Civilian Cornelius Sheehan

 

Civilian Cornelius Sheehan (aged 54) of 198 Blarney Street, Cork city

(Blarney Street)

Date of incident: 19 March 1921 (killed as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: II, 10 Jan., 22 March 1921; CE, 10 Jan., 21 March, 11 May 1921, 17 March 1926; CCE, 26 March 1921; CWN, 26 March 1921; CC, 1 June 1921; Military Inquests, WO 35/159B/3 (TNA); Monthly Summary of Outrages against the Police (CO 904/150, TNA); RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Reports, Cork City and East Riding, Jan. and March 1921 (CO 904/114, TNA); ‘Report on Operations’, CO 762/59/14 (TNA), Cork No. 1 Brigade (March 1921), Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/38 (UCDA); Charles O’Connell’s WS 566, 3 (BMH); P. J. Murphy’s WS 869, 23-24 (BMH); Borgonovo (2007), 76, 100 (note 71); Murphy (2010), 41; Fin/Comp/2/27/300 [NA Dublin]. (We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Theresa Ellis, granddaughter of Cornelius Sheehan, in correcting elements of an earlier version of this entry with information from various sources she had gathered.)

 

Note: A former asylum attendant at the Cork District Lunatic Asylum (he had worked there for twenty-two years), Cornelius Sheehan (known as ‘Long Con’ because he was 6 feet, 2 inches tall) had gone on sick leave following an attack on the night of 8 January 1921 on Blarney Street. Two IRA gunmen fired at him and an RIC constable, wounding both. This incident occurred as he was returning home from work at the asylum, when he stopped to talk with Constable Carroll (of the Cornmarket Street RIC Station) near the Good Shepherd Convent. See II, 10 Jan. 1921. The police later reported that Sheehan had been ‘fired at and wounded owing to the fact that he kept company with a certain R.I.C. man in Cork. The constable was also wounded on this occasion.’ The police report in January 1921 concluded that the motive for this shooting was to murder the constable and his friend Sheehan, who was suspected of supplying information. See RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, Cork City and East Riding, Jan. 1921 (CO 904/114, TNA).

 

A police report provided a more specific account of this incident: ‘At 6:30 p.m. on 8.1.21 Constable John Carroll of Cornmarket Street was standing in Blarney Street speaking to Cornelius Sheehan. The constable was in plainclothes. They saw 7 or 8 men on the street near them and got the order “hands up”, and almost simultaneously with the order, several shots were fired. Sheehan was shot in the left shoulder and a bullet grazed the constable’s wrist. The constable drew his revolver and fired, but it is not known if anyone was hit.’ See Monthly Summary of Outrages against the Police (CO 904/150, TNA).

 

This encounter may have raised further suspicions within the local IRA. The Cork County Eagle of 26 March 1921 reported about a case heard in the Cork Police Court on 18 March, when in the course of the hearing Sheehan’s daughter had complained about a neighbour’s conduct; his daughter had indeed testified that her life and her father’s had been threatened by this neighbour. The following day (19 March), while he was at home with his wife and other family members at about 8:30 p.m., gunmen pounded on the front door of his house and demanded admission, and a revolver appeared through a small hole in the door. His wife refused to open it. Suspecting the worst, Cornelius Sheehan ran out the back door, where another group of gunmen were waiting and shot him; he died almost instantaneously with his eldest son at his side. See CC, 21 March 1921; CE, 21 March 1921. A doctor at the military inquest testified to an older wound on Sheehan’s shoulder and to two new bullet wounds that had caused his death. See Military Inquests, WO 35/159B/3 (TNA). 

 

Both the Irish Independent of 22 March 1921 and the Cork Weekly News of 26 March 1921 reported that Sheehan was suspected of having given information to the police on the Clogheen IRA arsenal at the back end of the asylum farm. Crown forces had earlier raided this IRA arms dump on 13 January 1921 [when Mary Bowles was arrested]. According to the historian William Sheehan, this raid was conducted on the basis of information derived from the girlfriend of a soldier of the Hampshire Regiment; her information corroborated two other sources whose identities remain a mystery. See Sheehan (2011), 88.  Since Sheehan was wounded some days before this, it appears improbable that the first shooting episode was connected to the Bowles’ raid.

 

It is apparent from the BMH witness statement of local Volunteer Charles O’Connell that ‘on further information from the brigade another spy was shot. This happened in ‘C’ Company area, though the job was carried out by ‘D’ Company.’ See Charles O’Connell’s WS 566, 3 (BMH). Corroborating this statement is an operations report from the First Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, which recorded that a ‘spy [had been] shot dead in Blarney St’ by members of the First Battalion on 19 March 1921. Another report in the same file dated 22 February 1921 revealed that two men of the same battalion had earlier ‘attacked [a] Black and Tan and [a] spy in Blarney Street. Both enemy seriously wounded; both our men escaped.’ See Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/38 (UCDA).  This February report suggests the IRA had come to suspect him already, referring to him as a “spy”. 

 

The Sheehan family has long argued that he was innocent and had been set up by his landlord. In testimony given at the inquest into his death, his wife Abina Sheehan declared that ‘the only enemy my husband had was a woman—Mrs Abina Walsh of 196 Blarney Street—who had threatened to shoot my husband. The house [in which the Sheehans lived] was rented from her. She had declared in my presence that she would have him shot: “I will get him another bullet” [she had allegedly said].’ Some members of the party engaged in the killing had used the house of Abina Walsh (a few doors down from the Sheehans’ dwelling) to make good their escape after climbing over their backyard wall close to where the shooting had occurred. The evidence given by John Walsh (her husband) at the inquest alleged that he had seen three men at the door of his neighbour Cornelius Sheehan. The same three men had subsequently entered his kitchen [Walsh’s] from the backyard and then disappeared onto the street. They had goggles, similar to motor goggles, the glass of which was a dark colour. One ‘spoke with a rough country accent’. A daughter of the victim testified that she had seen about a dozen men then leaving the scene of the killing and that they had gone in the direction of Blarney. See Military Inquests, WO 35/159B/3 (TNA). The military and police from Shandon Street arrived shortly after the killing and moved the body to the house. Later, a military lorry arrived, and the body was taken to Cork Military Barracks. See CE, 21 March 1921; CWN, 26 March 1921. 

 

It is possible that the landlord had set up Cornelius Sheehan with false allegations about informing, which played on IRA suspicions raised by the initial shooting episode, more especially since Abina Walsh’s threat to have him killed was made the day before he was fatally shot. A high-ranking officer in the British army, in reacting to the inquest evidence, certainly felt that there were sufficient grounds to question Abina Walsh further on this specific threat. As a result of a subsequent case at the quarter sessions in which Abina Walsh sought to repossess the house, which had been condemned by medical doctors as unfit for habitation (she had been instructed to put it back in order by Cork Corporation), she argued that repairs could not be done until the Sheehans were ejected as they were using the woodwork as fuel, and maintained that she had not received rent since Sheehan had been killed. Mrs Sheehan and her children were now clearly in a very difficult situation and were dependent on the St Vincent de Paul Society. She claimed that the Walshes had never given her husband peace or rest until he was killed while they were trying to get the house back from him. See CC, 1 June 1921. Abina Sheehan continued to live in the dwelling on Blarney Street for a little over a year after her husband’s death.  Her landlord alleged she retained connections with the “Tans” and left Ireland with them, and that her twenty-year-old daughter married a Tan.  Abina Sheehan denied she ever entertained Crown forces, and family members today state that her daughter never married a policeman.  Abina Sheehan moved out of the house in late March 1922 and stayed briefly with her brother  before emigrating to London in early April 1922.  While it is clear that her subsequent compensation claim for lost furniture was grossly exaggerated,  much of the landlord’s allegations against her appear to have been maliciously motivated. See Fin/Comp/2/27/300.  Abina Sheehan claimed in 1926 that “the reason they were down on her was owing to the killing of the Clogheen boys” (CE, 17 March 1926).  Since the six “Clogheen boys” were killed by police four days after her husband’s death, it is very unlikely Sheehan provided information in that case.

 

Cornelius Sheehan’s killing prompted a claim for compensation from his wife and children. Compensation of £2,890 was paid out to her by March 1923 (CO 762/59/14, TNA).  As a consequence she was able to set up a boarding house in London. In 1911 the asylum attendant Cornelius Sheehan (then aged 44) and his wife Abina (aged 30) resided with three young children (aged 1 to 6) in house 5 in Knocknacullen West in the parish of St Mary’s Shandon in Cork city. The Sheehans were Catholic.


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