Civilian John Sullivan or O’Sullivan

Civilian John Sullivan or O’Sullivan (aged about 18) of Charleville (Coolasmuttane near Charleville)

Date of incident: 29 June 1921 (executed as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: CE, 30 June, 1 July 1921; CCE, 2 July 1921; CC, 5 July 1921; Military Inquests, WO 35/163 (TNA); RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, Cork City and East Riding, June 1921 (CO 904/115/942, TNA); Michael Geary and Richard Smith’s WS 754, 25-27 (BMH); John D. Crimmins’s WS 1039, 9-10 (BMH); Timothy D. Crimmins’s WS 1051, 10-11 (BMH); Maurice Noonan’s WS 1098, 8-9 (BMH); Application of Mary O’Sullivan to Irish Grants Committee (CO 762/100/1/1685); Hart (1998), 300.


Note: The dead bodies of John Sullivan and Patrick John Sheehan were found ‘on the roadside a short distance outside the town’ of Charleville on Wednesday, 29 June 1921. Sullivan had been ‘kidnapped about two weeks earlier by armed men near the town while engaged [in] carting sand in connection with the building of ex-servicemen’s houses’. The IRA executed him and Sheehan as suspected spies. The execution scene on the roadside at Coolasmuttane was gruesome: ‘[A] portion of Sullivan’s brains were exuding from the head. The hands of each were clasped across the breast.’ It was also said of the two dead men: ‘The deceased were blindfolded, and around the neck of each was a card bearing the words: “Convicted spy. Beware. I.R.A.”’ See CE, 30 June 1921. Sullivan was aged about 18 and was a Charleville native. Vouching for the British allegiance of her son, his mother later told the Irish Grants Committee that the son’s first cousin ‘was operating on the side of the British government in Ireland’. See Application of Mary O’Sullivan to Irish Grants Committee (CO 762/100/1).

Further evidence comes from BMH witness statements. John Crimmins of the Milford (County Limerick) Company of Volunteers, who passed as a British prisoner through Buttevant Military Barracks on his way to Spike Island Internment Camp in April 1921, recalled: ‘While in Buttevant Military Barracks, we saw a man named Sullivan [sic] from Charleville associating with the enemy. We sent word to the battalion intelligence officer (Eugene McCarthy) by a prisoner from Mallow who was being released that Sullivan was apparently in touch with the enemy. Sullivan was later taken prisoner by the I.R.A. and was held, I understand, in the Milford area until his execution with his fellow conspirator Patrick J. Sheehan as spies sometime in June 1921, I think.’ See John Crimmins’s WS 1039, 9-10 (BMH).

Yet there is a strong possibility that Sullivan and Sheehan were innocent. An RIC official observed after the killings, ‘The outrage was the work of the I.R.A. because they believed these men were giving information to the police, which was not a fact.’ See RIC County Inspector’s Monthly Report, Cork City and East Riding, June 1921 (CO 904/115/942, TNA). See also Hart (1998), 300.  

John Sullivan was in 1911 one of the six children of the ‘plucker and skinner’ Larence [sic] Sullivan and his wife Mary of 1 Knowles Lane in Charleville. Five of the six children (one son and four daughters) co-resided with their parents in that year, including John Sullivan (then aged 8), the younger of their two sons. His mother Mary O’Sullivan (aged 53 in 1927) described herself as ‘destitute’ when appealing in January of that year to the Irish Grants Committee for £800 in compensation for the death of her son John, whose employment had provided £2 a week towards her ‘support and maintenance’. See Application of Mary O’Sullivan to Irish Grants Committee, 24 Jan. 1927 (762/100/1). The Sullivans or O’Sullivans were Catholic.

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