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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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The Cork sisters who ran an IRA headquarters from their little shop

Sheila and Nora Wallace were of “tremendous value” in the fight for Irish independence.

A SMALL NEWSAGENT-type shop opened by two sisters on Cork’s St Augustine Street in the early 1910s was never exactly innocuous.

From the outset, Sheila and Nora Wallace sold nationalist paraphernalia – papers, books, periodicals and other Irish publications – and had Celtic motifs in gold above the entrance.

But there was more to the Wallace sisters, their shop and home (they lived upstairs).

The property, while housing a valid business, also became a central point in the fight for Irish independence.

When the Irish Volunteers were established in 1913, the Wallace newsagents became a “semi-official post office for the movement”, according to the Irish Press.

Most of the important freedom fighters visited the street ahead of the 1916 Rising. Speaking to the Irish Press in 1966, historian Florrie O’Donoghue described the work done at the shop as being of “tremendous value”.

It was extraordinary that it never drew suspicion to itself.

Another academic, Der Donovan of the Cork School of Art, called them “stupendous women” for carrying it off for five years.

They themselves partook in the fight as intelligence officers and were friends with Countess Markievicz, James Connolly, Jim Larkin and Liam Mellows.

PastedImage-3291Source: Irish Examiner

After the revolution, Nora and Sheila were on the anti-Treaty side of the War of Independence, allowing IRA leaders to hold various meetings at their property. 

According to a report in the Irish Examiner, the women kept the IRA meetings a secret despite “comings and goings of men at unusual hours”. They used a lodger James Hickey as an excuse for the rendez-vous to allow all the important figureheads pass through.

People bringing and receiving messages would try to blend in with crowds going to Mass and used three separate doorways to the shop. One newspaper reports carries a rumour of a “secret tunnelled exit”.

Suspicions eventually were raised and authorities often raided the store. However, no concrete proof was found until the British shut its doors temporarily in 1921.

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In 1926, they were still getting unwanted attention from An Garda Síochána. A Dáil transcript reveals how Sheila was not happy about a raid on 3 April of that year.

Tomas MacEoin asked the then Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins if he was aware of the repeated raids by detectives. He also queried whether any incriminating evidence had ever been found.

He continued to see if O’Higgins was “aware that the lady is in delicate health and that night raids are liable to be injurious” and asked for instructions to be given to not repeat the searches.

The Minister was not forthcoming, however, contesting the claim that Sheila was ill.

“At 10pm on Saturday 3 April, the premises of Miss Wallace were searched by three members of the detective branch of the Gárda Síochána, on a search order under the Firearms Act, 1925,” he told the house.

Miss Wallace was the only occupant of the house when the search was made. Nothing incriminating was found. There is no truth in the allegation that the lady’s house has been searched repeatedly, the above occasion being the only time such action was taken.

“Miss Wallace is about 35 years of age, and enjoys good health. She did not present the appearance of a person in delicate health when her premises were searched. In fact, she was particularly energetic and vehement in her denunciation of the police. There is no unnecessary attention being paid to the premises. It is not proposed to search them on any occasion unless the Gárda are in possession of information that would lead them to believe that conduct prejudicial to the safety of the State is being carried on there.”

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Following the publication of Commandant General Tom Barry’s book Guerilla Days in Ireland in 1949, Cathal O’Shannon spoke warmly about the Wallace sisters on RTÉ Radio.

A founder of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast, O’Shannon was sent to Cork to rally troops and organise the masses. He found the “little tobacconist-newsagency (sic) run by two great-hearted sisters”.

It was a very centre and clearing house of the IRA and rallying post of the hard-fighting men of the Brigades who stubborn resistance to numerically overwhelming odds occasionally tempts Corkmen to believe that they alone won the war.

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Both members of Cumann na mBan, the Wallace sisters applied for their military pension for their work between 1917 and 1923.

Pension files just released as part of the major Military Archives project show that Sheila was awarded 5 and 7/12 years in 1941. She appealed the the D grade she received but it was not changed.

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Sheila died at an early age on 14 April 1944 and at her funeral, IRA men shouldered her coffin more than two miles from the church to St Finbarr’s Cemetery  ”showing their affection and esteem for her”. 

Her sister wrote to the authorities to inform them of her sibling’s passing and the balance of the pension was passed to her.

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Nora also received a pension of five years and 5/12 at Grade D in 1942. Her claim included details of becoming sick with lung problems and having to convalesce in Switzerland. She told the committee that she developed pulmonary tuberculosis during her time as a dispatch carrier because of “severe wettings and exposure”.

The army files show how she was treated by Dr T O’Donovan and the Bon Secours Home in Cork from 1923 before moving to the Swiss sanatorium until 1926 and again in 1928-29. 

The documents outline how her story rang true with the deciding committee:

It was found that the disease was attributable to pre-truce military service with the IRA and post-truce with Cumann na mBan. Applicant’s disability was assessed at 100% by the medical members.

The file also contains references from Seán Hegarty and Tom Crofts who both note that Wallace had organised a small corps of boys and girls which was affiliated with the Irish Citizen Army and which in 1920 was disbanded. Consequently many boys drafted to the IRA and the girls to Cumann na mBan.

Hegarty wrote:

“Miss Nora Wallace was in actual fact a member of the IRA from 1916 onwards.

She did her first work of dispatch carrying on Easter Sunday 1916, continued without intermission to do any similar work assigned to her.

“The shop in Augustine Street became the centre for the receipt and issue of despatches, the point of touch for verbal messages, and, you might say, the brigade headquarters for operations in the city area. All this applies equally to her sister Sheila.”

Despite her ill health, Nora actually lived into her 80s, retiring from the shop in 1960 before entering St Martin’s Nursing Home where she died in September 1970.

On their retirement, the shop lost its name first becoming a betting office and then a ladies fashion boutique called Two Bare Feet. An Irish Press piece by Jean Sheridan reported on the change:

Old-timers who saw it were saddened and felt that at this period especially it should have a different name and image. Many are voicing regret that it was not possible to have continued it as a literature shop when the Wallace sisters retired.

More: How Michael D Higgins’s father fought for Irish independence

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