War of Independence execution of Mary Lindsay was justified, argues historian

Six IRA volunteers were killed after landowner alerted British to ambush plot

The execution of one of three women killed deliberately by the IRA during the War of Independence after she relayed information to the British about an IRA ambush in Co Cork, which led to the deaths of six IRA volunteers, was justifiable as she had acted as a spy, a leading historian has argued.

Gabriel Doherty of the School of History at UCC told a commemoration to mark the 100th anniversary of the Dripsey Ambush in mid-Cork that the killing of unionist landowner Mary Lindsay (60) by the IRA could not be compared to the execution by the British of the IRA men captured at the ambush.

Mr Doherty told a gathering of about 250 people at the ambush site on the Cork to Coachford Road that Lindsay's decision to pass on information to the British Army in Ballincollig after she learned of the planned IRA ambush on January 28th 1921 was "a hostile act in a time of war".

“It was one that transformed those who so acted from civilians, who were entitled to remain above the conflict and be guarded from it, into spies who could not expect any such protection. I certainly do not deny that Mrs Lindsay acted according to her political convictions but such convictions were no defence against the charge, properly levelled against her,” said Mr Doherty.


The execution of Lindsay provoked outrage in the UK and was raised in the House of Commons and it came after the execution of five IRA men captured at Dripsey who were shot on February 28th, 1921, while a sixth volunteer captured at Dripsey, James Barrett, died later of his wounds.

The ambush was planned by a Flying Column of the Cork No 1 IRA Brigade drawn from 6th Battalion units from Berrings, Blarney, Courtbrack, Coachford, Donoughmore, and Rylane in mid-Cork who had assembled under captain Frank Busteed at Godfrey's Cross in Dripsey to attack the British.

Lindsay learned of the planned attack when a shopkeeper in Coachford, Denis Sheehan, advised her not to travel to Ballincollig via Dripsey as the IRA were planning an ambush and after she told a local curate, Fr Ned Shinnick to "look after his boys", she went to Ballincollig to alert the British.

Fr Shinnick sent a messenger to the IRA but Busteed and his fellow officers mistrusted the priest, who was known for his British sympathies, and thinking it was a ruse to get them to abandon the ambush, they remained in position and were surprised by a force from the Manchester Regiment.

Ten men were arrested after a firefight and eight of them went on trial at Victoria Barracks in Cork on February 8th, 1921, as Cork was under martial law since December 10th, 1920, and three were acquitted while the remaining five were convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad.

The IRA kidnapped Lindsay and her chauffeur, James Clarke, in mid-February and sent a message to general Peter Strickland at Victoria Barracks on the eve of the planned execution of the IRA men, warning that both Lindsay and her chauffeur would be killed if the executions went ahead.

But the British proceeded with the executions and IRA volunteers Daniel O'Callaghan, Patrick O'Mahony, John Lyons, Timothy McCarthy and Thomas O'Brien, all captured at Dripsey, and John Allen, who was arrested in Tipperary, were shot by firing squad on February 28th, 1921.

A sixth prisoner captured at Dripsey, James Barrett, from Donoughmore died from his wounds in hospital on March 22nd, by which time, the IRA under Busteed had executed Lindsay and Clarke and buried their bodies in a bog in the Rylane area.

At Sunday's commemoration, Mr Doherty said that the Dripsey ambush was an act of a war, which had been declared by Dáil Éireann on January 21st, 1919, and which had been recognised by the then commander in chief of the British forces Frederick Shaw in March 1920.

The British themselves recognised it was a war when they levelled the charge at those captured at Dripsey that they “did levy war against his majesty by attacking ... a detachment of his majesty’s forces” so the ambush was an act of war in which soldiers of both nations took part, he said.

“The captured soldiers were not afforded the honourable prisoner of war treatment to which their status and deeds, entitled them – rather they, in the manner of felons, were put on trial for their lives, the charge being that they had waged war but waging war is what soldiers do.

“The volunteers fought a clean fight for the duration of the engagement, yet that was precisely the charge that was levelled at them – in other words, those who were executed were done to death not for having done anything wrong but for being who they were, soldiers of the Irish republic.”

Mr Doherty said there was no doubt but that the killing of Lindsay and her chauffeur, James Clarke by the IRA followed as direct consequences of the execution of the IRA men but it would be wrong to equate her death with the execution of the Dripsey prisoners, which was a war crime.

He said that it was a matter of record that those on the republican side did everything they could to avoid “the desperately sad sequel” that followed but the final decision lay in British hands to respect the customs of war and not execute the men but they chose to ignore that and instead shot them.

“Both the volunteers at Dripsey and Mrs Lindsay acted according to the lights dictated by their conscience and both paid the ultimate price for doing but there, to my mind, the similarity ends – the volunteers acted to free their country.

“Mrs Lindsay acted as a spy and sought to ensure that Britain continued to rule the country in defiance of the will of the Irish people – I leave it to those assembled here today to decide for themselves, which was the better path,” he told the commemoration.

Among those to attend Sunday's commemoration was Co Cork mayor Gillian Coughlan, who praised the Dripsey Ambush Memorial Committee for their restoration of the monument by stone carver Seamus Murphy, and Cork North Central TDs, Colm Burke of Fine Gael and Thomas Gould of Sinn Féin.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times