The Great Read
One hundred years ago this week, the British spy was caught in what appears to be the Irish Republican Army’s only authorized attack on American soil.
Willie Deasy, left, was one of six young I.R.A. members killed on a farm in 1921. Cruxy O’Connor, Mr. Deasy’s neighbor, had given their whereabouts to the police.Credit…The Deasy Family
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It was a few minutes to 8 o’clock on the evening of April 13, 1922. When Patrick Joseph O’Connor came down the steps of his apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, three of the Irish Republican Army’s top gunmen were lying in wait.
Two of them — Danny Healy and Martin Donovan — stood near the corner of 83rd and Columbus Avenue, staking out the apartment at 483 Columbus. Patrick A. Murray, an I.R.A. commander who went by “Pa,” was a block north.
Their target, known as Cruxy O’Connor, was a former comrade who switched sides repeatedly in Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain. His last change of allegiance got six I.R.A. men killed when he told the police the location of their safe house outside Cork. After the raid, O’Connor fled Ireland by boat, first to London, then to America, pursued the whole way by the I.R.A.
He knew the gunmen were out there somewhere in the mild New York night, just itching to avenge the dead. He had to quit his job as an accountant at B. Altman after he’d spotted them stalking the vast department store. That was weeks ago. Now he needed a walk and a smoke, and the spring evening beckoned.
O’Connor headed along 83rd Street toward Central Park, Danny Healy later told an Irish government historian. “When I saw him take this turn I told Martin to tell Pa.” The plan was for them to head down 84th Street and cut off their quarry, surrounding the informer on Central Park West.
Right at the intersection, O’Connor spotted the gunmen, whom he knew from Cork. Puffing on a cigarette, he made a dash for the park. Then he switched directions, did a U-turn and came face to face with Danny Healy, who was pointing a gun straight at him.
Cruxy O’Connor had just walked into what appears to be the Irish Republican Army’s only authorized attack on American soil.
The New York of a century ago in at least one way resembled the New York of today; it was a bustling magnet for immigrants. The city’s biggest collection of first- and second-generation Americans came from the Russian empire, including Poland and Ukraine. Italy and Ireland placed second and third.
It was a volatile era, around the world and around metropolitan New York. Fledgling nations like Ukraine and Ireland were fighting for independence, and a fascist movement was rising in Italy. Sometimes Old World struggles spilled into New World streets; pro-fascist and antifascist Italian Americans fought a bloody battle in Newark in 1925.
In New York, Irish American longshoremen went on strike in 1920, refusing to handle goods from British ships, to support Ireland’s fight for Irish independence. The latest chapter in that struggle opened with a failed Easter 1916 uprising against Britain; two years later, Irish separatists won a sweeping electoral victory. On the day they declared independence from Britain, the shooting began. Some of the rebels’ weapons came from an Irish American union leader (and gunrunner) named Jimmy McGee, who played a crucial role in the 1920 dock strike.
A year later, McGee masterminded a plot to smuggle 500 Tommy guns to Ireland aboard a freighter docked in Hoboken — the scheme was foiled after an assistant cook slit open a burlap sack and found instead of potatoes the muzzle of a Thompson submachine gun. Just months after that, McGee handed revolvers to the three Irishmen who came to America to kill the traitor Cruxy O’Connor.
O’Connor grew up in a working-class family on the western fringe of Cork city. A bookkeeper at Roches Stores, an emporium in the city center, he had a side hustle — as a paid spy for the British, whose army and police force were trying to hold the island for the crown. His neighborhood, a bastion of the Irish republican movement, bristled with targets — Pa Murray, Danny Healy and Martin Donovan all called it home. Two other I.R.A. activists, Willie and Jerry Deasy, lived right next door, and the O’Connors and the Deasys had feuded for years.
It’s not clear why O’Connor turned into a government spy — maybe it was the money, or maybe it was another way to pursue the feud with the Deasys.
What is clear is that O’Connor eventually stopped reporting in to the British and joined his neighbors, the Deasys, in the local unit of the I.R.A. His first recorded action, in December 1920, must have carried the sour taste of grim irony — he killed a suspected government spy.
By January 1921, O’Connor was on the run from the authorities. He, Willie Deasy and Pa Murray joined a flying column of rebels who roamed the Irish countryside, living off the land and lying in wait to ambush British forces.
This is probably when he developed his nickname. A history of the revolution in Cork says that he boasted he would earn the Croix de Guerre, mangling the medal’s pronunciation so badly that his comrades teased him as “Crux na Gurra,” later shortened to Cruxy.
His performance in battle didn’t live up to his boasts. In a February ambush of a British convoy, Cruxy was assigned a crucial job, manning one of two machine guns.
When the convoy halted right in front of him, he fired a short burst, but then his gun fell silent — he later would claim that it jammed. The I.R.A. managed to kill several of the British, including their commander, then pulled out as reinforcements arrived. But the failure of the plan embittered some rebels, who suspected Cruxy was a coward, or possibly a traitor.
O’Connor returned home to Cork, which was now under martial law. He was soon scooped up at a police cordon, and he was carrying a gun, which meant he faced execution by the British Army. He promptly told the police he was a secret agent for the British Army, which was news to the army — he hadn’t reported in for a long time. After an interrogation that lasted days, an army dispatch said, he gave up the names of “three known murderers” and a safe house in a rural area called Ballycannon.
Bedded for the night in a stable on the farm of Con O’Keeffe, an I.R.A. comrade, were six young rebels: Danny Murphy, 24; Jeremiah Mullane Jr., 22; Dan Crowley, 22, Tom Dennehy, 21; and Mick O’Sullivan, 19. With them was Willie Deasy, O’Connor’s neighbor.
Acting on O’Connor’s information, police officers raided the O’Keeffe farm at 4 a.m. “I heard a shot,” O’Keeffe said in a sworn affidavit. “Then at intervals there were two or three shots, and then a volley of shots.”
The police claimed the rebels started a gun battle, but the accounts of neighbors who saw and heard what happened suggested that the six had been caught sleeping, ordered to run, then shot “trying to escape.” All were killed; most of the entry wounds were in the rear of the bodies.
Thus dawned the Wednesday before Easter, or as the Irish sometimes called it, Spy Wednesday — for the day Judas betrayed Jesus.
An outraged Cork planned a great, grand funeral for the six on Easter Sunday, five years after that great, doomed Easter uprising in Dublin. The authorities fully grasped the symbolism and ordered that attendance be limited to 150 people. They put trucks full of troops at the head of the funeral cortege. But if the British thought they could dam a sea of tears, they quickly discovered they were battling an invulnerable tide of grief.
Mourners massed along the route to the cemetery. “As the procession filed slowly along in the brilliant sunshine, no sound was heard but the dull tread of those marching, the solemn tolling of the church bells and the burring noise of the heavy lorries,” The Irish Independent newspaper reported.
When it was all over, the leadership of the I.R.A. learned from rebel sympathizers in the constabulary who had talked.
It was time to arrange another funeral — for Cruxy O’Connor.
But the informer was now ensconced in the most secure British facility in Cork, the army’s Victoria Barracks. So the I.R.A. cooked up a plan involving a basket of food and enough strychnine to “poison a regiment,” as one plotter put it.
Cruxy’s mother, Hannah O’Connor, regularly delivered meals to him in his cell. So the I.R.A. found a basket just like the one she used and recruited Ethel Condon, a hard-core activist, to impersonate Mrs. O’Connor and deliver a poisoned version.
“I was disguised in old shoes and a shawl, dressed just like his mother would have been,” she recalled in a pension application to the Irish government. The plan worked perfectly, except for one thing. The I.R.A. gunmen assigned to detain the real Mrs. O’Connor while the fake Mrs. O’Connor delivered the fatal meal proved no match for a protective 62-year-old mother. “The men were supposed to have kept up this woman and kept her tied,” recalled Nora Martin, who organized the plot. “She began to yell and roar, with the result that they let her loose. She must have suspected something; she made for the jail.”
And there the two Mrs. O’Connors nearly met. “I had only got outside the barrack gate when I saw Mrs. O’Connor going in,” recalled Ethel Condon, by then Ethel Cuthbert. “If she had arrived a few minutes sooner, it would have almost certainly cost me my life.”
The British moved their informer to London, but they soon learned that the I.R.A. was on his trail. So in August 1921, Cruxy shipped off to New York City.
It didn’t take long for the I.R.A. to learn of his whereabouts. An immigrant who knew O’Connor reported that he was working at a department store on 34th Street.
In early 1922, the Cork gunmen arrived in New York. But the trio’s detective skills left a bit to be desired. They were spotted by Cruxy as they staked out B. Altman, and so he stopped going to work. They checked out his last known address, but he wasn’t there. It took weeks before it dawned on them that maybe they should go back and see if anyone there had a forwarding address.
Finally they tracked O’Connor to Columbus Avenue. The timing of the ensuing ambush was no coincidence. The Cork police raid came on the Wednesday of Easter week, 1921. They would gun down the informer on the Thursday of Easter week, 1922. Danny Healy, using the church calendar, noted the date with grim satisfaction: “Almost a year exactly since the Ballycannon murders.”
O’Connor never saw Healy coming. “I was shaded by a tree, consequently he was on me before he was aware of my presence,” Healy said. “I fired at him.”
He thought he got Cruxy in the chest, but his prey dashed into the intersection. Healy followed, blazing away, and two bullets found their target. But O’Connor kept going, ducking around a trolley and nearly running into Martin Donovan — whose pistol misfired when he took aim.
But the wounded victim was already slumping to the sidewalk.
“I caught up with him and fired twice more at him, hitting him,” Healy recalled.
As he emptied his gun, the getaway car roared into the intersection. The triggerman knew he was supposed to get in it, but he just stood there, frozen, as a horde of pedestrians gawked at him. One thought kept going through his head, he recalled: “No chance of escape.”
Then Donovan’s voice sliced through his mental fog: “Run for it, Danny. Run!”
Healy snapped out of it, but instead of getting into the car with Donovan, he walked casually for a while, then broke into a run. And the crowd of stunned pedestrians formed into a posse, dozens of them giving chase.
Donovan realized that if he didn’t stop the pursuit, nobody would. And he’d tossed his revolver after it misfired, so he’d have to bluff his way through this — one man against close to 50.
He confronted the crowd that was now just 15 feet away, sliding a hand into his coat pocket, as if to pull a gun.
“What do you want — trouble?” he asked the man at the front of the posse.
“Well,” Donovan demanded, “where are you going?”
“I’m going right back to where I came from.” The man turned on his heels and did just that, The New York Times reported the next day. Much of the crowd followed his lead.
As the car pulled away with Donovan, Healy continued on foot toward the 79th Street subway station, still pursued by a lone tail. As he entered the station, he would recount to a historian decades later, a train was departing — and Healy leaped aboard, leaving his pursuer on the platform.
Back at the scene of the shooting, onlookers lifted the gravely wounded victim to the steps of the Semple School for Girls. Shot in the back, the side, the stomach and the jaw, he was rushed off to a hospital. In the immediate aftermath, the police considered various theories: that it was a dispute about a girl, or bootlegging.
But the real motive emerged when a member of the O’Connor family arrived on the scene and told investigators that the victim had served in the I.R.A. and had fled Cork the previous fall “because of threats of death.”
That revelation landed the story on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers. “Man Shot at Central Park Involved in Irish Plot,” read a banner headline in The Evening World. “Link Shooting Here With Irish Warfare,” said a Times headline.
All the publicity convinced the I.R.A. men to get out of New York. In time, Jimmy McGee, the dockside fixer, helped ship the three back to Ireland — two as stowaways and one under a false name. Britannia may have ruled the waves, but the Irish ran the New York waterfront.
To the amazement of nearly everyone, Cruxy survived his four bullet wounds. And he refused to tell New York detectives who had shot him. Whenever he was asked, he would adamantly shake his head. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a spy who gave up spying and a rebel who stopped rebelling became an informer who ceased informing.
When he recovered from his wounds, Cruxy O’Connor moved to Canada, where he married and had a child. O’Connor led his family through a wandering life, moving from Canada to New York, from New York to England, and from England back to Canada, where he died in the early 1950s.
For years after Ireland won independence, veterans of the struggle debated Cruxy’s motives. In an interview in the 1960s, Pa Murray offered a surprising take on the ambush in New York. “I was sorry after,” he said with a sigh. “We heard later that the poor devil had been tortured to make him talk” after his arrest in Cork.
But another I.R.A. veteran who knew Cruxy well, Stan Barry, was convinced that his arrest was faked — to bring in from the cold a man who had been spying for Britain all along. And a rebel spy who witnessed Cruxy’s interrogation agreed. “It was a process of kindness, this interrogation,” recalled Part Margetts, a former British soldier. “He had a furtive look in his eye and he looked at you from under his eyelashes, but he had not been ill-treated.”
Though the veterans differed, Cruxy remains the Benedict Arnold of Cork in popular memory. A local ballad offers an unequivocal verdict:
But curse that Cruxy Connors, treacherous turncoat and spy
Who sold away on that fateful day the Ballycannon Boys.
Mark Bulik is a senior editor at The New York Times and the author of “The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America’s First Labor War.” This article is adapted from an upcoming book.