Civilian David Walsh

 

Civilian David Walsh of Shanagarry (Doon near Glenville)

Date of incident: 16 May 1921 (ex-soldier executed and disappeared as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: IRA Executions in 1921 (Collins Papers, A/0649, Military Archives); Letter to O/C, 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, 21 May 1921 (Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,207 [2], NLI); ‘Statement by Spy Saunders’, in IO First Southern Division F, Florence O’Donoghue’s Report to Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, 24 June 1921 (Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/20, UCDA); Note Attached to James Saunders’s Confession from Intelligence Officer, First Southern Division (Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/20, UCDA); William Buckley’s WS 1009, 21 (BMH); James Coss’s WS 1065, 11 (BMH); John P. O’Connell’s WS 1444, 13-14 (BMH); O’Neill (1975), 68, 99; Peter Hart (2002), 49 (quotation), 91, 102 (n. 27); ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 84; Sheehan (2011), 76; O’Halpin (2013), 326.

 

Note: Described in an IRA document as a Shanagarry tramp or homeless man, Walsh was an ex-soldier suspected of having given information that led to the Clonmult disaster for the IRA. He was arrested by the Glenville Company and detained. He was probably one of two members of the tramp class executed in this area who were later described as well-known spies in a document written by George Power. See Letter to O/C, 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, 21 May 1921 (Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,421 [11]). Walsh allegedly admitted to having been paid £1 a week as a British spy, and gave the names of other spies. He was tried by members of the Fermoy Battalion staff, found guilty, and sentenced to death—a sentence confirmed by the Cork No. 2 Brigade staff. He was executed on 16 May 1921 at Doon near Glenville. See William Buckley’s WS 1009, 21 (BMH). Sheehan argues that it is unlikely that Walsh possessed information that could have led to the destruction of the IRA column at Clonmult, or that he had any connection with British forces. A letter from General Sir Edward Peter Strickland in the Collins Papers (dated 19 August 1924) stated categorically that the David Walsh in question had not given any information and was not known to the British army, thus supporting Sheehan’s contention. See Strickland’s letter in IRA Executions in 1921 (Collins Papers, A/0649, Military Archives).  

 

The IRA believed that the evidence supporting Walsh’s identity as the spy (or one of the spies) responsible for the Clonmult disaster appeared strong. James Coss (Seámus MacCos), successively the intelligence officer of the Fermoy Company and Battalion of the Cork No. 2 Brigade, regularly exploited sources inside Fermoy Military Barracks: ‘Amongst the information received by me from my intelligence officers in the military barracks was a copy of a file which gave particulars of the individual who gave the information to the enemy forces which led to the massacre of a number of I.R.A. men—they were, I think, Midleton Battalion column—at Clonmult near Midleton in February 1921. Within 24 hours of receiving the information, the spy in question had been arrested, tried, and executed. His name was David Walsh.’ See James Coss’s WS 1065, 11 (BMH).

 

Buttressing this account is that of John P. O’Connell, the captain of the Cobh Volunteer Company, who seems to have been one of the IRA leaders who interrogated Walsh before his execution: ‘About a month after the fight at Clonmult, the means by which the British were able to come on the column was disclosed. An ex British soldier named Walsh had been trapping rabbits in the Clonmult area on the Saturday previous to the fatal Sunday. He saw some of the members of the column in the village of Clonmult. These, as a matter of fact, had been down to the village of Dungourney for Confession. Having located the headquarters of the column—in the farmhouse [known as Garrylaurence]—he was travelling the road to Cork on the following day, Sunday, when he met a party of military in two lorries. Walsh’s story was that they stopped him. However, he brought them right up to the crossroads junction, where they left their lorries and surrounded the house. Walsh told this story after being captured by us. He confessed that he got thirty pounds for his work. He was of course executed.’ See John P. O’Connell’s WS 1444, 13-14 (BMH).

 

A letter found on the body of IRA leader Diarmuid O’Hurley (Dermot Hurley) when British forces killed him near Midleton on 28 May 1921 confirmed that David Walsh had confessed to having provided crucial information leading to the IRA disaster at Clonmult, but only after IRA interrogators had enticed Walsh’s confession by showing him a grave that had been dug for him and falsely promising him a free passage to Australia if he made a clean breast of things in relation to his alleged role in what had led to the Clonmult catastrophe. See Florence O’Donoghue (Cork No. 1 Brigade Adjutant) to O/C, Fourth (Midlteton) Battalion, [unknown date] 1921 (Florence O’Donoghue Papers, NLI 31,207 [2]). Furthermore, a Clonmult survivor also alluded many years later to a man snaring rabbits who had gone to Cork city to pass on to the British vital information that gave away the location of the IRA column.

 

The British military certainly seem to have been active in collecting intelligence in advance of Clonmult: ‘For some days in the middle of February a good deal of valuable information regarding the movements and personnel of a Flying Column in the Clonmult area was being obtained by the Intelligence Officer of the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment. On February 20th detailed information regarding the position of this column was obtained and promptly acted upon. An engagement between a Flying Column and a small party of troops followed, and in the course of this engagement severe casualties were inflicted on the rebels.’ See ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 84. The British intelligence officer mentioned here was based in Cork city, but the details he gathered were probably grounded on local knowledge, even if the information was passed on to Cork city. In a letter dated 21 February 1921, the British officer in command of the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment stated: ‘I allowed these operations to be carried out by the troops in the Cork area in order to save time and because the information on which they were based was obtained in Cork.’ See O’Neill (1975), 99.

 

Several British intelligence and military sources later specifically denied that David Walsh had been the informer who had given away the presence of the Midleton Battalion Column of the IRA at the Garrylaurence farmhouse near Clonmult. Foremost among them was the author or authors of ‘A Record of the Rebellion in Ireland in 1920-21, and the Part Played by the Army in Dealing with It (Intelligence).’ (Peter Hart, editor of this manuscript, stated that it had probably originated from the Dublin intelligence branch of the British army.) The author or authors presented the following account of how David Walsh had come to confess to the IRA: ‘In country districts any stranger was looked on with suspicion, and in one instance an unknown tramp was told that he would be shot unless he confessed, in which case he would be allowed to leave the country. In the hope of saving his life the unfortunate man invented a wholly fictitious story about how he had given information to the troops, foolishly selecting an occasion when the I.R.A. had suffered particularly heavy losses. He was thereon court-martialed and shot. The whole of this incident was recounted in a letter which was captured subsequently on the dead body of the man who had ordered the court-martial and “execution.”’ Ormonde Winter’s account provided further corroboration in ‘A Report on the Intelligence Branch of the Chief of Police, Dublin Castle, from May 1920 to July 1921’. See Hart (2002), 49 (quotation), 91, 102 (n. 27).

 

Lastly, there is clear documentation that Walsh, a victim of shell shock and gas poisoning as a British soldier in the Great War, returned home from a hospital stay in March 1921 and thus was still suffering from his war-service injuries for some time after the Clonmult disaster of the previous February. See O’Halpin (2013), 326. Thus if a man snaring rabbits had possibly been the culprit who betrayed the IRA column, it was certainly not Walsh. The available evidence indicates that Walsh was an innocent victim. The source of this misinformation on Walsh may have been the confession of James Saunders, who named others doing this same work. See Note Attached to James Saunders’s Confession from Intelligence Officer, First Southern Division (Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/20, UCDA); ‘Statement by Spy Saunders’, in IO First Southern Division F, Florence O’Donoghue’s Report to Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, 24 June 1921 (Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/20, UCDA).

 


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