Civilian William Sullivan or O’Sullivan

Civilian William Sullivan or O’Sullivan (aged 35) of South Douglas Road, Cork city (Tory Top Lane, Cork)

Date of incident: 14 Feb. 1921 (ex-soldier killed as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: CE, 15 Feb. 1921; CWN, 19 Feb. 1921; CCE, 19 Feb. 1921; Military Inquests, WO 35/159B/17 (TNA); Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA); Michael Murphy’s WS 1547, 37 (BMH); Jerome Coughlan’s WS 1568, 9-10 (BMH); Laurence Neville’s WS 1639, 8 (BMH); Robert C. Ahern’s WS 1676, 8 (BMH); William Barry’s WS 1708, 7 (BMH); Murphy (2010), 41; Borgonovo (2007), 43, 56-57, 60, 76, 100 (note 71), 179.


Note: An unemployed ex-soldier (aged 35) who had served in the British army and in the Royal Army Service Corps, Sullivan was picked up in a pub, taken by armed men to Tory Top Lane, ‘a quiet locality off the main Kinsale road in the southern outskirts of the city’. There he was executed by members of D Company of the Second Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade; he was ‘the first British spy’ killed by this city company. Sullivan’s brother was then a member of D Company. See Laurence Neville’s WS 1639, 8 (BMH). Sullivan ‘had been seen leaving the R.I.C. barracks at Empress Place, Cork, on several occasions after curfew. He had been told that if he continued his association with the enemy, the consequences for him would be serious. He ignored these warnings, and as a result, we were instructed by the Battalion O/C to pick him up and execute him. On 15th February 1921 [sic] we received information that the man for whom we were searching was in a publichouse on Sullivan’s Quay, Cork. A party of six of us, with William Barry, company captain, in charge, picked him up in the publichouse and took him by car to a spot on the Curragh road, where he was shot.’ See Jerome Coughlan’s WS 1568, 9-10 (BMH). A note attached to Sullivan’s body stated: ‘A convicted spy. Penalty death. Let all spies and traitors beware.’ See CE, 15 Feb. 1921.

Sullivan, ‘who was about thirty-five years of age, served in the war with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Previous to enlisting, he was employed in the Waterworks Department of the Cork Corporation. Since he left the army, he had not been in regular employment.’ See CCE, 19 Feb. 1921. Sullivan’s body was found about one hundred yards from where the body of the executed spy Timothy Quinlisk had been discovered about a year earlier.

The victim’s brother Philip gave significant evidence at the subsequent military inquiry. He stated that William Sullivan was an ex-soldier who had left the British army in 1919 but had later re-enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) for twelve months. He had then left the RASC six months before his death, was drawing a pension, and was unemployed (like so many ex-soldiers). ‘My brother’, stated Philip Sullivan, ‘took no part in politics, as far as I know. He did not help the police at all. He was not friendly with any police. . . . I do not know any reason why anyone should want to hurt him. He used to drink all he could get. He would look after the home first. He was a good brother. What he had left he would spend on drink.’ See Military Inquests, WO 35/159B/17 (TNA). 

William Sullivan (or O’Sullivan) was interred in St Joseph’s Cemetery on 17 February 1921 after funeral ceremonies in St Finbarr’s Church (South Parish). His funeral was said to have been ‘largely attended’. See CE, 18 Feb. 1921. William Sullivan was a Catholic, as his funeral Mass was celebrated in the oldest Catholic church in Cork city. His name appears in the Compensation Commission Register under 14 February 1921, with the notation that British liability was accepted, and with a note that £2,050 in compensation was awarded. See Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA).    

City Volunteers had a sophisticated system for tracking and identifying suspected spies; it was well (if only partly) described by Jeremiah Keating, the I/O of the Second Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade: ‘I was employed in Phair’s grocery and provision store at Phair’s Cross, Bandon Road [Cork]. From this premises I transacted all my duties as 2nd Battalion intelligence officer and quartermaster. I had eight men from seven companies of the 2nd Battalion working for me. They brought their reports to Phair’s and received instructions from me there. These men were engaged watching spy suspects, watching the homes of the anti-Sinn Féin crowd, following and reporting their movements to me, noting civilians entering and leaving military and police barracks and reporting on their movements. Barracks were watched for the movements of troops, the strength of enemy garrisons, and suchlike. I had men, employed in shops, hotel bars, and railways, who reported to me conversations they overhead or persons they had seen which might prove of value to us in locating spies or providing us with information of enemy movements. All such reports were brought to me at Phair’s.’ See Keating’s WS 1657 (BMH).

The Irish Revolution Project

Scoil na Staire /Tíreolaíocht

University College Cork, Cork,