Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Florence O’Donoghue, the Freemasons and other Disappearances.

'Mick used to smoke cigarettes. Pat Hayes came down to him with the list of the spies from the Anti-Sinn Fein League. Most of them were in the Seaman's Bar. Mick would blow smoke out of his mouth and say: 'Just you shoot them,' and as the names went on 'and you shoot them also' and he'd let out a puff of smoke.'

The wise man, or at least so it is said, changes his mind. And I guess one of the curses of Irish historiography – yes, it’s that word again – is that some people never change their minds about anything. Whether the issue is the non-forging of Roger Casement’s diaries, the precipitous decline in the Protestant population of Southern Ireland after Independence or the death of Michael Collins, the presentation of factual evidence makes no difference to those who, for political or emotional reasons, wish to hold on to entrenched positions. For instance, the fact that every expert who studied Casement’s diaries found that they are genuine makes no difference to those who believe that they are forgeries. The latter merely change the goalposts and move to debating factoids of minor significance while ignoring the overwhelming evidence. After all, why let the truth stand in the way of politically convenient mythologies? To paraphrase one of the best known contributors to such debates perhaps this essay should really be entitled ‘The Truth as a Historiographical Problem’.

One of the outcomes of the publication of The Year of Disappearances was that I found myself embroiled in one of these debates. What surprised me was the vitriol of the response to the book from some quarters – that and the fact that 90% of the book was ignored by many commentators in the rush to condemn me for stating what was obvious to anyone with eyes in their heads: that Protestants in Cork were singled out for special (ill) treatment during the various wars between 1919 and 1923.

This was very much a case of the tail wagging the dog. The most important strands of the book: the operation of the killing fields at Knockraha, the undercover activities of British death squads operating in mufti, the fact that the book proved pretty much beyond doubt that so-called ‘Anti-Sinn Fein League’ were British security operatives and not so called ‘loyalist spies’, the fact that by examining British compensation records you could establish pretty much who might have been a ‘spy’ or otherwise were all conveniently ignored. The reaction was illuminating. You would think that new research like this would garner some kind of positive response – especially since these issues have often been debated in terms of poor data – but not a bit of it.

Attention focussed instead on angry denials that any intimidation of Protestants had ever taken place. The text was closely screened for any details that might be used to damage the reputation of the book as a whole and of course my own reputation in the process. Apart from what amounted to little more than a handful of typographical errors, or debatable interpretations of handwriting, my new-found enemies found one or two nuggets of information that they were able to exploit. Both were instances in which I had, of necessity, to be somewhat speculative because of lack of more detailed information. These were the alleged disappearances of Freemasons in Cork city in 1921/22 and the abduction of boys on the Blackrock Road in the same period. Both seemed to be related to the fact that Florence O’Donoghue, the Intelligence Officer of the 1st Cork Brigade and his soon-to-be wife Josephine lived nearby.[1] At the time I wrote the book the evidence seemed to point pretty unambiguously in one direction, that the O’Donoghues were involved in, or at least may have set in train the conditions that led to both of these sets of disappearances.

Any piece of historical research is only as good as the evidence that is available on the day it is published. If that evidence changes, or if new evidence appears that suggest some conclusions are incorrect or open to interpretation, then they have to change. In other words, history, just like science, is provisional since it is sometimes based on incomplete evidence. A general rule might be that in an ideal world no history book should be written until at least 100 years has passed since the passage of the events it describes. However, if that were the case, 90% of the books on the shelves of libraries and bookshops should be chucked in the bin. Seeing as we don’t live in that ideal world, all histories, apart from the abominably-written or nakedly propagandist – which should be thrown in the bin anyway – have to be given elbow room to be the best they can be with the evidence available. But their authors must also be prepared to change their views if new evidence comes up. The case of the Freemasons of Cork and the boys on the Blackrock Road in 1921/22 are a perfect example of both sides of this coin.

The Missing Masons

The story of the disappearing Freemasons began on 29 November 1920 when James Blemens, a horticulture instructor at the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, and his son Frederick were abducted from their home on the Blackrock Road by armed men and taken away in a motor car to an ‘unknown destination’. They were never seen again. They lived two doors from Josephine Marchment Brown and Florrie O’Donoghue. During this period O’Donoghue himself was in Wales kidnapping Reggie Brown, Josephine’s son from her previous marriage from the home of his paternal grandparents in Barry outside Cardiff. The boy was brought back to Cork where he was hidden for much of the next year at the home of Josephine’s sister Cecily who was married in Youghal, Co Cork.

The O’Donoghues – they were to be married in April 1921 – never once in their copious writings on the period made a reference to the disappearance of their neighbours, an ‘oversight’ which on itself is surely significant. There is not a shred of evidence to support the claim – made as recently as two years ago in a TV documentary – to support the claim that the Blemenses were ‘spies’ – despite my thinking when I wrote my book that they might have been – in which I gave O’Donoghue a convenient ‘out’ in the process.[2] Neither were they Freemasons.

Some three months later James Blemens’s son-in-law James Beal, an Englishman living on College Road on the other side of the city was taken into the suburbs and shot dead and his body found the following day at Wilton on the western verges of the city. Beal was a Freemason. In his pocket was found a small notebook which, or so the IRA men who shot him averred, contained the names of Beal’s spy contacts in Cork. Their conclusion was that Beal was a British secret service agent running a team of spies in Cork. Again there is no evidence that this was the case. Indeed the compensation the family subsequently received was paid for by both the Irish and British governments on a 50:50 basis indicating that they were not even regarded as particularly ‘loyal’ citizens, let alone ‘spies’ (Loyalists and likely ‘informers’ had their compensation paid for in full by the British Government, the Blemenes did not. UCC's Cork Spies Files tries to suggest that because someone got 'British Liability' it can be interpreted that they were 'spies'. However, this is to deliberately mislead the reader. Most people who put in for remuneration received some form of compensation from the British government. Only if they received 100% British funding can it be suggested that they were even loyalists, let alone that they provided information. Otherwise, all the people who had their properties burned out by the Auxiliaries in Cork in November 1920 and who were compensated by the British Governmenw could be regarded as spies. ) In other words, the RIC who were consulted in all of these cases were not of the view that Beal and the Blemenses were loyalists, let alone that they were spies.

The subsequent passing on of this ‘list’ (of the so-called ‘Anti-Sinn Fein League spies’) is detailed in a number of accounts by various Cork IRA veterans and how it barely avoided being captured by the British on at least one occasion. It is clear that O'Donoghue, the Brigade intelligence officer had it in his possession until he left for duty at the 1st Southern Division in late April 1921 when he passed it on to Denis Kennedy who took over from him as Brigade I/O. It is fair to assume it was in the possession of whoever was Brigade I/O over the next year and a half.

It is quite clear from the accounts of Connie Neenan, Mick Murphy and several others that at least some ASFL ‘spies’ were rounded up at some point and shot and their bodies buried. In the Year of Disappearances I suggested that Francis McMahon, who worked in the War Pensions office and who was abducted, shot and had his body buried in May 1921 was one of these, since his name corresponded to that of a missing Freemason. However, Andy Bielenberg has recently shown that this was not the case and that it was most likely another Francis McMahon. However, this does not mean that nothing happened to the Freemasons of Cork. Beal was a member of Freemason lodge, No 71 Lodge, based in the city. It was, and still is, my thesis that the memo book found in Beal’s pocket contained a list of his friends, or at least of his fellow members of No 71 Lodge. It is worth pointing out that the Cork Freemason lodges met infrequently, if at all, over the revolutionary period since it was too dangerous to do so. In such circumstances it is difficult to see how it could be used as a recruiting agency for potential spies.

It was when I started to look at the records of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Ireland that it began to occur to me that the problem of the missing Freemasons might be bigger than it looked. For No 71 Lodge had some 28 members ‘struck off’ during this period – about ten times the average rate of ‘struck offs’ for all  other lodges in Munster. No 71 Lodge also had the highest number of resignations. So the situation I had when The Year of Disappearances went to print was that I had one member of No 71 Lodge, James Beal, shot dead, two more who I believed then had disappeared and no fewer than 26 others struck off the membership rolls for some reason or other. My belief at the time was that at least some of these also disappeared, if only to account for the claims made by Connie Neenan and Mick Murphy. By then I had also uncovered a number of press releases that a number of ‘prominent citizens’ were abducted on St Patrick’s Day 1922 and, though their names were not given, one account mentioned that at least six individuals were abducted from different parts of the city. There was no mention that they were ever released.

What is clear from the records of Protestant communities in Cork during this period is that such families got notification that their men had been tried by the IRA, found guilty of treason and therefore executed and that all further requests for information was futile. Indeed this was the standard response and one that carried an implied threat: that further inquiries might endanger surviving family members. And if you got an official reply on headed notepaper that your father/brother or whatever was found guilty of treason then you might well have believed it, especially if he were a member of a society as secretive as the Freemasons. I believe implicitly that such families had no choice but to stay quiet and I know from my researches some are staying quiet to this day. In such circumstances you have to take your hand easy out of the dog’s mouth.

What information as has become available since the publication of the book would appear to bear this out. During the years I was writing The Year of Disappearances I was only dimly aware of as a means of tracking down one's ancestry. Births, Marriages and Deaths data, census figures, telephone directories, ship passenger lists, probate records, military service records and many other databases can be accessed through In fact it is very difficult for anyone born in an English-speaking country from 1850 onwards to avoid leaving some footprint on

And what tells us is that of the 26 struck off Freemasons from No 71 Lodge nine of them leave no further trace of their existence anywhere after 1922. Some five others can be found living elsewhere, while for the rest we have no record since it was not possible to establish their date of birth with certainty. What’s more, in the case of several of the first group – the ‘missing’ missing, so to speak – their family members who put together their family trees on Ancestry ended up with amputated limbs on the branch where the missing Freemason should be.[3]

Some further digging in the Freemason records found a book of struck-off Masons which showed that all those listed in The Year of Disappearances were struck off because they were in arrears with their yearly subscription. In the minute book of No 71 Lodge there was a proposal made on 10 February 1926 by one R. Coombs, probably the Warrant Master of the Lodge that ‘any brother owing over one year’s dues his name be struck off the roll of members and his name be forwarded to Grand Lodge. This amendment being put from the chair was passed unanimously’.[4]

So anyone more than a year overdue with their annual subscription was struck off as a result. Striking off on this scale was unique to No 71 Lodge and there can be no doubt that it was a result of the Lodge getting unwanted attention from the IRA. Thomas Stewart who was Warrant Master Jnr of the Lodge in 1921/22 and who claimed he was targeted because he was a member of the Church of Ireland and a Freemason put it bluntly: ‘Of course, all the SF in this city knew that I was connected with Lodge 71 and was also the W.M. Jnr that year. So that made it doubly difficult for me.’[5] This states, quite unambiguously, that No 71 Lodge was specifically targeted by the IRA and supports the contention that something very nasty happened to members of the Lodge in 1921/22. Just because the newspapers did not give the names of those abducted on St Patrick’s Day 1922 does not mean it did not happen.

It is possible and indeed likely that the St Patrick’s Day abductions – which certainly happened or else seven newspaper reports were works of fantasy – took place behind the backs of the senior IRA leadership who were in Dublin that week for an IRA conference. However, other senior officers such as Neenan were still in Cork. Indeed it is Neenan who seemed to be particularly exercised by Anti-Sinn Fein conspiracies who gives the strongest indication that this did happen. Of course Neenan did not mention the victims’ names either but then you would not expect him to. My claim in The Year of Disappearances that these men were killed because their names appeared on a list is still relevant and I believe accurate.

It should also be pointed out that a convention of delegates from all units of Cork No 1 Brigade was held in the city on Patrick’s Day 1922.[6] It is likely that at least some of the delegates seized the opportunity to carry out a bout of revenge killing, though if the Freemasons were spies as the IRA claimed they would have fled the country after the signing of the Treaty, if not earlier. The recently released tapes of interviews with Martin Corry, the Brigade’s self-styled ‘Chief Executioner’ gives a hint of what may have happened. Corry states that a batch of some six skeletons, all buried together, were dug up in a field in the land of a farmer called O’Callaghan and it is quite clear they were all killed together and buried together. There is no proof that these were the missing Freemasons but brutal and all as Corry and his ‘Special Unit’ were there could not have been too many instances where they killed and buried people in groups of six.

I believe the claim that the Cork city IRA killed Freemasons is essentially correct and that the others who did not renew their subscriptions cleared out from Cork as a result. The claim that some of them are not named – though they are named as having been struck off and disappear forever from – or that their families did not appear to write to the Free State authorities, is to miss the point. It is clear some of them – perhaps the majority – did write to the Republican authorities in 1921/22 only to be told they had been found guilty of treason and executed. There would have been no point in arguing with that – if only because it is likely the charge would have been believed. As members of the Methodist community put it afterwards it is small consolation to find out that your dead relative has been found guilty of treason and executed. But it would certainly have ensured silence. With the Free State being tweedle-dum to the Republicans’ tweedle-dee in the eyes of Protestants in the South there was no court of appeal for that kind of (apparent) certainty. So the dead were forgotten by everybody because it suited everyone to forget about them.

It is perhaps worth recording what Father Dominic O'Connor, Chaplain of the 1st Cork Brigade of the IRA had to say about Freemasonry during the spring of 1922 just after the St Patrick's Day abductions took place. Giving advice to the IRA garrison who were in occupation of the Freemason Hall in Molesworth Steet in Dublin and who might be coming to the view that they might be little more than an old boys network with an interest in philantropy, Dominic wrote: 'Masonry is the same everywhere in Principle and desires to destroy all religion, Catholic, Protestant, Christian and Pagan to make way for its own lewd and lustful phallic worship . . . If we have Him [God] with us we will be stronger than the Freemasons or the power from which they sprung, England. They are of English origin . . . We have already beaten in arms the power from which they sprung and with God's help and Grace we can beat them, and for God and for Ireland we must beat and break them. . . Re their emblems, I think you may have no scruple in destroying them. Indeed, I think they should be destroyed in as much as they are not religious emblems, but symbols of lewdness, lust and impurity. The reason for their destruction should be made publicly known.'

This of course reflects the Catholic clerical view of the time. But coming from the Chaplain of the Cork No. 1 Brigade in the spring of 1922 it makes for dangerous reading and pretty much speaks for itself.

The Disappearing Boys of the Blackrock Road

The second issue that needs to be addressed in light of new evidence is a more emotive one. Certain commentators have accused me of ‘accusing’ Josephine Marchment Brown of drowning Protestant teenage boys in Cork Harbour. This dramatic interpretation of what I said – which was much more nuanced and ambiguous than that – was of course a useful stick with which to beat me. So a review and summary of the evidence I had at the time is necessary, just as it is necessary to look at new evidence which has become available which may shed light on the matter and which may give a somewhat less appalling vista than the above.

The evidence I was dealing with at the time was as follows:

1.     As we have seen, in November 1920 the Blemenes who lived two doors from Josephine disappeared. Josephine had at least some input in their disappearance in that she fingered them for the men who did the job.
2.     In August 1922 W.L. Cooke who lived across the road was shot dead on his doorstop. Like the Blemenes, Cooke was a Protestant; he was also a leading Freemason – though not a member of Lodge 71.
3.     In late March 1922 a 15-year-old Protestant teenager, William Parsons, was captured half a mile away. After being tortured by hanging he confessed to being a ‘spy’ and that he brought his information to the Blemens house, even though the house had been deserted for the previous year and a half since the disappearance of its occupants.
4.     Another Protestant neighbour, Robert Parker was shot and wounded in May 1921 and several others in the area had narrow escapes.
5.     In May 1921 the London Times carried a report of the abduction of a young person, ‘somebody’s child’, from a piece of waste ground near the Brown/O’Donoghue home. Like the Blemenes ‘somebody’s child’ was taken by a ‘mysterious individual in a motor car’.

In most, if not all, of these cases, O’Donoghue was elsewhere when they happened. So they cannot be laid directly at his door, at least not in the narrow sense. However, the fact that they all took place within a short distance of the house suggest that there must be some connection between these events and the Brown/O’Donoghue household.

So when O’Donoghue wrote to Josephine in June 1921 that ‘some friends from Cork were here today and told me that you were, so to say, on active service one day a while ago. But there was nothing doing apparently’,[7] it is fair to think that he meant ‘active service’ in the normal sense of that term. Considering that she was also a motor car driver and an intrepid sailor one would be forgiven for believing that ‘active service’ meant one or both of these activities, especially since he also mentions his regret at not getting her ‘that car’ after the Truce.[8]

When some three days later O’Donoghue wrote to her, quoting a report in the newspaper: ‘By the way, I have just seen in the paper that there was a boating accident in Cork on Sunday and that there was a youngster on it. I am wondering if it were your party, ye seem to have a pretty taste in accidents of that kind. Glad to see that nothing worse than a ducking befell anybody,’[9] the conclusions appeared pretty clear-cut in light of the above disappearances: that Josephine was involved in transporting youngsters, presumably ‘spies’ of some kind, to their doom. In the book I suggested that she may have been either transporting them across the harbour to Sing Sing or else the more obvious interpretation of the above statement. Considering that other alleged ‘spies’ were thrown into Cork Harbour, including Michael Finbarr O’Sullivan and John Coughlan and that other IRA drownings took place in the Shannon, the Barrow and as far away as Boulogne common sense suggested that this may also have been what had happened. And when a Cork Protestant family contacted me after my book came out so say that they had been told at the time that their ancestor, a young man who, like William Parsons was a member of the YMCA, had been deliberately drowned in the harbour after being captured while camping in Crosshaven I believed this was the correct interpretation.

However, recently-released Military Service Pension records suggest that this may be too simplistic an interpretation. In the MSP application of Charlie Cullinane of the Riverstown Company of the IRA, who considered himself Corry’s I/O, Cullinane states that the kid captured while camping near Crosshaven was in fact brought across the river and executed in Knockraha. Cullinane’s account is also interesting in that it says that this killing took place after the Truce. He states that he got no support from any of his senior IRA officers (bar one, Tom Crofts) in his application for activities that took place after the Truce, though it is clear from his application that such work was still going on.[10] Cullinane’s account is very useful because, along with that of Ned Moloney, the so-called ‘Governor of Sing Sing’, it gives a good account of the ‘spy hunting’ activities that went on in the East Cork area.

However, it is to another MSP application that we have to go to find an alternative explanation for what Josephine might have been doing on ‘Active Service’ in June 1921 and what errands she may have been engaged in and around the harbour area. According to Joseph O’Connor, O’Donoghue’s best friend and indeed the best man at his wedding and brother of Father Dominic, it was O’Donoghue who had organized a motor boat to cruise around Cork Harbour to affect prisoner escapes from Spike Island. The best known of these was the escape of late April1921,[11] when a group of internees got away by boat and two military personnel were thrown over a cliff, though they survived. Another celebrated escape took place in October 1921 when Tom Crofts was among those to get away.

Seeing as this took place in the area we are talking about and that Josephine was a keen boatswoman it is possible that this is what O’Donoghue was referring to when he made this statement in his letter to her, although the pilot of the rescue boat in the April escape was Mick Burke of Cobh. The other interpretation of course cannot entirely be dismissed. However, the evidence now emerging is that most of the suspected ‘spies’ were brought to Knockraha. Not of course that this is much of a consolation to anyone, but it may remove the appalling vista of the IRA actually drowning people in Cork Harbour. With an alternative explanation now available it is hoped that this interpretation can now be modified. Rounding up 15-year-olds like Parsons, whatever they may have been guilty of, and stringing them up is not a pretty picture but it is perhaps preferable to having them dumped in the river. Let us now hope this is the end of that particular version of events.

[1] I have recently established that Florrie was living with Josephine, or at least his mail was being delivered to her house, in late 1920 when the first of these abductions took place.
[2] In The Year of Disappearances I put forward a tentative theses that the Blemenses had been shot because the family may have provided accommodation for British undercover intelligence agents. This was based on the fact that Sarah Beal, Blemens’s daughter and the widow of James Beal, later shot by the IRA, stated at the inquest into the latter’s death that they had had ‘Military Police’ staying with them in their home and that after they had gone back to England James Beal kept in touch with them. Since the publication of William Sheehan’s A Hard Local War it is now clear that the men staying with Sarah Beal were in fact genuine military police. One of them, a Captain Harris, was shot and wounded at the Palace Theatre during the so-called ‘Battle of Cork’ in July 1919. This ‘error’ is of course never pointed out by my erstwhile enemies since it pulls one of the main planks from under the case that Beal and the Blemenses were ‘spies’. Clearly there are ‘errors’ you can get away with and ‘errors’ you can’t.
[3] Also see a full list of the ‘struck off’ Masons in Appendix IX of The Year of Disappearances.
[4] Minute Book of No 71 Lodge, Records of the Grand Freemason Lodge of Ireland, Molesworth St, Dublin.
[5] Thomas Stewart, TNA CO 762/14/21.
[6] Maurice Brew, BMH WS1695.
[7] FoD to JoD 17 June 1921, in John Borgonovo, Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence, p173.
[8] FoD to JoD 27 July 1921, Ibid, p182.
[9] FoD to JoD 20 June 1921, Ibid, p175.
[10] Charles Cullinane, MSP 34REF59839.
[11] Joseph O’Connor, MSP 34REF1878.