Monday, 6 November 2017

Barry Keane and the Freemasons

A Note of Congratulations


First of all, let me say I owe Barry Keane an apology for even implying that his research might have been ‘alternative facts’ and for my tardiness in responding to his more recent input on the Freemason issue in Cork. The truth is that I had long since lost interest in the topic and six months, sometimes a year, can pass before it occurs to me to look up what might have appeared on the subject. Similarly, I have not looked at the ‘Cork Spy Files’ since the last time I blogged on them. In fact, I blog so rarely anyway that I invariably forget the password the next time I want to log on.

However, I notice from the last edition of History Ireland that my inattentiveness (I won’t say laziness since it is just that I am too busy with other matters to remember to look these things up) is now used as evidence that I am, in the words of Andy Bielenberg, an ‘ideological revisionist’ and a purveyor of ‘bogus conclusions’. The editor of History Ireland also waded in to imply that ‘certain bloggers’ – myself, presumably, since the Bielenberg article is largely about me are guilty, apparently, of ‘pushing a sectarian thesis’ and that this supposed thesis is ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, a heady mix that can hardly be described as complimentary.[1] Clearly, I must have done something truly awful to merit this splendidly negative tirade. The question is: to what do I owe this dubious honour? Is this all about a book that is as good as out of print? One would think not. But let’s run with it anyway. Let’s take this at face value and assume for the sake of argument that this is all about Freemasons who may or may not have gone missing in Cork in 1921-22.

Missing Masons

To get to the crux of the matter – or part of the crux anyway: The bottom line is that Barry Keane’s latest input on the subject of the missing Freemasons of Cork is an excellent piece of research, far better than his earlier inputs in the area.[2] This is genuine, detailed evidence, the production of which must have involved an enormous amount of footwork. People have received PhDs for less. I am not being facetious here. Nor am I being browbeaten into saying this by Andy Bielenberg’s article referred to above.[3] (Though the article did bring Keane’s work to my attention which is probably no bad thing since I might have spent another six months in blissful ignorance of it.) Keane’s new material is a very valuable addition to what is available on the revolutionary years in Cork and deserves an adult response.

The bottom line is that what he did is the equivalent of doing the family trees for 32 individual families. And anyone who has tried to do their own family tree will appreciate the amount of work involved. While it was possible – and probably justifiable[4] – to dismiss it before, it is not possible to dismiss it now. I also get the feeling that Keane is genuine when he states that he is working in the interests of establishing the truth about these matters. Because he is also able to give credit where it is due – in sharp contrast to some other commentators. He states, for instance, that it was not possible in 2010 to do what can be done now in terms of genealogical research. And he’s also not afraid to produce material that some might claim might go to undermining his argument. For instance, he appears to confirm that Henry A. Harris, one of the missing Freemasons and former Divisional Secretary of Cork YMCA was indeed drowned in Boulogne in 1923 and, while he states that there was nothing to link this to Cork, the very fact that the French police received a note warning them off, signed ‘I/O IRA’ suggests there was at least an Irish link, even if the police apparently dismissed it as a red herring.

But to get back to the matter of the other missing Masons and the apparent reason why all the brickbats above were thrown: All I ever said was that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest that something nasty happened to Freemason Lodge 71 in Cork during those years and that at least some of these men may have disappeared. I put out the full list of ‘struck off’ Masons in the hope that somebody might come back with information on the subject. It took seven years, but Keane, in fairness to him, was the only one to rise to the challenge.

He did however, as he freely acknowledged, have several advantages that were not available to me almost a decade ago. As he put it, ‘by happy coincidence’, the Freemason records of Lodge 71 were ‘rediscovered in Dublin’, the Irish Births, Marriages and Deaths records also came online this year and he was able to gain privileged access to the Cork Freemason records in the Cork City and County Archives. When I was researching The Year of Disappearances, all I had was a pencil to scratch down whatever I managed to pick up in a few hours in what I think were two visits to the Freemason headquarters in Dublin – where I have to say the staff were very helpful. And was then a lot more limited than it is now. As soon stuff became available, I followed it up and found around half of the Freemasons, something I immediately published in these pages.

But an important point is that I had no luck in trying to get access to the Cork Freemason records. I tried on, I think, four separate occasions to access this material, both before and after it went into the Cork City and County Archives. On each occasion, Dr David Butler, who controlled the material, informed me it could not be accessed. Two prominent Masons even gave me letters of introduction, but to no avail. I’m not saying I’d have done better if I had access to this archive but it would have helped. You can only do the best you can do with the material at hand. Also the fact that the Irish BMD and the Dublin Freemason records are now also online makes what was an impossible task actually doable. Which of course does not stop people slamming me for failing to do this at a time when it was exceedingly difficult, if not next to impossible.

Francis McMahon

Andy Bielenberg has also criticised me in the strongest possible terms for failing to realise that Francis McMahon, which was the name of one of the missing Masons, was in fact one Alphonsus Leo McMahon, a Catholic clerk at the War Pensions office who was abducted by the IRA and shot in 1921. The fact that Bielenberg only discovered this after several previous attempts to identify him failed and naming the wrong man himself does not appear to be a mitigating factor. Nor was the fact that the only Francis McMahons recorded as living in Cork at the time were both Protestants a mitigating factor either. Clearly, if one is to accept the tone of Bielenberg’s piece[5], I am guilty of the crime of not having some sort of clairvoyant powers that I did not manage to establish that ‘Francis’ was actually Alphonsus. (Nor does he attack Barry Keane for calling McMahon ‘Francis’ as late as this year in his book Cork’s Revolutionary Dead.) Yet this only became known to Bielenberg himself in the last few months when he was contacted by the McMahon family. Also I’m severely wrapped on the knuckles for failing to realise that  a John Moore who disappeared in May 1921 was not the same man as the John Moore who appeared in the list of struck-off Freemasons, though almost nothing is known about either, other than that a man of that name disappeared. Clearly what is sauce for the goose is certainly not sauce for the gander.

But to cut to the chase of Keane’s findings that the ‘great majority of the Freemasons definitely survived’. This is true in the strict grammatical sense but there are six (seven if you include Harris) still missing. Furthermore, it has taken Barry Keane, Bielenberg and an entire team of researchers at UCC the best part of a decade to do this. So there are still six missing Freemasons that he cannot account for – which is around the number I have always expected. And I’m not sure if I agree with Keane’s suggestion that these six individuals were not even in Cork at the time of the revolution, since Lodge 71 was based in Cork all that time and these were not struck off until the mid-1920s.

However, and this is the important point, I agree with Keane that just because they cannot be found that this is no reason to believe they were killed by the IRA. (On the other hand, if they were actual spies, they would have vanished without trace and British military intelligence would ensure that nothing would get into records. If anyone doubts this, there are references in correspondence between the Colonial Office and the Irish Free State of a British intelligence officer disappearing in Watergrasshill in 1919 – believed buried in Knockraha and four soldiers who disappeared near Belvelly in 1921. We will almost certainly never learn their names. But to even mention this is to be attacked on the basis that because you cannot name them it never happened. And so it goes.)

There is no question to my mind that something awful happened to Lodge 71. Thomas Stewart would not have been in terror of his life simply because he was Warrant Master of the lodge otherwise. And there is no question that James Beal of the lodge was shot dead by the IRA. And so many IRA veterans remembered the list of ‘alleged spies’ supposedly found on him that this is likely to be true too. But the question is what happened?

My view now – and this is coming from new research I have been doing recently – is that the members of Lodge 71 were in all probability among those city loyalists who were forced to flee Cork in the spring of 1921, something which was reported by several sources at the time – and which has been noted both by myself and John Borgonovo. (The most notable of these of course was George Tilson with whom I open The Year of Disappearances and who was found dying in the toilet of the Fishguard train as it pulled into Paddington station a few days after Beal was killed.) Keane’s work did find many of the struck-off Masons living in England. It is entirely possible that some of the six did indeed disappear – especially if they were actual spies. But how likely is this given that there is no record of anybody looking for the bodies afterwards, something which is of course regularly claimed by my critics? Probably a lot less likely than I thought ten years ago, given the amount of information that has since become available. So I am more than happy to update my material accordingly, which is what I am doing here.

When is the Historical Method not the Historical Method?

In 2007 John Borgonovo published his book ‘Spies, Informers and the ‘Anti-Sinn Fein Society’. Central to his book was the thesis that the Cork city IRA had captured a young Protestant lad called Parsons who had confessed to being a spy for the British. As a result of the confession the IRA then rounded up a number of other Protestants or had them shot as members of a spy ring called the Anti-Sinn Fein Society, or equivalent title. Borgonovo’s thesis had merit since it was based on the surviving accounts of several prominent city IRA men and they could hardly all have been lying. While Borgonovo had no idea who Parsons was, let alone where he lived, or when, or even if, he was captured, it was still unlikely there was no smoke without some kind of fire. Borgonovo reckoned this happened during the War of Independence.

Among the many things I showed in The Year of Disappearances was that the Anti-Sinn Fein Society was a cover term used by RIC and military death squads who went forth at night to assassinate IRA members. (This had previously been stated by Peter Hart but I put bones on the story by digging up a chapter-full of supporting evidence for it. I don’t think anybody disputes this now.) I also found that Parsons – who indeed was a fifteen-year-old Protestant member of Cork YMCA – was abducted from near his home at High Street on 20 March 1922, a full year after Borgonovo suggested he was. Therefore it was axiomatic that if Parsons was central to the capture of any sort of ‘spy ring’ that this must have happened around the time Parsons was captured, that is to say March/April 1922 rather than the spring of 1921. So it was perfectly legitimate to suggest, as I did, that the abduction of these alleged ‘spies’ might have occurred in 1922, rather than 1921 and furthermore that it might correspond with newspaper accounts of six ‘prominent citizens’ being abducted by the IRA on St Patrick’s Day 1922 – which is a few days before Parsons was kidnapped but a few days after another teenage member of the YMCA, Thomas Roycroft, had disappeared in the same area. It was also perfectly legitimate to suggest that this may have been connected to the many allegations by IRA members of some sort of ‘spy ring’ under the auspices of the Freemason organisation, particularly in view of the treatment which was clearly meted out to Lodge 71, 32 of whose members had been struck off in those years. If Keane has confirmed that Harris, who was Divisional Secretary of the YMCA was in fact drowned in Boulogne in 1923, this is further evidence of this.

The only reason I rehash this here is because I don’t remember anybody criticising Borgonovo for putting forward his unproven thesis at the time – nor should they have. He was just putting forward his theory based on the best evidence he had at the time he wrote his book. Nor do I remember anyone jumping on him when my work showed that this particular thesis had been superseded by mine – based on more up-to-date information. After all, this was merely the way history progresses. Historical works will always be superseded when other historians find new material or new material becomes available. Borgonovo’s book is still quoted approvingly in UCC’s ‘Cork Spy Files’. It is not, I note, referred to as ‘bogus history’ or as ‘alternative facts’ or 'fake history’ simply because it was superseded by the discovery of new material – nor should it be.

Similarly, the ‘Spy Files’ and more latterly ‘The Cork Fatality Register’ are stated to be public engagement projects. In other words, the register is updated as new information comes in. But this is merely a more rapidly-evolving version of how all history writing develops. A historian writes a book or an article based on the evidence that is available at the time of publication. When new information comes available the work has to be reviewed. This is the historical method. All history books therefore are provisional and will always have to change when new information becomes available.

So why is it that when Bielenberg takes this approach himself it is called an ‘ongoing engagement project’ and when I do the same it is called ‘shifting the burden of proof to other historians’? Am I missing something here? Because as far as I can see there is no difference between the two – or if there is, I fail to see it. In other words, I am excoriated for doing exactly the same thing – putting out a best-fit scenario in the hope that new information will come in to prove or disprove the hypothesis. (It is also known as the scientific method.)  I am also pilloried for producing – apparently – ‘fiction’ based on ‘a spectacular misinterpretation of sources’ and for coming to ‘bogus conclusions’ when I came to no conclusions at all, while Bielenberg describes himself as being involved in a ‘multi-year research project’ for exactly the same approach. This is such a spectacular double standard and is so easy to refute that it is almost funny.

Alternative Facts and Historical Debates

But there is something else I want to clear up, lest there be any confusion about it. When I said ‘alternative facts’ in my last blog on the subject, it was not directed at Barry Keane. Rather, what I had in mind was what I call the ‘Greening’ of Irish history – though it is a particularly nasty hue of green if the relentless campaign waged by Niall Meehan against Peter Hart over the past almost twenty years is anything to go on – and yes, it is almost twenty years! One of the more dramatic 'stunts' in this campaign was Meehan marching into TCD demanding that Hart be stripped of his PhD and instigating an 'investigation' to that effect. This is scary stuff and puts one in mind of Donald Trump's quixotic pursuit of Barack Obama's birth certificate. As I put it: ‘anyone who has followed the various ‘debates’ revolving around Irish history and what happened in 1921/22 will be aware that ‘alternative facts’ are nothing new in this island.’ I would have thought that what I meant by this was clear but evidently it was not. This was also why I criticised his book on the West Cork Massacre, which was an attempt to be fair but which left too many hostages to fortune to this kind of thing.  

For this is a world in which historical debate is dragged down into the gutter of misrepresentation and half-truths, where falsehoods are the order of the day, where to say anything in response is to draw another potty-full of wilful distortion down on one’s head to the extent that, as one commentator put it, you feel like you are swimming through a river of slime. Clearly, if the September/October edition of History Ireland is anything to go by, I am in the process of receiving the slurry treatment myself – and all for a book that most people had forgotten about and is as good as out of print. So the term ‘alternative facts’ was not in any way meant to be directed at Keane but rather at somewhat more deserving targets – which I would have assumed anybody familiar with these debates would have been able to see.

What will happen now is that the hair-splitters will probably get to work and all kinds of snarky commentary will appear simply because I changed my mind in the face of updated evidence. ‘Murphy’ will be accused of not knowing what he is talking about. ‘One day he says they disappeared, the next day he says they fled; can he not make up his mind?’ Clearly, everything he says from now on is ‘fatally flawed’. He will be deemed untrustworthy, unreliable, everything that can be thrown will be thrown. To an outsider, this is crazy. But this is actually the way these ‘debates’ proceed. If you update your stance based on new information you are savaged; if you fail to update – maybe because the new information is not good enough – you are savaged as well. Is it any wonder that most academic historians have crept quietly away from these ‘debates’ leaving the field open to those who share such views? This is a lose-lose situation. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

[1] Editorial Comment, History Ireland September/October 2017.
[3] Andy Bielenberg: ‘Gerard Murphy, disappearing Freemasons and the limits of ideological revisionism’, History Ireland, September/October 2017, Vol 25, No. 4 pp. 14-17.
[5] Ibid.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Alternative Facts

Barry Keane among the Freemasons

I was not aware until this week that last year Barry Keane had done Trojan work in trying to establish how many of my list of 32 Cork Freemasons who were struck off the membership rolls actually survived the 1921/22 period.[1] However, now that I am aware of it, I should at least take the time to check out what he came up with. After all, it is my book that he is criticizing. He says my book is ‘controversial’, yet the only thing controversial about it is that it dug up whole new sources of information that nobody had thought of using up until then. There is hardly a line in the book that is not sourced. This may make the book somewhat overdetailed but finding new sources is hardly controversial.

Some of these sources, such as the Valuation records of the south eastern suburbs of Cork city are still being ignored. Others are being checked and amongst these are the Freemason records held at the Grand Lodge of Freemasons in Dublin which have recently come online.[2] The missing Masons were mostly members of Freemason Lodge No. 71. My thesis was that some of these may have disappeared in view of the claims made by Cork city IRA men such as Connie Neenan, Mick Murphy and others that members of the so-called Anti-Sinn Fein League supposed spies were picked up in ones and twos and shot and their bodies dumped. I never suggested that anything like all of them disappeared. In fact, I believed at the time, and still do, that the majority of them fled, or were forced to flee.

The context of this was the shooting of James Beal, an Englishman shot by the IRA in Wilton on the western suburbs of the city in February 1921. Beal was a member of Lodge No. 71 and apparently had a list on him which was taken by the IRA and assumed to be a list of fellow ‘spies’. When I consulted the membership rolls of the Masonic Headquarters  in Dublin I was astonished to discover that Lodge No 71 had a large number of members who had been ‘struck off’ around 1925/26, something which was not replicated in any other lodge in Ireland over those years. They were struck off because they had failed to renew their membership fees despite being repeatedly requested to do so. So common sense suggested that, considering that the ‘master spy list’ as Ernie O’Malley called it, had been found on Beal and that up to half a dozen city IRA men claimed that people on this list had been lifted that there may have been some connect between this and the list of ‘struck off’ Freemasons.

So I published the list of ‘struck off’ Freemasons in the hope that people would rise to the challenge and establish exactly how many of them had survived the revolutionary period. I should point out that at the time of the writing of The Year of Disappearances the amount of genealogical information available online was significantly less than it is now. Thankfully this has been remedied and Barry Keane has been doing much genealogical work on these and related topics over the past several years. Such has been the explosion of genealogical material becoming available that I would suggest that it would be difficult for anyone from an English-speaking country to remain hidden from the all-seeing eyes of or at least up until about 1980. So if someone leaves absolutely no record – of death, marriage, will, probate, passenger lists, telephone directories etc – after 1921/22 there must be some good reason for it.

So what did Keane discover? He claims to have established that 17 of my list of 32 definitely survived, that 10 more may have survived with greater than ‘50:50 certainty’ and that he failed to find any information on another five. Then he makes what may be a significant statement when he says that the latter were mostly in the military ‘and would have no reason to stay in Ireland after 1922’. ‘To be blunt’, Keane writes, ‘85% of Murphy’s disappeared either did not disappear at all or have left sufficient information to show that on the balance of probabilities they did not disappear’, if that makes sense. ‘If the military is excluded the outcome for virtually everyone on the list has been established.’ He suggests that ‘it is reasonable to ask Murphy to remove these people from his list and publish the full outcome of all those on Freemason lodges in Cork who were struck off by 1925. Inevitably, this new information calls into question Murphy’s claim of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the south-eastern corner of Cork.’

Considering that I have never claimed there had been ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Cork city and this is on public record, the latter part of Keane’s statement is a bit odd. The first part is reasonable, however, and I would be more than happy to remove all those who were found to have had subsequent lives if that were proven to be the case. And if that meant everyone had to go, then then so be it. I have no axe to grind on any of this. In fact, I’d be happier if they could all be found. After all, no Irishman should rejoice in the fact that the views of someone like Father Dominic on the subject of Freemasonry might actually be acted upon. So Keane states in effect that no Freemasons disappeared, which is fine. But is this what his data actually says?

Because from my reading of his data it would appear that, far from being able to find information (post 1921/22 information, that is) on all those on the list, he failed to find it for no fewer 17 of the 32, not the other way round. These were:

Mungo John Smith,                 Captain, Royal Field Artillery
Thomas Morgan,                     Varnish Maker
Stanley Morgan                       Varnish Maker
Stanley Hunt,                          Mill Manager
Edward Collingwood              Lithographer
Henry A. Harris                      YMCA Organizer
John Reeves Hennessy           Accountant/Engineer
Alfred Hennessy                     Dockyard Coppersmith
Edward W Owens                   Clerk
Frederick J. Moffitt                 Clerk
Walter Roberts                        Dentist
John J. Carson                         Chief Petty Officer
William Highet                        Royal Navy Engineer
William B. Beamish                X (indecipherable) Agent
Edward Sparks                        Naval Police Sergeant
Frederick W.D. Leonard         Customs Officer
John Cottrell                           Accountant
George A. Stoney                    Lieutenant Royal Dublin Fusiliers

He did find information on the fifteen others on the list of 32 and there is no debate about that. In fact, I had found most of these fifteen myself and stated this in a previous blog. But what about the above names? How does Keane pare this list of 17 down to five, or even zero, depending on which one of his sentences you read? How does he, to borrow a hurling phrase, turn a 17 point defeat into a 17 point victory? Well, he employs various little tricks like changing people’s names or their religion. He states for instance that William B. Beamish is ‘more likely’ to have been William Henry Beamish of Glounthaune who died in England in 1927, rather than William B. Beamish who lived in the city and was an insurance agent. Likewise, he states that a John Cottrell who died in Cork in 1923 was the man of that name on the Freemason list, even though the former was a solicitor and a Catholic and the latter an accountant and almost certainly a Protestant. He moves people around. He states, for instance, that Walter Roberts, a dentist based in Cork, could not be the Walter Roberts on the list because in 1911 he lived in Dublin, as though he could not have moved from Dublin to Cork in the meantime.

He also makes unjustified assumptions. He states that William Highet ‘probably’ died in Scotland in 1927, just as Frederick Leonard ‘probably’ died in Bristol in 1954. Yet there is no reason for thinking that these are the same persons, especially given that Highet is a relatively common Scottish name and Leonards in England are two a penny. As for most of the rest, he claims that the military names on the list were not Corkonians and would have left Cork in 1922 and that would account for their having no further records. Or else they may never have been in Cork, despite Lodge 71 being based in Cork. However, even military men have to live somewhere and die somewhere and military personnel are the easiest of all categories to trace. Yet despite the gigantic resources available, he was not able to account for the five military personnel named above – and three others who clearly had military links.

This is not to say that all of the above disappeared. Edward Collingwood, for instance, died in Somerset in 1942, something which, unusually for him, Keane did not pick up. Neither does he pick up on John Reeves Hennessy who died in Surrey in 1974 – though there is no record of his brother, Alfred’s, death.[3] However, too many of the remaining men had military connections – I make it eight out of seventeen – fifteen if you discount Collingwood and John Reeves Hennessy – for us to dismiss the possibility that there was some connection between their military links and what happened to them.

There can be no doubt that Lodge 71 was targeted by the IRA. There is no equivalent for the number of ‘struck offs’ in any other lodge in Ireland. It is quite evident that most of those who were struck off had to leave Cork and in many instances Ireland, probably in a hurry. Thomas Stewart who was Warrant Master Junior for the lodge in 1921 stated that ‘of course, all the SF in this city knew that I was connected with Lodge 71 and was also WW Jnr for that year. So it made it doubly difficult for me.’[4]   We know that James Beal was killed, that the IRA had their list of supposed ‘spies’, that according to themselves the list was acted upon, we know that a disproportionate number of the ‘struck offs’ were military men. What this suggests is that there was no smoke without fire. What Keane’s analysis does confirm is that the vast majority left Cork, probably in a hurry and never came back.

Keane has done some good in establishing who exactly from my original list of 32 actually survived. This serves to focus on the remaining fifteen persons, over half of whom had links with the military. But suggesting that all of these survived when he can find no record for them is premature to say the least, if not downright disingenuous. Of course this all goes with the territory. Anyone has followed the various ‘debates’ revolving around Irish history and what happened in 1921/22 will be aware that ‘alternative facts’ are nothing new on this island.

[2] At
[3] He says that an A. Hennessy lived at the family home in 1945. This is as likely to have been another brother Alan as Albert.
[4] Thomas Stewart, TNA CO762/14/21.

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.