Raising Holy Hell – The Murder of Canon Thomas Magner, Dunmanway 15 December 1920
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
The roads of Ireland are dotted with memorials commemorating those killed during Ireland’s revolutionary period 1916 – 1923. On the outskirts of Dunmanway, West Cork, a monument depicts one of the many brutal incidents carried out during the War of Independence. A large Celtic Cross marks the location of the murder of Canon Tomas Magner and Volunteer Tadgh Crowley on the 15 December 1920. The inscription on the cross is in Irish, ‘Dun marbuigead annso Ag Buidin Dubhcroin Sasana’ loosely translated, ‘here two men were killed by a company of English Black and Tans’. So who was Canon Magner and what were the circumstances of his death?
Thomas Magner was born in Ovens, Cork, 15 October 1850. Schooled locally in Ovens and Cork City, Thomas eventually left Ireland to study for the priesthood in the Irish College in Paris, where he was ordained in 1876.  He returned to Ireland and served in a number of locations in County Cork before his final appointment as Parish Priest in Dunmanway in April 1904. Canon Magner was a popular priest in his new and previous postings; ‘his commonsense and gentle, kind and inoffensive character, endeared him to everybody.’
The last quarter of 1920 was a volatile period in Ireland; and Cork’s moniker as the ‘Rebel County’ was justified. Several attacks were carried out against the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) and the unit suffered a number of casualties. The ADRIC (consisting of former British Army officers) were ambushed in Kilmichael, ten miles from Dunmanway, by a group of IRA Volunteers under Tom Barry on 28 November 1920. In this incident seventeen members were killed. Thirteen days later on 11 December, ‘K’ company, ADRIC were ambushed in Dillon’s Cross, on the outskirts of Cork City. Cadet Spencer Chapman was killed in the engagement. That night British forces rampaged and devastated Cork City and the next morning, Corkonians woke to find the commercial centre of their city in ruins, still smouldering. ‘K’ Company were transferred to Dunmanway in the aftermath of the mayhem.
Three days after the Burning of Cork; 15 December, the grey frost of dawn gave way to a sunny morning. Canon Magner went for his usual one mile walk, east on the Ballineen road. This particular day, he met Patrick Brady, Resident Magistrate, whose car had broken down. They were joined by a third man, Tadgh (Tim) Crowley who was cycling past. The three men endeavoured to start the car, and at this point, a number of cars conveying ADRIC,‘K’ Company to the funeral of Cadet Chapman which was being held in Cork, passed. The graphic nature of what occurred next is recounted by Cadet Richard Milward.
Milward, giving testimony at the Military Inquiry held on 17 December recounted that he was travelling in the second car, which was ordered to stop by Cadet Vernon Hart who was in charge.  Hart ‘got out of the car to inspect the driving licence of a man who car was broken down … and continued down the road towards a countryman who was coming in his direction followed by a priest. The time was about 1345 hrs’. Hart spoke to the countryman (Tim Crowley) and began to hit him, finally shooting him. Hart then turned to Canon Magner; spoke to him and belligerently threw the priest’s hat on to the ground. He then ordered the Canon to kneel and proceeded to shoot him twice, the second bullet killing the elderly priest. The Cadet’s final dastardly act was to rifle through the Canon’s pockets, scattering the contents on the road.
One of Cadet Hart’s colleagues persuaded him to get back into the car. Cadet Milward was asked by the Inquiry whether Hart knew Spencer Chapman who was killed on the 11 December in Dillon’s Cross. Milward answered that the two men were great friends. He also recounted that Hart had been drinking heavily. The Inquiry also questioned Thomas Sparrow who was second in command of ‘K’ Company. His opinion was that Hart was ‘perfectly sober when he saw him 10 minutes before this party left for Cork’.
On 5 January 1921, Hart was brought to trial charged with the crime of murder. He was found guilty but insane at the time. He was discharged from the ADRIC, just four months after being appointed. A month later, the Irish Independent reported that Hart ‘was at present awaiting transfer to a criminal lunatic asylum.’ However, whether Hart spent time in an asylum is unknown. In a letter printed in the Westminster Gazette, James Britten queries the whereabouts of Hart as he has been unable to determine his location. What is known is that by 1931 he had immigrated to South Africa. Hart spent the next six years in the country and died aged 53.
Ireland, 100 years was a brutal and unforgiving place, the contagion being the thirst for freedom on the Irish side and the prevention of the collapse of the Empire on the British side. If you would like to read more about Rebel Cork, check out, https://www.irishfamilydetective.ie/post/rebel-cork
 Irish Examiner, 12 August 1876.
 Neil O’Mahony, ‘The life and death of Canon Magner’ in Journal of Muskerry Local History Society vol. 9, (2010-11), p. 60.
 Schools Folklore Collection https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921620/4885639/5150557?ChapterID=4921620
 WO 35/155B/12, Deaths of Canon T J Magner and Timothy Crowley; 15th December, 1920; Dunmanway, County Cork.
 WO 35/208.
 Royal Irish Constabulary service records 1816-1922.
 Irish Independent, 18 February 1921.
 Westminster Gazette, 24 January 1921.
 South Africa, Voter Indexes, 1719-1996.
 Cape Province, South Africa, Civil Deaths, 1895-1972.
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