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The History Show Sunday 9 March 2014

The History Show

The History Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past

Saint Patrick's World

Our March Book Club choice, Saint Patrick's World by Liam de Paor was discussed by Dr. Catherine Swift, the Director of Irish Studies, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick and Terry O'Hagan from the School of Archaeology at University College Dublin. 

Saint Ambrose, City Patron Saint of Milan, Italy, and Father of the Church.

Click here to read Catherine Swift's article on St. Patrick's Conversion of Ireland


(St) Patrick: A Man on a Mission


Terry O’Hagan

St. Patrick is a man of many faces - missionary, mascot, legend, figurehead, saint, sinner, superhero and saviour. Over the 1500 years or so since his death, successive generations have chosen to remake and remodel his life according to ever-changing concerns and climates. Ongoing adaptation, along with the passing of the centuries, has resulted in a gradual obscuring of the historical man beneath the heavy presence of later legend. Such is the level of later additions; some modern audiences are sometimes surprised to discover that he actually existed at all. 

He most certainly did. We know this because he left behind two surviving documents - the Confessio (Confession) and the Epistola (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus) - which together form the basis for all subsequent understanding and appreciation of his life and work. Later medieval and early modern accounts of Patrick are products of their own times and as interesting as they are, they can tell us practically nothing about the man himself. The only certainties that we have for the historical Patrick are those which can be found within his writings - the earliest documents known to have been written in Ireland.

Patrick (or Patricius, as he called himself) was born into a middle-class family somewhere in western Roman-Britain at the end of the fourth century, or perhaps early fifth century. His says that his father was a deacon and a decurion, while his grandfather was a priest. They owned a villa/estate that was large enough to have slaves. In the earliest surviving copy of his Confessio (within the Book of Armagh) his home town is given as Bannavem Taburniae. Scholarly consensus is that this is a textual corruption; and the original name is more likely to have been rendered as something like Banna Venta Burniae. No solid identification has ever been made of such a location; but most scholars would tend to agree that it was somewhere near the western coast of Britain.

Patrick seems to have led a normal, carefree life (apparently without any firm Christian belief, despite his families occupations) until the age of sixteen, when he was captured by slavers, transported to Ireland and sold to a man who put him to work tending animals. Contrary to later legend, there is no hint within his writings that this was Slemish, Co. Antrim or anywhere else in north-eastern Ireland. In fact, it was almost certainly somewhere in Co Mayo. Patrick does not expressly say what kind of animals he worked with, but he does use a term that could equally apply to cattle, or sheep. Given that he says that he was out on mountainsides in all weathers, it is likely that he would have worked with several different animals, depending on the season.

From a Romano-British perspective, Ireland was viewed as lying at the edge of the known world - a wild and dangerous place beyond civilisation. The shock of kidnapping and enslavement naturally had a profound effect on Patrick. Amidst the extreme hardship of his new lifestyle, he underwent an intense and personal religious experience which he credits as helping him to survive six years as a slave. Towards the end of this period he tells us that he had several dreams concerning his escape and return to his homeland. Eventually running away from his captors, he says that he travelled across the entire width of Ireland, some 200 miles, in order to reach a port. There he found passage on a ship and following initial refusal, was eventually taken on board.

The next phase of his life is hard to assess; the relevant portions of his texts are obscure in their arrangement and subject matter. When Patrick was writing them, he was doing so with motivations other than simple linear narrative, seeking to frame his movements and events within ecclesiastical and biblical frameworks. What is suggested within, however, is a gap of a few years following his escape from Ireland, before his eventual return to his parents and home. He may have taken ecclesiastical orders during this time, or perhaps later; there is no definitive indication in his own words. After some years again, within Britain, he tells us of his famous dream where he received a calling from ‘The Voice of the Irish’. In his dream, he reads the start of a letter entitled the same, and hears the voices of people in Ireland who knew him as a slave in his youth. This is the only other occasion where he gives a placename in Ireland: that of Silva Vocluti, the Wood of Foclut (Near Killala Bay, Co. Mayo). Modern scholarship tends to agree that his phrasing of details indicate that this was the location of his earlier captivity.

Despite being very personally affected by the dream, Patrick then alludes to even more years passing. He tells us that he was too afraid to put into action, what had apparently already started within his mind. During this time (at least several decades) he seems to have been ordained and sufficiently advanced for him to have been considered for the title of bishop. Again, this period is very poorly rendered in his writings; but he alludes to several travels outside of Britain during this time and elsewhere speaks of peoples and ecclesiastical practices of Christians within Gaul (France). It seems likely that he may have spent a little time in a monastic environment there. Although he doesn’t expressly state it, he insinuates an admiration of monastic type lifestyles within his later Irish converts, something he may have experienced in Gaul.

At some stage in his middle years, he decided to come back to Ireland. His subsequent mission seems to have been viewed with deep suspicion by fellow British Christians and he spends a lot of his writings defending his actions. It must be remembered that at this stage of early Christianity; large-scale efforts to convert pagans was almost unheard of within Romanised provinces of Europe. The very idea of attempting to do so in Ireland, outside the frontiers and untouched by Roman administration would have been considered highly dangerous and illogical to a fifth century Christian mind-set. Many would have no doubt imagined that his efforts would have been short-lived and his life expectancy even shorter. Patrick’s survival and relative success seems to have surprised many and his actions and methodology appears to have been questioned by some.

Patrick of course was a perfect candidate for attempting such a mission. His years in captivity left him more knowledgeable than most concerning insular Irish society. He spoke the language and had first-hand experience; as well as an awareness of the workings of the hierarchical social structure of Ireland. Although he doesn’t give many details concerning his methods, he does hint at certain aspects - such as protection payments and hiring the sons of chieftains as royal bodyguards. He stresses the need to appear ‘above board’ when dealing with pagans at all times, for fear of retribution on his mission and converts.

The people he focused on were both high and low status. He mentions the sons and daughters of nobles and chieftains as well as female slave and children raised from an early age - implying that he worked at many different levels of society. Clerics ordained by him are referenced several times, illustrating the likelihood that his converts included males of similar varied classes. Taken altogether, it seems that Patrick was focusing on establishing small communities of converts, along with a native clergy to tend them.

Patrick seems to have been active in extremely remote (i.e. western) regions of Ireland. He states that he had gone where nobody had ever brought the gospel to before.  Scholars have seen this as reflecting an awareness of other Christians elsewhere in the Island; but he makes no further references to any such people or activity. He was certainly in touch with a wider network of Christians both in Ireland and in Britain. His surviving documents testify to this, being open encyclical type letters intended for multiple recipients on each island.

Contrary to later legend, he makes no claim to have converted the entire country. Indeed, at the end of his documents, he appears to hold a rather pessimistic view on the future success of his converts. He considered their situation within Irish society as being precariously balanced to say the least - so much so that he was afraid to leave them for long periods. This fear was horribly realised when a group of recent converts of his were attacked by slavers. Many were killed and many more enslaved and sold on. Patrick’s second document, the Letter to Coroticus is a passionate plea to both free them and to gain recognition from fellow Christians in Britain. We have no indication if it was ever successful. The last we hear of the historical Patrick (in his second document) is a man in his later years, who expects to be killed at any moment, and who despairs for the safety of his fledgling Christian converts.

Bibliography & Further Reading:

Bieler, L. (1979) The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Charles-Edwards, T. M., (2000) Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Howlett, D. R. (1994) Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi. The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop. Dublin.

O’Loughlin, T. (1999) St Patrick: The Man and his Works. London.

Patricks Confessio (Confession) (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:

Patricks Epistola (Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus) (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:

St. Patricks Hypertext Stack Project; available at: 

18th Century Trade in Irish Butter

Irish dairy exports exceeded €3 billion for the first time last year. An all-time record for sure. But long before the days of annual surveys like these, Irish butter was sought after in places most people hadn’t even heard of – as Mary Russell told us.

Trade in butter out of Cork in 18th century


Mary Russell

It’s a long stride from Cork to the Caribbean but in the days when Cork was Ireland’s leading maritime port there were sailing ships regularly crossing the Atlantic with creamy delicious butter as one of their main cargos.

I came across all this one day, in Liberta, a village on the Caribbean island of Antigua. I’d called in to the local shop to get some Red Stripe – it gets very hot there - and picked up a small metal cylinder marked Irish butter. That set me on a mission – to find out where it had come from.

Which is why, earlier this month, I walked along Washington Street, in Cork, until I found what I was looking for – Sraidin Hanover, known in English as Little Hanover Street. It was here that one of the last butter factories was located and it may even have been the very last one though my researches show that Cork at one time had many butter factories. And not surprising since the city was the very heart of the butter industry.

Cork Harbour is very deep and was well-placed for keeping an eye on what was coming in from different directions so it’s no surprise that the British established a naval base here. And way across the Atlantic, they found that the sugar island of Antigua offered something of the same. So perfect was it that they even sent Admiral Horatio Nelson to patrol the waters there.


But back to Cork and let’s imagine it in the 18th century, its narrow streets and lanes teeming with activity, firkins of well-salted butter being rolled along the quays to be loaded onto waiting ships. The word had got out that Irish butter was pretty tasty so that wherever there was a British port or a colony, the order went out: send Irish butter. And in those days, you got what you ordered for the British system worked well: butter was checked in, weighed,standardised, barrelled and despatched. So that:, three thousand miles away on Antigua, the plantation owner’s wife had some much-coveted butter to put on her tea-table. (The slaves, of course, never saw butter from one end of the year to the next.)

But what was it that made this butter so desireable? I’ll tell you, it was the little black Kerry cow. This lovely creature could graze the long acre, eating whatever was on offer in ditches, up mountain tracks or at the side of the road, and then produce milk that had a singular quality for the milk of the Kerry cow contained globules of fat smaller than that of most other milkers. This meant it was easily digestible and therefore perfect for babies and invalids.

Once you know the story of Kerry cattle, you’ll understand why our greatest epic, the Tain bo Cualigne, written 2000 years ago, is so much part of our heritage. In Ireland, it’s still all about the cow.


The Curragh Incident

In the tense months between March 1914 and the end of July that year, Ireland stood dangerously close to conflict.

As the Home Rule Bill entered its final stages, the British Government became concerned that unionist volunteers were planning the seizure of arms in Ulster. So they decided to deploy extra troops to the North.

However, a group of his fellow officers made a stand. They stated they would refuse any orders to carry out operations in Ulster which might result in a clash with loyalists.

The British Army here was based in Curragh Camp in Co Kildare at that time and this month marks the centenary of what’s become known as the Curragh Incident. Conor Mulvagh, Lecturer in Irish History at UCD (and their man working on the decade of commemorations) talked about the events that occurred between Dublin, London, and the Curragh Camp in March 1914.

 The Curragh Crisis, March 1914

by Conor Mulvagh


War in Europe and rebellion in Ireland have eclipsed and distorted the importance of many events during the Home Rule and Ulster crises of 1912-14. It is in the interests of very few to remember the events that occurred between Dublin, London, and the Curragh Camp in the second half of March 1914. It was an embarrassment to the Liberal government, a narrowly avoided disaster for the British Army, a threat to the goals of Irish nationalists and, despite their role in exacerbating it, something not to be remembered by Ulster unionists and their allies in Britain.

Sir Arthur Paget

To summarise the events, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Ireland, Sir Arthur Paget returned from briefings on the military reinforcement of Ulster which had been held in London on the week ending 20 March 1914. He summoned seven senior officers to his office at Parkgate Street in Dublin that Friday and briefed them on the negotiations which he had attended in London. Fearing the seizure of arms from military bases in Ulster, the government had resolved to increase the military presence in the province by sending reinforcements north.

In a radical departure from normal military procedure, officers domiciled or born in the province of Ulster were to be allowed to ‘disappear’ for the duration of any operations. Meanwhile, other officers who did not wish to participate for conscientious reasons would be dismissed from the army.


Although the action proposed was merely a troop movement, there was a substantive fear among officers that they would be called upon to suppress or even engage in armed combat with the Ulster Volunteer Force when they moved into Ulster. The idea of initiating a civil war with loyal subjects of the King was a moral impossibility for some soldiers. Of the seven officers who met with Paget that Friday, Brigadier General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, had the most extreme reaction to the situation put before him. Upon consulting with his own officers, Gough reported to Paget that the vast majority of his officers would opt to resign rather than carry out operations in Ulster. In total, sixty of the seventy officers in Gough’s brigade sided with him and were prepared to resign their commissions rather than engage in military operations in Ulster.

What happened next transformed the Curragh crisis into a much more serious affair. Gough and other officers were summoned to the War Office in London and, instead of receiving a reprimand for their actions, Gough and his party managed to secure written assurances signed by the Secretary of State for War (J.E.B. Seely) and initialled by the chief of the Imperial General Staff (Lord John French), and the adjutant-general and aide-de-camp to the King (Sir John Spencer Ewart) that the officers would not be sent on military operations into Ulster. The document, which Gough took away with him from the meeting, was later repudiated by the Prime Minister.

Sir Hubert Gough

In the debacle that ensued, Seely, French, and Ewart all resigned from their respective posts. Five months out from the First World War, Britain was without a secretary of state for war and Asquith himself took over the portfolio, an action which required him to stand for re-election. This was a formality given that he was unopposed in East Fife but it was nonetheless a serious matter for a Prime Minster at the middle of a crisis of this scale. Although both civil war in Ulster and mutiny at the Curragh were averted, the whole affair exacerbated an already grave crisis in Ireland and, in Europe, it made questionable the reliability of the British army just prior to the outbreak of the First World War.


For a long time, historians come to a broad consensus that the best word to describe the events that occurred in the Curragh Camp between 20 and 23 March 1914 as an ‘incident’. While the word is accurate, it perhaps masks the gravity of what was undoubtedly a crisis for both the British military and the British government on the eve of the First World War. Both at the time and subsequently, the ‘incident’ at the Curragh has popularly been referred to as a ‘mutiny.’ However, this is not strictly true as a mutiny is defined by the refusal to obey an order.

At the Curragh, no order was given, instead officers threatened to mutiny if they were compelled to carry out undesirable orders in Ulster. As such, the term conspiracy might well describe the actions of the officers involved, as they conspired to undermine the discipline and impartiality of the crown forces.

However, the bungling of civil authorities and military superiors means that the blame cannot be placed squarely at the feet of Gough and his ‘mutineers’. From an opposite (unionist) perspective, the ‘mutiny’ at the Curragh was seen as a legitimate response to the actions of the Liberal government. Since the Parliament Act of 1911, the Commons had the power to veto the Lords on ordinary legislation, with the upper house only entitled to delay legislation other than money bills. The third Home Rule bill was the first piece of legislation to be forced through the Lords under the Parliament Act and, as such, many who opposed the Liberal Government saw their actions as being in contravention to the spirit of the British constitution. Given the choice of terms to describe what happened in the second half of March 1914, the ‘Curragh crisis’ is thus increasingly used by historians who wish to avoid the inaccuracies of ‘mutiny’ without settling for the insipidness of ‘incident’.

Impact in Ireland

In Ireland, the Curragh crisis was received very differently in unionist and nationalist circles but the eventual response from both sides was the same: they armed. Although it should be stressed that the majority of officers in Ireland did not openly side with Gough, the army could no longer be relied upon to carry out operations in Ulster. This other side of the army in Ireland is epitomised in retellings of the event by the figure of Major General Sir Charles Fergusson, who came to be seen as the antithesis to Gough. As commander of the 5th Infantry Division, Fergusson believed he had an absolute duty to put aside any personal sympathy he had for the unionists of Ulster and to obey all orders as the only way to avoid rebellion and anarchy both in Ireland and the Empire as a whole.

Sir Charles Fergusson


For the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Curragh crisis signalled that the military were on their side. Unionists would not willingly take up arms against fellow defenders of the union. Therefore, when the UVF engaged in a massive importation of arms and ammunition at Larne and elsewhere on the night of 24-25 April 1914, they did so safe in the knowledge that the government no longer had confidence in the army to move against them. Given the complicity of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the Larne gun running, the message was clear: Ulster’s arms were pointed directly at their nationalist rivals.

In the wake of Curragh and Larne, a sense of panic gripped nationalist Ireland. Eoin MacNeill’s Irish Volunteers saw a surge in their numbers, with 1,000 new recruits signing up every week during this period. By the summer of 1914, the Irish Volunteers stood at a strength of 160,000. With little faith left in the government, the police, or the military to safeguard the implementation of Home Rule in the face of unionist threat, the Irish Volunteers resolved to arm themselves. They were nowhere near as well financed or armed as their unionist counterparts but, by the end of July 1914, Ireland’s two opposing volunteer forced were armed and they both did so in the belief that the Curragh crisis justified their actions.

Impact for the British Army

The Curragh crisis is often viewed as a formative event in Irish history but its wider significance is often forgotten. For the British Army, five months away from entering the trenches, this was an astonishing departure from centuries’ old traditions of discipline and respect for the authority of the civil government. Taking an opposing viewpoint on this, the actions of the soldiers involved was incredibly reckless. It signalled the depth of politicisation in the British army on the Irish question and it gave further legitimacy to the Ulster Volunteers and their stand against the rule of law.

Impact for the British Government

Presaging a debate that would absorb the British cabinet during the Irish War of Independence, the British government played a very dangerous game during 1914 when they began using the military to do the work of the police.


Herbert Henry Asquith

In 1919-21, Lloyd George desperately tried to limit the use of the military in dealing with violence that he felt could be dealt with as a policing issue.

In 1914, however, Asquith and his government allowed the Ulster situation to escalate to a point where the Royal Irish Constabulary would simply not have been capable to supressing the dissent of the Ulster Volunteers had they risen up against Home Rule.

As such, the use of troops in Ulster was contemplated. From Gough’s perspective, he and the ‘mutineers’ were making a last-ditch effort to avoid the first civil war to have blotted the three kingdoms since the 1640s.

That the British cabinet handled the affair disastrously is beyond question; whether or not their actions could have resulted in civil war remains something of a ‘what if.’

The actions of Gough and his allies in the Curragh certainly underline the gravity of the situation in the spring of 1914 and show the indecision of the government and the politicised nature of the military. Combined, these factors placed Ireland and Britain on dangerous ground just months before the outbreak of the First World War.

Impact in the wider world: Germany and preparations for war

The Irish situation was closely watched by German military planners for a period before the outbreak of the First World War. In a previous episode of the History Show, Jerome aan de Weil has discussed how the unfolding situation in Ireland impacted upon Germany’s decision making processes at this critical time in international relations.


Of all the events occurring in Ireland in 1914, events at the Curragh in March had arguably the greatest impact in Berlin. Combined with the unionist and nationalist gun-runnings of April and July, the Curragh crisis was a key destabilising factor in persuading military strategists in Berlin that Ireland was on the cusp of civil conflict and that Britain would likely be distracted upon the outbreak of a European war.

‘Mutiny’ in context

Despite never having materialised into an all-out crisis, the events at Dublin, London, the Curragh in late-March 1914 remain arguably the gravest breakdown of governmental control over the British armed forces in the twentieth century. That a mutiny was averted is secondary to the fact that a Rubicon had been crossed. Officers had taken the decision that they would refuse obey orders they deemed to be morally and politically repugnant. Following the Curragh crisis, the British government no longer had the power to use the military as they saw fit in implementing laws and policy on the British Isles. The key distinction between this and other mutinies in the British armed forces is that it involved officers rather than enlisted men. Furthermore, the officers in question included ones of such a high rank as to make their actual and threatened actions extremely serious.

Even in the modern day, the mutiny of troops in the British Army is not unknown. The most recent incident occurred in Kenya in February 2013 when sixteen privates and junior NCOs of the Yorkshire regiment staged a sit-down protest. This modern example is perhaps not directly comparable given that the mutinies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often involved loss of life either during the mutiny through violence or subsequently through executions. Nonetheless, the example of 2013 underlines the fact that refusal to obey orders is not merely a historical topic in a professional and modern army like Britain’s.

Among the most notable actual British mutinies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were those by Indian sepoys in 1857 and 1915 (for two very different reasons), munity at Étaples in 1917 over conditions behind the lines of the western front, and the mutiny among Connaught Rangers in India over British policy in Ireland in 1920. However, the threat of mutiny at the Curragh in 1914 did not involve privates and NCOs, it involved a Brigadier-General and his immediate subordinates. This is the key distinction.

Even after the dust had settled at the Curragh, an entire division of cavalry could no longer be counted on to carry out orders in Ireland five months before they were sent to war in Europe and six months before Ireland was granted Home Rule by statute. Ireland never stood so close to conflict in the immediate prelude to the 1916 rising as it did in the tense months between the end of March and the end of July 1914.

Conor Mulvagh -March 2014

Further reading

Ian F.W. Beckett (ed.), The Army and the Curragh Incident (London, 1986)

Ronan Fanning, Fatal path: British government and Irish revolution 1910–22 (London, 2013)

James Fergusson, The Curragh incident (London, 1964)

A.P. Ryan, Mutiny


Click here for details of Curragh Mutiny Conference on 21 March

70th Anniversary of American Note

Now - tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of reports of a sensational attempt by the Allies to force Ireland to expel all diplomats from Japan, Germany and Italy.  According to historian T.Ryle Dwyer, this led to ‘the greatest distortion of Irish foreign policy since the foundation of the state.’

The lead up to the letter and its aftermath is a complex tale of intrigue, deception and double-dealing which includes at least one larger than life character and many others who preferred to remain in the shadows.

Historians T.Ryle Dwyer and Michael Kennedy (Royal Irish Academy) discussed the fallout on the programme.   

Who Was David Gray?

David Gray became US Ambassador to Ireland in 1940. His memoir, written at the age of 89, was published by the Royal Irish Academy. It is a patchwork of top-secret documents, letters to Roosevelt and extracts from his diary.

Gray was born in New York in 1870 and was a journalist and playwright before joining the military and entering politics. He was not well disposed to Irish republicanism. He came to hold Irish society in contempt and despised de Valera, believing that certain Irish officials were collaborating with the Nazis to achieve a British defeat and a 32-county republic. This extract is from 1940. He writes:

"The Taoiseach’s office (pronounced popularly ‘tee shack’) and surroundings were all as they had been so often described by interviewers. He himself was the tall, gaunt figure with the suggestion of Lincoln, and ironically in the corner stood the O’Connor bronze statue of Lincoln which John McCormack, the singer, had given to the Irish government. The office was bare, the flat-topped desk was bare and Mr de Valera was dressed in his invariable black clerical-looking suit with black string tie.

He was always neat and his linen was always fresh. His grave eye trouble excited sympathy. It was said that he suffered from glaucoma. From time to time he removed his spectacles and put his hands over his eyes, and from time to time he showed the appealing smile that I had heard about and the suggestion of his peculiar charm. Why Mr de Valera replied to my English speech in Irish was a question not difficult to answer. Both languages are sanctioned by the new Constitution, but Mr de Valera and his Separatist group were anxious to impress on the outside world that English is only an unfortunate and temporary makeshift and that Irish is the true and natural tongue of the nation, though today only one person in six speaks it. Very few Irish politicians speak Irish except as American High School students learn to ‘speak’ French, but they usually begin their speeches with a paragraph in Irish, which they have memorised, and then continue in English. It is the badge of being ‘Irish’ Irish, like the Gaelicisation of proper names."

The German Ambassador

"Herr Hempel – the German minister to Ireland – had a charming house and garden at Blackrock, a suburb on Dublin harbour. His chancery was an ugly, modern red brick house in Northumberland Road. It was here that I called upon him. Herr Dr Hempel received us with great courtesy. He was somewhat over-civil and did not ring true. He spoke fluent English with little accent. I was conscious of being ill at ease. Hempel might be doing his duty as he saw it but he was serving a Führer whose hands were red with the blood of Jews, Poles and Norwegians, on whose conscience was the annihilation of Austria and Czechoslovakia. I was naive enough at seventy to be shocked by these things.

We exchanged pleasant commonplaces. I was not to re-enter the German legation at 58 Northumberland Road till I took possession of it in the name of the United Nations at the end of the war and found the wires of a radio sending set and other interesting items. The Irish government had seen to it that we did not gain admittance until the files had been destroyed.

Collaboration with the Germans

Mr de Valera’s conviction that Hitler would win the war was stupid in view of the opportunities he enjoyed for obtaining authoritative information as to what was going on in the United States. It was doubtless due to the fact that he knew few if any Americans, only ‘Irish in America’. As a matter of fact he himself never told me that Hitler would win, though he scoffed at the suggestion that the United States would become involved. But his deputy Joe Walshe told me. Further, Mr Walshe was confident that at the worst, Hitler would not lose. Cardinal MacRory told me that Hitler would win. Count Plunkett, the patriarch of the IRA, expressed the same opinion. We know from the German papers that one of Mr de Valera’s generals was collaborating with Hempel. Belief in German victory was in the Dublin air. At the end of the war a former Lord Mayor of Dublin, ‘Paddy’ Doyle, a very ‘decent’ man, said to me ‘You know, at the beginning we were all sure Germany was going to win’."

Further Reading:

A Yankee in De Valera’s Ireland: The Memoir of David Gray is edited by Paul Bew. 

 Irish Diplomats on continent used as American spies

by Ryle Dwyer 

Today (21 February) marks the 70th anniversary of the American Note demanding the expulsion of Axis diplomats from Ireland on the grounds that they supposedly posed a threat to the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe. The whole thing was responsible for one of the greatest distortions in Irish history.

The note really had nothing to do with security; it was deliberate ploy to generate the impression that the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was indifferent to the plight of British and American servicemen. Consequently, the true nature of this country’s wartime policy has been seriously distorted ever since.

In 1970 when I began research on a doctoral dissertation on Irish neutrality, J. Russell Forgan, the deputy director for Europe of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the wartime forerunner of the CIA—assured me that there was extensive secret co-operation between the Irish and the OSS. “The Irish worked with us on intelligence and security matters almost as if they were our allies,” he wrote. “They have never received the credit due them.”

“I doubt that in the last year of the war there was an Axis spy in Ireland that the Irish and ourselves did not know about.” Forgan added. “Most of them were ‘doubled’. By that I mean that they worked for us and sent their so-called superiors news, which we fed them. In that respect there were very helpful to our cause.”

Colonel Dan Bryan, the head of Irish Military Intelligence (G2), suggested this was an exaggeration. “Forgan is wrong,” Bryan stated. “There were no double agents in Ireland.”

The German Minister and his staff in Dublin were effectively being used as virtual double agents, though they did not realize it. All of the German agents sent to Ireland as spies were uncovered. None worked as a double agent in the twenty-six counties, but there was one agent that nobody talked about for another quarter of a century.

The Germans had dropped Joseph Lenihan — an uncle of Brian Lenihan and Mary O’Rourke — as a spy over County Meath in July 1941. With G2 hot on his heels, Joe Lenihan slipped across the border and offered his services to the British as a double agent. He worked for MI5 under the codename “Basket” for the remainder of the war. But the British have still not released their files on him.

 Ervin "Spike" Marlin

After the United States joined the war in December 1941, the OSS stationed three undercover agents in Ireland. The first agent was Ervin “Spike” Marlin, who was officially supposed to be an economic advisor to David Gray, the US Minister to Ireland. Marlin was an American who had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1929 to 1932.

One of his first tasks for the OSS was to assess the sympathies of Irish politicians. He reported that three Fianna Fáil deputies were pro-German — backbenchers Dan Breen and Tom McEllistrim, and the Minister for Posts & Telegraphs Patrick J. Little. 

As this report was being transmitted in the diplomatic bag, Gray insisted on reading it, and he then demanded to know Marlin’s source for the information on Little. Marlin reluctantly told him it was Erskine Childers —then a junior Minister in the de Valera government and a future President of Ireland.

Source: National Archives

A few days later Childers complained to Marlin that Gray had not only protested about Little being pro-German, but had gone on to commit the appalling indiscretion of naming Childers as the source of this information.

Realising that Marlin was an OSS agent, Joseph P. Walshe, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, offered that Irish security would cooperate with the OSS through Marlin. Walshe had already arranged a similar set up between G2 and Britain’s MI5. But Gray opposed such cooperation, because he was deeply suspicious of Walshe.

Although Gray had no prior diplomatic experience, he enjoyed considerable political influence, because he had direct access to the White House, as he was married to an aunt of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. The OSS soon became painfully aware that his political clout was not matched with good judgment.

In a postwar memoir, published for the first time in 2012, Gray contended that he had better sources of information in Ireland than the OSS. He did not identify those sources in the memoir, but his letters to President Roosevelt reveal that they were from another world.

A strong believer in spiritualism, Gray was passing on advice to the President from supposed ghosts. He informed Roosevelt, for instance, that the ghost of late British Prime Minister Arthur J. Balfour had informed him during a séance on November 8, 1941 that Walshe was “a leading quisling” and that he “is hand and glove with the German Minister.”

At another séance on December 2, 1941, the ghost of the late President Theodore Roosevelt supposedly belittled the danger of a Japanese attack on American forces. This was the Tuesday before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but Gray never doubted that he was in contact with the ghosts.

“Four days after this communication,” Gray wrote to President Roosevelt, “the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. They had T.R. fooled. I suspect that if these communications come through pretty much as given our friends on the other side don’t know very much more than they did on this side.”

Despite Gray’s objections, the OSS accepted Walshe’s offer to cooperate with Marlin, G2 turned over voluminous reports on German spies already captured, as well as the names and addresses of people in the United States to whom German nationals living in Ireland, or pro-German Irish people, were writing. Over 4,000 people were named in the material.

Gray was so sour over the co-operation that the OSS decided to move Marlin in London, from where he would travel back to Dublin when necessary. G2 kept in contact with him with regular reports that were sent to London through the Department of External Affairs in the Irish diplomatic bag.

Walshe was so co-operative that Marlin suggested the Irish would possibly use of their diplomats on the continent to collect information for the OSS. R. Carter Nicholas, the head of the Éire Desk at OSS headquarters in Washington, D.C., visited Dublin to explore this possibility in September 1943.

Nicholas reported that he asked Walshe about “the possibility of our receiving information from Irish diplomatic sources. It was intimated that other neutrals had gone as far.”

With de Valera’s approval, Walshe acceded to the American request, and he read excerpts from reports from Irish diplomats on the continent in which Nicholas and Marlin might be interested. He also agreed to transmit to the Irish Chargé d’Affaires in Berlin “a request for information on the political situation in Germany at the top.”

In the following weeks Marlin supplied questions to Walshe for the respective Irish representatives in Berlin, Rome and Vichy. Walshe asked those questions of the respective diplomats and then forwarded their replies to Marlin. In effect, Irish diplomats were being used as American spies. But Gray was far from satisfied.

During the summer of 1943 he had returned to the United States and met with President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on August 16, 1943. He persuaded them to ask for Irish bases as a means discrediting de Valera in order to ensure that he would not be able to cause difficulties between the British and Americans over the partition issue after the war.

Gray did not want Irish bases; he just wished to provoke de Valera’s refusal. He suggested, for instance, that the request should stress that the bases were no longer needed but the Allies were just offering Ireland a chance to share in the forthcoming victory.

De Valera had already been so helpful that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff thought that he might actually accede to the request, and they warned that Irish bases would be worse than useless. They would be a liability to the Allied war effort, which was what de Valera had been claiming for years.

The idea of requesting bases was therefore blocked, but Gray then came up with another suggestion. He proposed that President Roosevelt should asked the Dublin government to expel the German and Japanese representatives from Ireland, because they supposedly posed a threat to the forthcoming D-Day invasion of Europe.

 This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on 21 February 2014



Pope Paul VI and de Valera used in OSS Cover-Up

by Ryle Dwyer

While David Gray’s suggestion that President Roosevelt demand that Eamon de Valera expel German and Japanese Representatives from Ireland was being considered in Washington, the Americans got hold of an array of German documents. Some of which suggested that the legation in Dublin had been furnishing Berlin with extraordinary intelligence information.

It would be hard to exaggerate the extent of the alarm, because some of the documents exposed a leak within Roosevelt’s own cabinet. These were to change the course of American history.

Fritz Kolbe, an official at the German Foreign Ministry turned over some 2,600 sensitive documents to the OSS in Switzerland during the latter half of 1943. Those documents showed that Vice President Henry Wallace had been talking indiscreetly to his brother-in-law, a Swiss diplomat, who had been passing on the information to his own foreign ministry, where it was falling into German hands.

As a result of the Kolbe documents, Wallace was dropped and replaced by Harry S. Truman as Roosevelt’s running mate in Presidential election of 1944, and Truman succeeded to the White House within six months.

From the Irish standpoint Kolbe’s documents were equally alarming, at least initially. General William J. Donovan, head of the OSS, informed the White House “that a great deal of information pertaining to Allied activities in England and Ulster comes from the German embassy in Dublin. The Legation which is heavily staffed has succeeded in infiltrating agents into England.”

The OSS reported, for instance, that German diplomats in Dublin had identified 600 air installations in England. Carter Nicholas, the head of the Éire Desk at OSS headquarters, noted that it “looked to me at first as though there was a serious leak from Éire.”

When the OSS shared this information with its British counterpart — MI5 — the British explained that the reports from Dublin were part of a deception plan. MI5 had been feeding misinformation to the German legation. To ensure that the Germans would believe the various deceptions, the material was buried in a wealth of accurate information that the Germans already knew.

When MI5 explained the situation, OSS leaders realised that the Irish security situation was even better than they “had previously thought.” MI5, which was effectively using the German diplomats in Dublin as double agents, had serious reservations about the Americans demanding the expulsion of Axis diplomats from Dublin.

If the German diplomats were expelled, MI5 warned that this would possibly endanger Allied security, because the Germans might infiltrate a useful spy. As it was the British had broken the German codes and were reading all the messages from the legation in Dublin.

The OSS knew that Gray’s proposal was just a political ruse, so it did not involve itself in the American Note, which was delivered to de Valera on February 21, 1944. News of the note and de Valera’s refusal broke on March 10.

As this was the week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, the news ignited a firestorm of criticism in the American press. Ireland was denounced as indifferent to the lives of American soldiers, even Irish-American boys. Some American journalists contended that the Irish should realise that diplomats were often used as spies.

The press campaign against Ireland turned so nasty that the Irish feared the Americans might even divulge how the Irish diplomats were being used on the continent. Carter Nicholas noted that “Walshe was very anxious about the point, particularly as the Irish could not publicly admit to having engaged in so unneutral an act as supplying us with anti-Axis intelligence.”

If the Americans divulged that Irish diplomats were being used as American spies, Walshe warned that all co-operation would be cut off. “We would never dream of using any confidential information we could have got from your people,” a senior State Department official assured Robert Brennan, the Irish Minister in Washington.

Walshe suggested to the OSS that American and British security officials should be stationed in Ireland “to keep in constant touch with Irish authorities on the problems, to receive reports from them, and to make recommendations for improving methods of surveillance.”

As the American Note was strictly a political ruse, the OSS had initially tried to avoid involvement, but as the diplomatic tension was growing, General Donovan decided to outline the details of secret Irish security co-operation in a memorandum to President Roosevelt on March 30, 1944. He provided a long list of ways in which the Irish had been helping, and he emphasised the potential of the help being provided by Irish diplomats on the continent.

“So far the information contained in these reports has been of use primarily as confirmation of information from other sources,” Donovan explained. “However the potentialities are important.”

“The cooperation in intelligence matters offered and given by the Irish has been very full,” Donovan added. “Since the delivery of the American Note the Irish offered their prompt cooperation in adopting whatever security measures may be recommended by us.”

Gray tried to block acceptance of the latest Irish offer. He warned Roosevelt on April 14 that such co-operation could be used “as a political means of wiping off the record” the stigma of de Valera's refusal to dismiss the Axis diplomats. “As long as we keep him hooked on his record of refusing our request he cannot do us any great harm either now or in the postwar period,” Gray insisted, “but he is very apt to catch us napping and wriggle off.”

All three OSS agents had already been withdrawn from Ireland, but now, at the suggestion of the Irish, the OSS decided to station Ed Lawler in Dublin for the remainder of the war. “The cooperation and information we received from the Irish was every bit as extensive and helpful as it would have been if Ireland had been a full partner with us in the war effort,” Lawler wrote.

For decades afterwards the intelligence co-operation provided by the Irish was played down. The first public indication of such help was R. Harris Smith assertion that Irish diplomatic corps smuggled espionage material out of Italy for the Americans in the Irish diplomatic pouch. This seemed to fit in with the secret co-operation provided by the Irish, but there was an added twist.

Irish diplomats on the continent were under instructions from early in the war not to transmit confidential material in diplomatic bags, because they knew the Germans were opening them. Thus, they would hardly have transmitted secret material for the OSS from the Vatican.

The Vessel Project supposedly originated when the Vatican’s Acting Secretary of State, Monsignor Giovanni Montini (later Pope Paul VI), offered the Americans strategic information in the form of reports from the Vatican representative in Japan. The whole thing was actually a scam run by a former journalist named Virgilio Scattolini, who had sold bogus Vatican information to various wire services before the war.

Following the liberation of Rome in 1944, he sought to re-establish this lucrative trade in forged documents. The Vessel material was considered so good that some of the raw material was actually shown to President Roosevelt.

But in February 1945 the OSS learned that Scattolini had embellished messages from the Vatican’s representative in Tokyo. The Americans had broken the Vatican code and were already reading the original messages, so the fabrications were detected, but not before Scattolini had ripped off the OSS.

Montini’s name had been used to lure the OSS, which then used his name as Pope to cover up its own gaffe. In the early 1970s the OSS pretended that it had to keep the project secret in order to protect the Pope, and the Irish President.

Neither the Pope nor de Valera had ever actually been involved in the Vessel Project. The whole thing was smoke screen to cover up the OSS blunder. It was, of course, just another of the many deceptions.

Historians, who are unaware of MI5’s input in feeding the Dublin legation misinformation, have perpetuated the myth that Ireland was the source of valuable information for the Germans.

Ryle Dwyer’s Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phony Neutrality during World War II, published by Gill & Macmillan.


Glasnevin Cemetery Lecture Series

 Funerals that helped to shape collective memory in Ireland

Glasnevin Cemetery Museum Lecture Series

Over the course of this lecture series the speakers, each of them eminent historians and scholars, will analyse and interrogate funerals that helped to shape collective memory in Ireland. From the annual gathering at Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown, to the theatrical mourning of Michael Collins we will learn more about the funerals that define Irish political culture to this day." Dr Ciaran O’Neill (Trinity College Dublin)

13th March:  'I would wish to be buried... without any funeral demonstration: Michael Davitt's death and funeral' Dr Carla King, St. Patricks College, Drumcondra.

20th March:  ‘Under the great comedians tomb’. The funeral of Parnell. Frank Callanan, Senior Counsel.

27th March:   'A great city wrapped in gloom': the demise of Paul Cullen, Ireland's first cardinal' Professor Daire Keogh, President of St. Patricks College, Drumcondra.

3rd April ‘ nothing has moved her in living memory’: mourning and burying Michael Collins' Dr. Anne Dolan, Trinity College Dublin.

Lectures will take place at 7pm in the Milestone Gallery, Glasnevin Cemetery Museum.

Tickets €10 (or €8 if booking 1 or more in the series)

To book please contact the Museum call: (0)1 882 6550 or email: 

About The Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past.

We want to help explain ourselves to ourselves. We will search out fresh angles on familiar topics, seek out the unfamiliar and will not shy away from bizarre or controversial issues. Our ultimate goal is to make The History Show the primary port of call for those with an intense or even a modest interest in the subject. We want to entice the casual and the curious to join us in celebrating the past.

Our aim is to create informative, reflective, stimulating and above all, entertaining radio.

Join us on Sundays from 6.05pm for The History Show with Myles Dungan on RTÉ Radio 1.

A Pegasus production for RTÉ. 



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Presenter: Myles Dungan

Producer: Lorcan Clancy


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