Civilian John Hawkes, alias ‘James Mahony’

Civilian John Hawkes, alias ‘James Mahony’ (aged 26) of 3 O’Leary’s Lane, off Barrack Street, Cork city (Skibbereen workhouse grounds/Coolnagarrane)

Date of incident: 13 Oct. 1920 (ex-soldier killed as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: Death Certificate (Skibbereen District, Union of Skibbereen), 13 Oct. 1920; Civil Registration of Deaths Index, 1864-1958, Skibbereen District, vol. 5, p. 317 (FHL Film No. 0101608); CE, 14, 15 Oct., 15 Nov. 1920, 29 June 1921; IT, 14, 15 Oct. 1920; CCE,  20 June 1917, 14, 23 Oct., 20 Nov. 1920; SS, 20 May 1916, 16 Oct. 1920; II, 20 Oct. 1920; CWN, 13 Nov. 1920; British Army World War I Service Records, 1914-20 (TNA); British Army World War I Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-20 (Ancestry.com); RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, Cork West Riding, Oct. 1920 (CO 904/113, TNA); Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA); Edward Young’s WS 1402, 12 (BMH); Daniel C. Kelly’s WS 1590, 5 (BMH); Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 7 (BMH); Dolan (2011), 25; Ó Ruairc (2016), 119.


Note: A masked man (no doubt a Volunteer) confronted ‘James Mahony’ on 13 October 1920 as he was about to leave Skibbereen workhouse, where he had stayed overnight. At the military inquiry into this death an eyewitness to the murder, the acting workhouse porter James Warner, testified: ‘Mahony ran into the porter’s box. . . . Both men [the victim and his assailant] struggled in the box, and Mahony asked for mercy, but the armed man said, “No; I will shoot you.” Witness asked for mercy for the man, but the armed man threatened that if he interfered, he would be shot. Mahony’s assailant overpowered him and dragged him a distance of ten yards out of the box and fired three shots at him with a revolver. The assailant then went away, he could not say in what direction.’ See CE, 15 Oct. 1920. At least one of these shots struck the victim in the head. See Death Certificate (Skibbereen District, Union of Skibbereen), 13 Oct. 1920.

Mahony was not the victim’s real name. At the inquest the executed man was said to be John Hawkes, an itinerant watchmaker and tinsmith. He had also been described as a soldier/musician capable of regulating and winding clocks, at which time (1916) he was an inmate of the Bandon workhouse.  [Thanks to Jean Prendergast for her assistance].  According to a statement given to the authorities, Hawkes ‘was kidnapped by Sinn Feiners and kept a prisoner by them for over six weeks’. He told how he had been taken into the custody of Volunteer police after he got into a heated conversation in Dunmanway about some watches he had sold earlier. After his escape from the Volunteers on 24 July 1920, he had indeed spent time at the Bantry RIC barracks. After several days with the Bantry police Hawkes ‘was transferred to the military barracks at Bantry, where he was allowed to remain for some weeks for his own personal safety, for it was known that his persecutors were hunting for him because he had taken the protection of the police’. See CE, 15 Nov. 1920. Though advised by the police not to tramp back to Cork city, he set out to do so, with the fatal overnight stop in the Skibbereen workhouse on 12-13 October.

According to the BMH witness statement of Jeremiah Keating, it was the interception of a letter from Hawkes to his mother in Cork city that had first led to suspicions by the IRA that he was a spy. See Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 7 (BMH). In addition, when Hawkes escaped from IRA custody, he ‘apparently gave the names of those who had arrested [him] and held him prisoner to the British, as there were wholesale raids following his escape’. See Edward Young’s WS 1402, 12 (BMH). Hawkes had previously served in the Royal Munster Fusiliers in France but had been discharged in April 1915, according to his mother, ‘because he got a bad cold in the trenches’ and had been declared ‘unfit for further duty’. See CE, 29 June 1921. His name appears in the Compensation Commission Register under 13 October 1920, with the notation ‘British supporter’, and with the note that £300 in compensation was awarded. See Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA). 

The wartime and immediate post-war period in the tragic life of John Hawkes suggest that he suffered from serious mental problems. Born into poverty at Upton in about 1894, Hawkes found himself in the Bandon union workhouse in Ballymodan at the age of about 6 with his mother Margaret (a labourer’s wife) and his older sister Mary (Minnie) at the time of the 1901 census. He later established a chequered record of British military service. After working as a farm labourer in the Kinsale district, he enlisted (for six years) at the age of 18 in the Royal Munster Fusiliers (RMF) by making the required attestation in Cork city on 17 February 1912. He then entered service with the RMF (2nd Battalion), first at a post in Ireland until 6 October 1914, and next briefly abroad as part of the British Expeditionary Force to France. But he was sent back to Britain on 28 November (less than two months later) and immediately admitted to the 2nd Northern General Hospital in Leeds. Doctors at a hospital in Boulogne had determined that Hawkes suffered from a ‘mental deficiency’; he had been invalided to Leeds, where he was detained in hospital until late January 1915. He subsequently obtained his discharge on 14 April of that year as ‘no longer physically fit for war service’ and returned home. Later still, after the Great War had ended, he re-enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on 25 November 1919. This re-enlistment was supposed to last from two to four years ‘with the colours’; at this point Hawkes gave his age as almost 24 (not quite correctly) and his occupation as watchmaker. But he was again discharged—on 23 December 1919—after having served for less than a month. He was nevertheless the recipient of the British Army Service Medal and the Victory Medal, which were received posthumously by his mother in October 1921. In between his service with the RMF and later with the RAMC, Hawkes was in desperate straits. In late August 1918 he lodged an unsuccessful appeal with the local War Pensions Committee in Cork city, noting that he had been ‘awarded a pension of 8d. a day for 18 months final [sic] & his period expired some time ago. He states that if he could obtain a pair of spectacles, he would be employed at once as a watchmaker. He has no home and no money and will have to go to the workhouse if his appeal fails.’ See Lieutenant White to Colonel Pickwood, 23 Aug. 1918, British Army World War I Service Records, 1914-20 (TNA); British Army World War I Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-20 (Ancestry.com).

In 1911 Margaret Hawkes, the victim’s mother, lived with her daughter Mary (a laundry worker) at house 4.1 in Crowley’s Lane (off Bandon Road) in Cork city. She listed herself as married (for twenty years) rather than as a widow, but both her husband and her son John resided elsewhere. At the time of her son’s death in October 1920 his address and hers was 3 O’Leary’s Lane (off Barrack Street), Cork. John Hawkes, his mother, and his sister Mary were Catholic. 

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