Did Germany’s spies like us ?

Research for a thriller set in 1940s Ireland revealed an influx of German agents who despaired about their gossipy, amateurish Irish sympathisers

Taking aim: An Irish Army soldier, wearing a German-style helmet, trains in 1939. Photograph: Keystone/Getty

Getting up the noses of the Germans seems to come easily to us. The Anglo Irish Bank man's sardonic bar of Deutschland Über Alles and the football fans smirking with their Angela Merkel Thinks We're at Work banner may not have realised it, but they're in a long tradition of Irishmen who managed to casually irritate Germans.

Take the German spies who spent time at liberty in Ireland during the second World War. They were not greatly enamoured with what they found, a view summed up in this succinct comment by an Irish intelligence report on a suspected German spy called Werner Unland: "He has all the average German's contempt for, and impatience with, Ireland."

Depicted in the report as “an elderly pagan” because of his active love life, Unland was in all other respects less like Ian Fleming’s James Bond and more like Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. After arriving here before the outbreak of war, he ostensibly ran an import-export business but appeared to do little other than communicate with women and write letters about nonexistent contacts. He was eventually locked up but successfully sued a British newspaper after the war for describing him as a German spy.

The most important German spy to operate in Ireland during the Emergency, Hermann Görtz, also proved to be attractive to Irish women: a large number of them, mainly on the fringes of the republican movement, sheltered him throughout his 18 months at liberty.


A Luftwaffe pilot during the first World War and a lawyer who was jailed in England for spying on RAF bases in the 1930s, Görtz was quickly disillusioned with the backbiting, scheming and feuding of those he encountered here.

Parachuted into Ireland in the early summer of 1940 to contact the IRA, he was dropped off course in Co Meath and lost his radio. He walked to the home of one of his main contacts, Iseult Stuart, wife of the writer and then Berlin broadcaster Francis Stuart, and half-sister of Seán MacBride, in Laragh, Co Wicklow. He was later forced to flee from a Garda raid on her house.

Görtz was taken away by an IRA man who apparently warned him against Iseult Stuart in the first of a series of mutual suspicions with which he was surrounded.

In a document he typed for the G2 intelligence section of the defence forces after his capture he wrote: “I had here the first prove of that hot and whispering atmosphere of Dublin which I utterly disliked.”

He was much more explicit in a letter to an Irish friend that was found on him at the time of his capture and a typed copy of which is filed in the Military Archives. “A fog of distrust surrounds me all the time,” he wrote. “I have not one friend who has not been suspected by another friend of mine, all in good faith. That is disheartening . . . I have never given way to such suspicions, but this mutual distrust has continuously hampered all constructive work. I do not need to give names you know enough.”

He went on to list a series of complaints about the Irish: “Lack of secrecy. Whenever I need a chain of communication, it leaked out what was planned. Again the leakage was in good faith but the result was disastrous. I am loyal to my friends but sometimes it is absolutely necessary that they get not informed as long as the action is pending.

“Timidity, I know that thousands are willing to die for Ireland, but very few dare to think bold. A hired taxi, four men in it with seven rounds in a not functioning machine gun, that is the way they think that they can fight England. That is very sad. But outside a national movement is growing everywhere. It could so easy become a flame. But they are as timid as the masses in their imagination. Four men in a taxi – that is all. The ideologie of the Civil War.”

Instead, he suggested, the IRA should make peace with the government: “Fight the English in occupied Ireland, make formal peace with the government in Éire, fill the ranks of the army with national fighting spirit, shake friends and neighbours and tell them what’s going on. That Ireland’s destiny is at stake. Give up the insularity – either Anglo-sasana or Part of Europe. But they do not see it – four men in a taxi.

Görtz had been trying to withdraw from Ireland and get back to Germany for almost 15 months. Several plans to find a boat to get him to German-occupied Brittany fell through, as did IRA promises to provide a radio that could communicate with his headquarters.

Severe pressure
Undoubtedly, the "hot and whispering atmosphere" of which Görtz complained was made worse by the state of the IRA at the time. Under severe pressure from Éamon de Valera's government, it was riven by internal disputes, leading to the court martial of its own chief of staff, Stephen Hayes, as a Garda informant and his subsequent escape from his erstwhile colleagues.

Nevertheless, it was totally on the side of Germany, drawing up its “Plan Kathleen” for an invasion of Northern Ireland in early 1940 by German parachutists who would be joined by IRA columns crossing the Border from the South. It also provided damage reports of the German bombings of Belfast in April and May 1941, which killed more than 1,000 people, and maps showing Catholic areas of Belfast to be avoided by the bombers.

Plan Kathleen was militarily inept. At the time the Germans were in no position to fly paratroopers to Cos Fermanagh and Tyrone without suffering very heavy casualties en route from the RAF. The idea that Luftwaffe bombardiers could focus their bombs on Shankill Road rather than Falls Road showed an even higher level of wishful thinking.

The IRA was probably alone in wanting to bring the war to Irish soil. Few, if any, of those who hoped for either an Allied or an Axis victory shared that aim, and there is no doubt about the overwhelming support at the time for neutrality.

That did not mean that strong opinions were not held. Among them were those of the anti-partitionist Cardinal Joseph MacRory, who told a visiting group of American Catholic priests that a victory for the US and Britain would be worse for Christianity than a victory for Germany.

According to a letter from Joseph Walshe, secretary of the department of external affairs, informing the Irish ambassador in Washington, Robert Brennan, about the visit, MacRory went on: "He said he believed that Catholicism in Germany was strong enough to eliminate in time the doctrine of Nazism, but he was very much afraid of the effects on the world of Anglo-American materialistic humanitarianism.

“He told them that they could not expect Catholic people in the Six County area to have any sympathies for a crusade against Hitlerism if they themselves were suffering from a persecution which was at least as bad.”

Pragmatic self-interest
Our relations with Germany have often been based on pragmatic self-interest rather than a meeting of minds or cultures. Like the Easter Rising leaders who praised the Germans as "our gallant allies in Europe" in the 1916 Proclamation, the Emergency-era IRA was operating on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend. There were never the same ties with Germany as existed between nationalist Ireland and France. This was because of a common background in cultural Catholicism, France's centuries of wars with England and the emergence of republicanism after the French Revolution.

Yet in the years after independence, when there was an obvious reluctance to seek technical and other advice from Britain, “our gallant ally in Europe” continued to be Germany.

As a result many Germans were appointed to official positions in Ireland, from Col Fritz Brase, as the first head of the Army school of music, to Adolf Mahr, as director of the National Museum of Ireland * (and head of the Nazi Party in Ireland).

The most important infrastructural project of the period, the Shannon hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha, was overseen by Siemens, and the army wore German-style coal-scuttle helmets from 1927 until 1940. They were manufactured for it in England by the Vickers company, as German companies were prohibited under the Treaty of Versailles from making military equipment.

The affinity with France reasserted itself in the postwar decades, culminating in EEC membership thanks to a coalition of Francophiles, free-traders, farmers and feminists.

And so the threads of history go on weaving their fascinating fabrics and our humanitarian but anti-materialistic President has a French speechwriter, German politicians have a say in our budgets and those who argued a decade ago for the Berlin economic model over Boston’s now seek American-style policies in place of German-imposed austerity.

Echoland, by Joe Joyce, will be published by Liberties Press on Wednesday

* This article was amended on Monday, August 12th, 2013 to correct a factual error.