A 100-year-old tragedy recalled: Fraserburgh man's quest to uncover the fate of his abducted wife

Alexander Noble was shocked to learn that his wife had disappeared while walking alone on an isolated country road near their home in Ireland.

Wednesday, 11th August 2021, 6:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th August 2021, 6:55 am
The archway at Collorus, Co Kerry, where some local people believe Bridget Noble was put to death.

He had left the couple’s thatched cottage on the idyllic Beara Peninsula in West Cork to seek work in England when Bridget (45) went missing on March 4, 1921.

Alexander, a native of Fraserburgh, would eventually learn that Bridget had been abducted by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Bridget Noble has her own sad place in the history of the Irish Troubles of the 1920s. She is one of only two women known for certain to have been disappeared by the IRA during that conflict. The total number disappeared by the IRA in the period 1920-23 is estimated at more than 100.

Ruins of the cottage where Alexander Noble resided with wife Bridget at Reenavaude, Ardgroom, Co Cork; and inset, the fireplace.

Alexander, who came from a notable family of Fraserburgh mariners, would embark on a quest to find out what happened Bridget. And his search for answers is one of the themes in my new book, The Execution of Bridget Noble.

Alexander was born in 1873, the son of shipmaster Alexander Sim Noble and his wife Helen. Alexander Sim was lost when his ship, the Acacia, foundered off the Tasmanian coast in 1904. Alexander and his younger brother Willie followed a safer occupation – they became coopers, making air-tight barrels for the fish-curing industry.

In the early 1900s, Alexander started a new life on the remote Beara Peninsula, working as a cooper at Pallas Pier, close to Ardgroom village.

Bridget lived at nearby Reenavaude with her parents, John and Mary Neill, in a small, three-roomed cottage on a tiny farm of only four acres. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Bridget was a simple, naïve, unsophisticated person, but also someone prepared to stand up for herself.

Ruins of the house at Feith Bhui, Kilcatherine, Beara Peninsula, where Bridget Noble was held prisoner.

A romance developed across the ethno-religious divide – Alexander was a Presbyterian, Bridget a Catholic. The couple, in their early thirties, wed in the Catholic church at Eyeries in February 1907, and went to live with Bridget’s parents.

Alexander helped with the farm work, and local youngsters were amused by his Scots accent as he called out to a cow called Starry as he drove her along the road for milking.

Early 1921 was a difficult time for Bridget. She had health problems, and Alexander had left home to seek work in England. The War of Independence had spread to Beara, and there was a rumour that amid increasing political turmoil he was forced out, but this could not be confirmed.

IRA men observed Bridget making visits to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks in Castletownbere, the main town on the peninsula. Was she passing on information about the IRA to the police? Or was there an innocent explanation?

Liam O'Dwyer, left, with holster and bandolier, was the local IRA commandant when Bridget Noble was disappeared.

There is a theory locally that she may have been inquiring about Alexander, that she was worried that something untoward had happened him. It is also possible that the RIC took advantage of her naivety to get information.

The local IRA, led by hard-line Commandant Liam O’Dwyer, decided to punish her. She had just come home from hospital when a group of eight IRA men raided her home and forcibly cut her hair off, a humiliating punishment known as ‘bobbing’.

Showing considerable courage, Bridget complained about her attackers to the RIC. According to an internal IRA report, one man was arrested and got six months for the ‘bobbing’ attack. This seems to have been the main reason for her abduction and execution.

She was held for some days in a remote farmhouse in a secluded valley of great natural beauty in Kilcatherine. According to the IRA report, she was tried on March 13 and executed two days later. A priest was brought to her before she was killed.

Irish leader Eamon de Valera, who was reproached by Alexander Noble in a letter seeking information about his missing wife.

On July 11, 1921 there was a truce in the War of Independence, and Irish republican leader Eamon de Valera travelled to London for talks with Prime Minister Lloyd George. It was widely reported in newspapers on July 15 that de Valera had given a statement to the press at the Grosvenor Hotel, London.

This was a vital piece of information for Alexander who was anxious to contact anyone who could clarify Bridget’s fate. He now had the name of a senior Irish republican and an address where he could be contacted. From his lodgings in the Lincolnshire port of Grimsby, Alexander immediately sent a letter to de Valera, c/o the Grosvenor, inquiring about his wife’s whereabouts.

De Valera replied on 18 July, stating that he had passed Alexander’s letter to the proper authorities in Ireland ‘for enquiry and investigation’.

The weeks passed, and when Alexander heard nothing more, he wrote again to de Valera on 8 September, seeking the results of any inquiries that were carried out. The tone of the letter is respectful, but he comments bitterly: ‘It is not clean work to take away my lone, defenceless wife.’

It would not be until March 1922, more than a year after Bridget’s disappearance, that Alexander’s solicitor received a letter from an official in the new Provisional Government in Dublin confirming that she had been put to death for ‘espionage’.

In March 1923, Alexander marked the second anniversary of Bridget’s death by inserting an In Memoriam notice in the Fraserburgh Herald ‘in ever loving remembrance of my dear wife, Bridget Teresa Noble…’ He added: ‘Greater love than this hath no man that one should Lay down his Life for another.’ Was he suggesting that Bridget had put her own life on the line by inquiring about him with the police?

In 1927 Alexander married a fellow Scot, widow Mabel Vallance (39), in the register office at Grimsby. There were soon problems in the marriage. It seems he suspected Mabel of having an affair. He physically assaulted her and another man, and in January 1928 a Grimsby court gave him six months with hard labour.

The court heard that he had been drinking since receiving compensation for the murder of his first wife by ‘Sinn Feiners’. The judge remarked that the compensation had been his ‘downfall’.

Alexander returned to live in Fraserburgh, residing at Hanover Street with an unmarried sister Helen, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He died aged 67 years in February 1941, and was buried at Kirkton Cemetery.

Bridget’s last resting place is unknown. Some Beara people believe she was buried in Doorus Woods in the Lauragh area.

Her execution was in violation of an IRA rule that effectively excluded women from the death penalty. It could also be said that she died because she stood up for her dignity as a woman. None of the IRA men involved made any public comment about this dark episode in the Irish Troubles 100 years ago.

• The Execution of Bridget Noble by Sean Boyne is available as an ebook or paperback via Amazon.