Civilian James Herlihy

Civilian James Herlihy (aged about 31) of [Kearny’s Lane], Cork city (Pouladuff district)

Date of incident: 20 Aug. 1920 (ex-soldier abducted, executed, and disappeared as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: FJ, 23, 24 Feb. 1921; II, 23, 24, 25, 28 Feb. 1921; British Army World War I Pension Records, 1914-20 (WO 364, TNA); ‘IRA Intelligence Reports on Civilians Accused of Giving Information to and Associating with British Forces during War of Independence in Counties Cork, Kerry, Waterford, and Limerick’, ca. 1921, CP/4/40 (Military Archives); Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/24 (UCDA); Daniel Healy’s WS 1656, 12-13 (BMH); Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 6 (BMH); Patrick Collins’s WS 1707, 8 (BMH); Borgonovo (2006), 123, fn. 16; Borgonovo (2007), 81, 144; Murphy (2010), 41, 67; O’Halpin (2013), 340.


Note: An ex-soldier, Herlihy was arrested by Volunteers on 20 August 1920 and executed two days later. He was taken into custody as a spy by men of G Company of the Second Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade. He was ‘removed to the Pouladuff district south of the city, where he was executed by a firing squad from the company on instructions from the brigade’. James Herlihy ‘and some other civilians were known to our Intelligence Service to be in touch with the British military and to have supplied to them the names of prominent I.R.A. men in our district. We also learned that these spies had been supplied with revolvers (by the British) for their protection in case of attack by the I.R.A.’ Patrick Collins of G Company, who knew Herlihy well, had asked him on the day before he was executed ‘why he gave us away to the enemy’, and ‘he said he could give no reason why he did it, but added that he had given the military a wrong address in my own case’—a detail that Collins confirmed. See Patrick Collins’s WS 1707, 8 (BMH).

According to an IRA intelligence document, Herlihy entered Cork Military Barracks in or about June 1920 with Richard Lynch and gave information that prompted the houses of C. Neenan, P. Collins, and M. Carey (all officers of the Second Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade) to be searched. Herlihy reportedly admitted as much when questioned before his execution. See ‘IRA Intelligence Reports on Civilians Accused of Giving Information to and Associating with British Forces during War of Independence in Counties Cork, Kerry, Waterford, and Limerick’, ca. 1921, CP/4/40 (Military Archives).

Further corroboration of James Herlihy’s alleged spying activities came in later official correspondence with his brother, who sought information after the Truce and received a copy of the following communication dated 14 September 1921 from the Divisional Adjutant of the First Southern Division to the Adjutant General at GHQ: ‘OC Cork No. 1 Brigade reports that Herlihy was one of two men who went to Victoria Barracks, enemy 6th Division HQ, Cork, for a permit for revolvers and gave names of officers and men in the 2nd batt[alio]n—these were afterwards arrested. . . . Herlihy was afterwards arrested, courtmartialled, found guilty, and executed on August 22nd, 1920.

. . . I may mention that this man’s relatives are alright, and if a communication is made, it should be to the brother who makes the application.’ See Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/24 (UCDA). Gerard Murphy, who cites this correspondence, has concluded that Herlihy was a Volunteer. See Murphy (2010), 67. But it seems highly unlikely that a Volunteer would have gone to Victoria Barracks for a gun permit, and there is no evidence that he was one in this source. The more plausible explanation is that Herlihy was permitted to use revolvers to protect himself from the IRA because he was an informer. 

An IRA spy named Cornelius (Con) Conroy, who worked in Victoria Barracks as ‘a confidential clerk’, had fingered Herlihy as a person whom Conroy ‘knew to have given information to the military authorities regarding certain prominent I.R.A. men in our area, in which he (Herlihy) lived. On instructions from our brigade Herlihy was taken out to the Farmers Cross district and shot. His body was buried there.’ See Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 6 (BMH). Conroy was of extraordinary value to the city IRA since he was in fact the ‘confidential secretary to the [British] O/C, 17th Infantry Brigade, in Cork’. Unfortunately for the IRA, in a British military raid on the house and land of Michael Bowles at Clogheen at the beginning of 1921, British forces captured correspondence and copies of orders issued to the British military that had been obtained from Conroy. As a result, ‘Conroy was discharged from his position, and we lost one of our most valuable intelligence officers.’ See Daniel Healy’s WS 1656, 12-13 (BMH).

Conroy went on the run but was eventually captured. He was among thirteen or fourteen ‘civilians’ tried in late February 1921 at Victoria Barracks for ‘levying war against His Majesty’ and for being in possession of arms, ammunition, and explosives. In the dock with him and the other ‘civilians’ was self-admitted Volunteer John MacSwiney, brother of the former Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who had died on hunger-strike in Brixton Prison on 25 October 1920. A military witness identified Conroy as one of the clerks who had worked in the office of the battalion adjutant in Victoria Barracks. The prisoners had been captured at Rahanisky House in Kilcully parish near Whitechurch earlier in the month. Mrs Mackay, in whose house most of these men were captured, testified that Conroy had a standing invitation from her to stay overnight whenever curfew restrictions made that necessary, and that she had not seen any arms or heard any seditious words from him or any of the others with him. Volunteer John MacSwiney acknowledged in court that he regularly carried a revolver for self-defence because before and since Christmas in 1920 he had ‘had definite information that what were known as the murder gang of the Black and Tans were after me’. See II, 25 Feb. 1921. See also FJ, 23, 24 Feb. 1921; II, 23, 24 Feb. 1921. Three of the prisoners were released after the military trial concluded on 26 February, but Cornelius Conroy and nine other prisoners were remanded in custody. See II, 28 Feb. 1921. How many suspected spies or British intelligence officers Conroy had fingered for the IRA is unknown, but James Herlihy was hardly the only person to be killed because of information secretly supplied by Conroy to the Volunteers.     

The Irish Revolution Project

Scoil na Staire /Tíreolaíocht

University College Cork, Cork,