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British Spies and Irish Rebels

British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-1945

Paul McMahon
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 540
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  • Book Info
    British Spies and Irish Rebels
    Book Description:

    One of the Irish Times' Books of the Year, 2008 Rebellion, partition and a messy peace settlement ensured that Ireland was a constant thorn in Britain's side after 1916. Britain was confronted by the bombs and bullets of militant republicans, the clandestine intrigues of foreign powers and the strategic dangers of Ireland's wartime neutrality - a final, irrevocable step in the country's difficult transition to independence. Using newly-opened archives, this book reveals for the first time how the British intelligence system responded to these threats. It lifts the lid on the underground activities of Britain's secret agencies - MI5, MI6/SIS and the Special Branch. It puts secret intelligence in the context of the government's other sources of information and explores how deep-rooted cultural stereotypes distorted intelligence and shaped perceptions. And it shows how, for decades, British intelligence struggled to cope with Ireland but then rose to the challenge after 1940, largely because the Dublin government began to share its secrets. The author casts light on characters long kept in the shadows - IRA gunrunners, Bolshevik agitators, Nazi agents, Irish loyalists who acted as British spies. His compelling book fills a gap in the history of the British intelligence community and helps explain the twists and turns of Anglo-Irish relations during a time of momentous change. PAUL MCMAHON gained his PhD from Cambridge University.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-614-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-ix)
    Peter Martland

    The main reason for anyone working in the field of intelligence history is to locate and place in perspective what has been described as the missing dimension of modern history: the role intelligence played in forming and executing policy in reaction to the great issues of the past one hundred years.

    Until quite recently this has not been possible, because intelligence agencies in Western democracies simply did not make public either their archive or (except in some highly regulated manner) their history: indeed until the early 1990s the British intelligence community operated under the royal prerogative and had no legal...

  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. x-x)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    In July 1920 an Anglo-Irish intelligence officer named Charles Tegart made the long sea journey from India to London. The son of a Church of Ireland minister, Tegart was born in County Derry, spent much of his childhood in Dunboyne, Co. Meath, and studied briefly at Trinity College Dublin, before joining the Indian police force in 1901. Over the next two decades he established a reputation as a resourceful and ruthless opponent of Indian nationalist revolutionaries. He was particularly famous for his disguises – a colleague once saw him dressed as a Bengali gentleman talking with pimps and prostitutes in the...

  8. [Map]
    (pp. 10-10)
  9. PART I The Irish Revolution, 1916–23

    • CHAPTER 1 Losing Southern Ireland
      (pp. 12-54)

      Ever since the first failed Home Rule Bill in 1886, nationalist Ireland, led by the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster, had patiently sought to achieve self-government through constitutional means. In 1910, for the first time in a generation, this appeared within reach. In that year a closely fought general election handed the Irish party under John Redmond the balance of power in the House of Commons. The Irish formed an alliance with the Liberal Party on condition that Home Rule would be part of the government’s programme; over the next three and a half years, the reluctant Liberal Prime Minister,...

    • CHAPTER 2 Alarms, Excursions and Civil War
      (pp. 55-96)

      The truce on 11 July 1921 stopped the war between the IRA and the British state, but it neither ended the violence in Ireland, nor resolved the political fate of the country. It was followed by five months of prevarication, manoeuvring, high tension and frustration, as the British government negotiated a peace settlement with Sinn Féin leaders, first through correspondence, and then, from 11 October, in conference in London. Eventually, after a Lloyd-George ultimatum and some anxious brinkmanship, an Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 5 December 1921, which granted southern Ireland Dominion status. The settlement split the Sinn Féin and...

    • CHAPTER 3 An International Conspiracy
      (pp. 97-133)

      In March 1923, as the Irish Civil War entered its last stage, an American attorney named John T. Ryan boarded an ocean liner for Germany. Ryan was a leading figure within Clan na Gael, the secret American counterpart to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He had fought in the 1898 Spanish-American war, arranged German help for the Easter Rising in 1916 and represented the Sinn Féin movement in Germany between 1920 and 1922.¹ On his return to Germany, he carried $100,000 in Clan na Gael funds, together with instructions to arrange a major arms shipment for the anti-Treaty Irregulars in Ireland....

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 4 Security and Sectarianism in Northern Ireland
      (pp. 134-160)

      One of the more entertaining paradoxes in Irish history is that the northeast of Ireland, which had fought so strenuously against Home Rule for half a century, was the only part of the country to get it. On 23 December 1920 the British parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act, which partitioned the six counties from the rest of the island and established a Home Rule parliament in Belfast. Elections were held in May 1921, and the King opened the first session of the Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast on 22 June 1921. Over the next six months, powers were...

  10. PART II The Restless Dominion, 1923–39

    • CHAPTER 5 British Images of Ireland
      (pp. 162-174)

      Britain’s traumatic experience of the Irish revolution reinforced preconceptions about Ireland that would influence British policy decisions until the 1940s. Preconceptions are important to any understanding of intelligence and its role in policy-making. Policy-makers make decisions not on the basis of objective analysis of the facts, but by employing subjective cognitive premises and belief systems. They see what they want to see, select the information that fits their pre-existing hypotheses and biases, and ignore what is inconvenient. In his analysis of notable intelligence ‘failures’ of the twentieth century, Richard Betts concludes that ‘the ultimate causes of error in most cases...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Cosgrave Years
      (pp. 175-214)

      The evolution of the Irish Free State after 1923 offered support to each of the conflicting British images of Ireland. On the one hand, the new state experienced eight years of remarkable political stability. The pro-Treaty party, Cumann na nGaedheal, remained in government throughout this period, under the leadership of William T. Cosgrave. It was cautious in its nation building, placing pragmatism before idealism, because its priority was to restore economic, financial and social order after a decade of revolutionary upheaval. Irish ministers avoided radical economic reform, incorporated existing institutions into the new state and accepted assistance from the British...

    • CHAPTER 7 The de Valera Challenge
      (pp. 215-239)

      In August 1932 the Foreign Office received a curious letter from three British citizens employed at the Bray Printing Company in Co. Wicklow, just south of Dublin city. They described how their employer had received threatening letters from ‘the local Fianna Fail and I.R.A.’ demanding that they be dismissed from the firm because of their nationality. Following this, the printers were visited by two ‘ardent IRA men’ who bluntly stated that Fianna Fáil were determined to get them out of the country – ‘hints were thrown of physical violence’. The IRA men added that this was ‘only a beginning’; they intended...

    • CHAPTER 8 England’s Back Door
      (pp. 240-282)

      For centuries the defence of the realm against foreign attack had been a major consideration when British statesmen dealt with Ireland. It drove the conquest and plantation of Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the passing of the Act of Union in 1801, and opposition to Irish Home Rule in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although it fell into abeyance during the 1920s and early 1930s, the deteriorating international situation made it of dominant importance after 1936. In that year Adolf Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland and accelerated a massive armaments programme, while Mussolini’s Italy and an expansionist...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  11. PART III War and Neutrality, 1939–45

    • CHAPTER 9 The Irish Fifth Column
      (pp. 284-327)

      On 1 September 1939 Hitler’s troops invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. The deadliest conflict in human history had begun. Éamon de Valera immediately declared that the Irish state, unlike the other Dominions, would remain neutral. Although hardly unexpected, this was the outcome that had haunted British military theorists ever since the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921. Irish neutrality held many strategic dangers for the British war effort. First, Ireland presented opportunities for German covert operations against the United Kingdom: its waters and coasts, stretched across vital British trade routes, could be used...

    • CHAPTER 10 Operational Intelligence
      (pp. 328-342)

      The British intelligence community’s handling of Ireland reached a nadir in the summer of 1940. Yet it was followed by a gradual, continuous improvement. British intelligence agencies greatly intensified their involvement with the country. They did this in two ways: first, stepping up covert intelligence operations; second, establishing ever-closer co-operation with the Irish authorities. British intelligence continued to move along these twin tracks of covert activity and official collaboration until late in the war, although there was a gradual shift in emphasis towards the latter as the Anglo-Irish intelligence relationship deepened. In addition, the increased flow of intelligence was accompanied...

    • CHAPTER 11 Debunking the Fifth Column
      (pp. 343-369)

      The assumed existence of an extensive Irish fifth column had exerted a power ful effect on British policy towards Ireland during the summer of 1940. Fifth columnists would remain a serious threat so long as British military intervention in southern Ireland was a possibility: in the event of a German invasion they could provide crucial support to the invaders, divide Irish opinion and weaken resistance; if Britain sought bases in the south, they were a likely source of political opposition and violent attack. In addition, pro-Axis elements in Ireland constituted a pool of agents for German espionage, sabotage and propaganda...

    • CHAPTER 12 Opinion and Propaganda
      (pp. 370-391)

      The state of Irish opinion was a matter of some importance to British military and intelligence chiefs. It would determine the number of Irish people willing to assist the Axis and the type of reaction the British would receive if they were forced to intervene in southern Ireland. The study of opinion inevitably led to the question of propaganda. The Second World War saw unprecedented efforts by governments to assert control over information and public opinion. They used ‘white’ propaganda techniques – the manipulation of news to extol their cause; and ‘black’ propaganda – the use of deceit to sap the enemy’s...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 13 Leakage of Information
      (pp. 392-425)

      Gathering operational intelligence, tackling the Irish fifth column and countering Axis propaganda declined in importance once the war left Ireland behind at the end of 1941. But Ireland presented another challenge that preoccupied the British intelligence community until the final stages of the Second World War: preventing espionage and leakage of information. This was a priority for many reasons. The central tenet of British security policy was to deny the enemy all information of military importance from the United Kingdom – neutral Ireland was a potential spying post because of its geographical position. In addition, southern Ireland was itself a source...

    • CHAPTER 14 Coming to Terms with Irish Independence
      (pp. 426-438)

      Britain’s intelligence relationship with Ireland had come a long way since 1916. From a rebellious territory, the twenty-six counties had evolved into a state withde factoindependence. For over two decades the British intelligence system had found it uniquely difficult to handle this transition. This had contributed to frequent reversals of British policy. However, by the middle of the Second World War Britain had developed mature, sophisticated mechanisms for collecting and using Irish intelligence. This not only laid the foundation for wiser policy-making; it also helped bring about a more fundamental change in British perceptions of Ireland.

      Poor intelligence...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 439-484)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 485-495)
  14. Index
    (pp. 496-516)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 517-517)