The Irish War of Independence was, at its beating heart, an ugly affair. All wars are, in their own way, but there is something especially brutal about the kind of asymmetric war that the years 1919-1921 saw in Ireland: they are wars where the idea and ideals behind “civilised” conflict are thrown out of the window especially hard, and where the actions of either side err particularly towards the far edge of morally dubious. We have seen this in accounts of assassination, burnings and massacres. In today’s entry, we will look at another example, that opens the door on an extremely controversial aspect of the war, namely the degree to which parts of that war were as much about sectarian bloodletting as they were about Irish freedom.
“Informers” were serious business for the IRA. The oldest men and women of the movement still remembered the intelligence holes that marked the disastrous 1867 Rebellion, and everyone had been reared on similar tales from 1798. With the RIC increasingly out of commission, the Crown Forces were more dependent than ever on civilians for information, and the IRA was determined to strike back against such things. Sometimes this could take the form of threats, sometimes enforced deportation. Sometimes it went further.
This example begins with a scene we are already very familiar with: a unit of the IRA waiting to ambush a detachment of the Crown Forces in the Irish countryside. It was the morning of the 28th of January 1921, the IRA were composed of men from the Cork No. 1 Brigade’s 6th battalion, the Crown Forces were expected to be a convoy of British troops on patrol between barracks and the location was a place known as Godfrey’s Cross, about halfway between the villages of Coachford and Dripsey, the latter of which is most commonly associated with the engagement.
As has been mentioned before, it was completely normal for IRA ambush parties to spend a great deal of time in the ambush position, just waiting for the enemy to come by. In some instances, they could wait there for days. A group of armed men in such a situation might be able to keep their location and intention secret from the enemy forces for a time, as said enemy forces would generally stick to the roads: concealed behind hedges, hills and any other natural impediment, if the IRA did not want to be seen by the enemy, it was not a hugely difficult endevour to not be seen.
But civilians living locally were a different matter. Whether they were farmers, tradesmen, children, priests, drivers, publicans, vagrants or anybody else, people were going to happen by the ambush site, and realise what was going on. In those situations, the IRA could detain that person, but of course they could only do this so many times and for so long without creating a bigger problem for themselves. So often they did nothing, beyond a warning for said civilians to keep their mouths shut. Sometimes they did, out of ideological agreement, or fear, or lack of care. Sometimes they didn’t. It was not unusual for most of the civilian population in a certain locality to be fully aware that the IRA was “out”, and that they should avoid a certain stretch of road for a while. On this particular occasion, many people in the immediate locality were aware that the 6th battalion was preparing an ambush, and knew where they were planning to do so.
One of those people was a 59-year-old woman named Maria Lindsay. She was a somewhat well-off woman, from a landed estate family in Wicklow. A widower, she lived in a large home/estate in Leemount, not far from Dripsey, along with several servants. Her background, upbringing and Presbyterian religion all combined to make Lindsay a fairly committed loyalist, with a decidedly negative opinion of Irish nationalism and the IRA. That morning, she was being driven to Ballincollig by her butler/driver, James Clarke, when she stopped in a grocers. The proprietor, upon hearing of her intended plan for the day, warned her off, as her route happened to be where the IRA was waiting for their targets. Mrs Lindsay could have just gone home, or taken a different route to Ballincollig, but instead decided to try and put her loyalist leanings into practise.
She first went to the local priest, a Fr Shennick, to tell him about what she knew, before driving to Ballincollig to inform the military there (they would have been receptive, as Lindsay was well known from officers’ social circles). Shennick shared Lindsay’s anti-IRA sentiments, but also wanted to avoid bloodshed: he sent a message to the waiting IRA that their planned ambush was now rumbled. But Shennick’s political opinions were well known to the Volunteers, and it was thought he was simply trying to trick them into abandoning what could be a very successful ambush. Their commander, the Captain of the Blarney Company named Frank Busteed, decided to stay, while Mrs Lindsay was driven home after meeting the military.
The IRA should have left. Forewarned, the British military in Ballincollig were able to send men to Dripsey, who split into several columns and moved to take the IRA positions from the rear. The Volunteers received some warning from scouts, but not soon enough for them to be able to withdraw cleanly. A firefight broke out: five of the IRA were wounded. These five, three others and two civilians were captured by the military. The rest of the Volunteers were able to escape.
Barely a week and a half later, the men who were capable of being tried – two of the captured were critically injured and remained in hospital, where one would die and the other would eventually get a life sentence – were court-martialed. After a few days of proceedings, one Volunteer and the two civilians were released owing to lack of evidence. The other five were sentenced to death.
Just as it had been impossible for the IRA ambush party to hide their activities from locals, so it was impossible for Mrs Lindsay’s impact on the ambush to remain hidden from the IRA for too long. Fr Shinnick was interrogated, and admitted as to the full details of what had happened, including Mrs Lindsay’s involvement. The local IRA, on foot of the sentences of execution for their comrades, were desperate. On the 17th of February, a force surrounded Lindsay’s home and took both her and her butler – allegedly found hiding under a bed when Volunteers rushed the house – into custody. The mansion was later burned to the ground.
Some manner of trial may have taken place secretly for Mrs Lindsay, though the exact details are a bit vague. IRA General Orders allowed brigade commanders to preside over “Courts of Inquiry” into such matters, but whatever took place should not be considered to be a fair trial, anymore than, say, the trials of those executed after the Easter Rising had been. For one thing, it is doubtful that Mary Lindsay or James Clarke had anything resembling legal counsel, and it is unknown whether they were even allowed to speak in their defence. Accounts suggest that Lindsay denied the accusations against her, though the IRA holding her were sure about what she had done.
The IRA contacted General E.P Strictland in Cork’s Victoria Barracks, informing him that if the planned execution of their comrades went ahead, then Lindsay and her butler would be executed in turn. Their communication included a personal message from Lindsay herself, pleading for the General to intercede. The messages were to no avail. While obviously the British leadership did not want to see Lindsay or Clarke dead, they knew that to give a stay of execution in such circumstances would only lead to more kidnappings in the future. The hard-line exemplified by the lack of clemency for Terence McSwiney and Kevin Barry, and the imposition of martial law, was being made obvious again. The five men sentenced to death were duly shot by firing squad on the 28th February.
The most immediate consequence was bloodshed for the British Army. That same day, six members of the regular military were shot dead in the streets of Cork City, and several more wounded, in what amounted to an ad-hoc operation of retaliatory killings carried out by various members of the IRA. The soldiers in question appear to have been, for the most part, on leave from their units and unarmed. A week and a half later, the Cork IRA made good on their threat, and both Lindsay and Clarke were shot and buried secretly.
Busteed himself did the shooting, and never expressed any regrets about it. However, there is evidence that other elements of the IRA were unhappy with the way that things fell out, up as far as Michael Collins, who felt that the execution of an elderly woman was hardly the sort of thing that the army of Irish republicanism should be doing. Lindsay’s case became somewhat of a short-term fixation of the press, and is an instance where the IRA were the ones figuratively shooting themselves in the foot in propaganda terms. Whatever about what she had done, it was hard to put a good face on the shooting of an old woman, or the death of Clarke, who appears to have no involvement other than as Lindsay’s driver. The details of their confinement, which appears to have been in miserable enough conditions, also did not paint a glorious picture. Lindsay at least went to her death stoically, and with no small amount of quiet defiance, at least according to the later account of Busteed.
The entire affair allows us to speak briefly on what some have called the War of Independence’s “disappeared”, those men and women abducted by the IRA and killed, usually on charges of espionage or giving information to the Crown Forces, before being displayed publicly or buried secretly. There was a disproportionate number of cases of these in Cork, matching the disproportionate number of military engagements in the area. The topic is a sensitive one, amid accusations that too many of the victims were Protestant civilians, adding a potentially sectarian sheen to what was nominally an issue of military law and order.
78 “spies” were executed in Cork, the highest number in the country. For comparison, it was Tipperary who had the second highest, at 16. 23 of the Cork 78 were Protestants. This may seem like a large amount, but I think it is fair to say that this reflects the intensity of the war in Cork, and the slightly larger number of Protestant communities in the county than was standard elsewhere. Crown Forces in the area would have relied disproportionately on loyalists for information, and said loyalists would have been pre-dominantly Protestant: thus it cannot be seen as too surprising when Cork sees a spike in the list of Protestant deaths. Peter Hart is the most notable academic to adhere to the theory of sectarian motivation, going as far as calling the killings a form of ethnic cleansing. The numbers simply don’t back this up. The vast majority of recognised IRA spy killings, in Cork and in Ireland generally, were Catholic, and there were no such recorded executions in well over half of Ulster. It was a brutal facet of the Irish War of Independence, and perhaps some individual killings may have had some manner of sectarian motivation, it would be churlish to insist otherwise. But the idea of their being some sort of conscious effort to eliminate Protestants specifically in Cork does not bear up under scrutiny.
With all that said, did Mrs Lindsay and James Clarke deserve death? It depends on your perspective. If you see the IRA of the time as the legitimate army of Ireland’s legitimate political body, then the two, albeit as an accessory in Clarke’s case, must be seen as enemy informants. But execution and secret burial seems a harsh punishment given Lindsay’s age and Clarke’s lack of direct blame. If you hew to the other side of the divide, then you can only view the killings as murder, plain and simple, but Lindsay’s actions did, directly or indirectly, lead to six IRA deaths, whether she intended this or not. Such things cannot be waved away. There is no clear answer, no single preferred outcome to satisfy the moral setsquare. War remains, as I said, an ugly affair.
It is a topic that we will undoubtedly return to in some form, especially during sections of the Irish Civil War. For now, we turn back to the military operations of the Irish War of Independence. Earlier in February, the “Blacksmith of Ballinalee” was engaged once more, in another of the more famous ambushes that feature his involvement, so it is to Longford that we go next.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.