Commander Leo was on the run and a wanted man for two years

July 7th, 2021 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

Walter Leo Murphy had a short but action-packed life.

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Walter Leo Murphy had a short but action-packed life. Pauline Murphy remembers the IRA leader from Ballincollig on the centenary of his death


In the north of England, the old Victorian town hall of Ashton-under-Lyne, houses the Museum of the Manchester Regiment and on display is an item taken from the dead body of a Cork man 100 years ago.

It’s a shaving kit and a packet of cards belonging to Walter Leo Murphy, Commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Cork Brigade, IRA which were taken from his coat pocket following his shooting by British intelligence officers in June 1921.

Walter Leo Murphy was born in Ballincollig in 1901 where his family ran a public house at the western end of the village. Today that pub is known as The White Horse and a brass plaque honouring him can be seen on its front wall.

The Murphys were a well respected family. The matriarch of the family, Kate, was a teacher in the local national school and the family home was one full of books and music.

To family and friends, Walter Leo Murphy was known better as Leo but, to the British authorities, he was known as a most wanted man.

A large British military barracks sat in the centre of Ballincollig village. It was known as a garrison village but a resistance movement emerged in the locality and young Leo Murphy was one of the drivers behind it.

Leo worked as an draper’s assistant in the city and was just 18 when he joined the IRA. From 1919 until his death in 1921 Leo became a man ‘on the run.’

In July 1920 Ballincollig Barracks saw the arrival of extra troops from the Manchester Regiment. One of the most notorious characters attached to this regiment was Captain Joseph Thompson from Armagh, an intelligence officer with a reputation for drunken violence.

On one of these drunken rampages Thompson entered the Murphy’s pub where he roughed up the matriarch of the family. When Leo found out he vowed revenge on the British officer.

In November 1920 Leo and some of his IRA comrades caught Thompson on his motorbike on the Carrigrohane Road. He was taken to a turnip field at Model Farm Road and executed.

Thompson was replaced by Lieutenant Frank Egbert Vining from Devon England. He made it his top priority to catch Leo who by the Springtime of 1921 had become O/C of the Cork IRA’s 3rd battalion.

In October 1920 Leo was part of a large ambush party at Chetwynd Viaduct which was spoiled by a counter attack by British troops. IRA Volunteer Jer Herlihy from Ovens was killed and even though Murphy was able to escape he too would suffer the same fate as Herlihy a year later just a stones throw from the viaduct.

On June 27th 1921 Leo was in Kilumney planning for new actions with some comrades from his active service unit. Before making off to Waterfall for a scheduled battalion meeting he went for a drink in the Kilumney Inn. Also in the pub at the same time was a butcher from Ballincollig who supplied meat to the military barracks. He was later observed heading straight into the barracks. IRA Volunteer Michael O’Regan who was with Murphy that day would later state in his Military Witness Statement that this butcher from Ballincollig informed the enemy of Leo’s whereabouts.

Leo and his comrades left KIlumney and headed towards Waterfall where people had gathered for a bowling score. He met with the other battalion members in Donovan’s Pub (today known as O’Sheas.) They left their guns in the porch of the pub out of respect for the proprietor and civilians there.

As the bowling was being played and the IRA were meeting in the pub, two cars of British officers had left Ballincollig Barracks and were speeding towards Kilumney led by Lieutenant Vining. They reached Kilumney and searched the pub. When they did not find Leo they drove around the area in search of him.

The light was fading and they were going to abandon their search when they noticed people gathered along the road at Waterfall. Vining suggested they stop at the pub there to see if their quarry was inside.

In the pub that night were 40 people, 23 were IRA members.

Leo Murphy was not the type to surrender to the enemy without a fight so, upon hearing that British officers were outside he made a daring dash for the guns in the porch. Leo was unable to get them as he met the British officers entering the porch so pushed through them and ran down the road.

Vining knew he had his man and took aim. His shot hit Leo but it did not bring him down. He stumbled towards a ditch to jump over it  when another British officer Lt Evans took aim and ended Leo Murphy’s short but action packed life. In the weeks following his death a black wooden cross was placed at the scene of Leo’s death, it was later replaced by a stone cross which still stands today.

Everyone in the pub was rounded up and two lorrys from Ballincollig Barracks arrived to carry the prisoners. Leo’s body was searched by the officers who took whatever they found in his pockets, as a ‘souvenir of war’.

The last act of revulsion carried out by the Manchester Regiment that evening saw them tie Leo’s body to the rear of the lorry and drag it back to Ballincollig Barracks.

It was not the only death to befall the Murphy family during the Summer of 1921..

Following the end of the War of Independence the barracks in Ballincollig was handed over to the Irish Army and named Murphy Barracks.

It was closed in 1998 and is now the site of Ballincollig town shopping centre.

Walter Leo Murphy was buried in Cork’s main Republican plot at St Finbarr’s Cemetery next to the other martyrs of the rebel county.

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