The 1920s Disappeared: The Real Question Not Addressed

Guest writer Professor Eunan O'Halpin responds to a piece that featured in both TPQ and The Broken Elbow written by Ed Moloney.

The Broken Elbow asserts that I stated that ‘hundreds’ of alleged civilian spies were killed and secretly buried during the War of Independence, and that Niall Meehan has demolished this claim. Had I made such a claim, even so incorrigibly long-winded a writer as Mr Meehan might be able to show it was nonsense. But I did not. 

In a chapter on ‘Problematic killing during the War of Independence and its aftermath: civilian spies and informers’ in James Kelly and Marian Lyons (eds.) Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain and Europe (Dublin, 2013) – hereafter Kelly and Lyons - I wrote that of 2138 deaths in Britain and Ireland attributable to Irish political violence between January 1917 and December 1921 which I have identified through my long-running research project ‘The Dead of the Irish Revolution’, I had documented 183 IRA killings of civilians as alleged spies or informers, all of them arising in 1920-1. A minority of these were shot in the open; some were abducted, and secretly killed, their bodies left to be found; and others were killed and buried or weighted down and dumped into rivers, lakes or the sea.  

It is also accepted that a number of British soldiers, including would-be deserters, and a handful of RIC men were killed and their remains hidden across Ireland, but these should not be confused with civilian fatalities although they were often also termed ‘spies’. 

While it is possible to cross-check IRA reports of the secret disposal of the remains of RIC men against official records with a high degree of reliability, the same cannot be done for soldiers. Records in the Irish and British national archives and in regimental museums show various cases where soldiers still recorded by the British army as ‘deserters’ were in fact killed and buried by the IRA. One famous case, which may have inspired Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’, is that of the hapless ‘Stay and Motley’ – Jack Steer and George Mottley – deserters who were in IRA hands so long that they were regarded almost as friends until an officer decided that they had seen too much and must be killed, and whose remains were recovered from a Kerry bog in 1926. So it is likely that more British soldiers were killed and buried by the IRA, particularly in Cork, than show up in official returns, although my guess is that we are talking of perhaps ten or twenty people, rather than hundreds. 

As my footnotes in Kelly and Lyons showed, the 183 civilian spy deaths were all reported in contemporary IRA documents, or in the private or published recollections of IRA veterans. My main documentary sources were i. the Bureau of Military History witness statements, open to research since 2003; and ii. key collections, including the Mulcahy and Ernie O’Malley papers in UCD, the Séan O’Mahony and other records in the National Library, and material around the country such as papers in the Cork Archives Institute and the Leitrim oral history series in the Ballinamore public library.

In Kelly and Lyons I pointed out that the most striking aspect of my figures was the huge disparity between the number of civilian spies reported killed in Cork and civilian spies killed anywhere else in Ireland. My data showed Cork was overall by far the most violent county, with 495 deaths; Dublin was next with 309. But whereas in Dublin, the seat of the underground government and of IRA GHQ, just 5% (15) of known fatalities were civilian alleged spies, in Cork the proportion was over 14 % (70). In Belfast, Gerry Adams’ city, the IRA seem to have killed not a single alleged informer in 1920-1. 

In 2010 I had also had access for a few days to the enormous collection of records of the Military Service Pensions project, so that I could prepare a contribution to the Guide to the Military Service Pensions Collection, scheduled to be published in 2012 (in fact it was not released until January 2014, but that was no fault of the contributors or the printers – its printed date of publication is 2012). My contribution is available online.

I only had time to look at a handful of individual pensions applications, but I got through a lot of the ‘activities’ files, where former officers of IRA brigades, battalions and companies reported in the 1930s in varying degrees of detail and completeness on their units’ actions from 1917 to 1923. One report I quoted came from E Company, 4th Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, commanded by Martin Corry, later a Fianna Fáil TD. Corry claimed that ’some 27 Ennemy spies & Intelligence officers were captured … & duly executed’ by his Knockraha company up to the Truce. Corry’s claim, if accurate, meant that more people had been killed and buried by the Knockraha company than could be accounted for in other sources or appeared in my figures. In my contribution to the guide, and in subsequent chapters in David Fitzpatrick (ed.), Terror in Ireland (Dublin, 2012) and in Kelly and Lyons, I pointed this out. However, I did not include these claims in my calculations about civilian spies (which, incidentally, neither Meehan nor anyone else has challenged).

In September 2014, the second tranche of military service pensions releases included the pension application of Edward Moloney (MSP34REF27648), the so-called ‘Governor’ of Sing Sing, the graveyard crypt at Knockraha which served as one of the ‘brigade prisons’ of the Cork No. 1 Brigade. Martin Corry wrote that Moloney handled over 150 prisoners of all kinds in Sing Sing, including civilians serving short sentences imposed by republican courts. Moloney said (interview with pensions board, 18 February 1939) that he received prisoners not only from Corry, but directly from IRA units in ‘Middleton, Carrigtwohill, Queenstown, and even from Mount Mellery’. ‘There was over 50 of them’, between ‘[army] officers, spies, Tans and IO[Intelligence Officers]s’. Amongst these he handled ‘about 50’ spies. Further research, some of it dependent on the release of further pensions records, will be needed to probe the reliability of these figures. But, combined with the evidence I have already cited from IRA testimonies such as those in the Ernie O’Malley papers – where, as published in Kelly and Lyons, I quote Mick Leahy of Cobh as telling O’Malley that ’90 spies were buried near Knockraha … an excellent place’ - it is highly likely that the actual figure for concealed IRA killings of civilians in East Cork is higher than previously accepted or published by me.

This new material reinforces the argument which I made in Kelly and Lyons, which is that the big issue for the years from 1920 to 1922 is not that the IRA killed some civilians, policemen and soldiers and buried them, but that such a large proportion definitely happened in one brigade area of one county, Cork, and further that there are strong indications that the number of people who were secretly killed and buried in the Cork No. 1 Brigade area is larger than we can so far ascertain. Why was the IRA in Cork city and the surrounding brigade area to the west, east and south east proportionately so much more inclined to kill civilians as alleged spies, and to conceal the remains of those whom they killed, than other brigades in Cork or elsewhere in Ireland?

That is the real question which Niall Meehan should address.


  1. Looking at the Steer and Mottley case, this would appear to indicate a reluctance to execute prisoners rather than the IRA having a 'taste' for the practice. Also, to then leap to the assertion that their eventual execution could be used to suggest that between ten and twenty others were likely killed and secretly buried doesn't really have any credence. Devoid of evidence.

    Whatever the academic 'differences' here, it appears that if there is no actual proof it is better not to indulge in a ghost count for political purposes. May some of those engaged in a pension application a decade or two after the events described not be inclined to embellish things a tad? The source mentioned seems to have been renowned for it. It is a different thing surely to have opposing views on factual material and the subsequent implications of historical events rather than to be speculating on un-provable death-counts for political purposes. Not good for history buffs in general.

  2. It is quite obvious to me why there appears to have been more spies and touts executed around cork and it doesn't require a degree to come up with the only logical answer,,,,,there were more touts. This whole area was awash with Brits and Brit sympathisers. After the German queens visit in some areas it doesn't appear to have changed much. Sometimes the answers are too obvious or is it just that some people like the sound of their own voice?.

  3. Eunan O'Halpin is probably correct when he writes that "the actual figure for concealed IRA killings of civilians in East Cork is higher than previously accepted or published". That said, the very fact that there are such large discrepancies between the three estimates gleaned from these three individual pension applications suggests to me that such figures should be treated with a little caution.

    Indeed, as both John Borgonovo and John Dorney argue in their respective reviews of O'Halpin's documentary, it would be astonishing if the Cork IRA had managed to disappear scores of civilians and that apart from vague references in IRA pension applications, none of these disappearances would be mentioned in any governmental, military, civilian or religious records.

  4. They did a good bit of their disappearing in 1922 when they had complete control of the script. They were especially adept at murdering and burying defenceless protestants who were basically forgotten about.

  5. The key point of Prof. Eunan O'Halpin's rebuttal is that 'just 5%(15) of known fatalities were civilian alleged spies, in Cork the proportion was over 14%(70)'. Professor O'Halpin then states that no historian has challenged these figures. He is correct.

    However, many researchers have examined the total number of deaths in Cork during the War of Independence and Civil War. Some of these include Padraig O'Ruairc, Andy Bielenberg, John Borgonovo, Niall Meehan, Gerard Murphy, and I.

    I am perfectly happy to wait patiently for the imminent publication of 'The dead of the Irish Revolution' by Dathai O Corrain and Professor O'Halpin before engaging with their research.

    As far as I am aware the list of 70 names has not been published but Gerard Murphy has just published a list of the Cork disappeared and this comes to 34 civilians, 40 Military, and 6 RIC. 16 of these bodies were subsequently re-interred locally or repatriated to the UK shortly after the war. It will be interesting to see who the other 36 individuals classified as civilians are. On Murphy's new list there is no known information suggesting that two individuals (Patrick Ray and William McCarthy)were killed, let alone killed by the IRA, and this points to the problematic nature of this topic.

    When 'The Dead of the Irish Revolution' is published I am certain the historians with an interest in this topic will respond. Their lack of response so far to a claim without (as yet) supporting information should not be taken as consent or dissent.

  6. if u rob someones land, annihilate a culture and are part of genocide,u have to expect a reaction. get over urself cue bono, when it comes to disappearing, ur mob hav disappeared entire nations, cultures and peoples, although u wudnt think it listening to the corporate historians ireland has harvested this last 30-40 years. do u know how many ships full of food left cork during the 'famine'. ur part of a genocidal empire that has caused untold suffering in every corner of the earth, including england itself. deal with it.

  7. My apologies for a mistake in my previous post. I did not mean to include Patrick Ray/Rea as being an individual without information as he has a file in the military archives and his wife and children were awarded £1,900 compensation in January 1922. There is no doubt that he was shot bu the IRA as the file in the military archives was used in the court case to establish that he was dead.

    I would be grateful if you could correct my error as soon as possible

  8. Barry, we can only delete your post. Blogger does not provide the facility of editing another person's comment. There is a way around it but it is a bit cumbersome. The best thing is for you to delete your original comment, resubmit your new one. Or just leave it as it is now that you have clarified the matter.