Saturday 27 December 2014

The Irish killing fields

During the War of Independence, the IRA executed at least 50 'spies' and 'informers' and dumped their bodies. Declan Cashin on the mystery still surrounding 'the disappeared'

Unmarked graves, 'killing fields' and political murders are terms we associate with the horrors of conflict in far-off places, but not our own country.

However, a controversial new book argues that during Ireland's short but savage War of Independence, and its immediate aftermath, some 50 people or more went missing in Cork city and county, executed by the IRA as 'spies' and 'informers', and their bodies dumped in the countryside.

In 'The Year of Disappearances', historian Gerard Murphy digs into a fiercely contested period of 20th-century Irish history to cast a light on atrocities committed in the extreme conditions of war.

This is an era and a topic that bitterly divides academics and historians, and Murphy acknowledges the trouble he had trying to verify what happened. His book started out as fiction based on accounts from local IRA men who had lived into the 1950s and 1960s.

The primary focus is on the actions of the Cork No 1 Brigade of the IRA, who were engaged in a dirty war of intelligence against British forces. The No 1 Brigade was initially led by Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in 1920.

MacSwiney was the one who designated an underground vault known as 'Sing Sing' in a local cemetery at Kilquane to be used as a holding pen for prisoners awaiting execution.

Prisoners were then moved to a stretch of isolated, hillside moorland and pine forest known as the Rea, between the parishes of Knockraha and Watergrasshill, some 10 miles outside Cork city.

Murphy calls this a "killing field", a burial ground for at least 20 victims of the conflict (one picture in the book depicts members of the Cork Volunteers enacting a 'mock' execution). The victims were a mixture of British soldiers, Black and Tans, and civilian 'spies', only three of whom are named.

A few key nationalist figures tower over this particular era. Sean O'Hegarty, a 40-year-old 'old-school' Fenian storekeeper from Douglas Road in Cork, replaced MacSwiney as head of the No 1 Brigade.

O'Hegarty was known for both his intelligence and the ruthlessness with which he oversaw his fiefdom. A major figure in the Cork IRA, he disliked people such as Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, deeming them too moderate in their approaches.

Meanwhile, Florence 'Florrie' O'Donoghue organised IRA intelligence in Cork city. It was in this role that he met his wife. Josephine Marchment Brown was the daughter of an RIC constable in Cork. She'd married a Welshman, who was later killed in the First World War, with whom she had two sons.

After moving back to Cork from Wales, Marchment Brown became embroiled in a custody battle with her Welsh in-laws, who wouldn't return her eldest son, Reggie.

Through a local priest, she was put in touch with O'Donoghue, who recruited her as a spy to pass on information about the British, on the basis of her army job in the Victoria Barracks. She agreed on condition the IRA get her son back, an operation that was approved by Michael Collins.

O'Donoghue and two others went to Wales, snatched the child and brought him back to Cork. He was kept in Youghal with Marchment Brown's sister for the remainder of the war. O'Donoghue and Marchment Brown then married in April 1921.

For his part, Corry claims to have disarmed and executed two British Army agents himself, as well as overseeing the deaths of other undercover agents, British soldiers, and deserters in the area.

One execution that has been authenticated was that of an RIC man called Williams for his part in the assassination of another lord mayor of the city, Tomás MacCurtain. Williams was court-martialled by the city brigade's top brass in Corry's own living room.

Corry also listed some 11 spies as having been killed in Knockraha area, including 'Paddy the Painter', who appears to have been a tramp. One historian has found at least 10 cases of tramps and tinkers being executed in the area.

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