John Arnold: The day 12 men were killed in a cold-blooded Cork massacre

In his weekly column John Arnold recalls a very famous and history-changing event in the townland of Ballinakilla
John Arnold: The day 12 men were killed in a cold-blooded Cork massacre

TRAGIC TOLL: The monument to the Tithe massacre in Ballinakilla, between Fermoy and Midleton, erected 35 years ago

AT midday next Wednesday, a wreath will be laid at a roadside monument between Fermoy and Midleton.

The timing is of great relevance because it was at noon on December 18, 1834, that a very famous and history-changing event happened in the townland of Ballinakilla, in the parish of Gortroe.

What happened on that day 185 years ago next Wednesday became known as The Battle of Gortroe, or The Gortroe Massacre.

In awful conflicts across the globe, historically and up to the present time, the phrase ‘the ground ran red with blood’ is often used. It paints a vivid image of death and suffering and needless bloodshed.

Well, judging by the eye witness accounts and evidence given in court such was the situation at Ballinakilla on the second last Thursday of December in 1834.

The background to this terrible event was injustice and the resolve of the people to try and get ‘fair play’ for themselves and future generations.

In recent years, we have rightly commemorated and paid tribute to the men of 1916. In the coming years we will be remembering the sacrifices made by those who fought in the Irish War of Independence. Similarly with the widow Johannah Ryan here in this parish, she made a stand.

She saw that a Catholic population having to financially support the clergy of another religion, according to the law of the land, was intrinsically wrong. This was the Tithe system whereby every farmer, regardless of religious beliefs, was duty bound to give one tenth of the produce of his or her farm to the so-called Established Church.

This could be castle, sheep, potatoes, hay, straw, turnips or grain.

To make things worse, in 1832 the law was changed whereby a ‘levy’ for a set cash amount was placed on individual farms. The ability to pay or family circumstances were not taken into account. The Tithes had to be paid twice a year, in what were called two moieties. Resistance to the unjust Tithe Law collection system grew in Ireland during the late 1820s and early 1830s.

In this parish of Gortroe, a new rector had just been appointed, the Rev William Ryder, and with a ‘new broom sweeps clean’ attitude, he set about collecting ‘his’ tithes as well as arrears due to his predecessor.

A few days before the Ballinakilla incident, Ryder had collected or ‘distrained’ tithes or farm produce in lieu all over Gortroe parish. The law stated that if animals like cattle or sheep were in a farm building which was locked, they could not be sized. At Hightown, Bartlemy, the previous Monday, this statute was blatantly ignored at the McGrath farm. A rock was used to burst a lock and cattle were taken away.

After the assassination of her husband, John F Kennedy, his widow Jacqueline Kennedy wrote: “John believed so strongly that one’s aim should not just be the most comfortable life possible, but that we should all do something to right the wrongs we see, and not just complain about them.”

Those words were penned in 1964 but the philosophy ingrained in them was very much displayed at Ballinakilla 120 years previously.

Maybe there is something in the air or the ‘cultural DNA’ of the people around here, but injustice is frowned upon.

In the 1700s, Bishop John O’Brien lived locally for decades and led a reforming crusade of the Church in Cloyne diocese. In more modern times, we fought tooth and nail against the twin ‘Big Brothers’ of State and An Post in a gallant, but unsuccessful, attempt to save our local Post Office. In former times here, the local branch of the ITGWU led a farm labourer’s strike demanding a bonus for Saturday and Sunday work.

These are examples of the spirit that imbued the Widow Ryan in December, 1834. She knew of the power and might of the combined forces of the Established Church and State, but resolutely stood four square for justice.

In his recently published book of poetry, Unlocking Secrets, Maurice O’Connor wrote a poem simply called Bartlemy:

They used sticks and stones to defend the home

Of poor old Widow Ryan,

Owing forty shillings to the Vicar

Was her only crime.

The bailiffs and soldiers came,

Their extortionate tithes for to claim.

And taunts and jeers fell on deaf ears

As stones and insults flew,

This happened up the road

Near Bartlemy in Gortroe.

It’s now 35 years since a fine monument was unveiled at Bluebell Cross on the 150th anniversary of the massacre — and only 15 years until the Bicentenary will be remembered.

So, next Wednesday, people will gather there to remember Richard Ryan, the widow’s son who died on that fateful day. The Widow Collins also lost her two sons, John and Michael. The other nine who were shot down that day were: Michael Barry, Michael Lane, William Ambrose, William Cashman, Patrick Curtin, John Cotter, John Daly, William Twomey, and William Ivis.

The relatives of many of these brave men still live locally. When Ryder and Captains Bagley and Shepperd and Lieutenant Alves arrived at Bartlemy Cross at the head of more than 100 soldiers, they were met by between 200-300 people offering passive resistance.

These countrymen blocked the boreen to the McAuliffe and Ryan farmyards. After repeated attempts were made to force a way through, the order to ‘Fire’ was given, with awful results.

Nine lay dead or dying in their own blood in haggard, orchard and farmyard. At least 20 more were injured and within a few days the death toll was 12.

In doing research on that fateful day, I have found several hundred newspaper articles written on the ‘massacre’ in Ireland, England, America, Australia, New Zealand France and Germany.

In reality, what happened that day long ago was cold-blooded murder. Those responsible were indeed found guilty but no-one ever spent a day in jail after the mass killings.

Amazingly, the Rev William Ryder lived on unharmed and unmolested in the parish until his death in 1862. In actual fact, he is the only one involved in the massacre that is buried locally, in Gortroe cemetery.

The shooting started at noon and was probably all over in a matter of minutes. When the cart that blocked the boreen was pulled away, the awful toll of death and carnage was seen. It must have been a shocking scene, with the screams of the dying and the wails of relatives rending the mid winter sky.

Someone must have left the place quickly and, by some means or another, maybe on horseback or long-car from Rathcormac, made their way to Cork city, some 18 miles away. One way or another, that journey would have taken at least an hour.

That person must then have gone straight to the office of the Cork Mercantile Chronicle newspaper. This evening paper was an ancient forerunner of the Evening Echo, and on that evening’s edition the front cover has mention of the morning’s bloody happenings near Rathcormac.

These men of 1834 made the ultimate sacrifice with their life blood ebbing away for a cause they truly believed in. They deserve to be remembered next week.

Me, I think it isn’t fair

To pit stones against hardware.

As right still versus wrong,

But at least I know the side my heart is on

And forty shillings for all those killings,

Reminds me of a man

Who took thirty pieces of silver,

When Christianity first began.

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