Cork Spy Files



Cork Spy Files: Suspected Spies and the Historical Evidence

By Dr Andy Bielenberg, UCC, and Professor Emeritus James S. Donnelly, Jr, UW-Madison



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. 


Cork Spy Files

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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 adobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
2 James Herlihy  31 Pouladuff [?]-Jul-20  C, Ex-s adobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
3 John Crowley   Lissagroom 10-Jul-20 C, Ex-s adobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
4 James Gordon or O’Gorman   Knockraha [?] Jul/Aug-20 C, Ex-s adobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
5 John Coughlan  46 Aghada 14-Aug-20 adobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
6 Patrick Toomey (or Twomey)   Macroom [?]-Sep/Dec-20 Cadobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
7 Séan or John O’Callaghan Jr  27 Farmer’s Cross 15-Sep-20 Cadobe_pdf_file_icon_24x24
8  John Hawkes, alias ‘James Mahony’ 26 Coolnagarrane 13-Oct-20 C, Ex-s
9 Joseph Cotter  29 Boreenmanna 13-Oct-20 C
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
14 George Horgan  20 Blackrock 09-Dec-20 P
15 Denis (Dinny) Lehane    Knockraha 1920 C
16 Daniel Lucey  23 Kilcorney 20-Jan-21  
17 Denis (Michael) Dwyer  23 Farranalough 21-Jan-21 C, Ex-s
18 Daniel Lynch 26 Ballinhassig 21/22-Jan-21  C
19 Patrick George Ray or Rea  37 Passage West 22-Jan-21 C, Ex-s
20 Thomas Bradfield  65 Carhoon 22-Jan-21 P
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
24 Gilbert Fenton 77 Gaggan 07-Feb-21 P
25 Alfred Charles Reilly, J.P.  58 Douglas   09-Feb-21 P
26 William F. B. Johnston  21 Kilbrittain 09-Feb-21 P
27 Robert Eady  40 Clonakilty 11-Feb-21 C
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
32 James Clarke 54 Rylane 17-Feb-21 P
33 Michael (‘Mickaroo’) Walsh  43 Cork Union Hospital 18-Feb-21 C, Ex-s
34 Mathew Sweetnam  65 Lissanoohig 19-Feb-21 P
35 William Connell  59 Lissanoohig 19-Feb-21 P
36 William Mohally  27 Blackrock Road 19/20-Feb-21 C, Ex-s
37 Alfred James Cotter  35 Ballineen 25-Feb-21 P
38 Thomas Cotter 55 Curraclogh 01-Mar-21 P
39 Bridget Noble (née Neill) 45 Eyeries 04-Mar-21 C
40 John Sheehan  26 Greenane 05-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
44 John Cathcart 52 Youghal 25-Mar-21 P
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
54 James Lynch 50 Whitegate 05-May-21 C
55 James Saunders 23 Boherard 05-May-21 C
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
62 Daniel McCarthy 40 Ovens 28-May-21 C
63 Thomas Fitzgerald 31 Killavullen 28-May-21 C
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
69 David Fitzgibbon 45 Liscarrol 06-Jun-21 C
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


About the Researchers


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.

Colour Sergeant David McKay
Cork Spy Files: Civilian John Hawkes

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