In The Little Shop of Secrets, documentary maker Bill Murphy – grandnephew to The Wallace Sisters – pieces together the remarkable story of two young women who placed their lives in grave danger by running an IRA Brigade HQ during this period, right under the noses of the Royal Irish Constabulary and British Crown forces.
In the early decades of the last century two sisters, Nora and Sheila Wallace, ran a small newsagents in the centre of Cork City. However, their customers were unaware that when they bought their Irish Times or Cork Examiner, that this small shop also traded in military secrets during the Irish War of Independence – from deciphering codes, to spy handling, to keeping the inventory of armaments for the Cork No. 1 Brigade, Irish Republican Army.
My grandaunts on my mother's side, Sheila and Nora Wallace, grew up in rural north Cork and came to live and work in Cork City in the 1900s. They ran a small shop in Brunswick Street (now St Augustine’s Street) in the centre of the city. On the very narrow street in the shadow of the large St Augustine’s Church the shop sold newspapers, sweets, cigarettes, magazines and religious items such as statues and rosary beads. Over the shop the sisters lived in the small living quarters. But so much more was going on behind the unremarkable shop on the small street.
Growing up I always remember my mother talking with great respect and affection about her two spinster aunts – Sheila and Nora. She would tell us they were Intelligence Officers in the old IRA during the War of Independence, and that the small shop in town was in some way connected to the secret activities in which they were involved.
It sounded interesting and mysterious, but I didn’t realise the significance of what she meant. As the years went by, I began to show some interest in two items my mother kept – Sheila’s War of Independence Service Medal and a very old stocktaking ledger from the shop, and I realised more and more the significance of what my mother was saying about them. My brother also was keenly interested in the role of our grandaunts during the War of Independence and so I put the idea to the RTÉ Documentary on One team.
In the shop, they also sold Irish history and patriotic books which reflected their growing interest in nationalist and socialist ideals. However, a great deal more was going on behind the counter and shelves of the shop as I discovered it actually became the HQ for the Cork No. 1 Brigade – IRA during the War of Independence.
By making the documentary I have found out how deeply they were involved in the fight for Irish freedom and how closely they were involved with local figures such as Terence MacSwiney, Tomas McCurtain, Florence O’Donoghue and Sean O’Hegarty, as well as national figures such as Countess Markievicz and James Connolly.
I also discovered that Sheila became a Brigade Staff Officer in the IRA, making her one of the highest female rank holders in the organisation at the time. Meetings of the Cork No. 1 Brigade leadership regularly met in the kitchen in the back of the shop for the planning of raids and ambushes. Dispatches went through the shop for IRA operations, and spies in the Crown Forces were recruited and handled by Nora. British Army codes were held and deciphered by the sisters, and used for valuable intelligence. They also kept meticulous records of the armaments and equipment held by the Brigade, effectively acting in the role as quartermasters.
After the War of Independence both sisters sided with the anti-treaty side, and were close to De Valera in later years. The shop was frequently raided in the 1920s by British Forces, and later Treaty forces, but they returned to normal life after the Civil War. Sheila died tragically from a fall in 1944 and her funeral was one of the biggest in the city since the death of the two martyred Lords Mayor. Nora died several years after her beloved sister, in 1970.
My mother passed away in 2018 and I hope that this may be a fitting reflection of how highly she thought of her aunts, who lived extraordinary lives during a tumultuous period of Irish history.
The Little Shop of Secrets will be available to podcast from Friday 17th July, and will air on RTÉ Radio 1 at 1pm on Saturday 18th July at 1pm, with a repeat on Sunday 19th July at 7pm.