The Cork Spy Files ... Read the first five cases

A UCC research project in partnership with the Irish Examiner which launched today aims to shine new light on the killings of 78 suspected British civilian spies at the hands of the IRA during the War of Independence. 
The Cork Spy Files ... Read the first five cases

Today we reveal the first five highly compelling case files from what was one of the darkest periods of our history.

For more information on this research and to catch up on what will be a regularly updated database of the Cork Spy Files go to

Ex-soldier shot nine times for being a spy

Timothy Quinlisk

Civilian, aged 25

Ballyphehane, Cork City

Place of Death: Tory Top Lane, Cork City

Date of incident: February 18, 1920

Timothy Quinlisk (circled right), the first civilian executed as a suspected spy by the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, on 18 February 1920, had been recruited by Roger Casement to ‘The Irish Brigade’, composed of former British POWs in Germany who were to have aided in the Easter Rising of 1916. Quinlisk appears here in this postcard photo of the non-commissioned officers of Casement’s brigade—labeled ‘They Are Awaiting “The Day”’. Picture: Courtesy of Joseph McGarrity Collection, Digital Library@Villanova University
Timothy Quinlisk (circled right), the first civilian executed as a suspected spy by the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA, on 18 February 1920, had been recruited by Roger Casement to ‘The Irish Brigade’, composed of former British POWs in Germany who were to have aided in the Easter Rising of 1916. Quinlisk appears here in this postcard photo of the non-commissioned officers of Casement’s brigade—labeled ‘They Are Awaiting “The Day”’. Picture: Courtesy of Joseph McGarrity Collection, Digital Library@Villanova University

An ex-soldier, Timothy Quinlisk was shot in nine different places at close range; his ‘head and body were literally torn with revolver bullets’. The body was found at Tory Top Lane, which became a place favoured by the IRA for carrying out such executions.

Quinlisk claimed to have been a member of the brigade formed in Germany by Sir Roger Casement. He was well educated and spoke French and German fluently. After the war he was discharged from the British army. He lived for a time in Dublin and then in Cork city.

Quinlisk was an inept spy. City Volunteer leaders had quickly placed him under close surveillance and found more than enough reason to execute him.

The Cork No 1 Brigade Council agreed that he should be shot. The execution party from the Second Battalion consisted of Michael Murphy (O/C) and two others. Murphy coldly recalled of the not-quite-dead Quinlisk: “I then turned him over on the flat of his back and put a bullet through his forehead.”

Murphy later cited some of the damning evidence against Quinlisk in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History.

“I might here state that on the same evening that Quinlisk was executed, following a raid on the mails by some of our lads, one of the letters written by ‘Quinn’ (as he called himself)… addressed to the County Inspector, RIC, was found.

“The letter said that Quinlisk ‘had information about Michael Collins and would report again in a few days when the capture of Collins seemed imminent...

“The Cork No 1 Brigade Commandant Seán Hegarty got in touch with GHQ, Dublin, immediately following the identification of ‘Quinn’ as Quinlisk, and word was received back from Mick Collins that Quinlisk was definitely a spy in the pay of the British.”

Hundreds of people went to view the body while it lay for identification purposes at the Cork city morgue for ‘at least three days’ under the guard of an RIC man.

“But, of course,” said Murphy, “nobody identified him. He was then taken from the morgue by police and military and buried in the burial ground for paupers at the top of Carr’s Hill, Cork.”

When Quinlisk’s father came from Waterford to claim the body about two weeks later, he had a confrontation with Murphy, who had been informed by the clerk of Cork poor-law union of the father’s application to the workhouse authorities.

“I asked the man his name but he refused to give it to me. I said to him: ‘Now, Mr Quinlisk, I know you well; your son John [sic] was shot here as a spy, and you had better take him and yourself out of this town within twenty-four hours or you will meet with the same fate.”’

At the time of the 1911 census the victim’s father Denis had been an ‘acting sergeant’ in the RIC residing at 10 Cathedral Square in Waterford City.

He and his wife Alice were then the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters, ranging in age from 7 to 16, all of whom lived with them. Timothy Quinlisk — then aged 16 — was their eldest child. The Quinlisks were Catholic.

Hanged himself after being abducted by IRA

John Coughlan

Civilian, aged about 46

Barry’s Lane, Cobh/Queenstown

Place of death: Aghada near Midleton

Date of incident: August 14, 1920. Abducted and executed as suspected spy by IRA

Aghada coastline during the 1920s where the body of John Coughlan of Cobh was tied to a cart axle and thrown into the sea.
Aghada coastline during the 1920s where the body of John Coughlan of Cobh was tied to a cart axle and thrown into the sea.

It must have been Coughlan’s body that washed ashore at Ballybranigan Strand, seven miles from Midleton, Co Cork, on September 3, 1920. Although the body was too decomposed for identification, the fact that it was tied to a cart axle pointed to Coughlan. His remains were buried in Knockgriffin Cemetery.

Coughlan allegedly hanged himself while being held in IRA custody for having allowed his daughters to be used as ‘prostitutes’ by British forces. Those who executed him tied his body to a cart axle and threw it into the sea, but it was washed up shortly afterwards and identified. The IRA claimed later to have obtained evidence that Coughlan was a spy. He died in IRA custody at Aghada near Midleton.

The only John Coughlan listed in the 1911 census as resident in Queenstown resided in Barry’s Lane with his wife Anne, a son, and three daughters whose ages in 1920 would have been about 24, 19, and 14. Coughlan was a Catholic and a ‘general labourer’.

This ghoulish story finds an explanation in an interview given by former Volunteer Michael (Mick) Leahy to Ernie O’Malley sometime in the early 1950s: “The strangest thing about the first spy who met his death through us was that we didn’t shoot him. In Cobh we arrested this fellow [John Coughlan] for using his two daughters as prostitutes for the British and we took him to Aghada and we wanted to [illegible] for a while. He was kept in May Higgins [house] in a loft and there was a girl there. She was bringing him up his breakfast when she found him hanging to a rafter, dead.

“I got four lads to bury him. Paddy Sullivan from Cobh, who was later executed in Cork Gaol after he had been caught in [the Battle of] Clonmult, [was one of them.] Later on he asked me did we see the Examiner. And when I read it, I found that a body, which had been tied to an axle, had washed ashore. The lads had not buried him. They had tied him to a car axle and had flung him out into the sea. He was in the morgue in Midleton, I was told, in the workhouse.

“We visited the morgue, but at the time the bad flu was raging and the morgue was full of corpses. We went from corpse to corpse with a flash lamp, pulling up the clothes to look for our man.

“At last we came to a corpse and when we pulled back the cloth, we found that the crabs had got hold of his face and that there was nothing of it left. A month later, we got evidence that this man had been a spy and that’s why he hanged himself.”

Protestant home ruler murdered for no reason

Alfred Charles Reilly

Civilian, aged 58

The Hill, Monfieldstown, Douglas, Co Cork

Place of death: Douglas

Date of incident: February 9, 1921. Killed as suspected spy by IRA in a ‘shocking murder’.

Alfred Charles Reilly: Shot dead by the IRA near his home.
Alfred Charles Reilly: Shot dead by the IRA near his home.

Alfred Reilly, managing director of a large bakery and restaurant business in Cork city (HH Thompson and Sons, Ltd), was shot dead very near his home in the Cork suburb of Douglas.

Pinned to his chest was an envelope on which the words ‘Beware of the IRA’ had been written in pencil.

He had left his office in Cork city at about 5pm on Wednesday, February 9, 1921, and had driven in a pony and trap towards his residence in Douglas.

“Some time later, the female lodge-keeper saw the empty trap standing outside the avenue gate, and she went along the road for some distance until she found Mr Reilly lying on the ground face downwards.”

Aged 58 and a Methodist, Reilly was a member of the Cork business establishment. He had earlier organised a Methodist Church petition calling for the release of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney when he was on hunger strike. He had Home Rule and Liberal political sympathies.

Though he had been a JP, he had not undertaken any police-court work for six years and had been fined for refusing to carry out jury duty early in 1920 when republicans were beginning to face British courts.

Nevertheless, he was suspected of being part of a civilian unionist intelligence group operating out of the Cork YMCA.

He was also thought to be a Freemason. In fact, however, he was neither a Freemason nor a YMCA member.

The killing was carried out in especially chilling fashion by three members of D Company (Second Battalion, Cork No 1 Brigade), including its captain William Barry, who recalled the deed.

“On the evening of February 9, as Reilly was returning from work in King Street [now MacCurtain Street] in his pony and trap, four of us, armed with revolvers, got into the trap and drove him to his home at Rochestown.

“We shot him outside the gate of his house and affixed a card to the body with the words ‘Spies and Informers Beware’ written on it.”

A widower aged 48 in the 1911 Census, Reilly resided at Monfieldstown in the Douglas suburb of Cork with his elderly mother (then aged 70) and his son Percival (aged 21).

Father and son listed themselves as ‘manufacturing confectioners’ in the census. The family also had three Catholic servants.

Alfred Reilly later remarried and had a daughter with his second wife Agnes. She claimed compensation for the killing of her husband on February 9, 1921, near his residence - Hill House.

The Recorder of Cork city awarded £4,500 to her and another £4,500 to their daughter.

Man cashed British Army cheques

William Alexander Macpherson

Civilian, aged about 44

Bridge St, Mallow, Co Cork

Place of death: Knockpogue near Mallow

Date of incident: July 7, 1921 Ex-soldier kidnapped and killed as suspected spy by IRA

A scrap of paper found on Macpherson’s body issues a warning.
A scrap of paper found on Macpherson’s body issues a warning.

Formerly a sergeant major in the British army, Macpherson was bundled into a car or a pony and trap on July 7, 1921, and taken a short distance outside Mallow, Co Cork.

After two days of detention at Gleanndine, he was taken to Patrick O’Connor’s house at Pendy’s Cross, Dromahane, where he was tried by brigade officers, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

“He was removed later the same night to a spot about one mile from Mallow on the mountain road, where he was executed by members of the column.”

His body was found at Knockpogue with a bullet in the chest and with a label declaring ‘Convicted spy, spies and informers in Mallow beware, we are on your track, I.R.A.’ Soldiers and police in lorries visited the Knockpogue location and removed the body to Mallow Military Barracks.

Macpherson had held the rank of ‘colour sergeant’ with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and lived in Mallow with his wife (a native of the district) and four children. Macpherson had been a target of the IRA since mid-June 1921, after a transactions in a shop brought him under suspicion.

As Joseph P Morgan of the Mallow Battalion Flying Column later recorded: “While other members of the column moved off towards the Millstreet area to take part in the Rathcoole ambush, I was ordered to make arrangements to proceed to Mallow to execute a spy — McPherson [sic], an ex-British army sergeant major — who was supposed to be seen on Mallow Bridge each morning at 7 am.

“I think that his activities as a spy were discovered when he cashed some cheques, made payable to him by the British, in some shop in town (Mallow).

“I visited Mallow on two mornings, but there was no trace of McPherson, so other arrangements were made at a later date, when he was captured and executed early in July 1921.”

The Recorder of Cork, sitting at Mallow in October 1921, awarded £900 in compensation to the victim’s widow, Mrs Margaret Macpherson, and an additional £400 to each of her four children, “for the death of her husband, an army pensioner, who was taken away in a trap by three men, and next morning his body was found 2 miles from Mallow, with the label ‘Convicted spy”’.

In 1911 William Macpherson (then aged 34) and his wife Margaret resided with her widowed mother Ellen Lyne (a farmer aged 61) at Lower Lavally (Rahan) near Mallow. At that point the Macphersons had only one child (a son aged 6), but three others were born later. Ellen Lyne’s adult son Thomas (aged 40) and his wife Norah probably took the principal role in managing the farm.

William Alex Macpherson was an Anglican.

Woman who held loyalist views killed for informing on planned ambush

Maria Georgina Lindsay

Civilian, aged 60

Leemount House, Coachford, Co Cork

Place of death: Rylane in Aghabullogue parish

Date of incident: February 17, 1921. Kidnapped and later killed as suspected spy and in reprisal by IRA

Maria Georgina Lindsay: Kidnapped and later killed.
Maria Georgina Lindsay: Kidnapped and later killed.

Maria Lindsay was kidnapped on February 17, 1921, and later executed by the IRA on March 11, along with her chauffeur James Clarke.

Her status as an informer was a matter of certainty for Florrie O’Donoghue, the intelligence officer of Cork No. 1 Brigade: “In her case the death sentence [passed by the IRA] followed a flagrant and deliberate action against the Army, that of conveying information to the occupation forces in regard to the Dripsey ambush.”

Even after sentence had been passed, an official letter from the Cork No 1 Brigade to Major General Sir EP Strickland indicated that the sentence would not be carried out if the prisoners taken at Dripsey were treated as prisoners of war. The communication was ignored and Mrs Lindsay was shot.

Mrs Lindsay was executed by the IRA partly for having given information to the crown forces at Ballincollig Military Barracks that led to the capture of eight republicans (five wounded) in the abortive Dripsey ambush of January 28, 1921, and to the execution of five of them (plus a sixth Volunteer from Tipperary town) at Victoria Barracks in Cork city on February 28, 1921.

The ambush took place outside Dripsey, on the road to Coachford. In retaliation for the six executions on February 28, the IRA shot twelve unarmed British soldiers in the streets of Cork city that night.

According to a reliable account of the Dripsey ambush and its immediate background, “That morning, Mrs Mary Lindsay of Leemount House, who held strong loyalist views, heard of the ambush during a visit to Coachford.

“She was on her way to Ballincollig for a newly introduced military inspection of her car (a measure introduced by the British to cut down on the commandeering of cars by the IRA). When she told Mr Sheehan, a local grocer, of her plans, he advised her not to go through Dripsey and Inniscarra, and when she asked why, he told her of the intended ambush.

“She told the local priest, Father Ned Shinnick, what she had heard before returning home. From there her chauffeur James Clarke drove her to Ballincollig to warn the army authorities.

“Meanwhile, Father Shinnick informed the local IRA command to tell the ambushers that the British had been informed of their plans. Father Shinnick was known to be anti-IRA, and the leaders of the IRA ambush party decided that the warning was just a ruse on the part of the priest to get them to abandon their ambush.”

Had the priest’s warning been heeded, the disaster of the Dripsey ambush and all of its tragic consequences might have been avoided.

In 1911, Maria Georgina (Mary) Lindsay (then aged 50) and her husband John (aged 66) had been married for 23 years. They were childless. They resided at Leemount, a modest mansion with 13 rooms, along with their butler (and later chauffeur) James Clarke, a housemaid, a cook, and a coachman.

They were adherents of the Church of Ireland; they did employ two Catholic servants. Very shortly after the IRA executed Mrs Lindsay and James Clarke, a party of Volunteers burned down their house.

The ill-fated IRA commander of the nearly seventy Volunteers gathered near Godfrey’s Cross between Dripsey and Coachford on 28 January 1921 was Frank Busteed, captain of the Blarney Company of the Sixth Battalion of the Cork No 1 Brigade. He was involved in the kidnapping and execution of Mrs Lindsay and James Clarke as well as in the burning of Leemount House. According to Busteed, even Michael Collins did not know that Busteed and his comrades had executed Mrs Lindsay, and there is evidence that Collins and other IRA leaders wanted to save her.

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