Civilian Denis Finbarr (‘Din Din’) Donovan

Civilian Denis Finbarr (‘Din Din’) Donovan (aged 21) of 9 Gouldings Terrace (off Barrack Street), Cork city (Ballygarvan near Ballinhassig)

Date of incident: 9 April 1921 (ex-soldier kidnapped and later killed as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: CE, 13, 14 April 1921; CC, 13, 14 April 1921; FJ, 14 April 1921; Death Certificate, 12 April 1921; RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Confidential Report, April 1921 (CO 104/115); Military Inquests, WO 35/149A/40 (TNA); Photocopy of Connie Neenan’s Original Notes, Seán O’Mahony Papers, MS 44,046/7 (NLI); Woodford Bourne Collection, BL/BC/WB/25 and 81 (Boole Library, UCC); MSP34/REF29160 and MA/MSPC/RO/28 (Military Archives); George Hurley’s WS 1630, 4 (BMH); Seán O’Connell’s WS 1706, 3-4 (BMH); Leo Buckley’s WS 1714, 6-7, 12 (BMH); Harte (1998), 15; O’Callaghan (1972), 59-60, 63; Borgonovo (2007), 67, 100, 179; Murphy (2010), 35, 41, 67; Borgonovo, ‘Dogs of War’ (Summer 2012), fn. 6.


Note: An ex-soldier and labourer, Donovan was abducted on 9 April 1921 and shot dead on 12 April (bullet wound in the head). His body was found on the latter date with a rosary in his hands at Ballygarvan near Ballinhassig, some seven miles outside the city. Borgonovo regards him as the victim of an IRA assassination because he was considered a spy. But there was no obvious connection between Donovan and crown forces, and no explanation of his death was forthcoming from the IRA at the time. See Borgonovo (2007), 179. According to the RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Confidential Report for April 1921 (CO 104/115), ‘This man [Donovan] was a Sinn Feiner and was suspected by them of carrying out a robbery [on 8 April] at Rochestown on his own and without authority.’ It was also noted at the military inquest that Donovan had worked for a man named Jennings, identified as a Sinn Féin supporter, and that Donovan had the confidence of leading IRA figures in his area and was popular; it was believed that at one time he may have been a Sinn Féin policeman. See Military Inquests, WO 35/149A/40 (TNA).

Years later, however, Leo Buckley, staff officer for intelligence in the First Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, explained how and why Donovan of Barrack Street came under suspicion following the IRA killing of RIC Sergeant James O’Donoghue on 17 December 1920 and the reprisal shootings of Patrick Hanley and others (including a brother and brother-in-law of Volunteer Willie Joe O’Brien) in Cork city on the night of 17-18 December 1920: ‘When O’Brien, [Thomas] Healy, and myself met next night, we came to the conclusion that the R.I.C. had got information from some source in relation to the shooting of the R.I.C. sergeant. . . . We proceeded to worry out who the police spy could be. Only four people knew who participated in the shooting of the R.I.C. sergeant, viz., Healy, O’Brien, the company captain (Dick Murphy), and myself. At the time Dick Murphy was on very intimate terms with a man named Denis Donovan, Barrack St., Cork. Barrack St. was in the 2nd Battalion area, while we were in the 1st Battalion, Cork No. 1. We had all got to know Donovan well, and we had a nickname on him—“Din Din”—for the reason that he was ever and always suggesting ways and means of shooting up the military and the R.I.C. I remember asking Dick Murphy whether he had mentioned the R.I.C. shooting to “Din Din”. He pooh-poohed any suggestion that anything was wrong with “Din Din”, and we allowed the matter to rest.’ By April 1921, however, Donovan had become a marked man. He ‘was shot as a spy on brigade instructions. He was shot in Ballygarvan on 14th April 1921 [incorrect date], and a label “spies and informers beware” placed on his chest.’ See Leo Buckley’s WS 1714, 7, 12 (BMH).

Donovan’s death certificate confirms his date of death as 12 April 1921 and gives the cause as ‘shock and haemorrhage caused by gunshot wounds homicidal’. See Death Certificate, 12 April 1921. Peter Hart appears to have confused ‘Din Din’ Riordan with ‘Din Din’ Donovan as the informer linked to British reprisals for the shooting of RIC Sergeant O’Donoghue. See Harte (1998), 15; Borgonovo, ‘Dogs of War’ (Summer 2012), fn. 6.

The account by Seán O’Callaghan published in 1972 refers to the shooting of ‘Din Din’ (but not Riordan, as in Hart), who had cashed a £10 note in Mrs Riordan’s pub or shop on Sheares Street (near where Woodford, Bourne, and Co. had their stores) shortly after the Auxiliaries’ revenge killings close to Sheares Street for the shooting of Sergeant O’Donoghue in December 1920. This account alleged that ‘Din Din’ had gotten this payment from Mr Nicholson of Messrs Woodford, Bourne, and Co., the Cork city wine and spirits and provision merchants. Donovan claimed to have been recruited by another IRA man who had told him that there was easy money to be earned. The account subsequently describes the killing of Nicholson, which is an error appearing along with a number of others in this account (‘Din Din’ for example was incorrectly described as a Kerryman). See O’Callaghan (1972), 59-60, 63. The link to Woodford, Bourne, and Co. and the claim of Nicholson’s killing are more likely related to the fate of James Charles Beal, a manager in that firm whom the IRA had killed as a suspected spy a few months earlier, on 14 February 1921. (O’Callaghan’s account refers by mistake to ‘Harrison Beal’, who was allegedly shot at a later date.) It is quite possible that Donovan might have been paid by someone in this merchant firm. Donovan’s father William had been a driver for Woodford, Bourne, and Co. for a number of years at this stage and is mentioned in company wage books going back to 1909; one of his sons might also have worked there, as a Donovan junior was said to have been employed as a ‘label boy’ in the 1910-12 period. See Woodford Bourne Collection, BL/BC/WB/25 and 81 (Boole Library, UCC). At any rate, some days before his execution on 12 April, Donovan was travelling on a van belonging to Woodford, Bourne, and Co. that was held up and robbed by two armed men. At the inquest on Donovan there was some discussion as to whether he might possibly have been shot by those involved in the robbery six days earlier, as he would otherwise have given the robbers away because of his knowledge of and associations with the IRA. The link to Woodford, Bourne, and Co. in this testimony is significant, but more significant still was that Donovan ‘stated he would be able to identify [the] robbers’. See Military Inquests, WO 35/149A/40 (TNA). This revealed that he was willing to inform against the IRA.

It seems apparent from O’Callaghan’s account in Execution that when his killers (led by Captain Dick Murphy of G Company of the First Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade), after days of searching, picked him up in a public house in Barrack Street, ‘Din Din’ had cash at hand, as he was ‘swaying at the counter’ and clearly drunk, following a recognisable pattern. Both Hart and subsequently Murphy, who accepted Hart’s evidence without other confirmation (see Murphy [2010], 35, 41, 67), believed that ‘Din Din’ Riordan had disappeared. But no public record has come to light that indicates that a disappearance or abduction took place of a man with this name. Our interpretation of the sources here squares reasonably well with the testimony in Leo Buckley’s BMH witness statement, which itself aligns reasonably well with the O’Callaghan account and with Donovan’s death certificate. The medical doctor’s report indicated that there were a number of bullet wounds in the body, and that Donovan had died from ‘gunshot wounds’, but it is unclear whether a rifle was used (as Ethel Cuthbert suggested) or a revolver was employed (as suggested by O’Callaghan’s account), or both.

Important additional evidence has surfaced linking ‘Din Din’ Donovan closely to the activities and circles of G Company (First Volunteer Battalion) in this part of the city (not far from where the Broad Lane killings took place). Pension evidence provided by Ethel Cuthbert reveals that she knew Donovan well, for she was a machinist by trade and had been engaged as one of the principal workers making haversacks, holsters, bandoliers, and ammunition for the IRA at Ahern’s shop in Grattan Street, which was also a bomb factory until an explosion occurred there in April 1919, an event involving (among others) Dick Murphy, who was injured by the blast to such an extent that he had briefly to be hospitalised. Prior to this accident ‘Din Din’ Donovan had also worked there, ‘making munitions and bombs and everything’. Moreover, he assisted Ethel Cuthbert and Seán O’Connell (another officer in G Company and her boyfriend at the time) in removing ‘stuff’ from a boat to a public house on the quays in a covered car. This evidence, in addition to the police report, which identified Donovan as a ‘Sinn Feiner’, suggests strongly that ‘Din Din’ was a Volunteer. In Seán O’Callaghan’s Execution Donovan is also described as an IRA man. See O’Callaghan (1972), 60. It is likely that Donovan was one of the two men in the city IRA’s Second Battalion area giving the names of active Volunteers to the British. See Photocopy of Connie Neenan’s Original Notes, Seán OMahony Papers, MS 44,046/7 (NLI).

At the time of Donovan’s death Ethel Cuthbert claimed that she had delivered a rifle to his killers for his shooting. She was subsequently asked by Dick Murphy as a favor to go to Donovan’s house and to find out if his relatives had any idea who had done the shooting. She fulfilled this request, feigning to pay her respects and to say a few prayers, but she duly noted that Donovan’s father had mentioned that before his son was killed, Richard Murphy and ‘Cornie’ McCarthy had been coming there every night looking for ‘Din Din’. She subsequently informed Murphy of this news, which prompted him to go on the run, thereby evading arrest; he stayed for some nights in her sister’s house in Sundays Well—a ‘safe house’ for members of G Company. See pension evidence of Ethel Cuthbert (MSP34/REF29160, Military Archives).

The pension rolls for G Company reveal that Donovan’s killers Dick Murphy and Cornelius McCarthy both subsequently emigrated to the United States, where Murphy died in 1932. But a letter from Murphy’s father to the pension board reveals that Dick Murphy had not yet left Ireland before 1922, since his father listed some of the activities in which he was engaged, and these included the ‘Limerick invasion’. Although Dick Murphy did not appear as company captain on the pension rolls, he was nonetheless recorded in the aforementioned communications from his father. In an explanatory note in this pension file, insider treachery was acknowledged: ‘The unusually large number of prisoners in this company was due to the fact that one member of the comp[any] was in the pay of the British and was not discovered until a short time before the Truce, when he paid the penalty of his crimes.’ See MSPC/RO/28 (Military Archives). It is probable that this passage refers to none other than ‘Din Din’ Donovan, who, though he resided in another battalion area, was closely involved with the members of this company. A Fianna member recalling the reprisal shootings in Broad Street and Grattan Street later noted that ‘an I.R.A. man suspected of giving information as to who shot Sergeant O’Donoghue was later apprehended and executed by the I.R.A.’ See George Hurley’s WS 1630, 4 (BMH). He certainly had strong associations with and knowledge of G Company in the First Battalion. This made him a particularly valuable informer for crown forces.    

Denis Finbarr Donovan was one of the six children (four sons and two daughters) of the Cork city van driver William Donovan of 10 Gouldings Terrace (off Barrack Street) in Cork city. In 1911 William Donovan (aged 43) was already a widower, so ‘Din Din’ had lost his mother at a young age. The elder brothers William Jr and Jeremiah worked as a shop porter and a messenger boy respectively. Denis Finbarr (then aged 14) was still at school. He was the third of the four sons. The Donovans were Catholic. 

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