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.