‘Spies and informers beware!’: IRA executions of alleged civilian spies during the War of Independence 1919 -1921.

An IRA spy label attached to the body of Patrick Larmour.
An IRA spy label attached to the body of Patrick Larmour.

By Padraig Og O Ruairc

The ‘intelligence war’ was undoubtedly one of the most important military aspects of the Irish War of Independence and today it still remains one of the most controversial features of that conflict.

For the British forces the best way to defeat the republican insurgency was to acquire accurate intelligence information about IRA personnel, their supply of arms and operations.

Prior to the 1916 Rising the British government had relied on the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police to gather such information. However the widespread closure of rural RIC barracks following IRA attacks, the success of Sinn Féin’s police boycott and the consequent mass resignation of Irish-born Constables meant that the British forces became increasingly dependent upon the civilian populace for information.

Given the previous role of spies and informers in compromising the republican insurrections of 1798 and 1867, the IRA was acutely aware of the importance of stopping the flow of intelligence to its enemy by identifying and eliminating British agents. As a guerrilla army relying on secrecy and mobility, the IRA was rarely in a position to punish suspected spies by holding them prisoner. Instead the republicans inflicted a variety of other punishments on these suspects.

Some received threatening notices, others suffered economic boycott or were forced into exile. In the most extreme cases republicans captured and killed civilians they claimed were spies and informers. A total of 196 civilians accused of spying were killed by the IRA during the War of Independence.

 

The geography of IRA executions.

Fig. 1 - Map the killing of civilians accused of spying by the IRA during the War of Independence.The intensity of the intelligence war and the number of related IRA killings varied widely throughout Ireland. (See – Fig. 1 map) The execution of suspected spies was almost exclusively a ‘Southern’ phenomenon. Apart from a cluster of executions in Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan the IRA execution of spies was almost unknown in Ulster.

The largest number of IRA executions occurred in Cork where seventy-eight alleged spies were executed by the republicans. The second highest number occurred in Tipperary where sixteen civilians accused of spying for the British forces were killed. The IRA in Dublin killed at least thirteen civilians for spying.

These three counties alone accounted for more than half of such killings nationally. This is unsurprising given that these counties were home to intense IRA military activity and were amongst the first districts to be proclaimed under martial law by the British forces.

The largest number of IRA executions occurred in Cork where seventy-eight alleged spies were executed by the republicans.

However, the number of executions did not always correspond to the level of local IRA activity. The IRA in Clare mounted a very strong military campaign that resulted in the deaths of forty-five British troops and the execution of three civilians accused of spying. By contrast a desultory IRA campaign in Meath inflicted just three fatalities on the British forces yet the local republicans killed four alleged spies. The only IRA execution to occur outside of Ireland during the conflict was the assassination of a British agent in Middlesex, England, although a number of later attempts were made after the Truce to kill suspected spies who had fled to the USA.

Anti-Protestant sectarianism?

Mrs Lindsay, killed by the IRA in 1921.
Mrs Lindsay, killed by the IRA in 1921.

Given the potential threat posed by spies and informers, the execution of suspected British intelligence agents was a logical and necessary action from a republican perspective. However, it has repeatedly been alleged that members of the IRA used the ‘intelligence war’ as a pretext to murder Protestants, ex-soldiers and vagrants. These accusations surfaced in the memoirs of British veterans published shortly after the conflict.

Hugh Pollard a former RIC Press Officer claimed these killings were primarily motivated by agrarianism and that those killed ‘had nothing whatever to do with the authorities … these were private murders, possibly in pursuit of old faction feuds, but carried out under the all-embracing Irish cloak of patriotism.’

The history of the British Army’s 6th Division, suggested a possible sectarian motivation to these killings noting ‘a large number of Protestant Loyalists were murdered and labeled as spies’ and that ‘a regular murder campaign was instigated against Protestant Loyalists and anyone who might be suspected of being an informer quite irrespective of whether he really was one or not’.

The history of the British Army’s 6th Division wrote,  ‘a large number of Protestant Loyalists were murdered and labeled as spies’

In recent years there has been an animated debate amongst historians as to the veracity of these claims. Much of the groundwork for this debate was prepared by Peter Hart, who taking Cork as a case study, claimed that the majority of those the IRA executed for spying were innocent and that such killings often had more to do with prejudice against Protestants and ex-servicemen than genuine concerns about military security.

Hart suggested such killings were part of a national campaign of sectarian violence against Protestants which was tantamount to ‘ethnic cleansing’. Elements of this narrative were adopted and reproduced by several newspaper columnists, political activists and polemicists such as Kevin Myers and Eoghan Harris – but detailed analysis shows that the IRA’s intelligence war was less straightforwardly sectarian than previously suggested.

The overwhelming majority, 142 of the 196 civilians killed by the IRA as alleged spies (approximately 72%) were Catholic, just 44 of those killed (approximately 23%) were Protestant (ie Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist). The religious affiliation of the remaining 5% of the IRA’s victims is unknown.

The overwhelming majority, 142 of the 196 civilians killed by the IRA as alleged spies, (approximately 72%) were Catholic, just 44 of those killed (approximately 23%) were Protestant

The execution of Protestants accused of spying was not widespread nationally. The IRA did not kill any civilians accused of spying in Antrim, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Mayo, Tyrone or Wicklow. Furthermore, Catholics accounted for all of those shot by the IRA as spies in Armagh, Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Galway, Kildare, Kilkenny, Limerick, Louth, Meath, Waterford and Wexford. This seemingly rules out the possibility that the IRA in these counties exploited the intelligence war as a pretext for sectarian murder or ‘ethnic cleansing’.

The largest number of Protestant civilians killed by the IRA as alleged spies occurred in Cork where 23 (approximately 29%) of those killed were Protestant. (For the most authoritative research on the Cork IRA’s execution of alleged civilian spies see Dr. Andy Bielenberg and Prof. James S. Donnellys “Cork Spy Files” on www.theirishrevolution.ie)

Although this figure appears to be disproportionately high, there were very large Protestant communities in Cork which were staunchly Loyalist in politics and, consequently, may have been more willing to risk the IRA’s wrath by assisting the British forces. The British Army’s ‘Record of the Rebellion in Ireland’ reported that Protestant Loyalists in West Cork had actively assisted the British forces ‘in the Bandon Valley … there were many Protestant farmers who gave information … it proved almost impossible to protect these brave men many of whom were murdered’.

The IRA killed one alleged spy in Sligo and a further two in Leitrim  – these areas are exceptional as the only counties where all of those killed as spies were Protestant. However even in these counties it is problematic to automatically assume that the three killings concerned were sectarian. The widow of one of the victims stated in her application to the British Government’s Irish Grants Commission that her husband, William Latimer, a Protestant farmer, was killed because he had supplied intelligence information to the RIC.

Furthermore she did not ascribe a sectarian motive to his killing. Lionel Curtis, a British government adviser who visited Ireland in 1921 reported that Southern Irish Protestants did not complain of sectarian persecution and were targeted ‘not by reason of their religion, but rather because they are under suspicion as Loyalists.’

Ex-servicemen, tramps and vagrants.

At least 97 of the civilians killed by the IRA as spies (approximately 49%) were ex- servicemen. The vast majority of these had served in the British Army and the remainder were veterans of the Royal Navy. A further 8 (approximately 4% of the total) were ex-RIC Constables. One of those killed, Hugh Duffy, was a member of the Ulster Special Constabulary and another William Nolan had applied to join the RIC. Approximately 2% of those shot as spies were IRA Volunteers. At least 99 of those killed (approximately 49%) had no military or police service.

A number of academics, most notably Jane Leonard, have suggested the IRA were prejudiced against Irishmen who had served in the British Army. Leonard contended that ex-soldiers ‘weakened the revolution’s effectiveness by refusing to join Sinn Féin, subscribe to its funds, or obey the rulings of its courts’.

The IRA had reason to be suspicious of ex-soldiers with strong Loyalist sympathies or those whose financial difficulties gave them an economic incentive to engage in intelligence work.

In fact, former British soldiers were actively recruited by the IRA, and occupied important leadership positions within the force. These included Emmet Dalton the IRA’s Director of Training, Tom Barry the training officer for the West Cork Brigade, Jim Tormey Commandant of the Athlone Brigade and Ignatius O’Neill leader of the Mid Clare Brigade’s Active Service Unit. Far from being prejudiced against ex-soldiers the IRA valued and promoted them because of their military experience. William Corrie, an ex-British soldier who joined the IRA’s Dublin Brigade recalled that: ‘During my service with the IRA I met hundreds of ex-servicemen’

Nonetheless, the IRA had reason to be suspicious of ex-soldiers with strong Loyalist sympathies or those whose financial difficulties gave them an economic incentive to engage in intelligence work. Irishmen who had served in the British forces were more likely to suffer economic hardship than their British counterparts. Unemployment amongst ex-soldiers in post-war Ireland reached 46% compared to just 10% in Britain.

The economic difficulties of ex-servicemen, coupled with their military training and previous loyal service to the British Crown, made them ideal candidates for recruitment by the British forces for the purpose of intelligence work. The British forces made a number of attempts to exploit ex-soldiers’ associations to gather intelligence about the IRA. Whilst the IRA nationally killed a large number of ex-servicemen in many areas, including Limerick and Cork city, the British forces were responsible for the majority of ex-soldiers killed in these areas.

It has also been suggested that republicans exercised prejudice against tramps and vagrants during the conflict – this may have been related to the activities of British intelligence officers who wore disguise whilst on intelligence gathering missions. Kenneth Strong, a British Intelligence officer stationed in Tullamore, travelled the countryside disguised ‘as the owner of a small donkey cart’ when meeting locals he had recruited as intelligence agents.

Hugh McIvor, Black and Tan stationed in Bandon, recalled that a senior RIC officer led a ‘special squad’ of RIC Constables who ‘all dressed like old farmers’ whilst on intelligence gathering operations. Given that the British forces disguised themselves in this manner it may account in part for the deep suspicions harbored by the IRA against vagrants and strangers they encountered in their areas a number of whom were killed as spies.

 

Taboos – IRA Volunteers, Women and Clergymen

McPhearson Spy LabelOnly four of those the IRA executed as suspected spies came from within their own ranks. One of these was Patrick Larmour an IRA Volunteer from Monaghan was arrested by the British forces, and ‘broke’ under interrogation.

After being released from custody Larmour told his superior officers in the IRA what had happened. Although it is unlikely that he gave the British forces any significant information, he was shot as a spy.

The IRA killed only four women as alleged informers.

The execution of IRA Volunteers as alleged spies proved highly divisive in republican circles. Debate as to the guilt or innocence of Patrick D’Arcy an IRA Volunteer shot as an alleged spy in West Clare raged for decades after his death. James Dalton an IRA officer in Limerick city was shot as the result of an internal IRA fued. The allegation that Dalton was undoubtedly concocted after the killing, and, a short time later Dáil Éireann took the unprecedented step of investigating Dalton’s death and issuing a public statement declaring his innocence.

The likelihood is that the British forces managed to recruit quite a few republicans for intelligence work who never suffered the threat of execution unlike their civilian counterparts. For example Paddy Egan, the Brigade Intelligence Officer of the IRA’s  South Roscommon Brigade was a ‘double agent’ working for the British forces and other IRA Volunteers “turned” by the British in captivity worked as “stool pidgeons”gathering vital intelligence information from other IRA prisoners.

The British intelligence agent who probably inflicted the most devastating blows to the republican war effort was William ‘Bill’ Shiels an ex-British soldier who had infiltrated the IRA in north Cork and was responsible for the deaths of nine IRA Volunteers at Nadd and Mourne Abbey. Shiels managed to disappear just before the Truce of July 1921 and was later reported to have started a new life in Asia with the aid of British Intelligence / MI5.

Just three women were killed by the IRA for spying, undoubtedly the most infamous of these executions was the shooting of Mrs. Maria Lyndsay. Mrs Lindsay was abducted by the IRA in March 1921 because she had informed the British Army about an IRA ambush at Dripsey, County Cork. Acting on her information the British army had launched a surprise attack capturing five IRA Volunteers who were later tried by courts martial and executed. The IRA had warned the British that they would kill Lyndsay if the republican prisoners were executed. They duly carried out their threat killing Mrs. Lyndsay and burying her body in secret.

Fr. Shinnick a Catholic priest who had assisted Mrs. Lyndsay was not killed. Although the killing of women was a taboo rarely broken, killing a clergyman of any denomination would have been even more controversial and although the IRA knew of several clergymen both Catholic and Protestant who had gathered intelligence for the British forces none of them were shot as spies.

 

Spy labels, firing squads and ‘the disappeared’.

Arthur Vicars, killed by the IRA in April 1921.
Arthur Vicars, killed by the IRA in April 1921.

The majority of civilians killed by the IRA as suspected spies were shot dead. As a warning to others their bodies were usually deposited in public places with an accompanying label reading ‘Shot by IRA – Spies and informers beware!’ Traits of these killings including tying the condemned to a fixed post, execution by firing squad and the use of spy labels mimicked contemporary British military practices.

A few IRA units in Roscommon and Meath killed suspected spies by drowning rather than shooting – the reasons behind this rather bizarre method of execution has never been fully explained. Another unusual practice adopted by sections of the IRA was the ‘disappearance’ of suspected spies whose bodies were secretly buried instead of being labelled and dumped in a public area for discovery.

The British forces were also known to disappear some of their victims (including Fr. Michael Griffin, Patrick Loughnane, Larry Loughnane in Galway and John Connolly in Cork) but it was far more common for the IRA to do so. The practice appears to have been adopted in circumstances where republicans felt that the killing would not be approved of by the wider community such as the shooting of a woman such as Mrs. Lindsay.  It may also have arisen as a pragmatic measure to hide evidence of these killings.

Twenty five of those executed as spies during the War of Independence were ‘disappeared’ by the IRA – the majority of their remains have yet to be recovered.

The IRA tactic of hiding these bodies remains controversial, probably because of similarities with the more recent ‘disappeared’ killed by the Provisional IRA and INLA. However the practice was relatively rare during the War of Independence. The recent claim by Professor Eunan O’Halpin that approximately two hundred of the IRA’s opponents were ‘abducted, executed and … secretly disposed of ’ is undoubtedly a gross overestimate.

Gerard Murphy’s pseudo-historical book  “The Year of Disappearances”, which inferred that a conspiracy involving the IRA, the Irish Government, the British Government and Cork Protestants tried to conceal the “disappearance” and murder of dozens of Cork Protestant-Loyalists by the by IRA has been dismissed by a number of leading Irish historians and academics. The reality is that fewer than twenty five of those executed as spies during the War of Independence were ‘disappeared’ by the IRA – the majority of their remains have yet to be recovered.

Given that in most cases there is no historical documentation publicly available which can conclusively confirm whether those killed by the IRA as spies were in fact British intelligence agents it is likely that these killings will remain controversial regardless of whether the victims were ‘disappeared’ or not.

 

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc’s new book ‘Truce: Murder, Myth and the Last Days of the Irish War of Independence’ is published by Mercier Press.  Note: All figures, statistics and data used in this article come from Ó Ruairc’s book “Truce” except the more recent figures for County cork which come from the “Cork Spy Files” available at www.theirishrevolution.ie by Dr. Andy Bielenberg and Prof. James S. Donnelly.

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