Spies, informers and the ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society’: the intelligence war in Cork City, 1920–1921

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 15

Spies, informers and the ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society’: the intelligence war in Cork City, 1920–1921
John Borgonovo
(Irish Academic Press, e30)
ISBN 0716528339

‘Intelligence’ is perhaps the trickiest aspect of the Irish revolution to write about in a scholarly way. Sources are often fragmentary and unreliable, mythologies are ample and enduring, and many events only make sense within their particular local contexts. John Borgonovo’s new book on the ‘intelligence war’ in Cork City in 1920–1 addresses all these problems and is a fine example of what thorough research and careful reconstruction can achieve even with a truly murky subject.
Borgonovo sets out to understand why so many accused informers were killed in Cork and has perforce to rely on a jigsaw puzzle of evidence, assembled in many pieces from newspapers and archival collections and painstakingly fitted together. In fact, the book began life as a most impressive MA thesis, although it has since been updated using the Bureau of Military History (BMH) papers in particular. Unlike Mike Foy’s or T. Ryle Dwyer’s recent BMH-based books, however, this one doesn’t tell spy stories so much as set up his problem and work through his solution.
Borgonovo’s central data set is a list of 26 men killed or disappeared. All were accused by the IRA of being some sort of spy or informer, but there is very little direct evidence to back up these claims. Yet, as he lays out in successive chapters, British intelligence did seek and use informers, and their opposite numbers in the IRA did have access to a lot of military secrets, presumably including the names of at least some secret informants. Surely some of those on the list were ‘guilty’?
The book’s main thesis—expressed with all due qualifications—is that the two main waves of informer shootings (in November 1920 and February 1921) are explained by the IRA’s discovery of a loyalist spy ring involving unionists and ex-soldiers. Other killings occurred as further evidence was gathered. Mistakes were undoubtedly made, but the author is inclined to take Florence O’Donoghue at his word that the guerrillas only acted when they thought they had a strong case against the victim.
Borgonovo has done some nice sleuthing to put his storyline together. For example, he has discovered that Josephine Brown, the republican mole in Victoria Barracks, also happened to live next door to the supposed ringleader of the spy ring, Joseph Blemens. (If it were a spy thriller, you’d never believe it!) Deductive reasoning is persuasive in other cases. Where those shot had police escorts, or when a shooting prompted a reprisal, he quite reasonably concludes that the victim did indeed have a close connection to the authorities.
On the other hand, can we not then conclude the reverse: that those to whom the police or army were apparently indifferent were innocent? A similar problem arises with the book’s central narrative of a plot being uncovered. As the author himself scrupulously acknowledges, it rests entirely on the testimony of IRA officers, whose statements are often unreliable or contradictory. Extracting a coherent single account is worth attempting, but we are still left with an X-Files-like absence of concrete evidence and a lot of loose ends. Belief in a conspiracy by people who use it to justify their actions hardly constitutes proof of its existence, and the presence of the Masonic bogeyman invites an extra degree of scepticism. It must also be countered with the repeated British assertions that most of those shot were innocent, which presumably is as believable as the IRA’s claim to the contrary. Borgonovo does deal with these issues, but they remain problematic.
A large part of the book has to do with the ‘Anti-Sinn Féin Society’, the IRA’s term for the suspected loyalist informers, and also the cover used by policemen for reprisals. It is unclear whether the city guerrillas thought that the informers were doubling as gunmen, but this was believed elsewhere, as in West Cork. Borgonovo thus makes a most useful contribution by distinguishing clearly between the two. Reprisals may have prompted the IRA’s first round-up of suspects, but they were not carried out by local civilians.
Most importantly, perhaps, Borgonovo rejects any suggestion that people were shot simply because they were Protestants or ex-soldiers. Yet, extraordinarily, 24 of his 26 victims were one or the other (or, in one case, both). Here we encounter a familiar straw man, as the author erroneously claims that Jane Leonard and I have argued that the IRA wanted to ‘cleanse’ or suppress these groups altogether. Since most Protestants and veterans remained untouched, he concludes, they obviously weren’t targeted as groups. This is an evasion of the real question, which is not why more such people were not killed but, rather, why they were targeted to the near-exclusion of any other sort of people. It seems very unlikely that all or even most British intelligence sources fell into these categories: other evidence suggests that actual informers came from a cross-section of Irish society. Moreover, Borgonovo ignores the language often used to describe those killed: as ‘tinkers’, ‘gutties’, freemasons and whatnot. And, indeed, he ultimately comes to much the same conclusion that I did: that ex-solders were easier to kill because they were typically seen as members of an undesirable underclass.
This argument is also factually inaccurate in one key respect. He suggests that there was no general ill will between republicans and ex-soldiers, when the record indicates otherwise. There were numerous fights between these groups—or involving ‘separation women’—in 1917–19, and they picked up again in 1922. Here the problem is periodisation, as the book begins in the autumn of 1920 and ends in July 1921. If he had looked at all the civilians shot by the IRA over the whole revolution, he would find that they targeted Protestants and ex-soldiers before his period and continued to do so up to and through the Civil War.
The absence of context also affects Borgonovo’s theory of the dynamics of the violence. He disputes the idea that retaliation and reprisal drove these killings, preferring to see them as proceeding rationally from discovery and immediate threat. Yet he fully acknowledges that both sides engaged in reprisal attacks against each other, as when twelve soldiers were shot in February 1921 after some IRA men were executed. It would seem odd that such a powerful element in other kinds of killing would be absent only from the IRA’s war on informers. More generally, Borgonovo doesn’t give much sense of the sheer number of shootings and disappearances that occurred from late 1920 onwards. He cites my figure of 131 shootings of defenceless victims as a gross exaggeration, but he doesn’t seem to realise that I include all victims not shot in combat. If anything it is an underestimate, such was the mayhem on the streets of Cork at that time. It is much harder to maintain the impression of deliberation and restraint on anyone’s part given the full record: what emerges instead is a picture of predators hunting and killing opportunistically right up until the final bell (and even afterwards, in the case of the IRA).
While obviously I dispute some of the book’s methods and conclusions, it is both intelligent and engaging: good material for classroom discussions. The general reader might be looking for more stories and secrets, but Borgonovo’s aim of advancing the debate is exemplary, as is his research and honesty about the limits of the available sources. Finally, his focus on victims as well as combatants is very important: we can’t really understand the violence otherwise. He is described on the book’s cover as pursuing a PhD, so we can look forward to more of his work in the future.

Peter Hart holds the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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