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, and keeping the inventory of armaments for the Cork No. 1 Brigade, Irish Republican Army.
Sheila and Nora Wallace grew up in rural north Cork, before coming to live and work in Cork City in the 1900s where they rented the premises on 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 small, meagre quarters. Interested in nationalist and socialist ideals, Sheila and Nora became friendly with figures such and James Connolly and Countess Markievicz. Because of their deep-rooted sense of nationalism, they also came to know prominent local nationalist figures in Cork such as Tomás McCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Florence O’Donoghue, Seán O’Hegarty, as well as Michael Collins.
As the nationalist movement gained more popularity throughout Ireland, the Wallace Sisters became deeply involved with the Irish Volunteers. After the shutting down of the Cork Volunteers headquarters in Sheares Street in 1917, the Wallaces’ small shop became more than a meeting place for the leadership of the Cork Volunteers. It was essentially the Brigade headquarters where the intelligence and communications activities in the city and county were co-ordinated during the War of Independence.
Records show that Sheila became a Staff Officer in the IRA, making her one of the highest female rank holders in the organisation at the time. Meetings of Cork No. 1 Brigade leadership were held in the kitchen at the back of the shop, where raids and ambushes were planned. Dispatches went through the shop for IRA operations. Spies in the Crown forces were recruited and handled by the Wallaces and British Army codes were deciphered by them. They also kept meticulous records of the armaments and equipment held by the Brigade, effectively acting in the role as quartermasters.
In The Little Shop of Secrets, Bill Murphy – grandnephew to Sheila and Nora Wallace – pieces together the remarkable story of two young women who placed their lives in grave danger by running an intelligence centre, safe house and spy network from their little shop in the centre of Cork City during the War of Independence, right under the noses of the Royal Irish Constabulary and British Crown forces.
Contributors to the documentary include Dr. John Borgonovo and Gabriel Doherty from the History Department in University College Cork, local historians Anne Twomey and Gerry White, Commandant Daniel Ayiotis of the Military Archives, Daniel Breen of Cork Public Museum, Bernadette Wallace – niece to Nora and Sheila Wallace, Ted Murphy – grandnephew to Nora and Sheila Wallace.
Narrated by Bill Murphy
Produced by Bill Murphy and Sarah Blake
Broadcast Co-ordinator - Michael Lawless
Sound supervision by Liam O'Brien, Niall O'Sullivan, and Bryan Fitzpatrick
Additional Research by Ted Murphy
Historical Consultant - Niall Murray
Press & Publicity by Jilly McDonough
The voice of Sheila Wallace is played by Dawn Bradfield, Nora Wallace is played by Norma Sheahan, and Sean O'Hegarty is played by Tim Desmond.
Special thanks to the staff at Cork Public Museum, and the staff at the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.
The Wallace Sisters' pension files are available online via the Military Service Pension Collection
More information on the Wallace Sisters can be found in the Shandon Area History Group's publication "Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times - Eleven Cork Women in the Revolutionary Years".
First broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday 18th July 2020 @ 1PM
Repeated, RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday 19th July 2020 @ 7PM
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries