Civilian James O’Donovan


Civilian James O’Donovan (aged about 23) of Ballycatteen, Ballinspittle (near Ballinspittle)

Date of incident: 30 July 1922 (ex-soldier killed as suspected spy by IRA)

Sources: CE, 1 Aug. 1922; SS, 5 Aug. 1922; CO 762/46/14/file 717 (TNA); Denis Collins’s WS 827, 20-21 (BMH); Keane (2017), 291, 415.


Note: James O’Donovan was shot dead at about 6 p.m. on Sunday, 30 July 1922, on the Garrettstown road, about a mile from Ballinspittle. He was an ex-British soldier who had served with the Irish Guards Regiment in the Great War; he was wounded in France and demobilised in 1918. He joined the Military Fort Police in 1920 and served for a year. He subsequently held civilian employment as a tram conductor in Cork city until the end of 1921. Since then he had been unemployed. He had been living with his parents near the scene of the murder. His father Cornelius O’Donovan, ‘an ordinary labourer’, asserted that his son had been ‘shot by the I.R.A. as a suspected spy of the British government’. See CE, 1 Aug. 1922; CO 762/46/14/file 717 (TNA).

The IRA man Denis Collins recalled a series of incidents that had occurred while he was a prisoner in Victoria Barracks in 1921—incidents that had raised suspicions about O’Donovan: ‘We used [to] pass the time kicking a raggedy old ball within our compound, and I used to be in goal with my back close up to the wire. The British had an order that at certain times in the day and after 6 o’clock in the evening no one was allowed to cross the square. One evening during our game I heard footsteps crossing the square and coming near the cage and then stopping directly behind me. I wondered who was the important person who could cut across the rules like that and turned round to see. It was a man in civilian clothes who was actually a near neighbour of my own who had joined the Irish Guards and had fought through the 1914-1918 war. We looked steadily at one another, with only the wire between us. Neither of us gave a sign of recognition, I because I did not wish to show my fellow-prisoners that I would talk to someone who might have been there for no good reason. He might have been and probably was a spy, for on different evenings after that he used to come out of a doorway across the square, always dressed in civilian clothes, and come over and gaze in through the wire at us for quite a while and then without a word turn away. No soldier was allowed [to] do this, so we were very suspicious. I heard afterwards he was seen in military police uniform down the city and also in civilian dress along with the Tans. He was also identified as being one of the principal actors in the burning of Cork in the previous December. He went home in 1922 and was shot very soon after. His name was Jimmy Donovan from Ballinspittal.’ See Denis Collins’s WS 827, 20-21 (BMH). Collins had been a member and later a lieutenant of the Ballinspittle Company of the Bandon Battalion of the Cork No. 3 Brigade.     

James O’Donovan was in 1911 the eldest of the four living children (three sons and a daughter) of the agricultural labourer Cornelius O’Donovan and his wife Annie of house 10 in Ballycatteen near Ballinspittle. James (then aged 12) was their eldest son. All four surviving children (six born) resided with their parents in that year.

The Irish Revolution Project

Scoil na Staire /Tíreolaíocht

University College Cork, Cork,