WAR OF INDEPENDENCE/CIVIL WAR: Tipperary’s ‘disappeared’, 1920–1923

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Volume 29

The exact number of victims is impossible to ascertain.


By Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc


Top: A monument, erected by Cloughjordan Heritage Group in September 2019, to RIC Constables Thomas Gallivan and Joseph Daly, ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in May 1921.
Above: District Inspector Gilbert Norman Potter, the highest-ranking member of the RIC to be ‘disappeared’ by the IRA.

The phenomenon of what international human rights law terms ‘forced disappearances’ has been documented in conflicts worldwide for decades. During the Spanish Civil War over 140,000 people were ‘disappeared’, while Amnesty International estimates that there have been 75,000 forced disappearances in the recent Syrian civil war. The number of disappearances attributed to the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland was minuscule by comparison, yet its eighteen such killings have attracted significant media interest. Less well known’ is that the so-called ‘Old IRA’ also ‘disappeared’ a significant number of people during the Irish Revolution of 1916–23.

The IRA ‘disappeared’ approximately 110 people in a three-year period from mid-1920 to 1923, which spanned the War of Independence, the Truce and the Civil War. During the same period the British Crown forces ‘disappeared’ at least seven people. For the first time a comprehensive list identifying most, if not all, of those ‘disappeared’ over the period has been published in an article, ‘Shallow Graves—documenting and assessing IRA disappearances during the Irish revolution 1919–1923’, in the Journal of Small Wars and Insurgencies (2020), co-authored by Dr Andy Bielenberg (UCC) and myself.

The majority of these killings (60) were civilians whom the IRA alleged to have been spying for the British. At least 30 members of the British Army and twenty RIC men were also ‘disappeared’. The majority of these executions were carried out by the IRA in Cork, the county where the conflict was fought most fiercely and which has been subject to the greatest historical scrutiny. By contrast, the ‘Premier County’ has received much less scholarly attention, although the second-largest number of fatalities occurred in Tipperary during the War of Independence and the largest number of IRA ‘disappearances’ in the Civil War.

Civilian spies and informers

The first of Tipperary’s ‘disappeared’ was a stranger to the county who was captured after the IRA received reports that two suspicious men had visited Clonmel RIC barracks. IRA commandant Jerome Davin recalled this incident in his statement to the Bureau of Military History:

‘One of these men was captured at Killusty. He gave his name as O’Neill with an address at Bridge St., Arklow. He would give no further information. He had a note book with a code, the key to which I was unable to discover. He also had fake .303 rifle ammunition … We learned that he had called to a few houses, where he produced the fake ammunition and asked to be put in touch with Dan Breen’s column. We also learned that an O’Neill of Bridge St., Arklow, had joined the British Army years before but that his whereabouts were unknown. He was sentenced to death for spying. When his execution drew near he appealed to me to save his life. I promised to do what I could, provided he told me who he was associated with—but he refused. He was executed by a firing party and buried in a field near Rosegreen.’

O’Neill’s body has apparently never been discovered and remains hidden somewhere in Rosegreen, Co. Tipperary.

Thomas Kirby, an ex-British soldier from Golden, came to the attention of IRA intelligence after he was seen drinking with members of the RIC and spending large sums of money. The IRA suspected Kirby of spying and exiled him from the district. Kirby sought refuge in Dundrum barracks, where the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment was stationed. According to the local IRA unit’s brigade activity report, Kirby began working as an ‘identifier’:

‘This man frequently guided enemy forces in their nightly prowls for wanted men. Though he always endeavoured to conceal his identity [by wearing a British uniform] but he did not escape the watchful eye of our Battalion Intelligence Officer. One night he ventured out alone and was followed and captured.’

Kirby had been drinking in the Big Man’s Pub in Ballybrack in January 1921 when he was abducted by the IRA and court-martialled on the charge of spying by the IRA’s local battalion commandant, Tadhg Dwyer, and the battalion adjutant, Phil Fitzgerald. Kirby is alleged to have admitted to having given intelligence information to the British and expressed his regret for having done so, but pleaded ‘not guilty’ on the grounds of insanity. He was executed by a firing squad and was buried in a bog at Turraheen, near Rossmore. Kirby’s body was discovered in September 1990, in a makeshift British Army uniform, and formally reburied.

Later, the Tipperary IRA ‘disappeared’ a third civilian informer named Jerry O’Brien, described as a ‘tinker’, a pejorative reference to the Traveller community. O’Brien was abducted by the Upperchurch company of the IRA and shot as a suspected spy. Although the majority of executed suspected spies were left in a public place with a label affixed as a warning, there is no record of O’Brien’s body being found, so presumably, like O’Neill, he too was buried in secret; his body has never been recovered.

Above: The boots, cardigan, British Army cap badge and other personal possessions of suspected informer Thomas Kirby, discovered with his body in a bog at Turraheen near Rossmore in 1990 and now on display in Tipperary County Museum, Clonmel. (Tipperary Museum Collection)

Royal Irish Constabulary

Three members of the RIC taken prisoner by the IRA in Tipperary were executed and buried in secret. The first was District Inspector Gilbert Potter, the most senior member of the force to be ‘disappeared’ during the conflict. On 23 April 1921 Potter was travelling alone in his car when he encountered an IRA roadblock near the site of the Hyland’s Cross ambush. Though dressed in civilian clothes, Potter was identified when his captors examined papers that he was carrying. Realising that they had captured a senior RIC officer, the leadership of the IRA’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade devised a plan to exchange Potter for Thomas Traynor, an IRA Volunteer who was then awaiting execution in Mountjoy Prison. The British failed to respond and the rebuke embittered local IRA officers like Séan Fitzpatrick, the brigade adjutant:

‘To save Traynor’s life an offer was made to British Headquarters, but those responsible seemed incapable of appreciating one act of chivalry in return for another. The spirit of vengeance and bloodlust with which British policy was imbued sent poor Traynor to his doom leaving Potter to suffer a like fate.’

Traynor was hanged on 25 April 1921. The following day Potter was executed by firing squad and buried on the banks of the River Clodagh. Potter’s body was exhumed by the IRA following the Truce and returned to his widow for formal burial.

John Reynold’s The RIC in County Tipperary 1919–1922 described the force’s role during the conflict as that of ‘a civic peacekeeping force at a time of escalating violence’. In fact, Tipperary was one of the first counties where a faction of the RIC organised a campaign to assassinate local republicans. The activities of this group, dubbed ‘the Murder Gang’, resulted in the deaths of at least seven men in the county, all of whom were captured in their homes and shot dead. Thus, far from being ‘peacekeepers’, some members of the RIC in Tipperary willingly adopted brutal methods to crush the republican insurrection. Consequently, the willingness of the Tipperary IRA to hold captured RIC men as prisoners diminished.

On Sunday 15 May 1921 the IRA’s North Tipperary Brigade prepared a number of ambushes on the roads surrounding Nenagh, but these ambush positions were abandoned that evening without encountering any British patrols. However, the IRA unit lying in ambush on the Silvermines Road arrested two members of the RIC, Constables Joseph Daly and Joseph Gallivan, who were returning to their barracks in Nenagh after courting two sisters who lived in Ballymackey. Con Spain, the IRA officer in charge of the operation, remembered that the capture caused a quandary:

‘They were dressed in civilian clothes but as they passed they were recognised by Mick Moylan of Nenagh and made prisoners. Billy Spain and Tom Walsh, who were in charge at this ambush position, were in a quandary as to what to do with the captives and came to me for instructions. I referred him to Brigade Headquarters, where Seán Gaynor, the Brigadier, gave orders to shoot and bury them. The two prisoners were marched to Lower Graigue and that night, after being blindfolded, were shot by a firing party [and] their bodies were buried in a bog … a widespread search was made by British soldiers who actually walked over the spot where the men were buried but failed to notice that the ground had been disturbed.’

In 1925, following an appeal by a Catholic priest, the IRA retrieved the remains of both constables for formal burial.

Brigid Dillon (above), killed in a botched IRA attempt to abduct her brothers William and Michael in July 1921. The IRA returned in May 1922 and abducted William Dillon, whose body was discovered in the grounds of Tullamaine Castle (below), near Fethard, the following October.

Disappearances during the Truce

Following the Truce, which ended the War of Independence on 11 July 1921, disappearances became a relatively rare phenomenon except in Cork, where they continued, though at a significantly lower level. Many of these post-Truce killings related to outstanding allegations of spying during the earlier conflict. Tipperary appears to have been the only other county where disappearances continued, and at least one suspected informer was abducted and secretly executed there.

William Dillon was an eighteen-year-old student from Kilcash who attended Carrick-on-Suir Christian Brothers’ College. Local IRA officer Seamus Babington described him as ‘not fully normal’ and today he might be described as having an intellectual disability or behavioural disorder. In July 1921, William Dillon and his brother Michael reported the presence of an IRA flying column near their home to the British Army. In retaliation, the IRA raided the Dillon family home, but the operation descended into chaos after they accidentally shot dead fifteen-year-old Brigid Dillon. In the confusion that followed, the Dillon brothers escaped. The IRA returned, however, on 4 May 1922 and abducted William Dillon, executed him and buried him in the grounds of Tullamaine Castle near Fethard. His body was discovered in October 1922 and shortly afterwards the remaining members of the Dillon family departed for England.

Disappearances during the Civil War

The frequency of IRA ‘disappearances’ declined even further during the Civil War. Though at least sixteen suspected civilian spies were executed by the anti-Treaty IRA during that conflict, only two of these are known to have been ‘disappeared’. The first was William Frazer, a loyalist publican from Newtown, Armagh; the second was George Brophy, a shopkeeper from Irishtown, Clonmel. Brophy, a former British Army officer, was abducted from his home by armed men in May 1922.

Brophy’s wife stated that her husband was taken by armed men travelling in a lorry who asked him, ‘Why did you not leave when we ordered you?’. The local IRA brigade reported that a number of suspected spies had been arrested in Clonmel the same month and that one was held for a period before being executed during the Civil War; this appears to have been Brophy. In November 1922, Free State soldiers, acting on information received, recovered Brophy’s body from a field in the townland of Donegal near Clerihan village. Brophy had been blindfolded, shot once through the head and buried in an unmarked grave dug to a depth of 3ft.

The only known case of Free State soldiers being ‘disappeared’ by the IRA also occurred in Tipperary. On 23 January 1923 Lt. George Cruise, who had served with the IRA’s Dublin Brigade during the War of Independence, and Lt. James Kennedy from Cashel were travelling by car to Templemore when they were captured by the IRA near Clonmel. The pair were reportedly unarmed and dressed in civilian clothing. Their remains were discovered on 3 April 1923 lying at the bottom of a ditch and buried beneath a heap of earth.

The discovery of two unidentified bodies in Tipperary also raises the possibility that there may be further disappearances related to the conflict where those killed have yet to be identified. In August 1922 a body was discovered at Ballinard, near Tipperary town, by a cowherd. The corpse was hidden beneath a few sods of earth, with his feet protruding. The Clonmel Chronicle reported that the deceased ‘is supposed to have been a casualty in the recent fighting in the district’—suggesting that the dead man was more likely a combatant killed in battle and hastily buried by his comrades than the victim of a forced disappearance.

In May 1923, Free State soldiers searching Henry’s Glen on the south-eastern slopes of the Galtee Mountains discovered the body of a man in a very decomposed condition hidden beneath a few sods of earth. The corpse was dressed in a grey suit with matching grey tweed hat and scarf. Local rumour suggested that the deceased was a man named Hunt from near Tipperary town but a police investigation was unable to confirm this. Although the possibility remains that this unidentified man had been ‘disappeared’ by the IRA, it is also possible that he was killed by some other faction or murdered as a result of a personal, criminal or agrarian feud. Without further information it is impossible to say for certain who this man was, who killed him and for what motive, or exactly how many people were victims of forced disappearances in Tipperary during the Irish Revolution.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc has a Ph.D in Irish history and has published several books on the Irish revolution, 1916–1923.


A. Bielenberg & P. Ó Ruairc, ‘Shallow graves—documenting and assessing IRA disappearances during the Irish revolution 1919–1923’, Journal of Small Wars and Insurgencies (2020).

S. Hogan, The Black and Tans in North Tipperary—policing, revolution and war 1913–1922 (Nenagh, 2013).

D.G. Murnane, The Civil War in County Tipperary (forthcoming).


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