Was William Latimer an informer?

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Sir,—The May/June issue (HI 25.3) was of particular interest to Leitrim enthusiasts with Brendan Scott’s article on ‘The making of the Book of Fenagh’. In addition, Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc, in his comprehensive article ‘Spies and informers beware!’, chose as one of his examples the case of the Methodist farmer William Latimer, who was shot dead as an informer in March 1921 at his farm in Doonera, just about two miles from Fenagh.

I was particularly interested in Pádraig’s article as I am currently writing a book about the murder of my grandfather’s first cousin, Dr M.P. Muldoon, in March 1923 in nearby Mohill, Co. Leitrim. Dr Muldoon was shot by a group of Irregulars while returning from playing cards with his friend Canon Masterson. The view in the area at the time was that his killing was connected to his knowledge about the pregnancy of the young housekeeper of a local Catholic curate, Fr Edward Ryans of Aughavas parish. Fr Ryans was actively involved in republican politics and he was a suspect in the ensuing investigation of the doctor’s killing.

My book also contains an account of the engagement at Selton Hill on 11 March 1921 that resulted in the deaths of six IRA volunteers at the hands of British forces. It was as a result of this disaster that William Latimer was shot dead on 30 March 1921 on the grounds of being an informer. From my own investigation of William Latimer’s execution I cannot agree entirely with Pádraig’s assertion that his widow, Isabella, testified that her husband ‘had supplied information to the RIC and she did not ascribe a sectarian motive to his killing’. In his comprehensive book Truce, murder, myth and the last days of the Irish War of Independence (2016), Pádraig bases this assertion on the contents of Mrs Latimer’s compensation claim for the loss of the family farm submitted to the Irish Grants Committee (ICG) in London. I have found no reference to a sectarian motive, one way or the other, in that claim form.

The claim form submitted to the ICG and an apparent addendum contain differing accounts of William Latimer’s death. The initial typed form contains one version, apparently composed by Mrs Latimer’s solicitors, stating that it was as a ‘result of his having supplied information to the Royal Irish Constabulary’. However, a later apparent addendum or update states, in the first person, that ‘My husband William J. Latimer, late of Doonera, Mohill, Co. Leitrim, was accused of giving information to the RIC’. Mrs Latimer also submitted a compensation claim under the Irish Free State compensation process in which is simply stated ‘my husband William Latimer was shot on 30th March 1921’. While Mrs Latimer had a certain responsibility for all the contents of her two claim forms we need to be aware of the differing accounts. We also need to bear in mind the general acceptance that applicants were inclined to word their compensation claims with a view in mind as to what might evoke a sympathetic reaction from the particular agency to which they were applying.

Pádraig’s book also refers to the different classifications that were given by the British authorities to the various claims, and in the Latimer case it was ‘Agreed to accept as a British Liability’. Under the terms of the agreement between the UK and the Irish Free State, each government was to be responsible for compensation in respect of injuries to its own ‘supporters’. In an unsupported ‘Remark’ on the file of Mrs Latimer’s Dublin compensation claim an Irish civil servant has noted: ‘In politics applicant and his [sic] family were unionists’. He did not go as far as stating that William Latimer was an informer. It seems evident that Dublin was going to argue liability for his widow’s compensation claim, and the outcome, ‘Agreed to accept as a British Liability’, might indicate that this was a marginal case argued over by Dublin and London.

In his book Pádraig quotes Diarmaid Ferriter as saying that it is ‘perhaps an impossible task’ to find out how many of the people killed for spying had given information to the British forces. For my book I have accumulated a considerable amount of local information, etc., on the Latimer case, in addition to drawing on the two compensation claims. While on balance I do not think that William Latimer was an ‘informer’ in the accepted understanding of the word, it is an almost impossible task to say for certain at this remove.—Yours etc.,

Dalkey, Co. Dublin


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