The case of Mrs Lindsay

Published in Decade of Centenaries, Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Volume 23

‘To General Strickland,
Victoria Barracks, Cork

We are holding Mrs Lindsay and her chauffeur, James Clarke, prisoners. They have been convicted as spies and are under sentence of death. If the five of our men taken at Godfrey’s Cross are executed on Monday morning they will be shot immediately. I enclose a personal appeal from Mrs Lindsay to you.
OC 6th Battn.
Flying Column’

‘In March 1921 we arrested Mrs Lindsay and driver as being spies. Both were executed later. We burnt Mrs Lindsay’s house …’—Frank Busteed’s handwritten note in the Military Service Pensions archive. (Military Archives).

This letter was dropped outside Victoria Barracks in Cork by an IRA dispatch carrier on 26 February 1921. It was picked up by a sentry and delivered to General Strickland at his residence in the barracks. No action was taken. Early on the morning of 28 February, six men (Daniel O’Callaghan, Patrick O’Mahony, Timothy McCarthy, Thomas O’Brien and John Lyons, together with John Allen, who was sentenced to death for having been found to be in possession of a revolver, ammunition and a military manual, Night fighting) were shot by firing squad.

Mrs Lindsay the informer
The IRA had discovered that Mrs Maria Lindsay of Leemount House, Coachford, was the person who had supplied the British authorities and the local priest with information about the ambush set in place at Godfrey’s Cross. Following the sentencing to death by courts martial of five men captured by the Manchesters, Busteed decided on a course of action that he thought would prevent their execution and had Mrs Lindsay and Mr James Clarke, her driver, kidnapped on 17 February.

Seán O’Callaghan
Seán O’Callaghan, the author of Execution (1974), writes extensively about the events in west Cork around that time: the failed ambush, the hunt for the informer, the courts martial, the sentence of death for five of the captured Volunteers, their execution and the subsequent execution of Mrs Lindsay and James Clarke by the IRA. He used local sources, interviewed actual participants in the failed ambush and had his depiction of the ambush site verified and his manuscript corrected by Frank Busteed.

O’Callaghan is interesting in his own right. A native of Killavullen, Co. Cork, he was commissioned in the Volunteer Force in 1936 and would serve permanently in the Defence Forces, on call-up in 1940, and in the Regiment of Pearse as second-in-command to Major Vivion de Valera, and later as a staff officer at Divisional Headquarters. On leaving the forces in 1946 he was employed as a journalist in Fleet Street and on the East African Standard in Nairobi in the 1950s. Busteed had enlisted in the Defence Forces at the outbreak of the war in Europe and would be quickly selected for training and commissioned as an officer for service in the Marine and Coastwatching Service in the Youghal sector, Co. Cork. He and O’Callaghan served as officers in the 1st Southern Division in Cork during the Emergency years.

Frank Busteed’s account of the execution
For Busteed, his own Protestant background was in no way a weakness when it came to proving that he was an Irish patriot above all things. Of Mrs Lindsay he said:

‘… the impression I got of her was that she was a stubborn woman, that you would not get any information from her. She wasn’t co-operative, notwithstanding the fact that she was sentenced to death. But when I issued the sentence of death to Clarke he collapsed completely. I don’t know what you have there, is it two different cultures, weak human nature, or what? … [and later] … Mrs Lindsay was now physically exhausted. During the weeks of her captivity she had lost over a stone in weight and her black coat and dress hung loosely about her.’

For James Clarke he had utter contempt and describes him in a dehumanising manner as a ‘pathetic shivering wreck, his clothes in tatters, his hand not steady enough to shave himself, being forced to drink poteen to steady his mind’.

On 11 March 1921, Mrs Lindsay and James Clarke were shot on Busteed’s orders. A grave, 6ft long and 3ft deep, had been hurriedly dug. Clarke had to be tied to two spades driven into the earth to keep him upright. Six shots were fired. According to Busteed:

‘Mrs Lindsay tumbled backward into the pit. Clarke slumped forward. The IRA officers untied him and pitched him into the grave on top of her … I told her she was going to die. She never blinked an eye. I will say this for her bravery, she was excellent.’

Did Busteed act precipitately in carrying out the execution of Mrs Lindsay? Questions are raised by a report from the Brigade Adjutant, Headquarters, Cork No. 1 Brigade, dated 15 March 1921, which is found in the Collins Papers Collection in the Military Archives. This report states that of the two captives ‘the man C had been dealt with in the usual way and that L [referring to Mrs Lindsay] was too old for deportation, was in a dying condition and it was proposed to hold her until she does die’.

Ultimate sacrifice
From the perspective of the British forces, Mrs Lindsay made the ultimate sacrifice in order to save lives. On 28 January 1922, a memorial service in her honour was held in Ballincollig garrison church, on the first anniversary of the failed ambush at Godfrey’s Cross. An address was given by Lt. Col. F.H. Dorling, DSO, Officer Commanding 1 Battalion, Manchester Regiment, explaining how fast she delivered the information to the Crown forces:

‘Her only object in doing so was to prevent Crown Forces from running into the ambush: “I came at once in the hope of saving some poor fellows’ lives …” The courage required was of a very high order and Mrs Lindsay knew the risk she ran … Mrs Lindsay showed devotion to duty of a very high standard and we have every reason therefore to pay respect to the memory of a very devoted and self-sacrificing lady more especially as she gave information which undoubtedly saved some of our own regiment and the local police force from running into this very ambush.’

The account written into the Record of Service of the battalion further highlights and denounces the brutality of her treatment and punishment.

Frank Busteed was summoned for interview in front of the Advisory Committee to the Referee on 24 September 1935. He was successful in his application under the Military Service Pensions Act, 1934, and was granted a service pension of £95 per year (61/3 years of service for pension purposes at the rank of commandant in respect of his service between 1 April 1919 and 30 September 1923). His file (MSP34REF4903) is available for viewing on-line on www.militaryarchives.ie.


Differing accounts of the ambush

A month earlier, Frank Busteed and his men of the 6th Battalion, Cork I Brigade Flying Column, were posted in ambush positions near Godfrey’s Cross between the villages of Coachford and Dripsey, expecting a convoy of British troops and Auxiliaries. News of the planned ambush had travelled among the local population, and while the flying column lay in wait the local priest’s messenger ran into the position to let the men know that they had been given away. Thinking that this was a ruse to dissuade them from the ambush, Busteed decided that the men would maintain their position.
The 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment was then posted in Ballincollig Barracks, and the Record of Service of the battalion in Ireland, which is to be found in Tameside Local Studies and Archive Centre, Manchester, gives an account of what followed:

‘Upon information received a party left the barracks, proceeded to Dripsey in order to round up the reported ambush. The patrol dismounted from their cars and advanced in five parties … The rebels, on seeing Lt. Col. Evans, CMG, DSO and his party of 15 men fired a few rounds, which had no effect and fled across the country. There were about 50 rebels armed with revolvers, shotguns, and Lee Metford rifles. They were chased and a running hunt took place … Two of the rebels were dressed in British officers’ uniform with “Sam Brown” belts. The actual known casualties inflicted on the rebels were: 2 shot dead, 5 wounded and taken prisoners, and 5 unwounded and taken prisoners. Our casualties. NIL.’

This official British Army account of the action differs radically from that given by Frank Busteed in his own hand and which he provided to the Referee and Advisory Committee set up to arbitrate on applications, awards and pensions for veterans of the period 1916 to 1923 under the Military Service Pensions Act, 1934:

‘In February 1921 we brought off the Dripsey ambush with heavey [sic] losses to ourselves and the military. We lost 6 men. The British must have lost 20 men … In March 1921 we captured [and] arrested Mrs Lindsay and driver as being spies. Both were executed later. We burned Mrs Lindsay’s house.’


Mrs Lindsay

Mrs Lindsay prior to her execution in January 1921, as re-enacted in TV3’s 2013 documentary In the name of the republic. (Tile Films)

Mrs Lindsay prior to her execution in January 1921, as re-enacted in TV3’s 2013 documentary In the name of the republic. (Tile Films)

Maria Georgina Lindsay (née Rawson) was the daughter of a landed estate family from Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow. Her family had lands in counties Kildare, Wicklow and Mayo and she had married John Lindsay, son of a wealthy linen merchant family from Banbridge, Co. Down, in 1887. She had moved to Leemount when the house and estate were purchased by her husband in 1901. Maria Lindsay was reportedly very much a product of her time and milieu. Educated and well-to-do through her marriage, she was a member of the Presbyterian Church. Her observance of the principles of the Union with Great Britain gave her rigid loyalist views and contempt for the men of the IRA.

‘She was a small woman, very square, very fat, very talkative. She always wore black, with a little round hat. She gave a lot of parties, one big one on St Stephens’s night, to which she invited all the local aristocracy, including Lord Bandon. She gave a children’s party every summer, to which we were all invited’
—Mrs West (née Gilman)

Mrs Lindsay would also have been known by the officers at Ballincollig Barracks, as her brother-in-law, Col. William Lindsay, had served with his regiment there. So it is likely that she would have been entertained in the officers’ mess and reciprocated socially. In 1921 Maria Lindsay was a widow approaching her 61st birthday; her husband John had died in 1918. While out being driven by her butler and chauffeur James Clarke (a fellow Presbyterian and long-time employee of her late husband’s family in Banbridge) and learning of the IRA ambush plans, she initially supplied the information to the local Roman Catholic priest, Fr Shinnick (known for his pro-British views), recognising him as an authority figure in the local community, but she also delivered the news personally to Ballincollig Barracks.


Cécile Gordon is an archivist in the Military Archives’ Military Service (1916–1923) Pensions Project.

Further reading

S. O’Callaghan, Execution (London, 1974).

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