Civilian John Coughlan


Civilian John Coughlan (aged about 46) of [Barry’s Lane], Cobh/Queenstown (Aghada near Midleton)

Date of incident: 14 Aug. 1920 (abducted and committed suicide in IRA custody; body dumped in the sea but later recovered)

Sources: CE, 7 Sept. 1920; CC, 7 Sept. 1920; FJ, 7 Sept. 1920; CCE, 11 Sept. 1920; IT, 22 Aug. 1921; WO 35/125 (TNA); Interview with Mick Leahy, Ernie O’Malley Notebooks, P17b/108 (UCDA); Murphy (2010), 35, 41, 389 (note 19); O’Halpin (2013), 339.

Note: Coughlan allegedly hanged himself while being held in IRA custody for having purportedly allowed two of his daughters to be used as ‘prostitutes’ by members of the British forces. (The IRA was inclined to place the worst interpretation on any association by civilian females with crown forces.) Coughlan’s body was tied to a cart axle and thrown into the sea. The IRA claimed later to have obtained evidence that Coughlan was a spy, though what that evidence was remained unspecified and must be doubted, given its acknowledged emergence only after his abduction and suicide. Coughlan appeared on the list of ‘missing persons’ published in the Irish Times of 22 August 1921. There the date of his kidnapping was given as 14 August 1920. He died in IRA custody at Aghada near Midleton.

Coughlan’s body was washed ashore at Ballybranagan Strand, 8 miles south of Midleton, on 3 September 1920; it was reportedly too decomposed for identification. See CC, 7 Sept. 1920. The legs and arms were firmly bound to the side of the axletree by means of a wire. It was reported that the corpse was then ‘brought into Midleton workhouse in an ambulance requisitioned by the relieving officer, Cloyne, after 10 o’clock on Saturday [4 September] [and] was buried yesterday [6 September] in the workhouse cemetery outside the town. The remains were coffined on the strand. When passing through Midleton, the military halted the ambulance for a while but allowed the corpse [to] proceed.’ See CE, 7 Sept. 1920.

The only John Coughlan listed in the 1911 census as resident in Queenstown (apart from a one-year-old baby) resided in Barry’s Lane with his wife Anne, a son, and three daughters whose ages in 1920 would have been about 24, 19, and 10, while the son would have been 14; other children had been born in the meantime.

This story finds its most extended explanation in an interview given by former Volunteer Michael (Mick) Leahy to Ernie O’Malley sometime in the early 1950s: ‘The strangest thing about the first spy who met his death through us was that we didn’t shoot him. In Cobh we arrested this fellow [John Coughlan] for using his two daughters as prostitutes for the British and we took him to Aghada and we wanted to [illegible] for a while. He was kept in May Higgins [house] in a loft and there was a girl there. She was bringing him up his breakfast when she found him hanging to a rafter, dead. We were in a [illegible] then, for he had been arrested in broad daylight, so I got 4 lads to bury him. Paddy Sullivan from Cobh, who was later executed in Cork gaol after he had been caught in [the Battle of] Clonmult, [was one of the 4 lads.] Later on, he asked me, did we see “The Examiner.” And when I read it, I found that a body, which had been tied to an axle, had washed ashore on Inch Strand. The lads had not buried him. They had tied him to an old car axle and had flung him out into the sea. He was in the morgue in Midleton, I was told, in the workhouse. “Did you search his clothes,” I asked. “No, but we knew his face.” We visited the morgue, but at the time the bad flu was raging and the morgue was full of corpses. We went along from corpse to corpse with a flash lamp, pulling up the clothes to look for our man. At last we came to a corpse and when we pulled back the cloth, we found that the crabs had got hold of his face and that there was nothing of it left. A month later, we got evidence that this man had been a spy and that’s why he hanged himself!?’ See Interview with Mick Leahy, Ernie O’Malley Notebooks, P17b/108 (UCDA). A War Office file reveals that British military officials in late 1920 were strongly considering a prosecution of civilians named Glanville, Leahy, Moore, Collins, Stack, and Briedy for the assault and false imprisonment of John Coughlan, but they did not proceed; a note in the file indicates that these six men had never been arrested. See WO 35/125 (TNA).

John Coughlan’s granddaughter Delores Tookey and her nephew Peter O’Hare have gathered further documentation, local oral testimony, and family memories relating to the case, which collectively and broadly confirm that he committed suicide while in IRA custody. According to Kathleen Coughlan (the youngest of the three sisters in 1911, and mother of Dolores), only one sister, Mary, was keeping company with a British soldier in the summer of 1920, and she was warned to stop seeing him or the IRA would arrest the father. Coughlan’s wife Anna was subsequently unable to collect a widow’s pension because she had no proof that Coughlan was dead. She claimed that he had been washed up in an old sail (which is confirmed by one newspaper account stating that he had been wrapped in canvas). He had been buried as an unknown person in the workhouse cemetery, though Michael Leahy had secretly identified the body for the IRA. The family struggled financially, and the younger children (there were others born after 1911) were placed in the Convent of Mercy in Cobh in 1922, including Kathleen, who was discharged in 1927. The second daughter, Joan, moved to London when this tragedy struck the family in 1920, while Michael subsequently moved to the U.K. in 1922 at the age of only 16. Since it is unlikely that the IRA intended to kill John Coughlan, it seems equally unlikely that he was a spy.  

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