Trouble on the double


HISTORY: The Devil’s Deal: The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O’DonovanBy 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- olumn 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has done us all a service in bringing this little-known but significant figure to life, drawing on O’Donovan’s unpublished memoirs to combine academic rigour with a racy, readable narrative.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 TimesPolitical Correspondent and the author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland