From spy to governor of Mountjoy

Sean Kavanagh went from espionage for Michael Collins to running Mountjoy

Sean Kavanagh (1897-1984), was a confidant of Michael Collins, commandant in the Free State army, and a governor of Mountjoy prison.

Sean Kavanagh (1897-1984), was a confidant of Michael Collins, commandant in the Free State army, and a governor of Mountjoy prison.


It was the possession of three letters in January 1921 that got Sean Kavanagh arrested by the Auxiliaries in Dublin’s Royal Exchange Hotel on Parliament Street.

Two years earlier, Sean, my grandfather, had moved from Waterford to Naas, Co Kildare, to teach Irish to adults for the Gaelic League. Before that he had been active in the league, Sinn Féin and the Volunteers so naturally he made early contact with some like-minded locals in Naas. He found out from them that a local RIC sergeant was sympathetic to the cause.

On a visit to Dublin he passed this on to his friend Michael Staines (later to be first Commissioner of the Garda Síochána). A week later Staines said that Michael Collins wanted to see him. Sean told Collins that the sergeant, Jerry Maher, was confidential clerk to the Inspector for Kildare and Carlow. This was of huge significance to Collins because he was anxious to get hold of the new code being used by the RIC for important telegrams. The county inspector, Kerry Supple, would have the code.

Collins instructed Sean to make contact with Maher and, typically, ordered him to say nothing of it to the local Sinn Féiners and Volunteers. Sean met Maher at least twice weekly from then on and the fruits of that (including the code) and contacts with other sources were reported back directly to Collins in Vaughan’s Hotel every Saturday night.

Collins communicated with Sean by letter, passed on by friendly Great Southern Railways staff in Kingsbridge and Sallins stations. But despite his efforts by January 1921 Sean was under suspicion by the RIC and had to go into hiding, mostly in a friend’s house in Ballymore Eustace from where he continued his intelligence work and his weekly trips to Vaughan’s.

On January 8th, Collins, for the first time, failed to keep his appointment. Sean decided to travel to Vaughan’s the following Saturday nevertheless and at Sallins station was given three letters.

Two of the letters, which as a lone operator he shouldn’t have been given, were from the adjutant general to local Kildare batalions. The third, addressed to “SK, Naas” was from Collins:

“Dear Sean,

I’m sorry I couldn’t turn up last Saturday night. Will you meet me on next Saturday at 8? – M”

Sean didn’t read the letters on the train as it was too crowded. He waited until that afternoon when he was having lunch in a quiet dining room of the Royal Exchange Hotel. Unfortunately, he had been spotted in Kingsbridge by a Black and Tan and followed. Two Auxiliaries arrested him.

He was brought to Dublin Castle where he was interrogated only about the “M” letter because they were convinced it was from Collins. Questioning, body-blows and hair-pulling continued for two hours but he held out.

Fortunately his interrogators, Major King, OC of F Company Auxiliaries, and the notorious Capt Hardy, decided that the meeting at eight described in the letter would be in the Royal Exchange. They brought Sean back and made him stand alone at the hotel entrance with Auxiliaries in mufti in the hotel and on both sides of the street. But Collins, who was waiting in Vaughan’s, never showed up.

Sean was hauled off to Kilmainham and from there to Mountjoy, hand-cuffed to Rory O’Connor. The charge sheet accused Sean of “having in his possession . . . a seditious document namely a report headed Óglaigh na hÉireann containing statements relating to road cutting” and another “relating to the affairs of the Irish Volunteers, an unlawful association”.

Two days earlier, Ernie O’Malley and two others had escaped from Kilmainham so the ground floor of Mountjoy’s Block C was turned into a fortress with Auxiliaries running it, not the usual prison warders.

Within a month, six of Sean’s fellow prisoners were executed for their alleged involvement in the Bloody Sunday killings. Sean received a 12-month sentence. Collins smuggled in a letter congratulating him on his “very light sentence”. In fact, he did just nine months, being released in December on the signing of the Treaty. On leaving, he told some (mostly hostile) warders that if the truce didn’t hold, he “would be back”.

Early in 1922 he joined the Free State Army. In August, with the rank of commandant, he was appointed governor of the Hare Park camp on the Curragh. Two years later, he left the army for the post of deputy governor of Mountjoy. He was “back”.

He served in other prisons but spent 28 years as governor of Mountjoy, detaining many former comrades (with some difficulty), supervising executions (with great difficulty) and teaching Irish to an enthusiastic Brendan Behan. Still the teacher.