Josephine Brown – British-born spy in the British Army, 1919-21

JOSEPHINE O’DONOGHUE – CORK,  IRA INTELLIGENCE OFFICER

Military Service Pensions Collection – MSP34REF55794

John Borgonovo’s definitive account of the collaboration of Josephine and Florence O’Donoghue

Josephine O’Donoghue, as Josephine Brown, went to work i n early 1917 as a clerk and typist at Cork Military Barracks and in late 1919 managed to contact  officers of the Cork Brigade of the IRA and offer her services. From then, until the Truce, she collected and transmitted original documents, copies of documents, and information relating to British personnel, equipment and troop movements. She had access to extremely valuable information, which included the correspondence of Major General Sir Peter Strickland, OC of the 6thDivision, and military governor of the Munster martial law district.

‘Under the direction of the Brigade officers I paid special attention to scouring information with regard to the personnel and movements of the British Intelligence staff attached to the 6th Division, and transmitted a list of the officers of this staff. As a result of information given by me concerning the movements of members of this staff three British Intelligence officers were captured by the IRA at Waterfall near Cork. These officers were wearing civilian clothes, and were subsequently executed.

            Information as to the movement of troops which resulted in the Upton ambush was given by me also. 

            In the winter of 1920 a letter was sent to Capt. Kelly who was in charge of the British intelligence  operation in the 6th division area, informing him that IRA men passed along a certain road on the outskirts of the city each night a short time before curfew. I saw the letter and as it was not possible to make a copy of it, and realising that the matter may be very urgent, I brought out the original letter, showed it to the Brigade IO and returned it to the file the next morning. I learned afterwards that the information was accurate, that it referred to the Brigade O/C and other members of the Brigade staff who were sleeping outside the city at the time, and that the road referred to was watched on the following nights. The writer of the letter was subsequently executed by the IRA.

            I brought out and passed on to the Brigade IO much other original matter in cases where several copies of a document were made in the offices, including on one occasion a general order issued by General Strickland (which was afterwards quoted in an tÓglach) relating to general policy and tactics to be pursued by his forces in seeking out and attacking IRA columns.’ 

In order to enhance her intelligence gathering Josephine Brown actually contrived to have three other women working in the barracks, sacked for unreliability. This gave her access to a far greater amount of confidential information. This she shared with the Cork Brigade IO,  Intelligence Officer, Florence O’Donoghue – whom she secretly married in 1921. Florence O’Donoghue went so far as to organise the kidnapping, from the UK, or her child, who was in the custody of his grandparents.  So valuable an asset was Josephine O’Donoghue that her pension application was endorsed by Sean O’Hegarty, the Cork Brigade OC, national Deputy Director of Intelligence, Liam Tobin and East Cork Flying Column OC, Tom Barry. 

‘On another occasion, early in 1921, I think, I secured a copy of a letter from General Strickland to his GHQ outlining his proposals for a large scale round up in the mountainous districts of west Cork and East Kerry, intimating his requirements of troops, transport and aeroplanes and giving details of the proposed operation. This round up took place on the 5th and 6th of June 1921. Between two and three thousand men in fourteen columns took part, and were assisted by several aeroplanes. Due, however, to the advance information which the IRA had, not a single officer or man was captured in the round up.

            Where it was not possible to get copies I made shorthand notes of important documents, or on such points as appeared to be of special value. In other cases I took the actual letters after they had been made up for post, and passed them over to the Brigade IO. These were opened and copied, then re-sealed and put back into the next day’s post by me. 

            On one occasion there was a  letter from Captain Kelly to the effect that he had got a man in as a ‘stool pigeon’ among the internees in the barracks. After this letter had been transmitted to Michael Collins by the Brigade IO a general instruction was issued by the IRA for the appointment of Intelligence Officers in all jails and internment camps, for the purpose of counteracting activities of this type, preventing undesirable talk amongst prisoners and keeping the IRA informed of any suspicious characters amongst the prisoners.

             I secured information in several cases where civilians had sent in information relating to the IRA. Six civilians were executed by the IRA as a result. 

            Over the whole period I was recording and passing on to the Brigade IO lists of names and home addresses of enemy officers; some of these were subsequently used in cases of reprisals in England. I secured also particulars of Stokes mortars with which the enemy were supplied towards the end of 1920. These particulars were used in training notes by the IRA.

            Many details were given by me of the views, characters and peculiarities of the officers directing the enemy activities in Cork. Descriptions of almost all of them were passed on to the IRA, notes of transfers and new arrivals were notified  and the minutes of the 6th Division weekly conferences frequently secured and transmitted. Everything I could do was done to give the IRA as complete a picture as possible of the personnel, methods and resources of the British forces opposed to them.

            From about the end of 1920 there was very considerable concern in the 6th division offices because of the continued leakage of information, most of which could not have come from any other source. All the staff were subjected to very rigid supervision, and it became more and more difficult to bring out actual documents. I continued to make shorthand notes and bring these, but concealed. On days when even this was not possible I memorised important points as well as I could and passed on the information to the Brigade IO. But even in this period opportunities of securing actual documents occurred, and the Strickland order referred to above was brought out by me in this period. 

            I was the only member of the 6th Division working for the IRA and was entirely without assistance in the office where I worked. A man in the 17th Brigade offices was also working for the IRA but as the offices were entirely separate I had no contact with him and we were unable to give each other any assistance. Several members of my staff were dismissed and one male member  interned but suspicions of me, which I think existed, were never confirmed before I left the employment. 

            After the Truce I went to Cobh with two members of the Brigade Intelligence Staff for the purpose of getting my sister, who was travelling to the USA, to identify and ascertain the destination of a family named Connors or O’Connor. This family were [sic] going to the USA to join a member of it who had been in the IRA but had given information to the enemy, and had been got out of the country secretly by the British authorities. As a result of this action of my sister and myself this man was traced by the IRA and subsequently shot in New York.’ 

The trial and execution of Roger Casement

Sir John Lavery’s painting of the treason trial of Sir Roger Casement

After the execution of the two surviving signatories of the 1916 Proclamation (James Connolly and Sean McDermott) on 12 May the Crown had one final score to settle with the leadership of the rising. Sir Roger Casement, career diplomat, humanitarian and British civil servant, had been the first of the leaders of the rising to be arrested. He was the last to be tried and executed. 

The Asquith government had initially decided that he would be quickly court-martialled and shot. But, informed by the strong negative reaction to the executions in Dublin the Government began to be attracted to the idea of civil trial for treason. A form of ‘show trial’ in which ‘justice would be seen to be done’. The attraction was one of rehabilitation. Some of the international criticism drawn down on the heads of the Asquith government for the methods used to deal with the leaders of the rising (a system amounting to virtual drumhead courts martial) could be deflected by a robust and open prosecution of Casement. 

There was, however, an unfortunate corollary embedded in the governmental logic. Their forum for the ex post facto validation of General Sir John Maxwell and the Dublin executions, would also become Casement’s platform for the justification of the rising and the lionization of its leaders. If they had looked back to the trial of Robert Emmet in Dublin in 1803 they could have been forewarned. Just because the result of both was a foregone conclusion did not mean they would not have to share the propaganda value of a public trial process.    

GEORGE GAVAN DUFFY

Casement’s defence was organized by George Gavan Duffy. Duffy was a successful London solicitor, the son of the Young Ireland leader, Charles Gavan Duffy. The Casement trial would prompt him to abandon his London legal practice and become a Sinn Fein MP in 1918. Gavan Duffy, with some difficulty, managed to engage the services of Serjeant A.M.Sullivan (the son of the former owner of the Nation newspaper, A.M.Sullivan) to defend Casement. No senior British-based barrister would take the brief.

Sullivan was a Crown law officer in Ireland but had been called to the English Bar and was, therefore, entitled to plead at the Old Bailey. Casement’s desire was to conduct a defence based on an acceptance of the facts of the case. However, he would emphatically deny that he was guilty of treason on foot of those facts. His contention would be that his loyalty was to an Irish republic not to the English Crown.  

Sullivan, however, persuaded, or browbeat, his client into a more reductive line of defence. Casement was to be tried under the same treason statute—of the medieval King Edward III—as Robert Emmet had been. 

This held that the crime of treason had been committed ‘if a man be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm’. Sullivan would contend that Casement, in his dealings with the Germans, had not threatened the King in his own realm. There was a hopeful precedent in the case of Colonel Arthur Lynch. Lynch had been a leader of the Irish Brigade during the Boer War. A similar defence had been entered in his case but he had been convicted and sentenced to death. Lynch, however, had been reprieved. Sullivan was hoping for similar treatment for Casement.  

But there was another reason for acceding to Sullivan’s insistence that his line of defence be adopted. Casement, famously, had recorded many of his homosexual exploits in a series of notebooks. These were in the possession of the prosecution. Adopting Sullivan’s defence strategy, a plea based on a technicality and on legal argument, would not allow the prosecution to introduce the diaries in evidence. Prodigious use was made of the ‘Black Diaries’ covertly, both before and after the trial, but they were not produced in the Old Bailey. However, much like Robert Emmet’s letters to Sarah Curran in 1803 they were allowed to hang in the air above the proceedings. In the case of Emmet the threat was that Sarah Curran would be prosecuted if he challenged the Crown’s evidence against him.   

Casement’s trial opened on 26 June. Leading for the Prosecution was Sir Frederick Smith (formerly F.E. Smith) successor to Sir Edward Carson as Attorney General. 

Witnesses were called who had been prisoners of war in the German camps from which Casement had hoped to recruit his Irish Brigade. All identified him but also acknowledged that they had been told that they would not be fighting for Germany but for Ireland. A number of witnesses identified Casement as having landed on Banna Strand. 

After the prosecution case concluded Sullivan rose to enter a motion to have the indictment quashed. He argued that the allegation of treason was bad in law and that in order to secure a conviction it was essential that Casement should have been in the King’s realm when he attempted to persuade the Irish POWs to change allegiance.

The judges ruled otherwise. They held that a treasonable offence committed by one of His Majesty’s subjects was liable to trial under Common Law wherever that offence was committed. Sullivan’s strategy, unpromising from the outset, was now in tatters. 

Sullivan’s address to the jury, in the light of the failure of his own defence strategy, now pivoted towards the defence originally advocated by his client, i.e. that he owed his loyalty to an Irish Republic and not the British Crown, so that he could not be guilty of treason. 

In his own concluding remarks F.E.Smith reiterated the Crown’s allegation that ‘German gold’ was behind the rebellion [already denied by both Pearse and Casement] and concluded: 

If those facts taken together, his journey to Germany, his speeches when in Germany, the inducements he held out to these soldiers, the freedom which he there enjoyed, the cause which he pursued in Ireland . . . satisfy you of his guilt, you must give expression to that view in your verdict.

The direction by the Lord Chief Justice [Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading] to the jury left them with little alternative but to convict Casement. The jury took less than an hour to find Casement guilty of treason.

Casement now took advantage of the opportunity that had been denied Pearse, MacDonagh and Connolly and the other leaders of the rebellion, to offer an explanation of the objectives of the leadership of the Easter rising. His peroration was, arguably, the finest republican valedictory since that of Emmet more than a century before. He concluded …

Ireland is treated today among the nations of the world as if she were a convicted criminal. If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. 

A failed appeal delayed Casement’s execution and allowed a head of steam to build up behind a campaign to have him reprieved. It was during this period that tactical use was made of the Black Diaries in order to influence newspaper coverage against Casement and dampen the enthusiasm of actual and potential supporters (such as John Redmond and George Bernard Shaw)

Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on 3 August, 1916. As with the other leaders of the Easter rising, his body was buried in quicklime in the prison cemetery. In 1965, a year before the country commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the rising, Casment’s body was repatriated and interred in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. He was afforded a state funeral that was attended by President Eamon de Valera, the last surviving commandant of Easter Week. 

Trump can’t hack a postal ballot – but, then again, neither can Russia.

To post or not to post?

There’s a moment in the Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane when the main character, Charles Foster Kane— based on the newspaper and business tycoon William Randolph Hearst—is running for election as governor of New York. The editor of his New York daily has prepared two early editions, one of which will appear the morning after the result of the election is announced. One reads ‘KANE ELECTED’ the other reads ‘FRAUD AT THE POLLS’. With a long face he is forced to go with the latter when Kane loses (so did Hearst, in 1906). 

It appears from his tweet today—the one about the possibility of postponing the November Presidential election, not the 87 other ones—(this was written before midnight so that figure might no longer be accurate!)—that President Donald J. Trump is of a similar mindset. Either he will defeat Joe Biden in November, or he will have been the victim of massive electoral fraud, most of it coming via mail ballots.

So, what does history tell us about a) the postponement of a US Presidential election and b) US electoral fraud.

The first thing to be reiterated is that the President cannot release his inner spider yet again and sign another Executive Order to postpone/cancel/exclude/deport/pardon a Presidential election. He may be able to rename Mars as Planet Trump (I’m not sure if that actually happened but I saw it on Twitter) but according to Article 2 Clause 4 of something called the United States Constitution (apparently we have one too, but the UK hasn’t gotten around to it yet) … 

‘The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.’

Americans seem to have adopted the standardised spelling of ‘choosing’ since the 18th century, so it’s probably only a matter of time before they overcome their loathing of the letter ‘U’ and begin to spell ‘labour’ ‘flavour’ and ‘savour’ properly as well. 

As to the date, the American election has not always taken place on the first Tuesday after the 1 November. That practice began on 7 November 1848  when the USA staged the first national election that was held on the same day in every state. Zachary Taylor became President. (Me neither!) The 1848 election date was based on a snappily titled 1845 law – ‘An act to establish a uniform time for holding elections of electors of President and Vice President in all the states of the Union’ which did exactly what it said on the tin and settled on ‘the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November’. That is the way it was been ever since.  

Any change would require an amendment to that act, approved by both Houses of Congress. To the Democrats, who have a majority in the House of  Representatives, it is an non-runner, dead duck, non-starter, ‘just ain’t gonna happen’ –  and even Republicans in the Senate have no stomach for such a move. Trump Enabler in Chief, Mitch McConnell has described the date as ‘set in stone’[1]

And even if it was postponed when would the USA go for a reset? No election (bar the first in 1788) has failed to take place in the final full year of a presidential term. This is not the Olympic games. Any postponement beyond the end of December would require a constitutional amendment. This would have to be ratified by 38 of 50 states!  If you’ve been watching Mrs. America on the BBC you’ll have some idea how difficult it is to pass a constitutional amendment. (Spoiler Alert – I’ve probably just given away the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment was never enshrined in the US Constitution. Oops! Sorry).  

And it’s not as if American Presidential elections haven’t gone ahead in spite of a few minor difficulties!

In 1812 James Madison and DeWitt Clinton had to face the electorate despite the USA being in the middle of a war with their former colonisers, the British. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln had to fight an election against one of his former Generals, George McClellan even though the Civil War was still raging.

Lincoln and McClellan in more convivial times

According to Michael Burlingame, Professor emeritus of History, Connecticut College:

‘No other democratic nation had ever conducted a national election during times of war. And while there was some talk of postponing the election, it was never given serious consideration, even when Lincoln thought that he would lose.’[2]  Lincoln’s chances weren’t helped by a rebellion in his own party that threw up a charismatic third candidate in John C. Fremont. But the Lincoln Project was ultimately successful (fnarr, fnarr!)

Not to mention the fact that FDR was re-elected, for the seventeenth time, in 1944 during a global conflict. 

Then there is the mail / absentee voting issue.

Is voting by mail more liable to produce a fraudulent result? Well, nearly 1 in 4 voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way, and Trump won (albeit losing the popular vote by a narrow 3,000,000 margin). Being permitted to post off your ballot in October or November, rather than appearing in person to pull the lever, would make it less likely that electors would be required to die for their country, of Covid-19. It would also be more difficult for Cozy Bears, APT29 or whatever those talented Russian hackers are calling themselves now, to game the system. Not even Vladimir Putin is patient enough to stand over every postal voter and steal their ballot. 

They’ve been voting by mail in Oregon since 1998 and out of over 15 million ballots cast the conservative Heritage Foundation detected fourteen cases of fraud.[3] That’s a rate of .0000009%. A study that was funded by by those celebrated bastions of Marxist/Leninism, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, found an “infinitesimal” number of fraud cases in elections between 2000 and 2012. They detected a total of 2,068 illicit ballots cast, amounting to one in every 15 million eligible voters.[4] And those were not all mail-in voters, some of the fraud took place at election booths. 

If about 150,000,000 Americans vote on 3 November that’s a potential incidence of around 10 fraudulent ballots nationwide. I’m sure the Democrats would be happy to ease President Trump’s mind by giving him a ten vote start? He can even take them all in Wisconsin or Minnesota if that helps.

BTW – President Trump himself voted by mail during New York City’s mayoral election in 2017. He cast an absentee ballot the following year, and again used a mail ballot in Florida’s primary election in 2020.[5] What’s that old saw about sauce, goose and ganders again? So, unless Democratic members of the House of Representatives are accidentally locked in a broom cupboard before a vote on electoral postponement, the poll will proceed as planned on 3 November. 

Incidentally, the last time a Presidential election was held on 3 November was 1988, when a Republican incumbent (George H.W. Bush) was defeated after serving a single term in the White House. Just sayin’ 

Caveat – all sources cited here are, of course, fake news outlets, like Snopes.com, Reuters and NPR. So, you can safely take it all with a pinch of salt. 


[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/07/30/897111969/trump-floats-delaying-the-election-it-would-require-a-change-in-law

[2] https://millercenter.org/president/lincoln/campaigns-and-elections

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-vote-by-mail-explainer-idUSKBN2482SA

[4] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/mail-in-ballot-voter-fraud/

[5] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/mail-in-ballot-voter-fraud/

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid agus Mná na hÉireann.

An unidentified Irish Head of State kneels before Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Proper order!

Abject apologies for missing the 125th birthday of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid yesterday. 

Here was a distinguished clergyman who might have been imported directly from the Spanish Inquisition to administer his particular brand of religious certitude on an Ireland whose abject politicians were only too willing to kiss his ring. (See photo above lest there be any doubt on that score)

McQuaid was a cleric who liked women to know they were welcome in his church, as long as they restricted their activities to making the sangitches and changing the flowers on the altar every week.

Mind you, Ireland has never lacked for misogynistic Archbishops of Dublin. Cardinal Cullen, in the 1870s tried to force the administration to withdraw scholarships and prizes based on examination results from female second level students. He was supported in this by Irish MPs. It was British MPs who ensured that Irish girls would continue to benefit from their hard work in preparing for exams.

His successor, Cardinal MacCabe —an Irish churchman much beloved of Dublin Castle—went through multiple phases of apoplexy at the sight of women attending Land League meetings and, holy horror of horrors, making platform speeches.  In a pastoral letter to his archdiocesan clergy he advised them:

‘Very reverend dear fathers, set your faces against this dishonouring     attempt, and do not tolerate in your sodalities the woman who so far disavows her birthright of modesty as to parade herself before the       public gaze in a character so unworthy of a child of Mary.’

 But, of course, the Daddy of them all when it came to clerical misogyny was the Ayatollah himself, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (sadly he was denied a ‘red hat’ despite his sterling work on behalf of sixteenth century values). We don’t even need to grapple with the celebrated controversy over Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme to bathe Dev’s favourite Archbishop and Constitutional Consultant in the cold light of female repression. Or even his role in the insertion of the infamous Article 41.2.1 in de Valera’s 1937 Constitution. (Just in case you need reminding about that one it went something like this …

‘In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ 

That’s all big politics. Let’s focus on the really petty stuff instead.

Take, for example, how he took issue, in 1934, with the notion of girls and women being allowed to compete in athletics. In 1928 women had been admitted to the Olympic Games for the first time but McQuaid came from the same school as the founder of the modern Olympiad, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that ‘women have but one task [in the Olympics] that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands’. 

Not even for 11″ or so were women to be allowed compete in the national championships.

In 1934 the National Athletic and Cycling Association [grandparent of Athletics Ireland] was contemplating adding a women’s 100 yards dash to the national championships. McQuaid, then president of Blackrock College, (apparently this is an all-male rugby playing establishment somewhere in south Dublin) wrote a letter on the subject to the Irish Press newspaper on 24 February 1934 in which he observed that: ‘Mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist.’

He then proceeded to invoke one of only two superior beings whom he acknowledged, by pointing out that ‘God is not modern; nor is his Law’. Women who sought to compete athletically in the vicinity of men were ‘un-Irish and un-Catholic’, and the entire phenomenon was a ‘social abuse’.  He concluded by quoting from the only other superior being he recognised, the Pope (the one who never gave him a ‘red hat’), who was, apparently, of the opinion that: 

 ‘…in athletic sports and exercises, wherein the Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded … it is supremely unbecoming that they flaunt themselves and display themselves before the eyes of all.’

So that was pretty conclusive, God, the Pope and John Charles were on the same side. The NACA decided not to include female athletes … even over 100 yards. To their eternal shame the Irish Camogie Association supported McQuaid, although that may have been not unconnected with the fact that its secretary was a man. Sean O’Duffy—who was apparently not related to Ireland’s leading Fascist Eoin O’Duffy—promised that the Camogie Association:

‘…would do all in its power to ensure that no girl would appear on any          sports ground in a costume to which any exception could be taken. If      they remained Irish in the ordinary acception of the word they could not       go wrong.’

Apparently the word ‘acception’ means ‘acceptation’ or ‘received meaning’. No, me neither!

Not until 1956 did Maeve Kyle become Ireland’s first female athletics competitor at the Olympics. It probably helped that she was a Northern Protestant and, consequently, beyond redemption.  

Maeve Kyle – avert your gaze Archbish!

Ten years later, having left Blackrock College, McQuaid was now Archbishop of Dublin with responsibility for all the clergy of the diocese, so, clearly, no longer associated with an institution dominated by testosterone. But he was still obsessed with female modesty, and in 1944 his attention had shifted from athletics to cycling – as in the menstrual cycles of women. In a letter to the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health he shared his anguish about:

‘…the evidence concerning the use of internal sanitary tampons, in       particular, that are called Tampax. On the medical evidence made available,          the bishops very strongly disapprove of the use of these appliances, more particularly in the case of unmarried persons.’

Now, in fairness to the Archbishop, in using the words ‘unmarried persons’ he was obviously expressing concerns in relation to men who used tampons as well as women.  One wonders had his eminence mistaken Tampax for Durex, both, after all, were highly sexualised products with the suspect letter ‘x’ in their names? 

Or was his anxiety based on the fear that the tampon might, in addition to its medicinal / physiological purpose, be used by women in pursuit of sexual stimulation. Sexual pleasure and gratification was after all:  

         a) in the gift of men only.  

         b) an unfortunate (if unlikely) pre-requisite for the production of children. 

         c) never willingly experienced by truly Catholic women.

Staying with sport, the Archbishop was also concerned about the dangers of hockey for women – he feared that the frequent twisting movements would lead to infertility, or what he called ‘hockey parturition’. Female hockey players might conceivably—ok, pun intended—find themselves unable to perform the main function appropriate to their gender, i.e. reproduction. The sport of lacrosse, which he believed, for some baffling reason, to involve less midriff action, was encouraged in Roman Catholic girls’ schools in the Dublin archdiocese. The fact that lacrosse had originated among Native Americans using the heads of defeated opponents did not seem to occur to him as making it in any way unsuitable. 

Lacrosse – far less midriff twisty than hockey, apparently

Belated happy 125th JC! No returns please. 

Lily Mernin – Collins’s ‘Mata Hari’ in Dublin Castle – the espionage work of ‘The Little Gentleman’

Lily Mernin – aka ‘The Little Gentleman’

To accompany tonight’s History Show programme on ‘Women in the War of Independence’ below are contextualised extracts from Lily Mernin’s Bureau of Military History Witness Statement about her espionage activities on behalf of Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins during the War of Independence.

LILY MERNIN – INTELLIGENCE AGENT, DUBLIN CASTLE

BMH WS #441 

From 1914-1922 Lily Mernin, a cousin of leading IRA propagandist, Piaras Beaslai, was employed as a typist in the Dublin District Garrison Adjutant’s office in the Lower Castle Yard. When Beaslai became aware of the precise nature of her work he spoke to Michael Collins about her. In 1918 Mernin met Collins for the first time. 

Piaras Beaslai brought him to my home and introduced him to me as a Mr. Brennan. I did not know he was Collins at the time. He asked  me would I be willing to pass out to him any information that might be of value which I would come across in my ordinary day’s work. I remembered he produced letters that he had intercepted concerning some of the typists and officers in the Castle, and things that were happening generally. I cannot remember exactly what they were. I promised to give him all the assistance that I possibly could. 

            The garrison adjutant for Ship St. barracks and Dublin District at the time was Major Stratford Burton. The work that he gave me to do was connected with Volunteer activities generally and, in addition, court martial proceedings on Volunteers was also given me to type. These dealt with the strength of the various military posts throughout Dublin district. Each week I prepared a carbon or typed copy, whichever I was able to get. Sometimes I would bring these to the office placed at my disposal at Captain Moynihan’s house, Clonliffe Road. He had a typewriter there and I typed several copies of the strength returns and any other correspondence which I may have brought with me that I thought would be of use. I left them on the machine and they were collected by some person whom I did not know. I had a latch key for the house and nobody knew when I came or went.  It was arranged for me that if I had anything special requiring urgent delivery to the Intelligence staff that I would deliver it at Vaughan’s [Hotel] between certain hours and/or Maire ni Raghallaigh’s bookshop , Dorset St. and Captain Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road. Another place where I left messages was at Collins’s shop Parnell St, the number I cannot remember.

            I cannot recollect the exact nature of the letters and correspondence that I passed to the Intelligence staff. All I can say is that, in general, they dealt with the movement of troops, provisions for armoured trains or cars, and instructions and circulars to military units from GHQ.

Mernin proved extremely useful to Collins when it came to the identification of the Dublin accommodation of British agents, information that was to prove crucial to the assassinations on Bloody Sunday, 21st November, 1920.

Before the 21st November 1920, it was part of my normal duty to type the names and addresses of British agents who were accommodated at private addresses and living as ordinary citizens in the city. These lists were typed weekly and amended whenever an address was changed. I passed them on each week either to the address at Moynihan’s, Clonliffe Road or to Piaras Beaslai. The typing of the lists ceased after the 21stNovember 1920.

Apart altogether from using her access to written information Mernin, from time to time, was in a position to pass on useful office gossip to Collins.

There was a girl in the office who was the daughter of Superintendent Dunne of Dublin Castle. When he resigned she moved out of Dublin Castle to an address in Mount Street. Stopping at the same address were a number of men. Every morning she would come into the office she would tell us about them, she was puzzled to know who they were. Her brother also resided there with her and, apparently, he used to mix with them, and he discussed their conversation with her. She would report this conversation to us when she would come into the office in the morning. There was one fellow there by the name of McMahon who was very addicted to drink. While under the influence of drink he was, I believe, liable to talk a lot, and, mainly, his conversation concerned raids and arrests of ‘wanted’ IRA men. Whatever tit-bits of information that I could glean from Miss Lil Dunne I immediately passed it on to the Intelligence section. Suspicion was thrown in my direction one morning when Miss Dunne entered the office and excitedly said that her brother had been missing and that she thought he was held by the IRA, that somebody in the office had been giving information to the IRA concerning the conversation we had in the office about McMahon and Peel, British agents, who were lodging in the same house with her in Mount Street. However, I found myself in a predicament, but I remained cool and calm and bluffed my way out of it and said: “Who could be a spy?” and put the blame on her brother for talking too much. Sometime later the position was eased when Miss Dunne took ill and never again returned to Dublin Castle. All this information was, of course, passed on to the IRA Intelligence prior to the 21st November 1920.

            After 21st November 1920, a number of British intelligence officers were drafted into Dublin Castle. A [4] new department was opened up in the Upper Castle Yard. My work did not bring me in contact with this department. I was asked by the IRA Intelligence Squad to get what information I could about the movements of these officers. These were mainly descriptive particulars for the purpose of identification, where they resided, and where they frequented, also the registration numbers of the motor cars used by them.

            These Intelligence officers used come into our office. The three girls of the staff were curious to know who they were. Some of the girls would ask “Who was so-and-so that came in?” In this way, we got to know the names of the various Intelligence officers. Some of the girls in the office were very friendly with them and used to go around with them. General conversation would give a lot of information concerning their whereabouts, things that were said, etc. Any information obtained was immediately passed by me to IRA Intelligence.

            On various occasions I was requested by members of the Intelligence Squad to assist them in the identity of enemy agents. I remember the first occasion on which I took part in this work was with the late Tom Cullen in 1919. Piaras Beaslai asked me to meet a young man who would be waiting at O’Raghallaigh’s bookshop in Dorset St and to accompany him to Lansdowne Road. I met this man, whom I later learned was Tom Cullen, and went with him to a football match at Lansdowne Road. He asked me to point out to him and give him the names of any British military officers who frequented Dublin Castle and GHQ. I was able to point out a few military officers to him whom I knew.

            When I  got to know the Auxiliaries better, I accompanied Frank Saurin (then known as Mr. Stanley) to various cafes where I identified for him some of the Auxiliaries whom I knew.

A footnote. The ‘Lil Dunne’ in question was a great aunt of the novelist Sebastian Barry, she is the main character in his novel On Canaan’s Side. Lily Mernin, who was referred to by Collins only as ‘the little gentleman’ also had social access to Auxiliary policemen based in Dublin Castle, members of the notorious ‘F’ company.

The Auxiliaries organised smoking concerts and whist drives in the Lower Castle Yard. I was encouraged by Frank Saurin, a member of the Intelligence Squad, to give all the assistance I could in the organisation of these whist drives for the sole purpose of getting to know the Auxiliaries and finding out all I possibly could about them. Frank Saurin had arranged with me that should any of the Auxiliaries see myself or any of the girls of the Castle home, he would have members of his squad hanging around Dublin Castle to identify them. However the Auxiliaries never did come past the Castle gate.

            On one occasion I asked Frank for a reliable girl, whom I could trust, who would come along to the whist drives with me, to enable her to get to know these Auxiliaries and so prove a further source of identification. He sent along Miss Sally McCasey, who is now his wife. She did her work very well. She had a very charming manner and struck up a friendship quite freely.

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On at least one occasion Mernin brought the kind of intelligence to her relative, Piaras Beaslai, that he did not want to hear.

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One day a Sergeant from British Intelligence came into my office, carrying a lot of magazines – as I thought – bound together. I asked him what they were and he told me they were copies of “An tOglach” and would not part with them for five hundred pounds, as they were very valuable to them. I reported this to Piaras Beaslai the same night, not knowing he was the editor of “An tOglach” and wondered why he became so alarmed about it. I got the impression that some member of the IRA had been playing a double game. 

Mernin with her cousin Piaras Beaslaí