Journalist and author who was a former chief of staff of the IRA


SEÁN CRONIN:SEÁN CRONIN, who has died in Maryland aged 91 after a long illness, was a meticulous man both as a journalist, eventually Irish TimesWashington correspondent, and, in earlier years as a leading figure in the IRA, briefly its chief of staff in the 1950s.

His attention to detail stemmed from his years as an officer in the Army’s Southern Command during the war years and from his journalism in the US.

The Army practice for officers, in his day, had been to arrive five minutes early for meetings with pencils sharpened at both ends so that no time might be lost in note-taking if the point on one side broke accidentally. This discipline carried over into his subversive activities and his precise time-keeping, in particular, distinguished him from the majority of IRA comrades at a time when many operations were haphazard in their execution.

In journalism, the US practice of double and triple checking facts, the intense examination of detail and the avoidance of plagiarism distinguished him from many contemporaries.

Seán Cronin was born in Dublin in 1920 but raised in Ballinskelligs in the south Kerry Gaeltacht. His father, Con Cronin, a veteran of the War of Independence, died when he was four, and his mother, Katie Goggin, worked as a cook in a boarding school.

His two sisters, raised by relatives, left Ireland during the second World War to work as nurses in England. Seán worked as a labourer for Kerry County Council on the roads, bogs and gravel pits until December 1941 when he joined the Army.

He moved to the US after leaving the Army, living in Chicago and New York between 1951 and 1955 with his first wife Terry Millen, and became associated with the republican Clan na Gael. He suggested to them that he was prepared to return to Ireland to join the IRA. In Dublin he joined the Evening Pressas a subeditor.

Despite military experience, he was accepted into the IRA as a mere volunteer and asked to undergo training designed for raw recruits. His trainers soon realised that his knowledge of military matters was far greater than theirs and he quickly made his way into the organisation’s inner circle becoming director of operations, editor of the United Irishman, and eventually chief of staff.

Popular with colleagues in the Evening Press, his resignation in 1957 from the paper on the pretext that he had obtained a commission from the US Scripps Howard chain, was greeted with regret. When Cronin was picked up by the police near Belturbet, Co Cavan, some days later, it became apparent, however, that his commission was hardly journalistic.

Cronin’s usual meticulous preparations had deserted him on this occasion and he was sentenced to three months in the Curragh for “failing to give an account of his movements, membership of an illegal organisation and possession of an incriminating document”.

The document, General Directive for Guerrilla Campaign, was described to the court as the “master plan” for the IRA’s so-called Border campaign, which petered out in 1962. It was essentially a series of Border raids though some action did take place in rural areas deep inside Northern Ireland. In 1960 he was again arrested, tried by military court and sentenced to six months’ jail.

The irony of the latter trial, he sometimes remarked, was that he had broken with the IRA months before his arrest because of the circulation of a false document suggesting that he was both a communist and an agent of the Army.

He returned to journalism, first in Ireland and later the US where he subsequently worked for the Newark Evening Newsand the Dow Jones News Service.

He was a US correspondent for The Irish Timesfrom the 1960s, covering the United Nations and US politics.

In 1980 he and his second wife Reva Rubenstein, a toxicologist, moved to Washington, DC. (His first wife Terry died in 1977.)

A prolific author with more than a dozen published works to his credit, his general erudition and special knowledge of Irish-America were of great benefit to The Irish Timesfollowing his formal appointment as Washington correspondent under the editorship of his old Army colleague, Douglas Gageby, in the late 1970s.

His books ranged from an early Sinn Féin pamphlet Resistanceunder the pseudonym of J McGarrity, to more voluminous and scholarly tomes.

He taught and studied for a doctorate in the New School for Social Research in New York during the 1970s, supervised by the distinguished scholar Hans Morgenthau.

The thesis became his major academic work, I rish Nationalism: A History of its Roots and Ideology.

Conor O’Clery, who took over from him as Washington correspondent in 1991, recalls him as “a hard act to follow. He had a rare gift as a commentator in that you could trust him to call it right.”

At a reception at the Irish Embassy in Washington some four years ago, Cronin was introduced to the Sinn Féin Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who turned to correspondent Denis Staunton with the words “do you realise Seán used to do your job?”

“And yours,” replied Staunton acerbicly.

Seán Cronin is survived by his second wife Reva Rubenstein Cronin, a stepson, Philip Rubenstein, and two step-grandsons, Douglas (19) and Kenny (12). His body was cremated at a memorial ceremony in Georgetown. His ashes will be scattered in Iveragh, Co Kerry.

Seán Cronin: born 1920; died March 9th, 2011