A British spy unmasked – Oliver O’Hanlon on Frank Digby Hardy

An Irishman’s Diary

One of the most bizarre events of the War of Independence took place in September 1920. A British spy was trying to inveigle his way into the highest ranks of the republican movement, but he was detected before he could do anything. The whole incident played out in the international press and must have been embarrassing for his superiors.

The man was known in Ireland as Frank Digby Hardy, but his real name was JL Gooding. He also had a string of other aliases, including Frank Hall and AG Saville. His backstory reads like something from a movie script.

Born in Devonport in Plymouth, he worked in various jobs connected with the sea, including the Royal Navy. However, he found it difficult to stay on the right side of the law and consequently spent several spells in prison in England between the 1880s and 1910s for forgery, misappropriation of ship's funds, bigamy, fraud, and other crimes.

While serving a five-year prison sentence for fraud and confidence tricks, Hardy successfully petitioned Lord French (who was then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland) to release him on licence. Hardy somehow convinced the British that he had useful information on Sinn Féin and the IRA. He was recruited as an intelligence agent and sent to Dublin with the intention of catching the elusive Michael Collins.


Hardy then approached Sinn Féin and told them that he was working for the Secret Service, but that he had become disillusioned with it and was willing to work for Sinn Féin. He said that he could arrange for his boss, Sir Basil Thompson, to be in a secluded part of Dún Laoghaire pier so that the IRA could either kidnap him or take a shot at him. Hardy also promised them that he could lead the paramilitary unit of the RIC, the Auxiliaries, into an ambush. He even said that he could help the IRA to locate UVF arms caches.

Hardy suggested that he meet with senior republicans to discuss the plot in more detail. A meeting was arranged and Hardy thought that everything was going according to plan. What Hardy did not know, however, was that Michael Collins’s team had been intercepting Hardy’s intelligence reports to his superiors in London and that his true identity and intent were known to Collins and his whole plan had crumbled.

Hardy was told that he was going to meet senior IRA members, but he actually met a group of journalists who were invited to a meeting. It took place in the offices of Young Ireland, the newspaper edited by Arthur Griffith, on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). Griffith introduced Hardy to the assembled men and told them that Hardy was there to offer his services to the cause. The assembled journalists had been briefed in advance of who exactly Hardy was, but they played along with Griffith's game.

Hardy was then allowed to address them and explained how he had come to his decision to help the republicans. After a long monologue from Hardy, which included some truths about his past (but much invention), Griffith took control of the meeting and read out a long list of Hardy’s previous convictions and listed off some of his pseudonyms. The would-be double agent and agent provocateur was stopped in his tracks. Griffith told him that a boat was leaving Dún Laoghaire that evening at 9pm and that he had better be on it.

News of this bizarre incident appeared in papers all over the world and provided the republicans with a propaganda coup in the propaganda war that was raging between them and Dublin Castle. Among the group of journalists present at the meeting were two French reporters, Henri Béraud and Joseph Kessel, as well as journalists from the Daily Mail, the Madrid-based paper, El Sol, and the Chicago Tribune. Two Irish journalists were also in attendance – Michael Knightly of the Irish Independent and Seán Lester, news editor of the Freeman's Journal.

Joseph Kessel said that he was alerted about this unusual gathering by Desmond FitzGerald (father of Garret). FitzGerald was in charge of Dáil publicity and spent a good deal of his time trying to convince visiting journalists that the cause of Irish independence was right and just. With a bit of a smile and a mysterious air, FitzGerald told Kessel that he would not regret attending the meeting.

He certainly didn’t. He wrote about it in his newspaper and recounted it many times afterwards in print. Kessel’s description of it reads like something from a detective novel. “An amusing police adventure” was the title of his article.

If anything, it would have provided newspaper readers with a bit of light relief from the ongoing litany of attacks and house burnings that had been coming out of Ireland.