John Coughlan

Coughlan appeared on the list of ‘missing persons’ in the Irish Times of 22 August 1921. The strong circumstantial evidence points to the body in the press report being Coughlan

1920 Aug 14 Kidnapped and later died in IRA captivity


From Cork Spy Files

It must have been Coughlan’s body that washed ashore at Ballybranigan Strand, seven miles from Midleton, Co Cork, on September 3, 1920. Although the body was too decomposed for identification, the fact that it was tied to a cart axle pointed to Coughlan. His remains were buried in Knockgriffin Cemetery.

Coughlan allegedly hanged himself while being held in IRA custody for having allowed his daughters to be used as ‘prostitutes’ by British forces. Those who executed him tied his body to a cart axle and threw it into the sea, but it was washed up shortly afterwards and identified. The IRA claimed later to have obtained evidence that Coughlan was a spy. He died in IRA custody at Aghada near Midleton.

The only John Coughlan listed in the 1911 census as resident in Queenstown resided in Barry’s Lane with his wife Anne, a son, and three daughters whose ages in 1920 would have been about 24, 19, and 14. Coughlan was a Catholic and a ‘general labourer’.

This ghoulish story finds an explanation in an interview given by former Volunteer Michael (Mick) Leahy to Ernie O’Malley sometime in the early 1950s: “The strangest thing about the first spy who met his death through us was that we didn’t shoot him. In Cobh we arrested this fellow [John Coughlan] for using his two daughters as prostitutes for the British and we took him to Aghada and we wanted to [illegible] for a while. He was kept in May Higgins [house] in a loft and there was a girl there. She was bringing him up his breakfast when she found him hanging to a rafter, dead.

“I got four lads to bury him. Paddy Sullivan from Cobh, who was later executed in Cork Gaol after he had been caught in [the Battle of] Clonmult, [was one of them.] Later on he asked me did we see the Examiner. And when I read it, I found that a body, which had been tied to an axle, had washed ashore. The lads had not buried him. They had tied him to a car axle and had flung him out into the sea. He was in the morgue in Midleton, I was told, in the workhouse.

“We visited the morgue, but at the time the bad flu was raging and the morgue was full of corpses. We went from corpse to corpse with a flash lamp, pulling up the clothes to look for our man.

“At last we came to a corpse and when we pulled back the cloth, we found that the crabs had got hold of his face and that there was nothing of it left. A month later, we got evidence that this man had been a spy and that’s why he hanged himself.”



Shot by IRA as British spies