Johanna Lowry-O’Reilly looks at the evidence as to whether he was an Irish nightingale or a carrier pigeon?


The Cambridge Spy Ring's Sixth Man: Tinker, tailor, soldier ... Irishman?

Newly released MI5 papers have added fresh speculation that second generation Irishman ‘Paddy’ Costello, the son of a Dublin grocer, could have been The Sixth Man in the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring. Writer/researcher Johanna Lowry-O’Reilly looks at the evidence as to whether he was an Irish nightingale or a carrier pigeon?

The Cambridge Spy Ring's Sixth Man: Tinker, tailor, soldier ... Irishman?

While MI5 files (KV2/4328-31) released on 11 April 11 greatly extend the intelligence profile of Desmond Patrick Costello, commonly known as ‘Paddy’, they neither fully prove nor disprove the contention that he was the ‘Sixth Man’ at the heart of the Cambridge spy ring in the 1930s.

They do, however, ostensibly negate the 2008 assertions of James McNeish, a fellow native of Auckland in New Zealand. McNeish, an historian, strongly defends Costello against accusations of spying in his book The Sixth Man, which was written without the benefit of these files and has been essentially superseded by them.

In support of accusations Costello is described by the KGB as being an important agent, codenamed ‘Long’. Nonetheless, despite relatively intense surveillance by MI5 and detailed police reports, the files leave the question open as to whether Costello was a spy for the Soviets or a political intellectual and active communist.

The fact that he associated with party members while in Cambridge is not in contention; he made no secret of his affiliations. However, these associations were to bring him to the attention of the authorities, particularly given his non-English born status.

Costello was virtually under the spotlight from the moment he arrived in the UK in 1932 to take up a scholarship to read Classics at Cambridge, until his sudden death in 1964. His MI5 files are relatively extensive, including his early years in New Zealand.

Conversely, surveillance on the Cambridge spies, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, seems mostly concentrated after the event, that is, the defection of Maclean and Burgess to Moscow in 1951 and Philby in 1963. The term ‘Cambridge spies’ refers to the fact they were all recruited as Soviet agents while in Cambridge University in the 1930s.

While Costello was undisputedly communist in his outlook and actions, where does that leave him with regard to the well-connected members of the spy circle?

Like John Cairncross, the ‘Fifth Man’ he was not the product of an elite public school or a privileged childhood but came from a working class background. His ‘Irishness’ and lack of ‘polish’ set him apart from the sons of the British establishment.

“In a society like that of England in the first half of the last century moving from the milieu of one class to that of another was a form of emigration”, according to Eric Hobsbawm, British Marxist historian. Integration and acceptance would have been difficult.

Costello was born in Auckland on January 31, 1912. His parents were emigrant Irish, his mother from the south of the country and his father from Dublin. Following an arranged marriage in Australia they travelled to New Zealand for no known reason, making Costello according to McNeish “an accidental New Zealander”.

Although the district he grew up in was impoverished, Costello’s parents do not appear to have been too badly off, with his father in the grocery business. He attended Auckland Grammar School and University. Costello had a strong association with Ireland particularly through his mother and their shared love of singing; she encouraged him to learn Irish ballads and revolutionary songs. He had a rich tenor voice earning him the title of ‘the Irish nightingale’ at Cambridge.

Over the years, Costello made many visits to Ireland, visiting cousins and learning the Irish language, adding to his extensive linguistic profile. A photograph taken in 1963, a year before his death shows him in Dun Aengus on Inis Mor on the Aran Islands.

However, according to the MI5 files, when arrested in Wellington for drunken behaviour in 1950, Costello spoke of disliking the “effing Irish or effing Irishmen”. On the same occasion he ‘confessed’ to the arresting police sergeant that he held communist views. It was considered that the strain of concealing his communist allegiance may have caused him to break under the influence of alcohol.

While employed from 1936-40 as a lecturer in Exeter University, Costello married Bella Lerner, a communist of Russian extraction. According to a Special Branch report she was from “a large and unsavoury family”. In 1940, an undergraduate at Exeter, Hubert Fyrth, was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for providing information of military importance to the Daily Worker.

The university council called on Costello to resign due to his communist sympathies and his connection with Fyrth. Although one memo from 1953 states that nothing linked Costello to the incident, a report in the file by the Exeter Police Department, states that ‘it is known that Fyrth often visited Costello’s home and Costello on occasions called at Fyrth’s lodgings’.

How strongly his ties to Ireland were to influence him is debatable but Costello was frequently assumed to be Irish and perhaps harbouring anti-British sentiments. Despite a veneer of sophistication acquired in the diplomatic corps, he never fully shook off his upbringing among the poor of Auckland. According to a PR Clapham who was familiar with Costello as an intelligence officer during the war, “while life in diplomatic circles had given him a certain suavity, he still had a chip on his shoulder but it was not offensively apparent”.

The Cambridge Spies.
The Cambridge Spies.

According to The Times obituary in February 25, 1964, Costello had been appointed as an intelligence officer by Lieutenant General Bernard Cyril Freyberg, 1st Baron Freyberg, of the N.Z.E.F. Freyberg was in charge of Allied forces during the disastrous battle for Crete.

Costello’s appointment followed extraordinary action by him during the Greek campaign in 1941. He successfully aided the escape of his battalion to Crete when they were overrun by German forces at the end of the Olympus Line. Costello, then a lance-corporal in the 21st Battalion Signals led his men to the sea. His ability to speak Greek assisted in procuring a boat, and getting them away. He was discharged from the forces on July 5, 1944.

He left for Tehran in what was then Persia, now Iran, en route to Moscow two days later, taking up the position of second secretary to the New Zealand legation and then as first secretary in Paris. In 1952, a memo from the Foreign Office states that the prime minister of New Zealand had decided to accept the much-mooted British view of Costello as a security risk and he was removed from the Foreign Services.

He was then appointed to the chair of Slavonic Studies at Manchester University. It seems from the files while Costello and his family had left Russia, contact was still active.

In 1960, an application made by Costello’s wife Bella under a false name for death certificates, commonly used to create false identities for Soviet agents, was traced to her by her handwriting. A memo in the file KV 2/4330 states: “We now have what amounts to written proof that in December 1960 Mrs Bella Costello was a KGB agent.” The MI5 file of February 20, 1963 describes Costello’s record as providing “every reason for supposing he is equally involved with his wife and he is the more important agent of the two”.

However, notwithstanding evidence tying Costello to the Soviets, he was never charged or indicted. Neither was his wife. Why was this? Could political and diplomatic expediency have dictated that it was better to leave the issue alone?

Obviously Costello’s sudden death in 1964 was a deciding factor. Were there any suspicions raised about the circumstances of his sudden demise? Perhaps the next release of files will shed some light on these questions.


Q: Who were the Cambridge Spy Ring?

A: A group of men in senior British government positions recruited at the university in the 1930s who spied for Russia during the Second World War and continued to do so in the 50s and 60s when Europe was divided by what Winston Churchill categorised as The Iron Curtain.

Q: How many were there?

A: At least five have been identified — Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, and Cairncross. But there has been increased speculation that there was a Sixth and maybe even a Seventh man.

Q: Why did they do it?

A: After the First World War, many intellectuals supported the cause of communism and an increasing number opposed the policy of appeasing Hitler and Fascist Germany pursued by British governments in the 1930s.

Q: Who was Paddy Costello?

A: Desmond Patrick Costello was born in Auckland, New Zealand, son of a Dublin grocer, Christopher and his wife Mary. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1932 and gained a first in Classics. He was linguistically outstanding, speaking at least eight languages fluently, including Irish.

Q: Why did he fall under suspicion?

A: Costello was at Trinity College, Cambridge, the alma mater of British double agents at the same time as the spy ring was being established. He was an outspoken communist and critic

of British foreign policy. His wife was also an active communist and was of Ukrainian extraction. He was dismissed from his lecturing post at the University of Exeter in 1940 because a student he had befriended was convicted under the Official Secrets Act.

Q: What did he do in the War?

A: He enlisted and saw service in the Middle East, Greece, Crete, and north Africa, where he was a member of the Long Range Desert Group. This force, trained to fight behind enemy lines, was known to Italian soldiers as the ‘Ghost Patrol’ and was recruited predominantly from New Zealanders in its early days.

It was one of the forerunners of the SAS. In 1944 he took up a diplomatic role with the New Zealand legation in Moscow, staying there until 1950 when he transferred to Paris.

Q: What happened later?

A: In 1953, he was asked by the New Zealand government to find alternative employment and he left Paris in the autumn of 1954. It is generally believed this was because of security concerns raised by British intelligence that he was a Soviet asset.

In 1961, his loyalty came back under the spotlight when it was discovered that veteran Soviet spies Morris and Lona Cohen had been been issued with New Zealand passports in Paris in 1954.

These were in the name of Kroger and helped the couple set up the Portland Spy Ring with masterspy Gordon Lonsdale in England. After leaving the diplomatic service Costello took up the chair of Russian studies at Manchester University. He died following a heart attack in 1964.

Q: Was he a spy?

A: Unproven. Several British sources believe so. MI5 official historian Professor Christopher Andrew described him as “one of the KGB’s Top 10”.

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