On its 75th anniversary of the American Note, in a two-day report Ryle Dwyer examines events leading to the international distortion of Ireland’s role in WWII
This week marks the 75th anniversary of probably of the infamous American Note demanding the removal of German and Japanese diplomats from Ireland, as a supposed threat to the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe.
This was responsible for the most distorted international aspect of 20th-century Irish history.
The real aim behind the note was to distort the truth, in order to discredit the government of Éamon de Valera, even though he had actually authorized an extraordinary degree of cooperation with both British and US intelligence during the war.
After entering the war in December 1941, the Americans sent an undercover agent to try to learn what was happening on the ground in Ireland. Before his arrival in Ireland in January 1942, Robert Rawley Patterson had served from 1932 to 1940 as US vice-consul in Cobh.
His cover was supposedly trying to interest provincial newspaper editors in publishing excerpts from a daily bulletin being published by the US embassy in London. He arrived in Ireland with a considerable supply of silk stockings, lipsticks, sugar, coffee, and tea, which he knew were in short supply in Ireland.
He hired a car in Dublin, and the US minister supplied him with petrol coupons to travel about the island for three weeks. During these travels he distributed his supplies and entertained liberally, renewing old acquaintances and buying copious amounts of drink in an effort to get people to talk more freely.
With him paying for drinks, one can imagine the kind of stories some people were telling. He was told of several German parachutists being picked up going to Dublin and Killarney.
It was reminiscent of WF Harkin, the naval correspondent of England’s Daily Mail who reported in July 1940, in the wake of the capture of two spies being landed from U-boats on the Dingle Peninsula, that stories he heard in Kerry about U-boats “would make any Briton’s hair stand on end”.
Hugh Wren, an official coast-watcher, who served at various Kerry posts from Ballybunion to Dingle from 1939 to 1944, dismissed the bulk of the U-boat stories. He told the historian Robert Fisk that “most of the submarines had been seen in pubs”.
Patterson met in Tralee with an old acquaintance, Garda Chief Superintendent Harry O’Meara, who told him two German spies had been caught after landing from U-boats on the Dingle peninsula in June and July of 1940.
Someone from the German legation came to the vicinity practically every week and visited “homes all round Tralee”, said O’Meara, adding that a German radio transmitter had been picked up about a year earlier, and that another was believed to exist but had not yet been located. As a result Patterson concluded that Tralee was “the hot spot” of German activity.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re doing here,” said the chief superintendent, “but you’re welcome.”
“He may be quite all right but, as his visit here seems strange, I thought I’d let you know,” O’Meara informed the Garda commissioner. “He can make himself very popular and would be useful for intelligence work if there is any such thing going on.”
After leaving Tralee, Patterson went to Ballybunion, where he went duck shooting with an old friend, Jack Walsh. They had been so friendly that Patterson was actually godfather to Walsh’s eldest son, Seán, who would later become internationally famous as the secretary/manager of Ballybunion Golf Club from the 1970s to 1990s.
Patterson reported that Jack “agreed to report on German activities” in the Kerry area to the American military attaché in Dublin. He was assured, in return, that his “travelling expenses would be paid”.
After Ballybunion, Patterson went to Foynes, which was an airport for seaplanes, the main means of transatlantic air travel at the time. He called on the head of air traffic control, Captain Ned Stapelton, whom he had met in 1939. While there, Patterson talked particularly freely, and one of the officers who met him reported that his “manner would suggest he had quite a few drinks”.
Patterson went next to Galway, where he was supposed to meet Joseph A Power, editor of the Connaught Tribune, but the meeting never took place, because Patterson had been drinking so heavily that he had to spend a weekend in St Bride’s Nursing Home drying out. When he was released, it was time to return to the US.
Upon his return, he wrote an alarmist report that fit neatly into a critical picture of Irish neutrality that was already being formed in Washington. As a result, the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency — promptly recruited two agents for undercover work in Ireland.
Whatever about the early months of the war, southern Irish ports would have been of no use to the British after Germany gained control of France in June 1940, because the shipping route south of Ireland was henceforth too vulnerable to attack from German aircraft based in France. All British shipping was therefore diverted around Northern Ireland, where the British already had bases.
The seaplane base on Lough Erne became vital in the air defence of Atlantic shipping, and de Valera quietly facilitated the British by allowing their aircraft to fly over Donegal.
He authorised the Royal Navy to station an armed tug at Killybegs for air-sea rescue purposes. The only restrictions were that in port, the ship’s gun had to be covered and sailors had to wear civilian clothes in port.
In addition, de Valera secretly allowed the Royal Air Force to station a seaplane at Foynes, so the British could assure themselves that there was no substance to wild rumours of German U-boats being based and supplied around the Irish coast. The British were also secretly allowed to set up radar facilities in Cork and Donegal.
David Gray, the US minister, was probably the most influential American diplomat ever to serve in Ireland. He had direct access to the White House, because he was a friend of President Roosevelt, and Gray’s wife, Maud, was an aunt of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The relationship between Maud and Eleanor were very close, because Eleanor’s parents had died when she was very young. She was reared by her grandmother in the same home as Maud, so they looked on each other as virtual sisters.
Despite his considerable influence, however, Gray was considered notoriously indiscrete, and nobody confided in him about the enormous secret co-operation that the Irish had established with the British, prior to America’s direct involvement in the war in December 1941. When Gray learned, he was genuinely surprised.
de Valera had been quietly co-operating since the beginning of the war. In September 1939 he expressed the view that Neville Chamberlain had done everything possible to avoid the war, and the Dublin government would therefore provide Britain with all possible assistance short of war. He agreed to surrender a telegraph cable that went directly to the continent and use only a cable that passed through Britain.
Then he insisted the German legation should not use its radio transmitter; the Irish kept a 24-hour watch to ensure it was not used. When the Germans used it in February 1942, he compelled them to surrender it for the duration of the war, so the legation’s only means of communication with the continent was by the cable passing through Britain. The British broke the German code, so they were reading the German messages from Dublin.
“A mutual good feeling and confidence have been established between the Irish and British military chiefs beyond what might reasonably have been believed possible,” Gray informed the state department on March 23, 1942.
The first agent the new American intelligence agency, the OSS recruited to serve in Ireland was Ervin “Spike” Marlin. Born Irving Hirsch, into a poor Jewish family in New York City in 1909, he converted to Christianity and formally changed his name to Ervin Ross Marlin in 1928.
After working his passage to Ireland the following year, he enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, where he earned a degree in Celtic studies, before returning to the US in 1932.
Another agent, code-name Train, were recruited around the same time to find out what was happening in the Tralee area. Marlin told me that Train was an English academic named Roland Blenner-Hassett, who had an upper-class English accent that would make him stand out in rural Ireland like a fish out of water.
Marlin could never understand how Blenner-Hassett had been selected. Blenner-Hassett was, indeed, an extraordinary individual, but appearances were very deceiving in his case.
Even though Marlin was convinced for over 40 years that the insufferable Blenner-Hassett was an English academic, he was nothing of the sort. He was born Roland Hassett in Tralee, where he was reared in quite modest circumstances.
He only added the “Blenner-“ prefix to his name after he emigrated to the US as a young adult in the early 1920s. He was obviously a brilliant individual, because he put himself through university there
in the United States, earning a doctorate in philology from Harvard University in 1940. In view of his Tralee background, he was selected to investigate Patterson’s alarmist report about the area.
Blenner-Hassett arrived in Ireland on September 25, 1942, under the cover of a fellowship from the American Council for Learned Societies, to study Irish folklore under Professor James H. Delargy of University College, Dublin. He spent his first five days in Tralee.
People who knew him in his younger days were quite shocked. Many considered him a social climber who was ashamed of his humble origins and was trying to pass himself off as part of the old wealthy Protestant gentry in the Tralee area.
The Blennerhassetts owned extensive land around the town, and also owned Ballyseedie Castle, a massive old stately home. No one believed he had any legitimate connection with that family.
A former teacher of mine, Micheál (Sambo) Ó Ruirc, who was well known in GAA circles, told me that he was in school with Roly and was stunned at the apparent change in his personality; he had turned into “a frightful snob”, said Ó Ruirc.
The fact he was reared a Roman Catholic but returned an outspoken Protestant would not have endeared him within the staunchly Catholic community.
Blenner-Hassett’s cover was so weak that even his sister, Julie Hassett, who had been very active in Cumann na mBan circles during the struggle for independence, ridiculed the idea of her brother collecting folklore during the world war. She all but suggested openly that he was a spy.
After Tralee, Blenner-Hassett moved to Dublin, where he hoped to exploit contacts with two old schoolmates who had become prominent civil servants. Maurice Moynihan had become secretary of the taoiseach’s department, and JJ McElligott was secretary of the Department of Finance. Both initially kept their distance from him.
“My telephone was tapped, all mail reaching me from points within Éire was opened and, on at least three occasions, I was absolutely sure that I was being followed,” reported Blenner-Hassett.
Even Prof Delargy “was quite unable to conceal either his suspicion, or the embarrassment which my presence in Ireland caused him”.
From what he observed in Ireland, Blenner-Hassett was convinced the Irish people and their government were strongly sympathetic to the US in the war, so he felt he was wasting his time and asked to be recalled.
The US military attaché sent him a telegram that he was being drafted for military service. Word spread like wildfire in government circles. People suddenly began contacting him. “I was inundated with invitations from people who [were] aware that I had been in Dublin for over three months,” he reported.
They gave “all kinds of various excuses as to why they had been unable to see me before then, and asking me to have lunch and dinner with them before I left. I accepted a number of those invitations.”
Maurice Moynihan invited him to meet de Valera on January 18, 1943. Three days later Blenner-Hassett left for London and wrote his report there. He concluded the IRA had been driven “completely underground” by stringent government pressure.
“From a four-month residence in Dublin, and conversations with people in all walks of life, and of various political opinions, it is my firm conviction that the IRA is completely discredited socially, possessed of very little financial strength, and certainly in Éire completely lacks anything resembling cohesion, organisation or discipline,” noted Blenner-Hassett.
“All the parties are genuinely committed to the policy of Éire’s neutrality, and in doing so reflect quite accurately the sentiments of the vast majority of the population of Éire.”
Even though the rigorous media censorship had prevented people from getting an accurate picture of the true nature of continental fascism, he still felt “it can be said quite truthfully that the sympathies of the vast majority of the people are on the side of the Allies”.
There was a certain amount of disillusionment with economic conditions, so Blenner-Hassett predicted Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would lose seats to Labour and independents at the next general election, with the result “that a second general election may well become necessary within a year”.
All of this proved remarkably accurate little over a year later: Fianna Fáil lost 10 seats and Fine Gael lost 13, while Labour gained eight and others picked up 15 seats in June 1943.
Fianna Fáil remained in power as a minority government until the following May when it won overall majority in an another election.