Brought to light by Dr John Borgonovo of University College Cork’s book, Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence, Josephine’s role during this time is as remarkable as it is hard to believe.
While working in Victoria Barracks, she sought to become an IRA spy for reasons that go far beyond nationalism.
A Cork City native, Josephine was the daughter of a retired RIC head constable. A trained secretary, she moved to Wales in 1910 and married local man, Coleridge Brown, in 1913.
On foot of the First World War, her husband enlisted in the British army and left for Flanders. This saw Josephine and the couple’s two young sons, Reggie and Gerald, move in with her unfamiliar in-laws. Hostile to Catholics and unhappy with the grandchildren being raised in the faith, Josephine found the living arrangements untenable:
“When I told my people-in-law that I was going back to Cork, the grandparents were very upset and begged me to leave Reggie with them for a while. After a lot
of persuasion and most unwillingly, I unfortunately agreed to this.”
Taking only her infant son Gerald back with her, Josephine got a job as a typist in Victoria Barracks and was soon promoted to forewoman, overseeing a staff of 25 clerks and typists.
When Coleridge was killed in late 1917, his family refused requests to return Reggie, forcing Josephine to sue for custody. At the 1918 court hearing in London, it transpired that Coleridge had written a statement saying that in the event of his death, he wished his sons to be raised by his sisters as Protestants.
A shocked Josephine knew
nothing of these wishes. In a ruling that was likely prejudiced against her gender and religion, the judge granted Reggie’s grandparents permanent custody. The bereft young mother returned home without her son.
Josephine’s recollections of the political climate in her home city around 1919 state that “no one living in Cork at the time could fail to be aware to some extent of the struggle that was developing between the British authorities and the Irish people, then led by Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers”.
Aware that her job in the barracks could allow her to help the Volunteers’ cause and unable to fund a custody battle for Reggie, Josephine would soon be using her position to achieve both aims. Confiding in a republican priest who put her in touch with Florrie O’Donoghue, the head of IRA intelligence in Cork, she began passing on top-secret British intel.
Single-handedly copying highly-sensitive documents that revealed planned British military operations, Josephine would also smuggle these copies out of
the barracks to waiting IRA
recipients. The critical intelligence provided by Josephine not only benefited the Cork IRA’s campaign but the wider organisation too.
“In the existing state of tenseness and alertness on both sides in the struggle at the time, there were a hundred ways in which some little incident or bit of gossip could, even innocently, uncover the connection between me and the IRA.”
Although aware of an intelligence leak in the barracks, so adept a double agent was Josephine, her employers never suspected her. In return for her espionage, Florrie O’Donoghue agreed to help reunite mother and son.
In late November 1920, O’Donoghue travelled to Wales to kidnap the now seven-year-old Reggie. A tricky operation, he and two IRA Volunteers — armed but not brandishing their weapons — entered the in-laws’ home.
“I told them we were taking him away, no more, and asked to be given his outdoor clothes and any toys he might like to have with him. I assured them that he would not be harmed and would be taken good care of.”
With little resistance from the family and Reggie himself unperturbed, the trio drove the child to a safe house in Manchester before eventually smuggling him back to Cork on December 18.
Hidden in various Cork safe houses over a number of months, Josephine was initially only able to visit her son. Naturally suspected of the kidnapping, the spotlight didn’t remain on cool-headed Josephine for long. Just two weeks after the incident, the devastating burning of Cork decimated the city.
With crown forces responsible for the city’s ruin, Josephine’s British superiors were soon preoccupied by the fallout. Despite the intense media interest, nobody suspected the 26-year-old mother or the IRA of any part in Reggie’s disappearance. Josephine
continued her perilous intelligence work for Cork IRA’s No.1 Brigade until the War of Independence truce of July 1921. When the truce was declared, mother and child were finally reunited.
With their covert working relationship blossoming into a romance, Josephine Brown and Florrie O’Donoghue were secretly married in April 1921. Adding four more children to Josephine’s two, the couple were together for the rest of their lives.
These are just some of the women who helped shape a city and a nation. Their actions demonstrated definitively that there would be no rebellion without rebel women.