Spies by proxy

In the first of two articles, Ryle Dwyer explains the truth behind the distorted machinations of David Gray, the wartime US minister to Ireland

WHILE writing my doctoral dissertation on relations between the US and Ireland during the Second World War, I was approached to edit a memoir by David Gray.

It quickly became apparent that his distorted diatribe was only of value in exposing his dreadful judgment and twisted thinking. The memoir has been published under the title A Yankee in de Valera’s Ireland.

American diplomatic reports did not support Gray’s bitter attitude towards de Valera, but in the early 1970s it was suggested that a full assessment could not be made until the intelligence files of the Office of Strategic Services — the wartime forerunner of the CIA — were opened.

One diplomatic report indicated that David K Bruce, the OSS chief for Europe, was satisfied with Irish security when he visited Dublin in 1943. I wrote to Bruce about the true state of relations. He responded by heaping irrelevant praise on Gray but questioning his knowledge of operations.

“Mr Gray — a fine man, and a great authority on foxhunting and sport — had no previous familiarity with secret intelligence activities, and was somewhat suspicious of them,” Bruce wrote to me on Nov 18, 1970.

“If you can locate ‘Spike’ Marlin, you would find him especially knowledgeable about the affairs in which you are interested.”

It was significant that he singled out Marlin, because Gray did not get along with him. I traced Marlin, who was working at the State Department at the time. He was cautious, but opened up when I interviewed him in person.

In 1944, at the height of controversy over the American Note calling for the expulsion of German and Japanese representatives from Ireland, Joe Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affair, went to London to protest about the treatment that Ireland was getting in the US press.

David Bruce was away at the time, so Walshe met his deputy, J Russell Forgan. “He protested vigorously to me about the treatment he was getting from our papers,” Forgan told me.

“Although I agreed with him completely, I had to say that if we told the actual facts, all the wonderful work that his intelligence services had been doing with the Allies would be ruined. He saw the point immediately.

“The Irish worked with us on intelligence matters almost as if they were our allies. They have never received the credit due them.”

The OSS stationed four agents in Ireland during the war. All four were forthright about the co-operation that the Irish provided.

The first two agents were Ervin “Spike” Marlin — an American who had attended TCD from 1929 to 1932 — and Roland Blenner-Hassett, a native of Tralee who had emigrated to the US in the 1920s and earned a doctorate from Harvard in philology.

He returned to investigate the pro-German activities of the IRA under the cover of collecting folklore. Marlin posed as an economic adviser at the American legation. Since his reports were transmitted in the diplomatic pouch, Gray insisted on reading them.

One of the earliest reports noted that three people in Fianna Fáil were particularly pro-German — backbench deputies Dan Breen and Tom McEllistrim, and Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Paddy Little. Gray demanded to know the source of Marlin’s information.

Marlin reluctantly told him it was Erskine Childers, then a junior minister. A few days later, Marlin was confronted by an angry Childers, who told him Gray had complained to the government about Little being pro-German and went on to commit the appalling indiscretion of citing Childers as the source of the allegation.

Thereafter, Marlin refused to divulge his sources, and relations with Gray became distinctly strained. The Irish quickly realised Marlin was an OSS agent. Joe Walshe suggested that Irish security co-operate directly with Marlin.

Gray objected, so Bruce was sent to Dublin to examine the Irish offer. He sided with Marlin, and the liaison was established, much to the annoyance of Gray, who wrote to Walshe to say that while Bruce was hopeful that the liaison would provide “some mutually useful arrangement,” he wanted it clearly understood “I am not responsible for Mr Marlin”.

The Irish supplied Marlin with reports on IRA strength, radio interceptions, airplane and submarine sightings, names and addresses of people in America to whom German nationals in Ireland — or pro-German Irish people — were writing, and files on German spies already captured.

The information was so detailed that the “Éire Desk” at OSS HQ in Washington found it necessary to prepare more than 4,000 index cards on the individuals mentioned in the reports.

The Irish were so willing to help that Blenner-Hassett realised he was wasting his time in Ireland. “So long as the American government secures all the information it desires about the activities of the IRA in Ireland, it is a matter of indifference how, or by whom, this object is achieved,” he said.

After he was withdrawn, Blenner-Hassett wrote a report that criticised the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. He was disgusted over a controversy surrounding the appointment of Robert Corbett, the Master of the Coombe, as professor of gynaecology at University College Galway.

Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, whom Blenner-Hassett characterised as “an outspoken clerical fascist”, objected to the appointment, “because Dr Corbett had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, the only non-Roman Catholic institution of higher learning in Ireland”.

Marlin’s cover as an adviser at the American legation was no longer needed. “I was relieved of my assignment under Gray,” Marlin told me. “He wanted me out also, so we were at last in perfect agreement on one point.”

From April 30, l943 onwards, Marlin worked out of London and returned to Dublin periodically. Between visits, the Irish forwarded material to him in London in the Irish diplomatic pouch.

A third OSS agent, Martin S Quigley, arrived in Ireland in May 1943. He quickly realised that Irish authorities were favourably disposed towards the Allies. As a result, he was baffled by Gray’s attitude. “He never knew what was really going on, or if he did, he refused to accept the truth,” Quigley told me.

That summer, while Gray was in the US for consultations, Marlin suggested the Irish would likely provide the OSS with information from their diplomats in Germany, Italy, and France. As a result, Carter Nicholas, the head of the Éire Desk at OSS Headquarters in Washington, visited Dublin with Marlin in Sept 1943 and asked Walshe for such help.

After clearing it with the Taoiseach, Walshe read Nicholas and Marlin extracts from messages describing conditions in Germany, Italy, and France. He also agreed to send Marlin reports of interest.

In the following weeks, Marlin supplied questions for Walshe to ask the Irish representatives in Berlin, Rome, and Vichy. Walshe forwarded their replies to Marlin. In effect, the Irish diplomats were being used as American spies.

In June 1944, Marlin returned to the US, and was replaced with Ed Lawler, who moved to Dublin. “We received 100% co-operation from the Irish authorities,” Lawler told me. “The co-operation and information we received from the Irish was every bit as extensive and helpful as it would have been if Ireland had been a full partner with us in the war effort.”

Even though all four of the OSS agents stationed in Ireland and the three senior OSS officers who visited here believed the Irish fully co-operated with the Allies, Gray asserted in his memoir that de Valera and Walshe secretly schemed for a German victory in the hope that Hitler would end partition.

This was blatantly contrary to advice he received from the OSS, but he claimed he had “better sources of information”. Therein lies the most extraordinary tale.

* Ryle Dwyer is author of Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality During World War II, which is published by Gill & Macmillan.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up