Civilian James Charles Beal

Civilian James Charles Beal (aged about 53) of 7 Laurelhurst, College Road, Cork city (field opposite Wilton church near Dennehy’s Cross, Cork)

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

Sources: Death Certificate, 14-15 Feb. 1921; CE, 16, 18 Feb. 1921; CC, 16 Feb. 1921; II, 16, 18 Feb. 1921; CWN, 19 Feb., 26 March 1921; FJ, 19 Feb., 18 March 1921; Military Inquests, WO 35/146B/4 (TNA); Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA); Michael Murphy’s WS 1547, 37 (BMH); Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 8 (BMH); Patrick Collins’s WS 1707, 7-8 (BMH); Hart (2002), 58; Borgonovo (2007), 43, 52-53, 92; Murphy (2010), 41, 119-27, 129-31, 196, 261-63, 265; Ó Ruairc (2016), 120.        


Note: An Englishman and a Protestant who had come to Cork city about eleven years earlier, Beal was abducted by armed men and brought by car to Wilton (about 2 miles from Cork city), where he was executed. Married, but without children, Beal was the manager of the wine department of Messrs Woodford, Bourne, and Co., the well-known grocery and provisions store on Patrick Street in Cork city. He ‘was last seen leaving his place of business at 7 p.m.’ on Monday night, 14 February 1921. His remains ‘bore several wounds, one in the head and others in different parts of the body’. The report of Beal’s disappearance ‘caused a tremendous sensation in the city. His wife was greatly distressed, more particularly because her father, Mr Jas. Blemens, horticultural instructor under the Dept. [of Agriculture] in Cork, and her brother, a clerk, were kidnapped two months ago. Nothing has been heard of them since, and they are believed to have been tried and executed.’ See II, 16 Feb. 1921. (James Blemens and his son Frederick had been kidnapped by the IRA at the end of November 1920 and later executed.)

The funeral rites for James Charles Beal were held on 17 February at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, with the employees of Messrs Woodford, Bourne, and Co. in attendance; he was then interred in the ‘New Cemetery’ nearby. See II, 18 Feb. 1921. James C. Beal belonged to the Church of England. His name appears in the Compensation Commission Register under 14 February 1921, with the notation that liability was split 50/50, and with a note that £5,250 was awarded. See Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA).      

The IRA wrongly believed that Beal was a ‘Y.M.C.A. senior secret service agent’ and treated his dead body in the fashion usual for executed spies. ‘Tied around the neck with a looped piece of ordinary twine was a piece of cardboard about one foot square on which were printed in ink, in capital letters roughly formed, the words: “Convicted spy. This is the penalty for all those who associate with the Auxiliaries, Black and Tans, and R.I.C.—I.R.A.” “P.S.—Beware.”’ See FJ, 18 March 1921. Jeremiah Keating, the I/O of the Second Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, later declared, ‘In my opinion the shooting of Beale broke the back of the anti-I.RA. Sein Féin organisation in Cork city.’ Keating and two other IRA men—Pat Collins and John Horgan—carried out the deed. See Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 8 (BMH).

Beal was not associated with the Cork Y.M.C.A., however. What may have damned him in the eyes of the Cork No. 1 Brigade were firstly his association with the Blemens family (through marriage), who were seen as leading figures in a reputed anti-Sinn Féin gang, and secondly his friendship with a British army officer in Cork. Beal and his wife housed this officer for some time, and Beal corresponded with him after he returned to England. There is some evidence that in a raid on the mails correspondence between Beal and this officer was acquired and read by members of Cork No. 1 Brigade. See Borgonovo (2007), 52-53. Keating nevertheless maintained in his BMH witness statement that the killers of Beal had ‘found in his possession papers giving valuable information relating to the spy organisation with which he was connected’. See Jeremiah Keating’s WS 1657, 8 (BMH).

Keating’s comrade Pat Collins, who also took part in the kidnapping and execution of Beal, likewise reported in his BMH witness statement the seizure of incriminating documents from the victim: ‘In Beale’s possession were found papers giving us valuable information about the spy organisation with which he was connected. As a result of disclosures which came to light in the papers found on Beale, members of his organisation were picked up by other I.R.A. companies in the city and suitably dealt with. This had a discouraging effect on the Anti-Sinn Féin League, which faded out, thus removing a serious threat to the Cork I.R.A.’ See Patrick Collins’s WS 1707, 7-8 (BMH). These recollections of former Volunteers demonstrate how deeply ingrained were the beliefs of Cork republican activists even though the facts as known today contradict such convictions, at least in part.

Gerard Murphy has advanced the view that a ‘treasury notebook’ carried by Beal when he was captured by the IRA was found to contain the names of almost two hundred Freemasons, and that members of the Masonic Order thereby became highly suspect among IRA officers in County Cork. ‘It is my belief’, Murphy has written, ‘that it was the treasury notebook found on Beal that first led to the obsession with Freemasonry that was to characterise much of the Cork brigades’ correspondence for the remainer of the conflict. It is in the period after the shooting of Beal that the intelligence officers of the Cork brigades begin to report on the “Masonic peril”.’ See Murphy (2010), 122-23. Despite such undoubted suspicions, Beal appears to have been the only Freemason killed in County Cork during the War of Independence.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

The Cork No. 1 Brigade may well have been mistaken in its assessment of Beal. Although the IRA highly suspected him of informing, there are circumstances that at least raise doubts in this case, as he was killed in February 1921. The section of A Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, 1920-21, dealing with military intelligence indicates that in that month (in the view of British army intelligence) the IRA was in almost all cases killing people who had not supplied information. See Hart (2002), 28. The fact that in Beal’s case full liability was not accepted on the British side, and that instead a notation of ‘agreed 50/50’ was entered, further suggests that he was one of those who had not provided information. See Register of Register of Compensation Commission (Ireland) Cases of Private Persons (CO 905/15, TNA).

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