The day started out much like many others in Cork City during the struggle for Irish freedom against the British Empire over 100 years ago.
British General Strickland woke up in the Army Barracks in Elizabeth Fort in the city with the same troubles on his mind. Who was running the Republican intelligence operation in Cork City? And, how were they a step ahead of the British at every turn?
Could it be one of the Irish Republican hunger strikers in Cork Gaol? Could it be one of the many guerilla fighters currently on the run in the city?
As he set out from the barracks that morning to travel, in an armored convoy, to another Barracks in the city, the problem was about to get a lot more urgent. The General was about to be ambushed early morning on O’Sullivan’s Quay by the Cork City 1st Battalion of the IRA in October 1920.
General Strickland, at the time in charge of nearly 12,500 British Troops in Cork city and county, was lucky to escape with his freedom and his life this time.
What he didn't know, but strongly suspected, was that the local IRA (Old IRA) had recruited a spy inside General Strickland’s Barracks - inside Elizabeth Fort. Just one more success for the Old IRA intelligence network in the city.
So who was behind it all?
The spy inside General Strickland’s barracks had been recruited and run by two unassuming Irish sisters who ran a newsagents/intelligence HQ right in the center of Cork City.
This newsagents was located equidistant between the Black and Tans British Army Barracks in Elizabeth Fort and the RIC Crown Police Station at the Bridewell on Cornmarket Street.
The Wallace sisters - Sheila and Nora - ran their intelligence network in Cork City for years right under the noses of the British administration in the city. Although everyone in Cork City knew what they were doing, no one betrayed them to the British.
However, you can only run rings around the world’s most advanced intelligence organization for so many years (five, to be exact) before MI5 or British Intelligence got wind of what’s up.
The ladies ran their intelligence network openly in Cork City from 1916 right through until they were discovered and exiled in May 1921.
The British Army and Government never considered it possible that two women might hold such important roles in the Irish struggle for freedom in the city. Nor that they could run an intelligence network so effectively.
Without the efforts of these two sisters, the British Army might well have strangled the Irish Republican movement in the city. And instead of being known as the ‘Rebel City’, Cork might possibly have gone down in history as the ‘Royal City’ instead after a visit by the King Edward VII for the World’s Fair in Fitzgerald’s Park in 1902.
Cork - the ‘Royal City’ - just doesn’t sound right, does it? Thanks, Nora and Sheila Wallace.
Of course, the British government wasn’t the only one failing to appreciate the importance of the female struggle during the war. On the Irish side, women were airbrushed out of pictures and denied the military pensions they were entitled to after the war.
De Valera, the Irish president after the War of Independence, tried to legitimize the struggle in the eyes of the international community by writing the massive contributions women gave to the struggle out of history.
In the fullness of time, the female contribution to the war effort became apparent.
However, Nora and Sheila's shop/Intelligence HQ on St. Augustine Street (off Centra on Grand Parade) is now an abandoned building without so much as a plaque. All that remains to remind us of these two sisters’ exploits is some graffiti scrawled across the building serving as a homage to the sisters.
Breaking the glass ceiling
After sheltering Cork Lord Mayor Tomas MacCurtain before he was shot by the Crown Police force in front of his family, helping plan the ambush on British General Strickland, along with providing countless other nuggets of key information, Sheila Wallace was made a Staff Officer in the Old IRA, one of the most senior positions held by a woman in the entire country.
After the war, they supported the Anti-Treaty side in the war and wanted to continue fighting the British Army.
Ireland owes a great debt to these two strong female rebel heroes in the city.
*If you are interested in hearing more tales about heroes and villains from Cork City’s rebel past, Dara Burke, the author of this article and creator of the Rebel City Cork walking tour runs tours regularly in the city. Check out his website at RebelCityTour.com for further info if you’re looking for things to do in Cork City.
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