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Collins' most reliable and useful agents: New files shine light on women of the War of Independence

One Dublin woman who ran a grocery shop was considered a key asset to Michael Collins, according to the files.

Image: Nicky Ryan/TheJournal.ie

A NEW RELEASE of military records from the first half of the 20th century has shone a new light on the role women played during the Irish War of Independence in gathering and sharing intelligence with the Irish Republican Army. 

The eighth release of files under the Military Service Pensions’ Collection reveals details of those who took part in the War of Independence between 1916 and 1923.

Staff at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin have been sifting through pension applications from former members of the IRA, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann the National Army, and the Irish Citizen Army, submitted during the 1930s.

The total files documented and released to date has reached 1,700.

One file made available in the latest release details the pension application of Lily Leamy O’Shea who Michael Collins considered to be one of his “most reliable and useful agents” for gathering and sharing intelligence. 

Project manager Cecile Gordon explained one document read: “This is to certify that Mrs O’Shea Leamy, of 78a, Summerhill, Dublin was very closely connected during the whole period of the struggle against the British with the various activities of the volunteers in her area.

“She was a member of Drumcondra branch… she ran a grocery shop there, and the shop was used as an arms dump… and volunteers often used it before and after operations.” 

Letter ref Lily O'Shea Leamy Source: MSPC

“She becomes heavily involved in intelligence work and her house is used for meetings of intelligence officers, and the squad as well. She has really good reference letters on her file,” Cecile said, with one file documenting how she brought men into the movement. 

A letter vouching for Leamy O’Shea’s role in the movement, submitted by IRA intelligence officer Patrick Moynihan in order to apply for her pension, describes “how she brought him into the movement and that all information and documents to him were passed on by her”. 

“Basically one of her duties was to stand and censor the mail that she was seizing and send useful information to Michael Collins directly. And he describes how she then arranged for him to meet Michael Collins in 1918. 

“He says ‘Michael Collins himself required a personal meeting with me and this came up by her personal arrangement’.

“There was another letter of reference from [an IRA officer] on file and he says that he was aware that Lily O’Shea was aware of some of Michael Collins most exclusive channels of intelligence, and that Collins considered her, in definition, to be one of his most reliable and useful agents.”

Patrick Swanzy reference Source: MSPC

Gordon described another reference letter from IRA officer Patrick Swanzy which documents how “she frequently accompanied him to rent premises and that she was instrumental in renting stables where they stored the paraffin oil for the burning of the custom house.

So again in the files of women, you look for one thing but you are getting quite a number of other things. 

Cork

Another pension application details how Margaret Neenan in Cork was involved in gathering intelligence and transferring arms from one site to another during IRA operations. 

“Her whole family is involved in the movement… and during the War of Independence her house was used heavily by the IRA. There was an arms dump in her garden. She is in charge of that and she transported and shipped arms here and there. 

“She claims in the files to have received information from a nurse in the union at the workhouse about a man called Walshe, she says she went with the IRA to the union and held a gun to the caretaker and [Walshe] then got shot.

Margaret Neenan Source: MSPC

“They shot him outside the grounds of the union. She was responsible for bringing the arms to that.”

Documents from the other men involved in that operation were previously made available through the pension records and corresponded with the accounts of events released today, Gordon said. 

Files related to a Saltmills explosion in Wexford when six people were killed and nine people injured as an IRA unit was making explosives are now also available to the public. 

All the files made available from the collection so far are available online here.

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