upon, and that one of them had been killed. Then, said Lordon, ‘our fellows took it out on the Protestants’. While this incident was placed in the context of the Civil War, there was during its course no such incident in West Cork involving a Protestant household where an IRA man was shot and then vengeance was taken on Protestants. It is much more likely that this reported incident relates to the Bandon valley ‘massacre’ of 26-29 April 1922. For Denis Lordan’s recollection, see Leon Ó Broin, Protestant Nationalists in Revolutionary Ireland: The Stopford Connection (Dublin, 1985), 177. 

At the inquest held on 27 April 1922 at the courthouse in Bandon, Charlie O’Donoghue of Bandon IRA barracks testified as follows: ‘When we were satisfied that the deceased was shot, I myself motored back to Bandon and reported that [the] deceased had been shot dead. When I got to Bandon, four military men went out with me in a motor car to the place. We went up to Hornibrook’s house again. We met three men coming out of the house, namely, Thomas Hornibrook, Sam Hornibrook, and a man called Woods [Captain Herbert Woods]. I addressed the three together and asked, “Which of you fired the shot last night?” Woods spoke up immediately and said, “I fired it.”’ See CCE, 6 May 1922. The inquest jury found that Commandant Michael O’Neill had been ‘brutally murdered’ in the house of Thomas Hornibrook by Captain Woods, without specifically charging Woods with the murder. See CE, 28 April 1922. Michael O’Neill was identified as the youngest son of Patrick and Hanoria O’Neill of Maryboro near Kilbrittain. See CE, 27 April 1922.

According to Barry Keane, Michael O’Neill ‘died on the roadside about 600 metres from the entrance to Ballygroman House. A small cross marks the spot, on the main Bandon-Killumney Road, one kilometre to the south of the village’. See Keane (2014), 122.

Although it was claimed at the inquest that the four IRA officers had gone to Ballygroman House on some kind of official duty (not specified), this appears somewhat unlikely given that these officers were operating outside the area of the Cork No. 3 Brigade to which they belonged. Yet in a death notice for Commandant O’Neill appearing in the Evening Echo, it was stated that he had been ‘shot dead while faithfully executing his duty’. See Evening Echo, 27 April 1922.  

Commandant O’Neill’s remains were conveyed to St Patrick’s Church in Bandon on Wednesday evening, 26 April 1922. The funeral procession to Kilbrittain began at 1 p.m. on Friday, 28 April. Marching behind O’Neill’s coffin as the cortege made its way to Kilbrittain were ‘thousands of Volunteers in military formation’ and countless civilians. A local journalist remarked, ‘No funeral in living recollection was so large and representative’; ‘everyone who could possibly be present assembled to pay their last tribute to his memory’. See CE, 29 April 1922. In attendance at the funeral were the victim’s two sisters and three of his four brothers. He was interred in the Republican Plot at Kilbrittain. See Keane (2114), 123.

Michael O’Neill was in 1911 one of the eight living children (nine born) of the farmer Patrick O’Neill and his wife Hanoria of Clooncalla Beg in Rathclarin parish in the Clonakilty district. In that year seven of their eight children (five sons and two daughters), ranging in age from 11 to 24, co-resided with their parents at Clooncalla Beg. Michael O’Neill (then aged 13) was the youngest of the five sons living at home.

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