This month, 95 years ago, a mine explosion in Newcestown killed three local men and injured many others. Later the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe would unjustly refuse to grant compensation to those injured. By coincidence, February also marks 100 years since Blythe himself was arrested in Skibbereen and ‘deported’ from West Cork to Dundalk prison! History buff Pauline Murphy recounts this fascinating period of local history.
It was a crisp Sunday morning in 1923 when, as mass ended at St John the Baptist church in Newcestown, a lorry of Free State troops pulled up outside the church gates and rounded up the first few men coming out after mass. These unlucky men were forcibly taken to a nearby road and instructed to remove a roadblock, which had been left there by retreating Anti-Treaty IRA fighters. During the dismantling, a trigger mine exploded.
Two men died instantly in the explosion, Patrick Murray and Seamus O’Leary, while John Desmond, who was badly injured, died weeks later on February 22 in a Cork City hospital; his remains were buried in Templemartin cemetery. Those that survived but received injuries were John Allen, Denis O’Brien, Tim Murphy, John Long, Michael Murphy and Patrick Boyle. All were from the parish.
Two years after the tragic event Patrick Boyle applied for compensation but was denied. Boyle, who was from Farranthomas Newcestown, had been forcibly taken with the other men from the gates of the parish church and ordered at gunpoint to remove the barricade. In a Dail Eireann debate on December 11, 1925 Labour Party TD Daniel Morrissey, who hailed from Tipperary and would later become Minister for Justice in 1951, raised the issue of Boyle’s compensation with the Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe.
Blythe replied that the application for compensation “had been carefully considered by the compensation committee” but the committee had decided that Mr Boyle and his fellow injured victims were “members of the irregular organisation and, as the injuries were not sustained without default on their part, the compensation is denied.”
Considering the men were rounded up as they came out of mass and were unaware of the concealed mine, claims they were to blame for the explosion were contrary to fact.
Blythe, who oversaw the denial of compensation for all the injured Newcestown men, was himself no stranger to West Cork. While this month marks 95 years since the explosion, it also marks 100 years since Blythe was arrested in Skibbereen where he worked as editor of The Southern Star newspaper. The Southern Star was purchased by Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the Easter Rising – one of its shareholders was Michael Collins – and Ernest Blythe was given the editorship of the paper.
One of Blythe’s first acts at the newspaper was to change the type format from Roman to Gaelic Irish. Blythe, who was a native language activist, also introduced more Irish language columns, which during that revolutionary period became one of the most suppressed newspapers in Ireland. The Southern Star breached The Defence of the Realm Act, as did its editor, who had been at the helm of the paper for only six weeks before the authorities decided to eject him from his post.
Blythe had first drawn attention to himself when, shortly after arriving in West Cork, he attended Sunday service at the Bantry Protestant church. As was tradition at the end of service ‘God Save The King’ was played but, while the congregation stood for the anthem, Blythe remained seated. When the service finished the local District Inspector, who witnessed Blythe’s ‘disrespect’ in the church, approached him and ordered him to leave Cork. Blythe did leave Bantry but did not leave the county. He went as far as Skibbereen, where weeks later he was arrested for ignoring the order to leave.
In his witness statement from the Bureau of Military History, Blythe recounts his brief time as editor of The Southern Star and the moment he was removed from his job – “After I had been six weeks or so in charge of The Southern Star, I arrived one day at my lodgings for lunch and before I sat down, the local District Inspector, with a body of police, arrived to arrest me for breaching the expulsion order.”
Blythe was taken to Skibbereen railway station where, as word quickly spread around the town, a large group of locals had gathered to pour scorn on the police. As Blythe was being placed on board the train bound for Cork a mini riot broke out on the platform. The angry locals tried to rush the police and rescue Blythe and some stone throwing occured.
In his witness statement Blythe recalls the stone throwing incident – “As the train moved out, some stone throwing began and one of the stones came through the window and past my ear!”
Blythe was ‘deported’ from Cork and spent the next 12 months in Dundalk jail. Five years later he would reap the rewards of revolution when he became Finance Minister in the Free State government while others, such as those who survived the Newcestown explosion, were not as fortunate.