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What is the truth behind Resistance's forced adoption storyline that really got people talking?

It’s loosely based on the incredible story of Cork spies Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue.

Simone Kirby as Ursula Sweeney in Resistance.
Simone Kirby as Ursula Sweeney in Resistance.

RTÉ’S NEW WAR of Independence drama Resistance began last night, prompting the usual online debate about the dramatisation of historical events.

Creator Colin Teevan was expecting as much, telling TheJournal.ie that dealing with Twitter reaction is all part and parcel of making TV shows.

Teevan is especially used to the reaction, having also been behind 1916 drama Rebellion from three years ago.

Resistance is a direct follow-up to Rebellion, following several of the same characters from the Easter Rising to the War of Independence.

When he spoke to us, Teevan said that some of the best stories he came across when researching for the show were not from gun battles or the high politics but from “the little asides of history”.

It was one such subplot that got a lot of people talking on Twitter.

In last night’s Resistance, a character working in Dublin Castle called Ursula Sweeney was shown fighting to see her son who had been taken from her by nuns in a convent.

We heard that Sweeney’s son is to be adopted to a wealthy family in Boston against her wishes and that there is little she can do about it.

In desperation, she’s put in contact with the IRA and is told they may be able to get her son back if she starts feeding them information.

Judging by the reaction online, the inclusion of a forced adoption storyline seemed to be divisive among those watching the show.

What some pointed out however is that this particular storyline is based on fact, even if the true life story is based in Cork and not Dublin.

The case concerned is that of Josephine Marchment Brown and the retrieval of her eldest son from Wales by the IRA.

Josephine subsequently married Florence O’Donoghue, Cork’s top IRA spy who later became a historian.

Their story is told in Dr John Borgonovo’s 2006 book Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence and it details the story behind the forced adoption storyline we saw in Resistance.

Josephine was the daughter of an RIC officer from Pallaskenry, Co. Limerick and her first husband was Coleridge Marchment, who died in the First World War.

PastedImage-28239 Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue. Source: irishacademicpress.ie

After his death, Josephine lost custody of her eldest son Reggie to her parents-in-law following a bitter custody battle.

During this period, Josephine worked at the Victoria Barracks and was secretary to the head of the British Army in Munster and she was put in touch with the IRA by a local priest.

It was agreed that she would pass on details of British troop movements to the IRA who then kidnapped her son from Wales and brought him back to Ireland.

The operation was partly organised by Florence O’Donoghue and was approved by Michael Collins.

Even when her son was returned, he stayed with Josephine’s sister and she could only meet him in secret for the duration of the War.

Her work became a vital source of information amid the intense fighting in the region and even more key when Munster was placed under martial law in 1920.

In her claim for a Military Service Pension, Josephine says she was active from April 1918 to March 1920. 

Josephine married Florence in secret on 27 April 1921 and they lived out their lives in Loughlene, Douglas Road, Cork with their two sons and two daughters, and her two sons from her first marriage.

The kept the story of Reggie secret for 40 years and Josephine’s work as a spy went largely untold until the 1950s. The entire story then went largely untold until the above book was published in 2006. 

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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