‘Spies and traitors beware’ – the IRA and the death of Vincent Fovargue

An Irishman’s Diary

The War of Independence came to Britain in November 1920 with attacks on warehouses and hay barns which intensified into 1921. There had been little loss of life in Britain until Vincent Fovargue’s death on April 4th, 1921.

The War of Independence came to Britain in November 1920 with attacks on warehouses and hay barns which intensified into 1921. There had been little loss of life in Britain until Vincent Fovargue’s death on April 4th, 1921.

 

The caddy who arrived early at the 14th bunker on a quiet Sunday morning was confronted by a shocking sight.

Lying in the rough between the bunker and the green was the body of a man who had been shot twice. Four spent cartridges were on the roadway opposite.

The man had a sign pinned on his chest, “Let all spies and traitors beware – IRA”. A doctor who arrived at the scene estimated that his death occurred at least eight hours previously.

The death of Vincent Fovargue made a deep impression on British society because his killing did not happen in Ireland, but on a golf course in Ashford, Middlesex, outside London.

The War of Independence came to Britain in November 1920 with attacks on warehouses and hay barns which intensified into 1921. There had been little loss of life in Britain until Fovargue’s death on April 4th, 1921.

The Ashford Manor Golf Club, near what is now Heathrow Airport, was then and is now in what is commonly called the “stockbroker belt”. It was not a secluded country road in rural Ireland, a creamery or an isolated RIC barracks, the battlegrounds of the War of Independence.

Yet this was a killing within that war designed to demonstrate there was no hiding place for the IRA’s enemies at home or abroad.

Fovargue was just 20, a clerk bookkeeper and from Clontarf. He was appointed intelligence officer with the 4th battalion of the Dublin brigade of the IRA during the War of Independence.

Fovargue was in reality a British government spy and not a very good one either and lacked discretion.

When he was appointed as intelligence officer he had made inquiries about the presence and movements of Michael Collins which immediately attracted suspicion. Two meetings of company and brigade intelligence of the Dublin IRA were raided after he was told about them.

He was “captured” on January 31st 1921 by the British military and taken to Kilmainham Gaol for interrogation.

Fovargue escaped from his interrogators while being moved from Kilmainham to Dublin Castle. As the lorry trundled down the South Circular Road it came under small-arms fire from the IRA. As the soldiers returned fire, Fovargue escaped, or so the official communiqué from Dublin Castle informed the public.

IRA GHQ could find no evidence of a firefight among any of its volunteers. The notion that an unarmed prisoner could escaped from three armed guards seemed too good to be true and so it transpired.

Years later, Sir Ormonde Winter, the head of British intelligence in Ireland, admitted he had recruited Fovargue as a spy and immediately after Fovargue’s staged escape, he sent him to England.

In England Fovargue turned up at a meeting of the Irish Self-Determination League (ISDL), a civil society group then lobbying British public opinion about the case for Irish independence.

He approached the main speaker, Cathal O’Shannon, the father of the late broadcaster of the same name, afterwards and inquired about the whereabouts of Collins and Richard Mulcahy, the head of the IRA.

“My suspicions were aroused and a cold shiver went down my spine. I immediately broke off the conversation sharply and moved away from him,” O’Shannon recalled in a letter to The Irish Press in 1968.

O’Shannon told Sean McGrath, the IRA’s deputy head of intelligence in London, about the meeting and gave a description of the man. McGrath immediately recognised that it was the same man who had “escaped” British custody before.

Fovargue began turning up to Saturday night céilidh in London. These were social events for the Irish in London, but they doubled as gatherings for the IRA in the city and as fundraisers for their activities.

On the evening of Saturday, April 3rd, he attended one at Kelvedon Hall in Fulham, southwest London.

There he was making his usual inquiries and was asked to accompany a number of men who were organising an arms dump.

The killers of Fovargue have never been identified and the Metropolitan Police were criticised for not making any progress on their investigation.

In his autobiography Winter’s Tale, Winter concluded that Fovargue’s death “most have been due to some carelessness on his part. I lost a man who was potentially a good agent”.

Who killed him? The most likely suspect was the officer commanding the IRA in London, Reginald Dunne. Dunne was named by David Neligan, Michael Collins’s mole in Dublin Castle, as the killer, along with Joe Shanahan, another IRA volunteer.

“Joe Shanahan and Reggie Dunne executed him at a golf course outside London. Shanahan told me this,” Neligan stated. Shanahan added that they were stopped on the way back from the golf course by an officer who told them to fix a back light.

In his application for a military pension, Shanahan states that he was involved in intelligence work in London from March 1921 under the command of Dunne and the IRA’s chief intelligence officer in London Sam Maguire, but he makes no specific reference to having been involved in the shooting of Fovargue.

It is certain that the killing would have had to have been sanctioned by Dunne, but did he pull the trigger?

Dunne was executed along with Joe O’Sullivan in August of the following year for the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. In his book about the shooting, published in 1961, Rex Taylor reckoned it was O’Sullivan and not Dunne who was involved in the shooting of Fovargue.

When the two men were executed at Wandsworth Prison on August 10th, 1922, for the assassination of Wilson they took the secret of who killed Fovargue with them.

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