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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 16, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Double Life in ‘Emergency’ Ireland

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Interested in getting reaction to this book-review by yours truly which appeared in last Saturday’s print edition of The Irish Times. It’s an intriguing subject that’s full of intrigue.

    Trouble on the double



    Sat, Dec 11, 2010 

    The Devil’s Deal: The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O’Donovan By David O’Donoghue New Island, 334pp. €18.99 

    THERE IS A Seán O’Faolain story based on his experiences in the War of Independence. Two old men are reminiscing about their flying-column days. “We were like angels,” says one, and the other responds, “With flaming swords.” O’Faolain went from being a freedom fighter to a short-story writer. Jim (Seamus) O’Donovan, a more senior bomb maker, became chief linkman between the IRA and Nazi Germany and architect of a misbegotten campaign of attacks in English cities.

    O’Donovan’s activities in fact constituted a threat to the security and well-being of the nation whose cause he claimed to espouse. The philosopher Spinoza said we should neither weep nor wax indignant but seek to understand. This is all the more important as the spirit of Jim O’Donovan is still alive today, on our own island and wherever bombs are planted as a substitute for dialogue.

    David O’Donoghue has done us all a service in bringing this little-known but significant figure to life, drawing on O’Donovan’s unpublished memoirs to combine academic rigour with a racy, readable narrative.

    As a science student at University College Dublin O’Donovan was recruited to the burgeoning guerrilla movement, where his expertise with explosives propelled him to senior rank. In the process he lost a couple of fingers in a premature blast.

    Leo Whelan’s famous group portrait of the leadership of the Old IRA in 1921 features a youthful O’Donovan as “director of chemicals”, alongside such figures as Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Eoin O’Duffy and Sean Russell. O’Donovan could not go along with the compromises accepted by Collins and Mulcahy and was jailed during the Civil War. His prison-cell poem on the death of the anti-Treaty commander Liam Lynch is religious in its devotion, beginning as follows: “Heroes – now one more has left us. / Jesu! We do feel the loss / With great bitterness.”

    Many of his former comrades emigrated to the US, but O’Donovan stayed and eventually secured a middle-management position with the Electricity Supply Board. It was a minor miracle that he obtained and held on to that job until his retirement, in 1962, despite being interned for two years during the “Emergency”.

    Being married to a sister of the republican martyr Kevin Barry and having other relatives in the ESB and at the top of the civil service probably helped. He shielded his clandestine activities with a facade of bourgeois respectability and an impressive house in south Dublin.

    Using a variety of pen-names, he edited and published Ireland Today, a literary journal that appeared in the years 1936-8, gave a voice to a wide range of political opinion and, strangely enough, took a supportive attitude to the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. In the summer of 1938 his old GHQ associate Sean Russell, now the IRA’s chief of staff, asked him to draw up a plan for a bombing campaign against installations and public utilities in England. By December 1938 the “S-plan” was ready. Carried as an appendix to this book, it ran to 17 typed pages.

    The initial wave of bombings was launched on January 16th, 1939. The campaign attracted the attention of the Nazis, and in subsequent months O’Donovan made four trips to the Continent to meet Abwehr (German intelligence) agents in Brussels, Hamburg and Berlin.

    Within days of returning home from his final visit, in August, an IRA bomb exploded in the centre of Coventry, killing five people and injuring 72. Peter Barnes from Co Offaly and Frank Richards from Mullingar were subsequently hanged at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.

    The Cork republican who is named as having actually planted the bomb escaped on the boat from Holyhead and died in the 1980s. The author also tells us that the head of the IRA in the English midlands, including Coventry, at the time was the late Dominic Adams, an uncle of Gerry Adams. The S-plan was wound up in March 1940, having killed seven members of the public and injured hundreds.

    On May 5th, 1940, the Nazi agent Hermann Goertz parachuted into Ireland and was sheltered by O’Donovan in his Shankill home. Goertz remained at large for 18 months until his arrest in Clontarf on November 12th, 1941.

    O’Donovan was interned shortly afterwards and passed on his knowledge of explosives to a new generation of IRA members. In that sense his legacy is still with us. After his release in 1943 he never played an active role in the IRA again.

    O’Donovan died in a nursing home in Dalkey, Co Dublin, in June 1979 at the ripe age of 82. His son Donal O’Donovan (1928-2009) was a senior journalist with The Irish Times who later became a prominent Fianna Fáil activist in Wicklow.

    Nationalism is a potent but contradictory force. At its best, when Irish peacekeepers are holding the line on a United Nations mission or an Irish diplomat pushes through a peace deal between two warring communities, it is a positive and life-enhancing phenomenon. But there is also a dark side that manifests itself when the perceived needs of the Irish people are placed above the welfare of humanity in general, and this book is an important case study in that regard.

    Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish Times Political Correspondent and the author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland 

    © 2010 The Irish Times


    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      I like the last paragraph of this review especially the phrase “there is also a dark side that manifests itself when the perceived needs of the Irish people are placed above the welfare of humanity in general”

      If the world does not move beyond nationalism in the 21st century we are a doomed species. Like any small village the global village cannot survive if it is full of feuding families and no-go areas. 19th/20th century nationalism may have suited that era but not this one. Clouds, water, tsunamis, disease, do not respect borders and travel and technology has now made our species borderless too. The challenge is now how to move beyond nationalism.

      This is in no way to decry a political framework which suited its times. But to survive we must be very careful not to become a prisoner of that past. Now the new national anthem must be “Think global, act local”



    • robespierre says:

      Sounds like an interesting read. I have always abhorred Sinn Féin and the IRA and their roles in our national story post-1922.

      The clandestinism is interesting in the context of how reluctant Eamon Gilmore is to admit to his membership of Official Sinn Fein down in NUI Galway in the 1970s. Not likely to go down very well in the wider Kingstown area.

      I have studied the internments in the Curragh during WWII and de Valera’s ultimate role in ordering the hangings of I think about 7 IRA members who had variously tried to blow up bridges and other pieces of infrastructure.

      I think you have tried to point out how in the round, people like O’Donovan, could still fit into a bourgeois society that was more diverse than hindsight often seems to indicate. There were two Labour parties, several independents, a strong Fabian society, a pro-Commonwealth party and an isolationist party among others. The culture may have been fairly homogenous but it was not devoid of views.

      The main trends in Europe at this time were nationalism vs. imperialism, democracy vs. dictatorship, republicanism vs. monarchy and capitalism vs. communism. In many cases these struggles were multi-stranded but by the time O’Donovan was active in England we had already chosen a nationalist, capitalist democracy and had rejected monarchy.

      You quote Spinoza who of course is so well known for his civilising work “L’Éthique”. An earlier philosopher, Aristotle, stated in Nicomachean Ethics that to exist outside the rules agreed by the citizens you had to either be a god or a monster. In truth, to do what he did in Coventry he must have had some of the deluded certainty of the former and the destructive recklessness of the latter.

    • cruton says:

      its an interesting review, full of interest!

    • That’s a good, thoughtful response, Robespierre.

      NOTE TO ‘RUBY’: You keep sending nasty, personalised comments but until you apologise and withdraw your outrageous allegation of lying on the Gerry Ryan cocaine-use issue, I shall not consider approving them and you are just wasting your time.

    • Paul Moran says:

      I have spent my life listening to the holocaust denial from some black strands of southern Irish nationalism, it is time to let it go. Hitler was evil, was found out – view saving private ryan once a month and lets be more mature. Vote FG.

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