Thursday 20 June 2019

The mother who turned IRA spy to save her son

Ailin Quinlan

After losing both parents and her husband, Josephine Brown vowed to retrieve her young son from her in-laws by any means necessary. Ailin Quinlan on the British Army secretary who became an IRA spy

Fact is often stranger than fiction, and never more so than in the extraordinary tale of a young mother who agreed to spy for the IRA if they would kidnap her son from her in-laws in Britain.

In an even stranger twist, she fell in love with, and married, the IRA man who carried out the abduction.

The story begins in Wales in 1916, when Limerick-born Josephine Brown's husband Coleridge went to fight in the First World War.

At the time, Josephine, Coleridge and their two young sons, Reggie and Gerald, were living with Coleridge's parents in Wales.

After Coleridge went to war, Josephine continued to live with her in-laws.

However, it was an uneasy arrangement – Josephine was a devout Catholic, while her husband's family were staunch Protestants.

On top of this, her sister-in-law Maud was constantly meddling in little Reggie's upbringing against Josephine's wishes, which added to the young mother's discomfiture. Soon after her husband went to war, Josephine returned to Ireland. Her mother had died some years previously and now her father had become ill, so she moved to Cork to look after him.

As her in-laws had requested that Reggie stay with them, she left Wales with Gerald.

However, soon after she returned to Cork her father died, leaving Josephine very much alone in the world. At just 24, she'd lost both her parents, her husband was away at war and one of her children was living abroad.

Although she was lonely, Josephine had a good job – she was working as a secretary at Cork's Victoria Barracks, now Collins Barracks but then a British Army headquarters.

"She was having a very tough time of it," says Paddy Hayes, MD of film production company Magamedia and director of a new film on the story of Josephine Brown, which can be seen on the TG4 player.

But there was more bad news in the offing.

In October 1917, about a year after her return to Ireland, came the news that Coleridge had been killed in action at Ypres.

Now completely alone in the world, Josephine requested her Welsh in-laws to return Reggie to her in Ireland.

To her shock, they refused.

She sought the advice of Bishop Daniel Colohan of Cork, who advised her to take a custody case against the Browns in the English courts.

She did, but the case, which began in July 1918, failed.

"The judge put young Reggie, who was then nearly five, on the stand and asked him who he wanted to live with," says Hayes.

Reggie, understandably enough, requested to stay with the grandparents with whom he had lived all his life – his mother was a virtual stranger to him.

"It was a dramatic moment and very traumatic for Josephine," says Hayes.

And if that wasn't enough, a letter from her dead husband was read out in court.

In the document, which he had left with a solicitor, Coleridge requested that in the event of his death, Reggie should be brought up by his own family and not solely by Josephine.

She lost the case and returned to her job in Cork, where she was promoted to head of the barracks' secretarial pool.

"She was very depressed and wrote about throwing herself into the River Lee," says Hayes.

In desperation, one day, she went to pray to the Virgin Mary in Cork's Holy Trinity Church. As Josephine knelt in the pew, lost in desperation, she was approached by a priest, Fr Dominic O Connor.

A Capuchin with close links to the IRA – he was chaplain of the Cork Number One Brigade – he asked the distressed young woman what was wrong and promised to do his best to help her.

Fr O Connor then asked her to give him a code that could be used as a means of making safe contact with her later. Josephine wrote the letter G on a piece of paper.

Next, the priest approached Florrie O'Donoghue, IRA intelligence officer in Cork during the turbulent year of 1919.

Josephine had significant bargaining power – as the widow of a British army officer and a trusted senior clerk in Cork's Victoria Barracks, she had access to highly sensitive information; information O'Donoghue and his IRA comrades needed desperately.

O'Donoghue was trying to build an army from scratch, establishing networks of safe houses, organising raids and sabotaging the British regime, but he was frequently coming up short on the greatest weapon in a guerilla war campaign – information on the enemy.

He was immediately interested in Josephine's potential as a spy. Some weeks later, when she answered the door to a man holding a piece of paper with the letter 'G' on it, she assumed he was merely a messenger.

However, O'Donoghue had come himself.

Josephine explained her role in the barracks and offered to become a spy. The wheels were put in motion.

As O'Donoghue set about getting approval for a kidnapping mission to Cardiff to capture Josephine's son, Josephine began smuggling sensitive information out of the barracks.

She was deemed trustworthy by her superiors and her treachery went unnoticed.

"Her information gave Florrie an insight into what the British Army knew about the IRA and enabled him to stay one step

ahead," says Hayes. The pair frequently met secretly in churches around the city to enable the handing over of the highly confidential documents.

In November, 1920, the IRA executed five civilians accused of being British informers. In reprisal, British forces attacked Sinn Fein halls and burned safe houses.

By now, the British knew that they had a mole in their midst.

Realising the growing danger that Josephine was in, O'Donoghue asked Michael Collins if he could lead the kidnap mission to Cardiff himself.

He was put in touch with operators on the ground in Wales, who were to supply him with transport, men and arms.

The abduction was a success. Reggie, who was now about seven, was smuggled back to Ireland and mother and child were reunited.

Later that year, a number of Scotland Yard detectives arrived to interview Josephine as part of their investigation into Reggie's disappearance, but the trail was cold.

It's believed Reggie was kept hidden in a safe house, and that for some time at least, mother and child met only in secret.

Now that the IRA had kept their side of the bargain, Josephine resumed her espionage with renewed vigour.

With the War of Independence growing dirtier by the day, Josephine's intelligence was of increasing significance to O'Don-oghue and the IRA – the flying columns were able to keep one step ahead of the British.

They obtained details of troop movement, and they were even able to obtain information on informers in their own ranks.

In 1921, O'Donoghue – who was already working undercover as an IRA operative – was forced to go on the run.

From his letters, says Hayes, it is clear that there was a strong romantic attachment between himself and Josephine.

In April of 1921, he and Josephine were married by Fr O Connor in the dead of night in St Peter and Paul's Church in Cork city, while O'Donoghue was on the run.

In July that year, Josephine resigned her post at Victoria Barracks and the couple later settled down in Cork. They went on to have four children of their own, and O'Donoghue later adopted Gerald and Reggie.

'Am an Ghatair: In Ainm an Mhic' screened earlier this month at the Cork Film Festival and on TG4. It can be viewed any time on the TG4 player on www.tg4.ie

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