Paranoia and the paranormal inside the US embassy

WHAT David Gray called his “better sources of information” than American intelligence came from another world.

He was strong believer in spiritualism and thought he was getting advice from ghosts, and he passed on this information to the White House.

Shortly after arriving in Dublin in Apr 1940, Gray wrote to US president Franklin D Roosevelt about “the memories and the ghosts” in his official residence in Phoenix Park, where the late British prime minister Arthur J Balfour had lived in the 1880s. Balfour had held seances with the famous medium Geraldine Cummins of Cork. She would go into a trance and write out supposed messages from ghosts. She began holding seances for Gray.

On Nov 8, 1941, Balfour’s ghost supposedly warned Gray about Joe Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs. “He, from what I can see, is hand and glove with the German Minister,” the message read.

At a further seance on Dec 2, 1941, Cummins produced a message from the late US president Theodore Roosevelt. “I want to tell you,” Cummins wrote, “that I think Franklin will hold the Japs for a while; at any rate from our country’s point of view. I see no immediate Armageddon for young America, possibly not at all.”

This was the Tuesday before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but Gray’s belief that he was in touch with ghosts was unshaken. “Four days after this communication,” Gray wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. They had TR fooled. I suspect that if these communications come through pretty much as given our friends on the other side don’t know very much more than they did on this side.”

Despite assurances from the OSS that the Irish government was secretly very co-operative, Gray became obsessed with the need to discredit the Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, because he somehow believed that de Valera and Walshe were conspiring for a Germany victory in the belief that Hitler would end partition.

In the summer of 1943, Gray returned to the US for consultations. While there, he met Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill. He tried to persuade them to invite de Valera to join the Allies.

Gray assured them the Taoiseach would refuse, but London and Washington were not taking any chance of Ireland coming into the war. They also rejected Gray’s suggestion that they ask for Irish bases, as the service chiefs were convinced that those would only be a liability.

However, Gray persuaded Roosevelt to ask for the removal of Axis diplomats from Dublin. During the summer of 1943, the OSS enlisted the help of an amazing spy, Fritz Kolbe of the German foreign office. In the next few months, he provided about 2,600 secret German documents.

Some of those appeared to indicate a serious security leak in Dublin. “A great deal of information pertaining to Allied activities in England and Ulster comes from the German embassy in Dublin,” General William J Donovan, the head of the OSS, reported on the basis of Kolbe’s documents.

“There was a serious leak from Éire,” Carter Nicholas concluded. But the reality was quite different.

In 1943, British intelligence organisation MI5 began feeding bogus intelligence to Edouard Hempel, the German minister in Dublin. The British had already broken Hempel’s code, so they were delighted when he forwarded their information to Berlin.

In order to convince the Germans, most of what MI5 fed Hempel was accurate information of which Berlin was already aware, but occasionally they included information that would establish “some really good line of deception”, according to the famous writer Dennis Wheatley, one of those involved in the deception.

The Germans were fooled by this information, but so was the OSS.

“For a considerable time, I was alarmed by the apparent evidence,” said Nicholas. The documents led “for a time at least to an entirely false conclusion”.

When the OSS shared its alarm with MI5, the British cleared up the matter. “The situation was even better under control that I had previously thought,” Nicholas wrote.

The OSS and MI5 were satisfied with Irish security, but they went along, somewhat reluctantly, with Gray’s political ploy to secure a refusal from de Valera so that the Allied press would depict him as unsympathetic to their cause. The whole thing was just a political stunt.

In the final weeks of the war in Europe, Gray came up with another ploy to further discredit de Valera. He persuaded Washington to authorise him to ask for permission to seize the German legation in Dublin in order to get hold of German codes, in case U-boats continued the war from the Atlantic after the German surrender.

While the proposal was under consideration in Washington, Roosevelt died. Gray was surprised at the reaction in Dublin.

“Mr de Valera made a very moving tribute to the President in the Dáil this morning and moved adjournment till tomorrow,” Gray wrote to the Roosevelt’s widow. “I thought I knew this country and its people but this was something new.”

Nevertheless, Gray presented de Valera with a formal note requesting permission to seize the German legation. “As I proceeded,” Gray wrote, “Mr de Valera grew red and looked very sour. He was evidently annoyed, but his manners were correct.”

“This is a matter for my legal advisers,” said de Valera. “It is not a matter that I can discuss with you now.”

Time was of the essence, said Gray, but de Valera refused to discuss it. The next day, Walshe told Gray that Hempel would be told to hand over his keys once the German surrender was announced. Only then could the Americans take charge of the legation.

The following day, de Valera learned of the death of Hitler, and proffered condolence to Hempel. “During the whole of the war,” de Valera explained privately, “Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. He was always friendly and invariably correct — in marked contrast with Gray. I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”

After retiring, Gray persisted with what had become an obsession to discredit de Valera, this time by writing his critical memoir. He spent years on it, but then he suddenly abandoned the project around 1960, because, he said, the ghost of Roosevelt had advised him to forget it.

The memoir has now been published under the title A Yankee in de Valera’s Ireland. Its real value is its insight into Gray’s twisted thinking. It is not a history, because Gray knew no more about history than he knew about diplomacy.

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

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