Sheila and Nora Wallace grew up on a small farm in Donoughmore, Co Cork – which is about 20 miles northwest of Cork City – at the turn of the twentieth century.
They could scarcely have imagined what a dramatic turn their lives would take in adulthood when they became two of the IRA’s most important secret agents during the War of Independence.
Their electrifying story is told by their grandnephew Bill Murphy and RTÉ Radio 1’steam.
The sisters moved to Cork City – first Sheila, who was six years older, followed by the teenaged Nora – where they ran a small shop on what is now St Augustine’s Street (formerly Brunswick Street), living in two small bedrooms overhead.
The shop – which sold newspapers, sweets, cigarettes, religious statues and the like – became the informal headquarters for the IRA in Cork.
The sisters helped keep an inventory of armaments. They gathered information from British Crown forces’ spies, and passed on messages, which were spirited by train to and from Dublin (often tacked on the footsteps under carriages), or by boat to Liverpool, London and New York.
The Republican movement’s greatest figures knew them, including James Connolly, Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins. An apron given to them by Countess Markievicz resides today in Sligo County Museum. Terence MacSwiney served behind the shop’s counter.
The last place that Tomás Mac Curtain visited before he was gunned down in his house was the sisters’ shop.
“They were so unsuspecting for people outside the organisation. They wouldn’t have guessed what was going on,” says Murphy.
That’s why they were so effective. Their personalities seemed to suit that type of operation as well. They knew how to keep quiet.
"They knew how to judge people because when somebody was coming through the door they never knew if he was legitimate or not.
"They had to have those instincts to keep things on the lowdown, which marked them out.
“The fact they were women, too, helped. They weren’t around the place shooting guns at people, but they were hiding guns and they were hiding guys who were on the run.
"They had meetings in their backroom where all the planning of operations happened. They were recruiting spies, getting out despatches, deciphering codes so they were frontline in that sense.
"The shop was located very close to the RIC barracks on the Coal Quay and an Army barracks nearby so they were hiding in plain sight.”
Often the sisters had to stay awake 24 hours a day guarding material in the shop. Their nerves must have been completely frayed.
Murphy shares a story that didn’t make it into the documentary’s finished cut, which involved three IRA men staying with them one Christmas while on the run.
“The men left a clock behind them when they moved on,” says Murphy.
It was ticking away and Nora and Sheila were wondering for a moment if it was a bomb. It ended up just being a clock.
"They were always living with weaponry, under pressure, in a fight in which they were hugely outnumbered by the occupying forces. There was real danger there all the time.”
A radio documentary was the ideal format for Murphy to tell his very personal story. The passing of his mother a couple of years ago – who was a niece of the two Wallace sisters – was a catalyst for him to get the story told.
He pitched it to RTÉ Radio 1’steam and worked with Sarah Blake as the documentary’s producer. Armed with recording equipment, Murphy gathered the voices together from the key interviews.
He says editing the material down to 40-45 minutes was the project’s biggest struggle.
“It’s very much a verbal history,” says Murphy.
“It’s people expressing their facts and anecdotes as well as a slight audio recording of Nora. Radio is a very immediate and an intimate medium for what is a personal story.
I’m trying to tell the story about my grandaunts, channelled through my mother, and also involving my brother and cousin as well as historians and archivists.
“The medium of radio lends itself to that kind of storytelling. It can conjure a picture of a dark shop behind this large church selling cigarettes, magazines and sweets and in behind in the kitchen, they’re planning their next ambush.”
* The Documentary on One production of The Little Shop of Secrets will be broadcast, RTÉ Radio 1, 1pm, Saturday, 18 July (and repeated Sunday at 7pm)