Civilian James Saunders


Civilian James Saunders (aged about 23) of 3 Broom Lane, Mallow (at or near Boherard in Dunbolloge parish)

Date of incident: 5 May 1921 (executed and disappeared as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: ‘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); Richard Willis’s and John Bolster’s WS 808, 5 (BMH); Timothy Sexton’s WS 1565, 6-7 (BMH); Borgonovo (2007), 69, 98 (note 30); Murphy (2010), 41.


Note: A Catholic ex-soldier from Mallow whose brother John was a local Volunteer, Saunders was recruited as a British spy by the notorious Daniel Shiels (or Shields). Saunders engaged a Volunteer near Carrignavar in conversation on a public road about the possibility of his finding employment with local farmers. He was sent to the Volunteer intelligence officer and shoemaker Timothy Sexton, who observed that Saunders was wearing British army boots and an army-issued shirt. He was soon arrested by three Volunteers (James McKeown, Tim Ownes, and Denis Leahy) and taken to John Murphy’s of Bohard [i.e., Boherard in Dunbolloge parish]. One or two days later, Saunders was court-martailled by members of the brigade staff. He reportedly confessed to having dealt with the British military, to having informed the enemy of the Mourne Abbey ambush, and to having been responsible for the arrest of several Volunteers at Killeens. Saunders was ‘sentenced to death, executed, and buried in a nearby bog. The body was subsequently disinterred and buried elsewhere.’ See Timothy Sexton’s WS 1565, 6-7 (BMH).


Saunders also operated as a spy in Cork city and identified spy Daniel Shiels as his controller there.  He made the following statement on 5 May 1921: ‘I gave information to an English officer in Mallow Barracks of the raid on Mallow Barracks about six months ago [on 28 September 1920]. I said my brother was in [a] motor with other men, and these were the men who raided the barracks. The officer asked me what these men were doing, and I said taking arms. I said that those men’s names were Jack Saunders (my brother), John Daly, and Morgan. The officer gave me fifty pounds and told me to continue getting things. I put this money in the bank after keeping one pound. . . . I met Michael Shiels, who lives in the town of Buttevant. Shiels is an ex-soldier of about forty years. He is 6 ft. high, a smart looking man, sometimes dresses in khaki, and when in ordinary clothes, wears a soft hat, collar, and tie [and] sometimes wears glasses to disguise himself. I knew nothing about the Mallow raid; it was Shiels who told me about it, and he told me to go and tell the officer. Shiels and I were keeping in touch with each other to give the game away on the Sinn Feiners. After this I came to work for T. Donovan, Farran. I worked there two days and two nights. I got information from a farm labourer named Mike Sullivan, who works for Donovan. This Sullivan is a tall, stout man with a heavy black moustache, and he lives in Mourne Abbey but works for Donovan. Sullivan told me an ambush was to come off on the following day near Buckley’s Quarry. Next day I walked to Mallow where I met Shiels. We went to the barracks, and I told Captain Friskey what I heard. I told him there were going to be about forty men take part in the ambush. He (the officer) asked me who told me this and I said Sullivan. The officer said I was a good boy and gave me ten pounds. . . . Shiels and I slept in the barracks that night. We came out with eight lorries next morning, and we were dressed in khaki, the same as the rest of the soldiers. We ran into the ambush at the quarry and the soldiers opened fire. I did too. We killed two men. I killed one of those; he wore black clothes, gaiters, grey cap, and a green scarf. They took the two dead men and three prisoners in the lorries to Mallow. The names of the three men (prisoners) were—Ronayne, Mulcahy, and Barrett. Shiels and I went around Mallow town next day. Shiels asked me to go to Cork with him and we went in a military lorry. We came straight to Cork. We remained about a fortnight in khaki knocking about Cork. We were told to knock about the city and go into the country now and then. We were to stay in Salvation [Army] House in the nights while we were in the city. We were told to be on the lookout for Tad[h]g Sullivan. We were told to go up Blarney St., and we got the names of four men wanted. Mrs. O’Brien of 9 Blarney St. told him [Shiels] where those men lived. The officer told me to go around Carrignavar seeing if any strangers [were] knocking about.’ See ‘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); Borgonovo (2007), 98, note 30.


Clearly, Intelligence Officer Florrie O’Donoghue of the IRA’s First Southern Division credited the information supplied by Saunders: ‘Attached is a copy of a statement made by a spy [Saunders] who has been executed. As you see from it, he was responsible with Shields for the Mourne Abbey business. Every effort has been made to get Shields, who is now in Buttevant Military Barracks. This Saunders also gave the name [sic] of two others who, when arrested, admitted being on the same work. One of them admitted being the man who gave information which lead [sic] to [the] Clonmult disaster. A copy of this Saunders statement either has been or will be sent on to the Director of Publicity by Cork No. 2 Brigade in connection with the Mallow trials. With regard to this matter of spies, I think [IRA] G.H.Q. has somehow got the idea that in the Cork brigades, and especially in Cork No. 1, men are being shot as spies more or less on suspicion. Instead of this, as I am aware myself, the greatest care is taken in every instance to have the case fully proved and beyond all doubt. As a matter of fact, the men shot have in most cases admitted their guilt before being executed. We are seriously considering whether instead of shooting any more of them, we will no [rest of sentence redacted by archivists by official order].’ See Florence O’Donoghue’s Report to Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, 24 June 1921 (Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/20, UCDA).   


In 1911 the ‘general labourer’ James Saunders (aged 44) and his wife Annie (aged 47) resided at 17 Mill Street in Mallow with their three sons John (15), James (13), and Charles (12). The family was Catholic and poor, living in only the three rooms of a ‘third-class’ house. The middle son James later became a spy for the British. The oldest son John became a Volunteer officer; at the time of the Truce on 11 July 1921 he was serving as first lieutenant of G Company of the Fifth (Mallow) Battalion of the Cork No. 4 Brigade. See Richard Willis’s and John Bolster’s WS 808, 5 (BMH).           

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