Cork Spy Files: Suspected Spies and the Historical Evidence
Few books have shaped our understanding of the War of Independence in County Cork more than Peter Hart’s intensively researched volume The I.R.A. and Its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923, first published in 1998. This work marked a major turning point in the historiography of the revolution in both Cork and Ireland, and it considerably expanded our knowledge of the sources available for the study of this period. Although the book was highly acclaimed by the historical establishment at the time of its publication, later some of its sections generated considerable controversies, most notably those sections concerning the Kilmichael ambush and the Dunmanway killings. These controversies occurred partly because of the continued sensitivities surrounding the end of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and they were focused especially on the issues of political violence, sectarianism, and the role of the IRA in that conflict. Hart’s work addressed precisely these same issues during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War period, in Ireland’s most violent county.
Troops parading at Victoria Barracks in August 1916. These barracks housed the British 6th Infantry Division in 1920-21. A few high-placed clerks there served as IRA spies; the IRA executed as spies numerous loyalist civilian employees working there. Courtesy of Irish Examiner Photo Archive
This label was attached to the body of William Alexander Macpherson, an ex-soldier with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, when his remains were found at Knockpogue outside Mallow after his execution by the IRA shortly before the Truce of 11 July 1921. Courtesy of Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc
The body of John Coughlan was thrown into the sea in August 1920 along the Aghada coastline shown here after he had reputedly hanged himself while in IRA custody. His decomposed remains later washed up on Ballybranagan Strand, 8 miles south of Midleton. Courtesy of Irish Examiner Photo Archive
Timothy Quinlisk was the first civilian executed as a spy by the IRA Cork No. 1 Brigade. Recruited by Roger Casement while a German prisoner-of-war, he is apparently at far right in this photo of ‘The Irish Brigade’. Courtesy of Joseph McGarrity Collection, Digital [email protected] University
One of the controversial issues covered in the text was that of suspected spies and informers. Hart claimed that most of those shot never informed, and these killings were not ‘merely (or even mainly) a matter of espionage.’ He claimed that at least 204 civilians had been shot by the IRA in County Cork in the course of the revolution, the vast majority of whom he alleged to have been suspected spies or informers. Even if we make a generous allowance for civilians killed as spies in County Cork by both the pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War of 1922-23, his tallies appear too high. Hart took a fairly dim view of the quality of IRA intelligence and believed that IRA leaders and members were prepared to act against suspected informers—indeed to kill them—on the basis of very slender evidence indeed. The IRA reputedly had a very low threshold for evidence sufficient to warrant executions and possessed a highly cavalier attitude towards the killing of suspected civilian spies.
John Borgonovo, in contrast, argued in his 2007 book Spies, Informers, and the ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society’: The Intelligence War in Cork City, 1920-1921, that Hart’s assumptions regarding the poor quality of IRA intelligence were inaccurate for Cork city at least. The city IRA possessed a sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus, with its own operatives serving within the British military and police, and with IRA intelligence officers functioning at every level of its organisation, from brigade to local company. ‘The IRA’s greatest strength in Cork city’, Borgonovo concluded, ‘was its intelligence network. . . . Republican claims regarding civilian informers in Cork city must be seen through the prism of the IRA’s intelligence capability.’ He found that members of the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA had executed as many as twenty-six civilian spies in and around the city from the start of 1920 to the Truce.
Our database has revealed that it was the Cork No. 1 Brigade area (including the city and extending across East Cork and a large part of rural mid-Cork) that accounted for the great majority of the suspected spies and informers killed; 49 of the 78 victims identified in the database were executed within its bounds. This brigade certainly invested more intensively in intelligence-gathering, with an intelligence officer in every battalion and company, in contrast to the other two brigades.
Recent research published by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc in his book Truce: Murder, Myth, and the Last Days of the Irish War of Independence has identified most of the suspected civilian spies and informers killed across Ireland in these years (including his list of 66 in County Cork). He has specified the religious affiliation of these victims. Since the great majority were Catholics, he has challenged Hart’s contention that much of the killing of such spies during the War of Independence was carried out for sectarian reasons.
Download the Cork Spy Files Database here.
The Cork Spy Files database makes it possible to break down the confessional status of suspected spies killed by brigade areas within County Cork. In this way we can provide a more refined and disaggregated regional picture that may help to qualify and contextualise some of Hart’s arguments about the sectarian dimensions of the IRA campaign in the county. Our list reveals that 11 of the 19 civilian suspects killed by the Cork No. 3 Brigade (West Cork) were Protestants (57% of the total in that area), a proportion that was markedly higher than in the rest of County Cork. In addition, all these Protestant victims were killed in 1921, so that West Cork in that year stands out as something of an aberration deserving closer scrutiny. This finding, however, should not be used to draw conclusions or make inferences about what occurred in the rest of County Cork, where the great majority of suspected spies were killed. In the Cork No. 1 Brigade area, of the 47 victims whose religion could be ascertained, only 12 were Protestant (or just over 25%). Thus the vast majority of suspected civilian spies executed in this brigade area were Catholic. Moreover, in the Cork No. 2 Brigade area (North Cork) the share was very low indeed, with only a single Protestant suspect executed.
By far the most notable feature arising from our analysis is the high number of ex-soldiers killed; they accounted for 51% of the overall total.
The great majority of these (34 out of 40) were Catholic. It was this group associated with past service in the crown forces who were by far the largest group of suspects executed as spies. This significant finding further weakens contentions that there was a major sectarian dimension to these killings in the county outside West Cork. Our analysis of the data also reveals that many fewer suspected informers were killed in 1920. The great bulk of these fatalities took place in the final six months of the conflict, with February, March, and May 1921 marking the peaks.
In seeking every sort of information about these victims, we have structured our database entries to allow liberal quotation from archival sources and from contemporary newspapers (including the Cork Examiner, the Cork Constitution, the Cork County Eagle, and the Cork Weekly News, plus other press organs available online through the Irish Newspaper Archive). We have also used death certificates, Bureau of Military History witness statements, the Ernie O’Malley Notebooks, British military inquests, RIC reports, compensation claims, and much more besides.
Not surprisingly, records or reports of suspected-spy deaths emanating from the IRA on one side and from the British military and/or police on the other side often contradict one another or differ in major ways. While IRA leaders argued they were all spies and informers, some British sources claimed they were mostly innocent; the truth is likely to fall somewhere between these extreme positions on the spectrum. While usually marking these differences, we also include additional evidence that sometimes illustrates contradictions in IRA or British claims in cases of disputed deaths. Establishing ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ in many of these cases can be extremely difficult, while new evidence, which is still emerging in this field, can bring about major reappraisals of certain individual episodes. As the project develops further, we hope to establish a clearer picture of the wider patterns. A primary purpose of our database is to identify and verify as many civilian suspects as possible who were known, or are now known, to have been executed by the IRA in 1920 and 1921 (up to the Truce of 11 July).
We have been especially interested in learning and conveying to readers the circumstances in which these suspected civilian spies died—the identities of IRA executioners (if known), the justifications offered for the executions, the manner and timing of each of these deaths, and what was done with the victims’ bodies after death, whether as terrorizing devices they were secretly buried or exposed to public view. From the manuscript censuses of 1901 and 1911 available online, we have also collected personal and family information about all the suspected spies who could be identified in these sources. The importance of conducting intense research of this nature on County Cork specifically is also underlined by other research. Ongoing studies by both Pádraig Ó Ruairc and Eunan O’Halpin imply that across the entire island well over a third of civilians executed by the IRA died in County Cork. Clearly, the three IRA brigades within the county engaged in a ruthless strategy to prevent the forces of the crown from acquiring vital information.
Our purpose in publicly releasing the relatively abundant and admittedly sensitive information about this tragic group of historical actors is not simply to reveal their identity, nor to cause unnecessary embarrassment or pain to descendants of these victims. We recognise that local memories were and are capable of passing on the ill repute of persons identified as spies to their descendants over several generations and in some cases down to the present day. Rather, our purpose is to serve the needs of accurate, transparent, and meaningful history by placing these deaths as fully and clearly as possible in the specific and local context of the War of Independence in County Cork. As readers will notice, the stories of these killings fall into a variety of general patterns; they also exhibit individual features that commonly make for compelling reading, though these stories are not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.
We encourage readers who find misstatements of fact or interpretation in any of these entries to bring them to our attention for prompt correction. We also eagerly seek significant new or previously undisclosed information about the subjects of our entries. And lastly, if any reader believes that we have omitted to mention any civilian executed as a suspected spy in County Cork before the Truce of 11 July 1921, we strongly urge him or her to supply us with particulars, and we will make amends as expeditiously as possible.
Download the Cork Spy Files Database here.
It is possible to view the individual entries online by following hyperlinks in the table below; profiles will be added weekly. The database is also available for download in full. An abbreviated list of suspected spies follows: C indicates Catholic; P indicates Protestant; Ex-s indicates ex-serviceman.
Place of Death
Date of Incident
|1||Timothy A. Quinlisk||25||Ballyphehane||18-Feb-20||C, Ex-s|
|2||James Herlihy||31||Pouladuff||[?]-Jul-20||C, Ex-s|
|3||John Crowley||Lissagroom||10-Jul-20||C, Ex-s|
|4||James Gordon or O’Gorman||Knockraha||[?] Jul/Aug-20||C, Ex-s|
|6||Patrick Toomey (or Twomey)||Macroom||[?]-Sep/Dec-20||C|
|7||Séan or John O’Callaghan Jr||27||Farmer’s Cross||15-Sep-20||C|
|8||John Hawkes, alias ‘James Mahony’||26||Coolnagarrane||13-Oct-20||C, Ex-s|
|10||Thomas Downing||39||Knockraha||23-Nov-20||C, Ex-s|
|11||Brady||Tory Top Lane||c. 23-Nov-20|
|12||James Blemens||55||Carroll’s Bogs||29-Nov-20||P|
|13||Frederick Blemens||30||Carroll’s Bogs||29-Nov-20||P|
|15||Denis (Dinny) Lehane||Knockraha||1920||C|
|17||Denis (Michael) Dwyer||23||Farranalough||21-Jan-21||C, Ex-s|
|19||Patrick George Ray or Rea||37||Passage West||22-Jan-21||C, Ex-s|
|21||Civilian Thomas Bradfield||56||Ahiohill||01-Feb-21||P|
|22||Michael Finbarr O’Sullivan||23||Ballinlough||01-Feb-21||C, Ex-s|
|23||Alfred Kidney||31||Youghal||04-Feb-21||C, Ex-s|
|25||Alfred Charles Reilly, J.P.||58||Douglas||09-Feb-21||P|
|26||William F. B. Johnston||21||Kilbrittain||09-Feb-21||P|
|28||John O’Leary||33||Peacocke Lane||12-Feb-21||C, Ex-s|
|29||William Sullivan or O’Sullivan||35||Tory Top Lane||14-Feb-21||C, Ex-s|
|30||James Charles Beale||53||Dennehy’s Cross||14-Feb-21||P|
|31||Mrs Maria Georgina (Mary) Lindsay||60||Rylane||17-Feb-21||P|
|33||Michael (‘Mickaroo’) Walsh||43||Cork Union Hospital||18-Feb-21||C, Ex-s|
|36||William Mohally||27||Blackrock Road||19/20-Feb-21||C, Ex-s|
|37||Alfred James Cotter||35||Ballineen||25-Feb-21||P|
|39||Bridget Noble (née Neill)||45||Eyeries||04-Mar-21||C|
|41||John Good||66||Barry’s Hall||10-Mar-21||P|
|42||David Nagle||Allen’s Grove||12-Mar-21||C|
|43||Cornelius Sheehan||54||Blarney Street||19-Mar-21||C, Ex-s|
|45||William Good||26||Clooncalla Beg||26-Mar-21||P, Ex-s|
|46||Denis O’Donovan or Donovan||45||Bandon||29-Mar-21||C, Ex-s|
|47||Frederick Charles Stenning||57||Innishannon||31-Mar-21||P|
|48||Denis Finbarr (‘Din Din’) Donovan||24||Ballygarvan||09-Apr-21||C, Ex-s|
|49||Michael O’Brien (alias Ahern)||26||Cork City||11-Apr-21||C, Ex-s|
|50||Stephen O’Callaghan||28||Anderson’s Quay||29-Apr-21||C, Ex-s|
|51||Michael O’Keefe||35||Carrigtwohill||30-Apr-21||C, Ex-s|
|52||Arthur J. Harrison||29||Coachford||30-Apr-21||P, Ex-s|
|53||Thomas (Michael) Sullivan||80||Rathmore, Co. Kerry||04-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|56||William B. (also James) Purcell||35||Tory Top Lane||06-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|57||Thomas Collins||25||Youghal||07-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|58||David Walsh||86||Doon, Glenville||16-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|59||Francis L. McMahon||25||Cork City||19-May-21||Ex-s|
|60||Edward Hawkins||29||Mountdesert Quarry||20-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|61||Christopher Wiliam O’Sullivan||22||Model Farm Road||26-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|64||Henry Fitzgerald||Killavullen||28-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|65||William McCarthy||52||Mallow||29-May-21||C, Ex-s|
|66||John Sullivan-Lynch||40||Dennehy’s Cross||29-May-21||Ex-s|
|67||Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Warren John Richard Peacocke, D.S.O.||32||Innishannon||31-May-21||P, Ex-s|
|68||Eugene Swanton||32||Knockraha||05-Jun-21||C, Ex-s|
|70||John Joseph Walash||31||Ballyvodock||7/8-Jun-1921||C, Ex-s|
|71||Daniel O’Callaghan||36||Carrigtwohill||21-Jun-21||C, Ex-s|
|72||John Sullivan or O’Sullivan||18||Coolasmuttane||29-Jun-21||C|
|73||Patrick John Sheehan||31||Coolasmuttane||29-Jun-21||C, Ex-s|
|74||Francis (Frank) Sullivan||38||Rosscarbery||01-Jul-21||C|
|75||William Alexander Macpherson||44||Knockpogue||07-Jul-21||P, Ex-s|
|76||Major George Bernard O’Connor, J.P.||67||Rochestown||10-Jul-21||P, Ex-s|
|77||John H. N. Begley||24||Douglas||11-Jul-21||C, Ex-s|
|78||William J. Nolan||17||Cork City||11-Jul-21||C|
Andy Bielenberg is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, University College Cork, where he lectures on Irish social and economic history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He also teaches about and undertakes research on the First World War, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, with a special focus on County Cork. He received his doctorate from the London School of Economics in 1992. His recent publications include Ireland and the Industrial Revolution, 1801-1922 (2009), which summarizes many years of research on Irish industrial history; An Economic History of Ireland since Independence (2013), co-authored with Raymond Ryan; and “Exodus: The Emigration of Southern Irish Protestants during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War,” Past and Present, no. 218 (Feb. 2013).
James S. Donnelly Jr is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught modern Irish and British history from 1972 to 2008. He authored The Land and the People of Nineteenth-Century Cork: The Rural Economy and the Land Question (1975) and The Great Irish Potato Famine (2001). He co-edited (with Samuel Clark) Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (1983) and (with Kerby Miller) Irish Popular Culture, 1650-1850 (1998). His latest book Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824 was published in the fall of 2009. He serves as co-editor (with Thomas Archdeacon) of the book series ‘The History of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora’ at the University of Wisconsin Press (17 volumes published to date). He has been co-editor of the journal Éire-Ireland since 2001.