Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cork Spy Files 2

When is a Protestant not a Protestant?[1]

Andy Bielenberg’s reply to Eoghan Harris’s article on the Cork Spy Files is a fine, hair-splitting exercise but it does not deal with the most fundamental issue. The bottom line on the Cork Spy Files is that they make little attempt to separate the sheep (innocent civilians) from the goats (spies/agents). The whole language and tenor of the Files is that everyone is guilty unless someone like me goes to the trouble of pointing out that this may not be the case. Far from being an attempt to ‘gather all evidence in their cases’, as Bielenberg stated, the Cork Spy Files project, is, rather, an effort to emphasise the evidence that someone might have been a spy while neglecting, questioning or downplaying any evidence that might suggest otherwise. This can be seen from their reaction to one of the more blatant examples of this which I highlighted, the case of David Walsh, wrongly ‘convicted’ of having betrayed an IRA column wiped out at Clonmult in east Cork.

The authors now admit that ‘the available evidence strongly suggests David Walsh was innocent’. But this was after being dragged kicking and screaming to that position by myself. If that evidence was available to them all along, then why did they not use it? And why do they still insist that ‘the IRA evidence supporting [Walsh’s] identity as the spy responsible for the Clonmult disaster appears strong’? – citing one piece of worthless Bureau of Military History hearsay being ‘buttressed’ by another. This material, which is almost certainly wrong, still gets more coverage than the categorical evidence that shows that Walsh was innocent. What this tells us is that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the authors will still try to find some way to suggest he may have been guilty. And this has obvious implications for the entire project.

The Cork Spy Files project is along the same lines as a series of articles penned by its other author, Professor James Donnelly a few years ago, in which he implied that the real reason for the burning of the Big Houses during the revolutionary period was the misdeeds of those who lived in them. The Irish Ascendency are a group I have little sympathy for, but I don’t think anyone on this side of the Atlantic seriously believes they were burned out for any reason other than to put pressure on the British government during the War of Independence or later in the Civil War in a mixture of nihilism and vindictiveness. These articles and the Cork Spy Files are examples of the kind of green ‘history’ beloved of Irish America and pedalled by certain political groupings.

One of the side effects of this – at least to the uninitiated – is the rather strange practice of naming the religion of everyone in the files. So X is called a Catholic and Y is called a Catholic and so on. Sometimes we are rather helpfully informed that so-and-so’s ‘whole family were Catholics’. Bearing in mind that just under 90% of the city’s population were Catholic one would think there would be no need to spell out their religion. Let’s say, for argument’s sake that you were travelling in modern Iraq you would hardly need to describe everyone you met as a Muslim. So why this excessive level of pedantry when it comes to religion?

Well, the answer is simple: to counter the argument that there may have been a sectarian element to the IRA campaign in Cork during 1919-23. This is fought tooth and nail by ‘green’ historians for what I think are fairly transparent political reasons. So by going to the trouble of describing every Catholic who was killed as a Catholic, nobody – assuming anyone would want to – could claim that they were Protestants. Regardless of the merits of the argument and in spite of the fact that the authors of the files decided to stop the project at the Truce and thereby avoided the post-Truce killings of Protestants, particularly in west Cork, they still came up with a figure of around 30% of civilian victims being Protestants which is three times above average given that the Protestants constituted just over 10% of the population.

But the implication of this is clear: every attempt will be made to reduce the number of Protestants killed so that the stats can be filed down wherever possible. A few years ago I got an email from Barry Keane to inform me that a Protestant lad from Innishannon, Ed Olliffee, who was named on missing lists as having disappeared on the day of the Truce had turned up years later in the American mid-West. A month or two later I got another email from the same source to tell me that a Dr Edward Hawkesworth, a Protestant originally from the Blackrock Road who died as a result of gunshots in the street in Cork in September had actually died from a heart attack. Needless to say, I removed both from my lists of dead victims, even though you could argue that Hawkesworth’s heart attack may have been brought on by the fact that he was fired at. In both cases I think I acknowledged Barry Keane as the source of this information in the one or two public forums where these were mentioned.

So I was fascinated to note that one of the Protestant civilian ‘disappeared’ who I listed in my book, one Francis McMahon, turned out, according to the Cork Spy Files, to have been a Catholic. I assumed this was because the authors had access to new information that was not available when I wrote my book. In fact, my first reaction was to take my hat off to them. I was interested in this because of my fascination with espionage during the period. Any new information was worthwhile. For the record, this is what Bielenberg and Donnelly have to say about the disappearance of Francis McMahon:

59. Civilian Francis L. McMahon​ (aged about 25) of Castle Street, Cork (near Cork city) Date of incident: 19 May 1921 (ex-soldier kidnapped and killed as suspected spy by IRA) Sources: IT, 19 May, 22 Aug. 1921; FJ, 21 May 1921; Daniel Healy’s WS 1656, 14 (BMH); Matthew O’Callaghan’s WS 561, 2 (BMH); Hart (1998), 298; Borgonovo (2007), 65, 68, 84, 100, 148, 179; Murphy (2010), 41. Note: McMahon was an ex-soldier and one of four men abducted by city Volunteers on 19 or 20 May 1921. He was kidnapped on 19 May while travelling to his workplace at the Cork War Pensions Office. He ‘was never seen again’. Orders to execute him had passed from the headquarters of the Cork No. 1 Brigade to Volunteer Daniel Healy and other IRA men. They picked McMahon up on his way to work, ‘took him out to the country in a two-wheeled cab’, and shot him dead. Francis McMahon was one of the five children of the widow and seamstress Elizabeth McMahon of Castle Street in Cork city. The three sons (including Francis) who lived with her in 1911 all worked as shop porters. Two of them, like their mother, had been born in Tralee; the other had been born in India. Francis McMahon appears to have been the youngest of her children (aged 15 in 1911). The McMahons were Catholic.

This is a fairly clear rendition of the case. It is short, to the point, and would be fine were it not for the fact that it entirely dodges my claim that McMahon was a Protestant. My reasons for suggesting this were straightforward. It was known from newspaper reports and lists of missing that McMahon had been abducted and killed as above. The BMH submissions confirmed who had done this but gave no further information other than that the order to execute him came from Brigade headquarters with the assumption being that Brigade HQ claimed he was a spy.

My belief that he was a Protestant came about because his name was on a list of Cork Freemasons, all members of Lodge No. 71, who seem to have disappeared from all historical records around 1921-22. (A full analysis of this can be found in The Year of Disappearances and some more recent information is available in an essay below entitled Florence O’Donoghue, the Freemasons and other Disappearances.)

There was a clear chain of events here: The IRA picked up and shot James and Fred Blemens, next door neighbours of Florrie and Josephine O’Donoghue, went to shoot Blemenses son-in-law, James Beal, found a notebook on Beal’s body which they believed was a list of spies and which I believe now was a list of his fellow Masons and members of Lodge 71 and – according to the IRA men themselves at least – went on and picked up the others on the list in ones and twos and shot them, believing they were spies. The only problem with this – and this is something I have always freely acknowledged – only two of the names on the list of missing Freemasons correspond with people known from newspapers to have disappeared. (Six ‘prominent citizens’ were abducted on St Patrick’s Day 1922 but these have never been named, though there is reason to believe they ended up buried in Knockraha.)

But Francis McMahon’s name is on the list and we know from various accounts that he disappeared. But clearly if McMahon had been a Catholic all along, he could not have been a disappeared Freemason. So when I saw that the Cork Spy Files had found that McMahon was a 25-year old ex-soldier, born in Tralee, that like Florrie O’Donoghue he was involved in the clothing business and lived on the same street where O’Donoghue managed a shop that operated as a clearing house for IRA documentation one would be forgiven for thinking that the Files were onto some new and potentially very useful information. It seemed logical that he might have been some kind of spy. To me, with my interest in O’Donoghue, this was more interesting than the fact that he might have been a Freemason – which, as far as I was concerned, was old hat.

But I had a nagging doubt. Something in my memory told me that the McMahon who disappeared was from the western side of the city, not from Castle Street, though of course the family might have moved there between 1911 and 1921. The problem with histories that predate the last five or six years is that there was not a fraction of the information available then that there is now. I have whole notebooks full of details cribbed from the 1911 and 1901 censuses and from the Births/Marriages/Deaths records that I had to physically get in the National Archives and General Registration Office in Dublin in the mid-2000s. Now these are all online. People like myself and John Borgonovo working on this material mostly before the digital age could be forgiven for missing things. There are far fewer excuses now. And there is no excuse at all for avoiding previously available information.

So when I began to look again at the case of Francis McMahon it took me less than an hour to establish that I had been right in the first place, that he was in fact a Protestant. Bielenberg and Donnelly' s Francis McMahon was indeed born in Tralee in 1896. He was a Francis Hugh McMahon and was a Catholic. But he was not killed in Cork in 1921 since he was married there in June 1922 and died in Exeter in England in 1953. There is even a photo of him on the Public Member Trees of

So the man who disappeared seemed to have been my Freemason after all. In the 1911 census Francis McMahon described himself as a member of the Church of England and an ‘Army Scripture Reader’, suggesting a religious inclination, though Freemason records suggest he was an accountant – which would explain his work as a clerk in the War Pensions office. A former army man, he was aged 61, born in Karachi in 1860 and served in the Dorset Regiment and the 27th Infantry Brigade. (His service record is available online.) He lived at 6, Woodland View, Western Road in Cork and left a wife, Mary. Mary McMahon claimed compensation of £3,000 for her husband’s death and was awarded £2,000 by the Cork Borough Sessions in late 1921. She said her husband was taken by three men on 19 May 1921 on his way to work at the corner of Queen Street and the South Mall. The men ‘forced him into a covered car and took him away’. Three weeks later she got notification that he had been court-martialed and executed.[2] Presumably she was to assume from this that he had been found guilty of spying, though Danny Healy’s account would suggest there was not much time for a court-martial and that he was simply shot out of hand. But this is useful information because it confirms that families were told that their disappeared family members had been ‘court martialled’, found guilty and shot. There is not much comeback from that.

What this also makes clear is that Bielenberg and Donnelly had no information whatsoever that the Castle Street man was the right Francis McMahon. They simply looked up the 1911 census, found three Francis McMahons, one Catholic and two Protestants and plumped for the Catholic even though there was only a one-in-three chance that they were right. An hour on and a glance through my book would have enabled them to correctly identify their man. I can see no reason why they would not bother to do this other than presumably to discredit me and along the way to reduce the number of Protestants killed and to try to spike my thesis that the Freemasons of No. 71 Lodge had been pursued.

And I can see no reason either why they would bother to include Joseph Cotter who died in the south side of Cork city in the autumn of 1920 in their list since he appears to have died from a fall into a quarry while being pursued by Crown Forces and does not seem to have had any connection to the IRA. Was it simply because Cotter worked for the Army and the authors of the files decided this was ‘a position that exposed him to suspicions of spying’? Or was it because ‘he and all his family were Catholics’? Likewise, why is John Coughlan described as having been ‘abducted and executed as suspected spy by IRA when in fact the unfortunate man hanged himself while in IRA captivity in Aghada and the IRA had no intention of killing him? Is this simply to bump up the numbers of Catholic victims so as to tweak the stats?

I have no idea and you’d have to ask the authors that. But, unfortunately, this is the level at which the Cork Spy Files project operates. It is full of of hair-splitting pedantic analysis – usually of the wrong kind – which at every hand’s turn tries to avoid the evidence it does not want to hear. If anyone wanted proof that the History Department in UCC is engaged in a revolutionary whitewashing exercise then this is it – even if these cases are a relatively minor ones compared to those of Walsh and Donovan. In other words, what’s going on is little more than highly selective wishful thinking with a clear political agenda couched in quasi-scientific terminology, with talk of percentages, databases and all nicely presented to make it look good. You couldn’t make it up. Well, obviously you could.


In a letter to the Sunday Independent in reply to the first paragraph of the above, Andy Bielenberg stated that the authors of the Cork Spy Files refrained from indulging in 'wild speculation' because it was not 'feasible methodology' - presumably implying that my suggestion that Freemasons were rounded up and shot in Cork is 'wild speculation'. May I suggest that the above is even wilder speculation and suggests much more unfeasible methodology. At least I was working from actual evidence.

[1] This is an extended version of a letter I sent to the Sunday Independent in reply to a letter by Andy Bielenberg which he wrote in response to an article by Eoghan Harris. See Sunday Independent, 6 November 2016 for Harris’s article and 13 November 2016 for Bielenberg’s reply.
[2] Cork Borough Sessions, Cork Constitution, 5 November 1921.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Cork Spy Files

UCC’s Extraordinary Analysis

Back in the 1970s a diligent librarian at UCC was concerned that one of the books on her shelves had a page torn from it. The book in question was B'fhiú an Braon Fola the account, by Seamus Ó Maoileoin, of his time in the IRA during the War of Independence, some of which was spent in Cork. I mention this because it illustrates two points: First that somebody had the cheek to rip a page out of a library copy of B'fhiú an Braon Fola, presumably because he/she did not like what the page contained. But more importantly, this was seen as an act of cultural vandalism to the extent that it became a topic of comment among the literati of Cork at the time.[1] The lady librarian was appalled because she had a duty of care towards the books in her care and felt that her readers and the lenders who used the library were being short-changed. This culture of duty of care prevailed across all faculties at UCC at the time and for a long time afterwards.

So when I became aware that the considerable resources of the History Department at UCC were continuing to study the controversial topic of ‘spies and informers’ shot by the IRA in Cork during the War of Independence I was looking forward to their output because, as I saw it, the topic needed more in-depth analysis to carry on from where I started in my book The Year of Disappearances. The idea of YOD was simply to kick open the door in the hope that others, in particular full-time professional historians, would rush in and do a more detailed job, particularly in view of the many sources which have come online and were not available when I was writing. It seemed to me that UCC was ideally placed to do this and carry out an objective analysis of this contentious subject. So I looked forward to reading The Irish Examiner’s ‘New Project Throws New Light on ‘Spy’ Killings During War of Independence’, as their headline put it.[2] This is now available as a database at The Irish Revolution website hosted by UCC.

The research was carried out by Dr Andy Bielenberg, UCC School of History and leading Irish-American scholar, Professor Emeritus James S. Donnelly Jr. Both researchers have impressive pedigrees. 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, while Professor 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 is the author of several books, particularly on the Land War and 19th Century Ireland in general. He has been co-editor of the journal Éire-Ireland since 2001.

Their intentions also appeared laudable: As Prof Donnelly put it: ‘Our central purpose is to serve the needs of accurate, transparent, and meaningful history by placing every one of these deaths as fully and clearly as possible in the specific and local context of the War of Independence in County Cork.’ I should also add that he was helpful to me in my own research and is duly acknowledged in YOD. Surely nothing but good could come out of this, especially when the study was sponsored by UCC itself along with The Irish Examiner.

It was only when I began looking through their material in detail that I became concerned. The first problem was in the way the material was presented. Because if you begin by showing an example of someone who was a genuine spy, in this case Timothy Quinlisk and then follow with someone who probably was an informer of some kind, Michael Walsh and then you go on deal with a ‘List of Suspected Civilian Spies Killed by the IRA, 1920-21’ the casual reader will assume that you have as much evidence of spying for the rest of the 80 odd persons as you have for the first two. But the problem is that just because one person was a spy, this is no indication of the guilt of anyone else. This is known in law as guilt by association and would never hold up in a court of justice, outside perhaps of Alabama. Everyone is described as ‘executed as suspected spy by IRA’ or equivalent including even one man who hanged himself while in IRA captivity. In other words, by calling everybody ‘Suspected Civilian Spies’ rather than say ‘civilians’ – some of whom were spies and many of whom certainly were not – you are making a prejudicial statement.

The second problem is that of sources. The primary sources used throughout the 80 odd cases are the Bureau of Military History witness statements made by IRA veterans - mostly during the 1950s - sometimes augmented by material gathered by Ernie O’Malley in his interviews with veterans and other sources such as newspapers, the 1901 and 1911 censuses and occasionally RIC and other records. The primary and apparently uncritical use of the BMH statements poses a major problem. I must have read hundreds of these statements over the years and never once do I remember any BMH statements - certainly none from Cork - in which it was claimed that the wrong person was killed or that someone might have been shot by accident in lieu of somebody else or that the IRA simply got the wrong person, or that someone was shot to cover up for someone else. If we are to take the BMH statements at face value, the IRA of the War of Independence was the only armed force in military history who did not kill the wrong people at various times or who may even have been hoodwinked into doing so. If the articles by Bielenberg and Donnelly are correct, the IRA in Cork had a flawless intelligence system, a system that rarely made mistakes in which the only people killed were those who deserved to die. This implies, say, in the case of Alfred Reilly, the manager of Thompsons Bakery who was brutally murdered in February 1921 that the only reason we don’t know what he was guilty of is that not enough information has been found in his case. But we can take it that because of the splendid efficiency of IRA intelligence – largely down to the Trojan work of Florrie O’Donoghue, Cork Number 1 Brigade Intelligence Officer, that he probably deserved what he got. This logic has fairly obvious drawbacks.

It is not possible to go through the many instances throughout the database in which BMH statements are used selectively and uncritically to give one particular outcome: that the individual in question was guilty of being a spy. One or two examples will have to suffice but they are indicative of the flaws of the project as a whole. These are the cases of Denis O’Donovan, shot as a ‘spy’ in Ballygarvan in April 1921 - supposedly for passing on the names of the killers of RIC Sergeant James O’Donoghue who had been shot dead by the IRA in December 1920 in reprisal for the prior killing of several Volunteers by the police - and that of David Walsh, shot for allegedly betraying the East Cork IRA column at Clonmult in February 1921 in which the entire column was wiped out. Between them they illustrate what should have been the obvious flaws in the above approach. This is what Bielenberg and Donnelly wrote in the case of Denis Donovan:

1.     Denis Donovan – Bielenberg  and Donnelly’s version

48. Civilian Denis Finbarr (‘Din Din’) Donovan (aged about 24) of 9 Gouldings Terrace, Cork city (Ballygarvan near Ballinhassig) Date of incident: 9 April 1921 (ex-soldier kidnapped and later killed as suspected spy by IRA) Sources: CE, 13, 14 April 1921; CC, 13, 14 April 1921; FJ, 14 April 1921; Death Certificate, 12 April 1921; RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Confidential Report, April 1921 (CO 104/115); Military Inquests, WO 35/149A/40 (TNA); Leo Buckley’s WS 1714, 7, 12 (BMH); Harte (1998), 15; Borgonovo (2007), 67, 100, 179; Murphy (2010), 41; Borgonovo, ‘Dogs of War’ (Summer 2012), fn. 6. Note: An ex-soldier and labourer, Donovan was abducted on 9 April 1921 and shot dead on 12 April (bullet wound in the head). His body was found on the latter date with a rosary in his hands at Ballygarvan near Ballinhassig, some seven miles outside the city. Borgonovo regards him as the victim of an IRA assassination because he was considered a spy. But there was no obvious connection between Donovan and crown forces, and no explanation of his death was forthcoming from the IRA at the time. See Borgonovo (2007), 179. According to the RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Confidential Report for April 1921 (CO 104/115), ‘This man [Donovan] was a Sinn Feiner and was suspected by them of carrying out a robbery at Rochestown on his own and without authority’. Years later, however, Leo Buckley, staff officer for intelligence in the First Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, explained how and why Donovan came under suspicion following the IRA killing of RIC Sergeant James O’Donoghue on 17 December and the reprisal shootings of Patrick Hanley and others (including a brother and brother-inlaw of Volunteer Willie Joe O’Brien) in Cork city on the night of 17-18 December 1920: ‘When O’Brien, [Thomas] Healy, and myself met next night, we came to the conclusion that the R.I.C. had got information from some source in relation to the shooting of the R.I.C. sergeant. . . . We proceeded to worry out who the police spy could be. Only four people knew who participated in the shooting of the R.I.C. sergeant, viz., Healy, O’Brien, the company captain (Dick Murphy), and myself. At the time Dick Murphy was on very intimate terms with a man named Denis Donovan, Barrack St, Cork. . . . We had all got to know Donovan well, and we had a nickname on him—“Din Din”—for the reason that he was ever and always suggesting ways and means of shooting up the military and the R.I.C. I remember asking Dick Murphy whether he had mentioned the R.I.C. shooting to “Din Din”. He pooh-poohed any suggestion that anything was wrong with “Din Din”, and we allowed the matter to rest.’ By April 1921, however, Donovan had become a marked man. He ‘was shot as a spy on brigade instructions. He was shot in Ballygarvan on 14th April 1921 [incorrect date], and a label “spies and informers beware” placed on his chest.’ See Leo Buckley’s WS 1714, 7, 12 (BMH). Donovan’s death certificate confirms his date of death as 12 April 1921 and gives the cause as ‘shock and haemorrhage caused by gunshot wounds homicidal’. Peter Hart appears to have confused ‘Din Din’ Riordan with ‘Din Din’ Donovan as the informer linked to British reprisals for the shooting of 54 RIC Sergeant O’Donoghue. See Hart (1998), 15; Borgonovo, ‘Dogs of War’ (Summer 2012), fn. 6. Denis Finbarr Donovan was one of the six children (four sons and two daughters) of the Cork city van driver William Donovan of 10 Gouldings Terrace. In 1911 William Donovan (aged 43) was already a widower. The elder brothers William Jr and Jeremiah worked as a shop porter and a messenger boy respectively. Denis Finbarr (then aged 14) was still at school. He was the third of the four sons. The Donovans were all Catholic.

A few years ago I had cause to look at the Donovan case when a previous book mentioned it. I wrote a piece on it which I did not bother to publish at the time since I felt it was a minor matter and was not worth the hassle. But here for the record is an excerpt from it and it is quite clear its conclusions are diametrically opposite to the above. It should be pointed out that the original source of this story was Frank Busteed’s account given to Sean O’Callaghan in the early 1970s.

2.     Denis Donovan – my analysis

Nobody has been able to prove the existence of Din Din Riordan and this is because, according to Volunteer Leo Buckley, who witnessed many of these events, ‘Din-Din Riordan’ was in fact Denis (Din Din) Donovan, nicknamed ‘Din Din’ because he liked to make boom-boom sounds to establish his credentials as an IRA man. Buckley relates a story very similar to that of Busteed: that Donovan was suspected of informing the British about Sergeant O’Donoghue’s killers and that he was taken out the country by Dick Murphy, Captain of ‘G’ Company of the 2nd Battalion of the city IRA and some others, including Busteed presumably, and executed.[3]

Denis Donovan’s body was found near Ballygarvan some six miles south of the city on 12 April 1921. He had been missing for three days. He had been shot through the head and had an IRA ‘spy’ notice attached to him. But what is most interesting about the case is what the inquest into his death had to say about him. This claimed he was shot because he was a member of the Irish Republican Police and had witnessed and was trying to investigate the robbery of the proceeds of a delivery van belonging to Woodford Bourne and Co in Rochestown a few days earlier. ‘He was on a van (belonging to Woodford Bourne & Co) which was held up by two men at Rochestown on 8 April and £14 taken.’ In fact, Donovan’s father may well have been the driver, since he was so employed. ‘He [Donovan] stated that he would be able to identify the robbers.’ If this is correct, what was really going on here was a simple case of robbery.[4]
Was Donovan shot because he gave away the killers of Sergeant O’Donoghue or simply because he was a witness to a case of theft by two of his fellow IRA men? The inquest into his death certainly thought the latter was the case. ‘It is possible that the robbers, knowing that the deceased had been a Sinn Fein policeman and fearing detection were implicated in his murder.’[5] Was Busteed trying to make it look like a case of espionage rather than robbery, to cover for his colleagues, if not himself? For this is also precisely the time that Busteed was operating in the city with the IRA. What’s more, Donovan’s death was particularly poignant for he was found on his knees in a praying position, with a bullet through his head and his hands wrapped around his rosary beads – surely the sign of an honest man rather than a dishonest one.

Not only did the inquest into the killing, in which Donovan’s father was one of the witnesses, point towards a robbery but Dick Murphy, the man who had him killed, after initially dismissing any suggestions that Donovan might have been responsible, was either deported or absconded soon afterwards to the United States. In an explanatory note on the membership of ‘G’ Coy, 1st Battalion, Cork No 1 Brigade at the time of the Truce the officers of the Company noted that ‘the unusually large number of prisoners in this Company was due to the fact that one member of the Comp was in the pay of the British & was not discovered until a short time before the Truce, when he paid the penalty for his crimes’[6] Denis Donovan was not a member of ‘G’ Coy. However, it is surely significant that Dick Murphy is very pointedly omitted from the list of officers of the Company at the Truce, having been Company Captain only two months previously.[7] It would appear that he fled to America and never returned, dying there in 1932.

This suggests that he too feared retribution. Whether this was for thieving and executing Donovan to cover his tracks, or whether he was the person who really gave away the killers of Sergeant O’Donoghue we’ll never know for sure. Dick Murphy was such a prominent figure in previous IRA operations that it is unlikely he was a spy, as such. However he may well have passed on the names of Sergeant O’Donoghue’s killers since it was an unauthorized shooting and O’Donoghue was a popular figure and was well-liked in his area - he was even known to have been friendly towards the IRA. Nonetheless, it seems pretty certain there was a police spy somewhere in the vicinity, because not only were many members of ‘G’ Coy arrested but Leo Buckley also records that more senior officers with connections to ‘G’ Company such as Dan Donovan and Tom Crofts were also arrested. It would seem the RIC were protecting their own man when they too hung the unfortunate Donovan out to dry: ‘this man was a Sinn Feiner and was suspected by them of carrying out a robbery at Rochestown on his own and without authority’.[8] The matter is complexed by the fact that there were two Richard Murphys in the Cork city IRA at the time, both of whom fled to the United States and both of whom did not want to come back.[9] (Note: there is a distinct possibility that Dick Murphy was also framed - for being 'too active'. This is a very murky area.)

The important point here is that, regardless of its merits or demerits, my interpretation of the available data is diametrically opposite to that of Bielenberg and Donnelly. And the main reason for this is that I used the British Army’s Courts of Inquiry in lieu of Inquests records, which are available in the British National Archives in Kew. These were military courts hastily convened at the time to deal with various killings as they came up in the Martial Law Area from mid-1920 onwards. Of course, these files – there is one for most violent fatalities – must be approached with caution. In the case of deaths attributable to Crown Forces the findings of the courts often amount to little more than a whitewash – So-and-so was usually ‘shot while trying to escape’ by ‘CF in pursuit of their duty’ or some such line – about as useful as ‘executed as suspected spy by IRA’. However, when it comes to IRA killings there was usually no need to make up some cock and bull story. As a result, the files often contain much useful information and seeing as they were contemporary records they have to be more valuable than accounts written forty years later and must surely be the first port of call for the historian. While truth is inevitably the first casualty of war, it should hardly be the first casualty of history.

Yet for some reason, Bielenberg and Donnelly, while they include the file number for the inquiry into Donovan’s death ignore its findings completely. This appears to be the pattern right through their series. They often include the TNA (the UK National Archives) number of the Military Courts files but rarely quote their contents. This leads to a pretty lopsided interpretation of events. It is hard to see this approach as serving ‘the needs of accurate, transparent, and meaningful history by placing every one of these deaths as fully and clearly as possible in the specific and local context of the War of Independence in County Cork.’ And this is not the only thing they distort. For instance, they refer to a TNA file which they call ‘Private Persons Injured’ (CO905/15) and infer from it that the letter ‘L’ when cited may indicate that the person passed on information on IRA activities to the British. But CO905/15 is actually the register of the personal injuries claims that came before the Compensation (Ireland) Commission put in place after the conflict by both governments to compensate those who suffered material losses as a result of the conflict. All the ‘L’ means in this context is that the British Government accepted liability for compensating that particular individual, in other words that he/she was deemed a British supporter which, seeing as this included almost all Protestants, former British soldiers and their families as well as police and civil servants and their families, may comprise up to a quarter of the population. Suggesting that this infers that the person in question was a spy is the same as saying that up to a quarter of the population of the country were spies – hardly likely since the British military at every hand’s turn were decrying the loyalist population for the lack of information they were getting from this source. This trick – of playing hard and fast with this particular source - has already been used by Padraig Og O’Ruairc in his book on the Truce, but it is no less erroneous for that.

In other words, by giving primacy to BMH records written decades later and by ignoring what was written at the time, Bielenberg and Donnelly are giving a very stilted and one-sided view of what took place. Why professional historians would want to do this is not a question I can answer. But they ignore other accounts too, even published ones, as can be seen from the case of David Walsh. The first account, again, is that of Bielenberg and Donnelly:

3.     David Walsh – Bielenberg and Donnelly.

58. Civilian David Walsh (aged about 86) of Shanagarry (Doon near Glenville) Date of incident: 16 May 1921 (ex-soldier executed as suspected spy by IRA) Sources: IRA Executions in 1921 (Collins Papers, Military Archives, A/0649); Letter to O/C, 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, 21 May 1921 (Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,207 [2], NLI); William Buckley’s WS 1009, 21 (BMH); James Coss’s WS 1065, 11 (BMH); John P. O’Connell’s WS 1444, 13-14 (BMH); O’Neill (1975), 68; Sheehan (2011), 76. Note: Described in an IRA document as a Shanagarry tramp or homeless man, Walsh was an ex-soldier suspected of having given information that led to the Clonmult disaster for the IRA. He was arrested by the Glenville Volunteer Company and detained. He allegedly admitted to having been paid £1 a week as a British spy, and gave the names of other spies. He was tried by members of the Fermoy Battalion staff, found guilty, and sentenced to death—a sentence confirmed by the Cork No. 2 Brigade staff. He was executed on 16 May 1921 at Doon near Glenville. See William Buckley’s WS 1009, 21 (BMH). Sheehan argues that it is unlikely that Walsh possessed information that could have led to the destruction of the IRA column at Clonmult, or that he had any connection with British forces. See Sheehan (2011), 76. But the evidence supporting his identity as the spy responsible for the Clonmult disaster appears strong. James Coss (Seámus MacCos), successively the intelligence officer of the Fermoy Company and Battalion of the Cork No. 2 Brigade, regularly exploited sources inside Fermoy Military Barracks: ‘Amongst the information received by me from my intelligence officers in the military barracks was a copy of a file which gave particulars of the individual who gave the information to the enemy forces which led to the massacre of a number of I.R.A. men—they were, I think, Midleton Battalion column—at Clonmult near Midleton in February 1921. Within 24 hours of receiving the information, the spy in question had been arrested, tried, and executed. His name was David Walsh.’ See James Coss’s WS 1065, 11 (BMH). Buttressing this account is that of John P. O’Connell, the captain of the Cobh Volunteer Company, who seems to have been one of the IRA leaders who interrogated Walsh before his execution: ‘About a month after the fight at Clonmult, the means by which the British were able to come on the column was disclosed. An ex British soldier named Walsh had been trapping rabbits in the Clonmult area on the Saturday previous to the fatal Sunday. He saw some of the members of the column in the village of Clonmult. These, as a matter of fact, had been down to the village of Dungourney for Confession. Having located the headquarters of the column—in the farmhouse [known as Garrylaurence]—he was travelling the road to Cork on the following day, Sunday, when he met a party of military in two lorries. Walsh’s story was that they stopped him. However, he brought them right up to the crossroads junction, where they left their lorries and surrounded the house. Walsh told this story after being captured by us. He confessed that he got thirty pounds for his work. He was of course executed.’ See John P. O’Connell’s WS 1444, 13-14 (BMH). 64 In 1911 an illiterate labourer named David Walsh (already aged 76) lived with his wife Margaret (aged 65), son Maurice (aged 21), and nephew George (aged 8) in Shanagarry town. Their dwelling had only two rooms. The son Maurice worked as a stable boy. He was only one of the Walshes’ eight living children (nine born). The Walshes were Catholic.

About ten years ago I was trying to put together some kind of potted history of events in North East Cork – straddling the eastern battalions of the 1st and 2nd Brigades. One of the subjects I covered then was the death of David Walsh. The following are extracts from what I gathered on Walsh. The first begins with the text of the letter, found on the body of Diarmuid Hurley when he was shot dead by police outside Midleton in late May 1921, which describes how Walsh was caught, tried and executed – an event which indeed took place in Glenville, where Walsh was buried in the corner of Doon graveyard.

4.     The correspondence on David Walsh

To O/C 4th Battn
Cork No 1 Brigade

1.      Yours to hand on 20th inst.
2.      The following will be of interest to you. The report on this spy has been filed away, so I am writing it from memory.
3.      Our C. Coy Capt arrested a suspicious person of the tramp class, and detained him on suspicion for two days. During this time he could get no information from him beyond the fact that his name was David Walsh of Shanagarry and that he was looking for work in Glenville. To extract information from him; the Capt brought the local C.C. one evening and next morning had a grave made away in the mountains. Here he brought the prisoner and informed him he was going to be shot, and the only way he had of saving his life was by giving full information re himself and his accomplices. If this was forthcoming the Capt guaranteed him a free pass to Australia. The prisoner then disclosed to Capt how he had seen your men at Clonmult and meeting a military party on his way to Cork, he informed a military officer, and that he himself led the party down to your camp. For this he received a lump sum and was taken on as a permanent paid spy at £1 a week and the promise of a lump sum for any good catch made on his information. He then gave the names of those already forwarded to you as paid spies.
4.      David Walsh was subsequently tried by courtmartial for espionage and found guilty and sentenced to be shot. The finding was confirmed by our Battn O/C and the sentence was duly executed.


I knew some of the men involved in the execution of Walsh and I can state categorically that they were men of honour and were good citizens, friends and neighbours. They also believed sincerely that Walsh was a spy – something which is still believed in the parish by the few who take an interest in such things. After all, Walsh confessed to the Clonmult debacle, therefore he must be guilty. The men who killed Walsh were perfectly entitled to believe he had given away Clonmult because he had said so. However, we have no such luxury a hundred years later. Apart from anything else, how valuable is a confession extracted by being faced with one’s own grave with a promise of a passage to Australia as the alternative?

Not very, if the file of correspondence with Walsh’s brother Andrew Walsh held by the Military Archives in Dublin is anything to go on. According to Eunan O’Halpin who has recently reviewed this case: ‘Andrew Walsh stated that David’s erratic behavior “has given me a good deal of trouble. I have had to give up my situations in search of him… he was still suffering from posion [sic] gas and shell shock’ and had been impossible to control.”’[11] Andrew also stated that David had been sent home from hospital in March 1921, ‘a month after the Clonmult massacre for which he was allegedly the informer’. Andrew Walsh continued to plead his brother’s innocence: ‘I think it a very wrong thing [to treat] in such a manner a man that has lost his position through not being capable of himself … he was tried and sent to his doom wrongly.’ The Free State authorities seemed to agree with him and stated that they had no objection to Walsh getting some compensation from the Compensation (Ireland) Commission.[12] And not all Cork IRA men thought Walsh was a spy. Edmond Desmond of Midleton, two of whose brothers were killed at Clonmult, was of the view that Walsh was probably innocent: ‘Walsh from Midleton was shot as a spy but I would say he was a bum and so would Ml. Leahy.’[13]

Walsh’s confession also found its way into the hands of Sir Ormond Winter, the deputy chief of police and the head of police intelligence.
Some idea of the method of extracting information by threats of violence is demonstrated in the case of a man named David Walsh, a detailed account of whose treatment was found in a captured document.  He was arrested by the IRA, for being ‘a suspicious person of the tramp class’ and he was detained for two days, during which time he was removed to a lonely mountain, and was confronted with the parish priest and an open grave, and informed that he was to be shot forthwith, unless he supplied them with full information concerning himself and his accomplices. If this was forthcoming, the Captain guaranteed him a free passage to Australia. The unfortunate man, with the prospect of imminent death staring him in the face, invented a bogus story as to his having met a military party on the way to Cork, and having given them information concerning a camp in Clonmult. The way in which the IRA Captain fulfilled his guarantee is told in the final paragraph of the document, which reads ‘David Walsh was subsequently tried by Court Martial for espionage, found guilty and sentenced to be shot.  The finding was duly confirmed and the sentence duly executed.’[14]

So was Walsh a spy or wasn’t he? In a letter to Hamar Greenwood the Chief Secretary in June 1921, Winter spelled out how Walsh was a ‘particularly bad case.’ He wrote:
1.      Walsh never was a spy.
2.      He never met a military party on his way to Cork.
3.      He never gave information concerning Clonmult and
4.      He certainly did not lead any party down to that place. The information came from an entirely different source.
What appears to have happened, however, is that the sight of his own grave was too much for his nerves and, relying on the promise of a free pass to Australia and a pardon, he was terrorized into making the statement he did. His life paid the penalty for his faith in the honour of the IRA.
                                                                                                Yours sincerely
In July 1924 General Strickland, formerly commander of the British 6th Division based in Cork in 1921, wrote to Walsh’s brother Andrew and told him that he had established that Walsh ‘gave us no information and he was not known to us’.[16]

5.     The information that actually led to Clonmult.

Of course, Bielenberg and Donnelly might counter that Strickland, Winter and Walsh’s brother were all telling lies – even though many of the quotations above are from private correspondence. However, it is clear from the British military report on Clonmult that what happened was that the military were investigating a neighbouring cottage – on information picked up in Cork city – when they stumbled on the house at Garrylaurence.[17] One of the interesting things about Clonmult is that the British operation was carried out by the Hampshire Regiment, based in Cork, rather than the Cameron Highlanders who were garrisoned locally. According to Colonel French of the Hampshires this was because: ‘I allowed these operations to be carried out by the troops in the Cork area in order to save time and because the information on which they were based was obtained in Cork.’[18] In other words, the information that led to Clonmult was got in the city, not from some poor fool trapping rabbits.

Moreover, the British military had been monitoring the Clonmult area for some time, ever since they captured a Volunteer officer a few months earlier with a whole sheaf of photos on him of an IRA training camp at Clonmult. [19] In fact, the much reproduced photo of the 4rd Battalion Flying Column which heads Bielenberg and Donnelly’s articles in The Irish Examiner is likely to have come from that collection.[20] What the Volunteer in question was doing with these photos on him, of course, is another matter – he was immediately released despite being in one of the photos himself – though he was later interned. However, as a result of this the British kept an eye on the Clonmult area over the next few months and eventually got lucky on Sunday February 20th 1921. It should also be pointed out that the Volunteer officer with the pictures appears to have been the original source of the allegation that it was an ex-soldier trapping rabbits who had betrayed the column and that he had been with the raiding party on the day ‘both as a guide and a hostage’.[21] I think we can draw our own conclusions.

The important point here is that my findings are again diametrically opposite to those of Bielenberg and Donnelly. And this is because again they ignore a whole tranche of information, much of it already published, that indicates that Walsh was not a spy. Apart from the dubious nature of how the confession was extracted from him – which Bielenberg and Donnelly don’t bother to mention, despite the fact that it was described in the above IRA dispatch which they otherwise quote – they seem never to have thought it worth their time consulting British records on the matter. While Bielenberg and Donnelly have no problem in quoting from these files in the case of other missing persons, they are strangely selective when it comes to the contents of Walsh’s file, neglecting even to mention the letter from General Strickland that the military had no knowledge of Walsh and that he was not the source of the information that led to Clonmult.

The point though is that because Bielenberg and Donnelly again either ignored British records entirely or chose not to quote from them, they don’t give this information. Apart from mentioning William Sheehan and then dismissing him they don’t even include the published sources that suggest Walsh was not a spy. You would think if they were going to accuse someone of being guilty of giving away Clonmult that they would look first at the military reports on Clonmult and related files. Instead they choose to quote at length from the IRA BMH statements which, while perhaps sincere, cannot be relied upon to give a true account a hundred years later. Far from being ‘accurate’ and ‘transparent’, this is completely one-sided. It is simply bad history.

And this case is even worse since much of this is already published. Peter Hart as far back as 1998 – based on the Irish Military Records – was able to state that Walsh was almost certainly innocent, something William Sheehan, an outstanding military historian, was able to repeat though he felt he did not need to cite Hart’s sources since Hart had already done so and it should have been self-evident to anyone with an interest in the case what the actual situation was. Walsh’s likely innocence is published, it is available on bookshelves. That this is largely ignored in favour of parish pump versions of history is unforgivable. This kind of selectivity undermines the entire UCC project. Bielenberg and Donnelly would have us believe that this is all in the way of ‘academic rigour’. Yet the entire project shows such a complete lack of academic rigour that it is hard to believe it is put together by professional historians.


This kind of selective analysis runs right through the database. It is not possible to look at each case. But another blatant instance of it is that of James and Fred Blemens. Bielenberg and Donnelly quote Mick Murphy, the O/C of the 2nd Battalion of the Cork No 1 Brigade that the Blemenses were executed because ‘they were members of the senior spy section of the YMCA. Their names were given to me by [a youth named William] Parsons’. Yet no attempt is made to question this. For the Blemenes never had any connection with the Cork YMCA and Parsons was not captured until April 1922, well over a year later – a little late to have been the source of information that led to the Blemenes. On the other hand Bielenberg and Donnelly never bother to inform us that the Blemenses lived two doors from Florrie O’Donoghue or that they were kidnapped and murdered – and I use that word advisedly – at the very time when O’Donoghue was in Wales kidnapping his future wife’s son.  Nor do they quote Mick Murphy to the effect that ‘the Blemens (sic) gave us no information despite the old man being dead drunk’. But that would upset the applecart of providing a neat black and white narrative. They could have got all that information from my book, The Year of Disappearances – hell, they might even have learned to spell James Beal’s name correctly, not to mention getting a far more persuasive explanation for his death – but they are so determined to give me no credit, just as no detail is so petty that they don’t use it as an opportunity to attack Hart, that they cannot or will not do it. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that if they did half as much research as Hart did and reported it fairly that they would not be in the embarrassing position they are in now.

In summary, this is so one-sided that it is little more than a parody of history. It is like standing before a court in which only the prosecution’s evidence is admissible. Of course there were spies shot by the IRA: Quinlisk and Saunders certainly were spies, and I’m sure there were many others. But the guilt of one person does not make another guilty. This would be laughable were it not for the fact that there are people who take this kind of stuff seriously. As a graduate of UCC and someone with many fond links to the College, someone who to this day carries a credit card with a photo of the Quad on it that makes a small yearly contribution the UCC Alumni association, it breaks my heart to see the UCC logo emblazoned over this kind of stuff and that the College should act as an official sponsor to what is in reality a travesty of what scholarship should be about. Many people both in Cork and elsewhere, graduates and otherwise, have been in touch with me to say how appalled they are by this and have urged me to intervene which is why I have done so, even though it would have suited me far better to keep my head down. One wonders what the librarian of long ago would have made of it all.

Gerard Murphy BSc (1978, UCC/NUI), PhD (1983, UCC/NUI)                   19 September 2016

[1] This story was told to me by Dr Sean Ryan.
[2] The Irish Examiner, 29/8/2016.
[3] Leo Buckley BMH WS 1714.
[4] Denis Donovan Inquest, TNA WO35/149A.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Explanatory note re officers of G Company 1st Batt, 1st Cork Brigade on Critical Dates, MA/MSPC-RO-28.
[7] A Richard Murphy of Dyke Parade is named as a Volunteer in the rolls of the Company and is described as having ‘died in USA’. His father also wrote to the Pensions Board in 1935 to complain that others were trying to put in for pensions in his name. Richard Murphy to Pensions Board, 4/7/1935 and 4/9/1935. MA/MSPC-RO-28.
[8] RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Confidential Report, April 1921 (CO 104/115).
[9] Timothy Murphy to Ml Collins, 14/2/1922; Joseph Connolly to Ml Collins, 27/3/1922 and 11/4/1922, NA DE/2/345. For an interesting analysis of this - not unrelated to B'fhiú an Braon Fola - see Kieran O'Halloran: 'The Spy and the Quay', in The Quay: Memories of Sullivan's Quay CBS 1828-2006 (Cork 2006).
[10] Letter in O’Donoghue NLI 31,207(2).
[11] Eunan O’Halpin, ‘Problematic Killing during the War of Independence, Civilian Spies and Informers’, in Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain, and Europe: Historical Perspectives, eds James Kelly and Mary Ann Lyons. (Dublin 2013)
[12] MAI, A/0649.
[13] Edmund Desmond, O’Malley Papers, P17b/112.
[14] Report of the Intelligence Branch of the Chief of Police in Hart, British Intelligence in Ireland, 1920-21 (Cork 2002).
[15] ‘O’ to Greenwood, 11.6.1921, HO 397/46.
[16] Gen Sir Peter Strickland to Andrew Walsh, 19.7.1924. MAI, A/0649.
[17] TNA WO35/155A/53.
[18] Col. French’s Letter of Commendation for military awards for Lieut. Koe and Lieut. Hammond. Published in Tom O’Neill, The Battle of Clonmult: The IRA’s Worst Defeat, p99 (Dublin 2006).
[19] Arrest and Prosecution of Michael Hennessy, TNA, WO 35/125/6.
[20] It seems to have first surfaced in Rebel Cork’s Fighting Story.
[21] O’Neill, p30.