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Executions, murder, and secrecy: The story of the notorious Cork jail Sing Sing

Gerard Murphy writes about the prison in this extract from his book The Year of Disappearances.

WHEN THE BOOK The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork 1921 – 1922 was released in 2010, it was the subject of “significant controversy”, as its author Gerard Murphy put it. The book, which has recently been published in a second edition by Gill Books, centres on killings of men in Cork during the War of Independence. Murphy spent years researching the subject, and the book details tales that have gone hidden for decades. As he says himself, it’s about a “dark part of Irish history” – and this extract about the little-known site of Sing Sing gives an insight into the topics he covers in the book. 

The Story of Sing Sing

If you travel the main Cork-Dublin road heading north out of Cork city and you look to your right as you approach the village of Watergrasshill, you will see a broad stretch of upland consisting mostly of pine forest and unreclaimed moorland. This area, lying between the parishes of Knockraha and Watergrasshill of around five or six square miles and around 700 ft above sea level, is known locally as the Rea.

It looks like any other hillside, isolated, lonely, a piece of high marginal land with small farms and low bungalows cosying up to its rather bleak forest-covered brow. Once a broad upland bog or moorland, the land is now a forest managed by Coillte and is covered with dense Nordic pine.

But this is no ordinary hill and if you go for a Sunday walk along the many forest pathways signposted on the roadside lay-bys on the road between Watergrasshill and Leamlara, nobody will tell you that this otherwise benign piece of public walkway was once the scene where death was meted out on an almost nightly basis.

For the Rea, less than ten miles from Cork city and therefore the nearest piece of isolated land to the city, was the killing field where the Cork ira No. 1 Brigade carried out most of its executions during the Irish War of Independence and the period immediately afterwards. This is the burial ground for at least 20 and perhaps as many as 30 victims of that conflict. Yet virtually nobody under the age of 50 living in the locality knows anything about this now.

To them it is just a hill, a place to take the dog for a walk and, for a brief period in the late 1990s, a focus of protest groups as locals tried to block plans by Cork County Council to site a municipal dump there.

What very few people realise now is that in the 1920s this was a dumping ground of an entirely different kind. This was not because it was a secret. Many of the older people knew about it, including my father, though he rarely mentioned these events. It was just
that for two generations most people were reluctant to talk about it. And then because it was never mentioned, it just got forgotten about. It is not the only such secret burial ground in County Cork: many bogs throughout the county contain victims of the period, but this is one of the most important, at least in the vicinity of the city.

My father’s generation—he was born in 1924—was half-afraid of the generation that came before them, the sometimes brave and sometimes savage men who had fought against the British Empire to secure political autonomy for the southern two-thirds of Ireland. The older men, the revolutionary generation, cast a long shadow over political life and discourse that was still palpable well into the 1960s. Their word was law, not only in the normally accepted sense of that term but also in the political and judicial sense. For politics, both national and local, was still dominated by the denizens of what has come to be called ‘the struggle for freedom’. When John F Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963 and addressed the Dáil, what is striking about the television footage of his speech is the youthfulness and energy of the us president compared to the Muppet-like doze of his ageing audience.

Many members of both sides of the Dáil and the Seanad were at that time in their sixties or early seventies. My generation was born, though we did not see it like that at the time, into a gerontocracy. And this was a gerontocracy that liked to guard its secrets. For, though many people knew about them and had heard the rumours, the killings in the Rea and elsewhere were carried out quietly. Only a small number of people knew of them even as they were going on in the 1920s.

It was in the summer of 1994 that I stumbled on the story of the Rea and how it operated. Very quickly I realised that this was one of the grimmest and most neglected untold stories of the period. It was obvious that if what I had been told could be substantiated, it would be a significant unwritten episode of the national struggle. If it were true, and I was initially extremely sceptical that it was, then something bigger was going on here than mere local history.

Yet it was a local historian called Eugene Turpin who told me about it. Eugene, a highly intelligent and engaging man with an interest in everything from the history of machinery to the history of the gaa, the ira and the Blueshirts, told me this extraordinary tale. But I was quickly able to corroborate from other local sources most of what he told me.

‘I presume you’ve heard about Sing Sing,’ he said to me one evening in his kitchen in the spectacularly dull and damp summer of 1994, taking a manuscript about the size of a small masters thesis down off the shelf.

‘Sing Sing?’

I had never heard of it, outside of the American prison of that name. The essence of what Eugene Turpin had to say was that the ira ran a sort of killing field in the bogs north of Knockraha, where prisoners taken by the Cork No 1 Brigade in the city and surrounding areas were executed. Prior to execution the prisoners were held in an underground vault in a local cemetery at Kilquane, a mile outside the village. The vault with grim Irish humour became known as Sing Sing. If Turpin’s story was to be believed, up to 35 individuals were executed in the Rea, north of Kilquane, which lies in the heart of east Cork between the villages of Knockraha, Watergrasshill and Leamlara.

Not only was he able to tell me what had gone on there, but ‘the thesis’ contained documentary evidence of a lot of the killings of prisoners in the area. This was a monograph written in the 1970s, a Macra na Feirme project entitled Foras Feasa na Paróiste, a history of the parish of Knockraha’s role in the War of Independence compiled while most of the survivors were still alive.

It had been written by a Knockraha man, Jim Fitzgerald. The intention of the book was to give a detailed picture of Knockraha’s role in the War of Independence. One of the more interesting details was that there were two bomb factories in the parish, where local ira men made iron casings for hand grenades. Some of these grenades can now be seen in the Cork County Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park. However, the bulk of the book, which in its original version ran to over 90 pages of dense two-column script, is taken up with the holding and execution of prisoners. The essence of the story was that the Cork No. 1 Brigade used the vault in Kilquane graveyard outside Knockraha as a prison for holding people before taking them up to the Rea for execution. The operation of this prison is given in great detail.

My first reaction to this was one of disbelief. Could executions on this scale have been going on only a few miles from where I was reared? Could I have spent nearly 40 years in the area and have been blissfully unaware that death was dealt out on such a scale in such a small area? Where was this in the history I had been taught, the catalogue of struggle against ‘the British oppressor’ that had been drummed into us from the very first day at primary school, the centuries of grief that our ‘noble’ nation had to suffer before
‘freedom’ was finally achieved? (In the 1960s we were the most noble nation on earth.)

Every morning of my young life I could see the Rea across the valley from our house. It formed the south-eastern horizon of my childhood world, where the sun rose every morning. It was seven or eight miles away but it was still within the universe of my childhood. I had never thought of it as anything other than a hill. My mother had been born to the south and east of it and had cycled across the Rea every Sunday of her childhood in the years immediately after the conflict. It was inconceivable that a few years before my mother routinely cycled that lonely road, it was host to a far more grisly form of traffic.

Yet here was an account detailing the execution of dozens of prisoners, as seen from the viewpoint of the men who were involved in the executions and burial of the bodies. These prisoners were a mixture of British soldiers, Black and Tans and civilian ‘spies’, only three of whom are mentioned by name.

Martin Corry, the local ira captain and later well-known Fianna Fáil TD, who was Jim Fitzgerald’s main source, claimed the real number was 35. Fitzgerald went to considerable lengths in the 1970s to corroborate Corry’s account of events by talking to other survivors of the time on both sides of the political divide. (His taped interviews with Martin Corry, containing much of the same detail, are now in the possession of the Cork Military Museum.)

He was lucky to have gathered his material when he did, while most of the survivors of E Company (4th Battalion, 1st Cork Brigade) were still alive, for by the time I got interested in it some 20 years later, they were all dead.

He said he only wrote down what he managed to confirm from more than one source. It was difficult, even for a sceptic like me, to argue with such an approach.

One Sunday in September 1994 Eugene Turpin showed me the vault. It was an underground mausoleum of solid stone right in the middle of the graveyard and had been used apparently for holding dead bodies during the days of the body snatchers. It was about 12 to 15 feet long with an arched roof and a creaking rusted iron door and was about 6 feet high at its highest point.

The first time I was shown it, it was covered in briars and scrub and hidden behind a crumbling tomb, almost invisible unless you knew where to look for it. The vault has since been opened up to the public and there is now a plaque near by commemorating its use in the War of Independence. It is a grim cavelike structure, though it looked much worse before it was cleaned out, as no doubt it did in 1920. It is still possible to see the holes in the iron door made by Ned Maloney, the local blacksmith and so-called ‘Governor of Sing Sing’, who drilled the holes so that the prisoners inside could breathe.

There was only one problem. I had no corroborating evidence that any of this stood up in the broader historical context. If these stories were true, then there would have to have been a lot of disappeared persons from the vicinity of Cork, both military, police and civilians. Evidence of this seemed, initially at least, to be difficult to find. And there were other problems with it from a historical point of view.

Despite a 12-month period when I read every published book and article connected with the War of Independence in Cork, I did not come across a single reference to Sing Sing or to the execution of prisoners in Knockraha. Looking through the newspapers of the time revealed only a picture of general chaos. Such was the mayhem that prevailed, that finding anything connected with these disappearances seemed futile. Either a lot was going on that went unreported in the press, or Corry’s account of his ‘war’ was a gross exaggeration.

As I began to look into the history of the period, all kinds of contradictions began to appear which had the effect of throwing me into years of hopeless confusion. It was in that confusion that I gradually began to untangle the secret operations of the ira and the various branches of British intelligence as they operated in Cork at the time. It turned out that many of the facts could, with considerable effort, be unearthed. Those facts told of a ‘dirty’ war, of espionage and counter-espionage, of terror and counter-terror, of episodes so well covered up that no historian had been able to write about them.

Here was a tale waiting to be told. It was not a pleasant story and had either been ignored or buried by nationalist historians for two generations. It was time for the first of my many trips to, and contact with, archives and museums all over Britain and Ireland. It gradually began to dawn on me that the truth of the time had never been told; that the received history we had all been taught in school had been full of evasions and even lies. It was not a happy place to be, but I felt if I stayed at it long enough, I might finally dig out the facts as they happened. What I did not realise then was that it would take me the best part of a decade to do so.

The Year of Disappearances: Political Killings in Cork 1921 – 1922 is published by Gill Books and out now.

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About the author:

Gerard Murphy

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