What Did the Women Do Anyway?

This was a dismissive comment originally made to a founder of Cumann na mBan In Cork, Lil Conlon. 

Years later, the comment also annoyed members of the Shandon Area History Group. 

The result was Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times published in 2019 by the Shandon Area History Group.

This ground breaking publication reveals some of the hidden pages of the story of eleven Cork women who took part in the War of Independence and Civil War in Cork. Varying from the internationally recognised Mary MacSwiney to the almost invisible Wallace sisters, the stories of these ordinary women remained largely untold until now.

As part of the forthcoming Spirit of Mother Jones Festival, a documentary called “What did the Women do Anyway?” featuring a discussion with historian Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group about these remarkable women will be shown as part of the festival’s contribution to the Cork Commemoration 1920-1923. 


Filmed by Frameworks Films one can hear of the story of the Wallace Sisters, of the opera singer Kate ‘Birdy’ Conway  the issue of violence against women,  the failure to acknowledge the womens selfless contribution to the War of Independence and the ongoing efforts to ensure the role of other women such as Muriel Murphy and Nora O’Brein are recognised.  


Back in 1949, Tom Barry in his Guerrilla Days in Ireland stated that the women “were a splendid body of young women and their value to the IRA was well appreciated by the enemy” . One may well ask were these women ever really appreciated by the IRA or the leaders of the new Irish State?  

The discussion with Anne Twomey, What Did the Women Do Anyway will be available online during the forthcoming 2020 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival (27th-30th November). Links and the full programme of events will appear on www.motherjonescork.com. and Facebook.


Our thanks to the Shandon Area History group for their assistance and for photos. Check out their Facebook page to obtain a copy of the book, Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times.

The remarkable Wallace sisters.

Documentary on One – The Little Shop of Secrets by Bill Murphy.Saturday July 18th at 1pm on Radio 1.


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 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 Bureau of Military History, Daniel Breen of Cork Public Museum, Bernadette Wallace – niece to Nora and Sheila Wallace, Ted Murphy – grandnephew to Nora and Sheila Wallace.


Saturday 18th July, 1pm, RTÉ Radio 1Sunday 19th July, 7pm, RTÉ Radio1 Narrated by Bill Murphy Produced by Bill Murphy and Sarah Blake www.rte.ie/doconone


Note:On 30th July 2016, Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group gave a talk on “The Wallace Sisters” at the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones Summer School before a packed audience which included Bernadette Wallace, a niece of the sisters.The remarkable story of the sisters came as a surprise to many who attended, which showed how quietly these two extraordinary women went about their business.  

The Extraordinary Wallace Sisters | The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.

An Irishman’s Diary about about a republican newsagents in revolution-era Cork.

The Extraordinary Wallace Sisters

Wallace Sisters
Sisters Sheila (left) and Nora Wallace

The story of extraordinary Wallace Sisters will be told by Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group on Saturday 30th July at 2.30pm at the Maldron Hotel.

Now a lifeless vehicular short cut, St. Augustine Street in Cork City is barely noticed by many people these days.An unprepossessing street, it has in recent years becomean alleywaylocated between the Queens Old Castle and McHugh House linking the Grand Parade to South Main Street.It was formerly known as Brunswick Street, acknowledged on the old street nameplate on the western side.

One might be surprised to learn that many of the most famous names in the revolutionary Ireland 1915 to 1922 came and went with regularity through this street. For at number 13 Brunswick St (later 4 St. Augustine St.) was located the small shop of Sheila and Nora Wallace. During the War of Independence these firm engaging sisters went about their day to day shop keeping business and provided a perfect cover for what was a vast beehive of revolutionary activity emanating in their shop.

Former Wallace shop
No.4 St. Augustine’s Street, Cork shortly before its demolition in the 1970s.

Located behind their small traditionally fronted tobacconist and newspaper shop with holy pictures and statues in the window and labour pamphlets on the shelves lay nothing less than the Head Quarters of the Cork No 1 Brigade of the Irish Volunteers and I.R.A.It was effectively the intelligence centre of the IRA where messages were efficiently received and delivered by a huge network of women and men…..in effect an IRA intelligence General Post Office!

Even more amazing is that the shop on St Augustine Street was located just 250 metres from the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks at Tuckey St and the Bridewell barracks on the Coal Quay and yet remained undetected by the Crown forces for a long time.

James Connolly visited the Wallace sisters on his visit to Cork when he spoke about military tactics at a meeting organised by Tadhg Barry in January 1916. They were friendly with Constance Markievicz of the Irish Citizen Army and both the sisters were members of the I.C.A. Historian John Borgonovo has recounted how they organised a youth and Women’s Citizen Army in Cork which lasted until 1921 and took part in many parades involving the labour movement during the period. Labour organiser and socialist Cathal O’Shannon lodged over their shop for the period while he worked in Cork.

One of the last official acts of Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain was to visit the Wallace shop late on Friday night 19th March 1920. Florence O’ Donoghue, then Head of Intelligence, recounted how Tomás then left the shop with the recently elected Alderman Tadhg Barry about 11pm that night. Just a few hours later the Lord Mayor of Cork was murdered by R.I.C. men in the family quarters overhead his own shop at 40 Thomas Davis Street in Blackpool.

There is a family account how MacCurtain’s successor in office Terence MacSwiney, a regular caller to the Wallaces, went behind the counter and even sold a newspaper and a packet of cigarettes to a customer shortly before his arrest in August 1920, as the Wallace sisters were busy at the particular time. Muriel MacSwiney, his wife, in her December 1951 deposition to the Bureau of Military History mentionshow early on she became aware of “a little newspaper shop kept by the Misses Wallace, who were later connected to The Citizen Army”.

Sheila and Nora both worked in the shop and lived overhead at the time and the room behind was regularly used for Volunteer and I.R.A. Brigade meetings. Sheila held the formal rank of Staff Officer as Brigade Communications officer, this was quite unique and she was possibly the only female officer of rank in the I.R.A. She was awarded a pension of £55-16-8 under the Military Pension Act from October 1934 and her rank was confirmed.This rank is alsoinscribed on her gravestone in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery. Later on the shop was raided several times and was finally closed by order of the British Military dated 14th May 1921 and the sisters were expelled from Cork city.

It reopened immediately after the Truce, indeed Liam Deasy then Adjutant of the First Southern Division recalled a jovial meeting at the premises on 12th July 1921 with the officers of the First Cork Brigade and Tom Barry. As the sisters took the anti-treaty side in the Civil war, it was raided regularly by the Free State forces. Later on the sisters lived on the Old Youghal Road.

Anne Twomey
Historian Anne Twomey who will talk about the Wallace Sisters on 30th July.

The years of “working in impossible conditions”, carrying despatches in all weathers and the associated stress took a heavy toll on the sisters. This was recorded in their military service pension applications in 1934. Sheila died on 14th April 1944, on the Friday of Easter week.It was acknowledged by the Pensions Board that Nora who had developed tuberculosis in the 20s and spent some time in Switzerland, acquired her illness due to her exposure to all conditions of weather, wet and cold due to her intense activities, while acting as an intelligence agent. Nora    traded on at the shopuntil 1960. She passed away on 17th September 1970.

The premises was later used as a bookmakers shop and later still a dressmakers. The shop which appeared on a drawing by artist Brian Lawlor dated May 1974 in his book “Cork” appears to have been demolished sometime in the 1970s.

Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History group will give an account of the story of the Wallace Sisters on Saturday afternoon 30th July at 2.30 in the Maldron Hotel. All welcome to attend and participate in the discussion afterwards.

The Shandon Area History group organised an unique exhibition entitled “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times” featuring remarkable women from the area and their contribution to the War of Independence at the St. Peter’s Church in North Main Street. in June 2016.