Papers reveal Irish history like a jigsaw puzzle

Ryle Dwyer examines the highly selective way in which state archives have been withheld and released over the years

A CURIOUS feature of the state papers, officially released over the holidays, is the paucity of material on the arrest of Malcolm MacArthur in Aug 1982, while there are extensive files on a riot in Tralee in 1932 and the raid on the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park in Dec 1939. It is another example of old bureaucratic habits dying hard.

Prior to the 1971, all state papers remained classified from the foundation of the State. But some selected authors were given access to certain material by ministerial permission.

In Apr 1976, the Cabinet papers up to the mid-1940s were released. Over the next 10 years four more tranches of papers were released before the 30-years rule was extended to various departments.

Lt Gen Carl O’Sullivan, the late army chief of staff, could see no reason why the army papers should not be opened relative to the German and Allied internees held at the Curragh during the Second World War.

When I went to see those papers, however, his adjutant told the acting archivist, the late Capt Peter Young, to show me the files but not to allow me to read them, because I needed the permission of the minister for defence to read them.

Capt Young duly showed me files on various crashes and answered any questions that I had about those crashes, but I had not come prepared to ask questions. Then defence minister Brian Lenihan rejected the request to read the files.

In 1970 J Russell Forgan, the deputy head of American intelligence operations in Europe during the Second World War, assured me that the Irish had secretly co-operated with the US on intelligence matters.

“We had excellent relations with the Irish Intelligence Service during the whole of the war and found them cooperative in every way,” Forgan wrote.

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

“I doubt that in the last year of the war there was an Axis spy in Ireland the Irish and ourselves did not know about,” Forgan added.

“Most of them were ‘doubled.’ By that I mean they worked for us and sent their so called superior news which we fed them.”

Col Dan Bryan, the wartime head of G2, Irish Military Intelligence, remarked that it was nice of Forgan to say so, but Bryan was not aware that any of the spies who landed in Ireland had been successfully “doubled”.

Col Bryan possibly did not know the truth, because he was not directly involved and would have had no need to know. It took me 26 years to get behind that story.

After the change of governments here in 1981 I wrote to defence minister Jimmy Tully and foreign affairs minister Jim Dooge to see files relating to the Allies and Axis internees, but both refused. In 1983, with the help of tánaiste Dick Spring, I approached their successors — Paddy Cooney and Peter Barry.

Cooney, minister for defence, invited me to meet him. He was sitting on a bench outside Leinster House and I walked up and identified myself. He immediately invited me to his office and told me to take a seat.

As he sat down behind his desk, he burst out laughing. “Of course,” he said. “You have seen the papers already.” He duly authorised me to read them.

Peter Barry authorised access to foreign affairs material relative to the internees. He also authorised access to papers relative to wartime diplomacy, but there was a delay in ensuring that there was no compromising personal information about living people in about 30 files.

This vetting process took some months and by the time I got to see the papers, the government had changed again in 1987. I was then shown only three files and told that the new minister Brian Lenihan had essentially revoked Peter Barry’s decision to allow me to see the other files.

Nine years later I came across information that a German spy named Joe Lenihan had been dropped in Ireland in 1941. He was not even mentioned in Enno Stephan’s Spies in Ireland.

Peter Young was still at the Army Archives and he told me he had heard of Lenihan and he suggested that I might find that he was “related to somebody”. It did not take me long to learn that Joe Lenihan was an uncle of Brian Lenihan. I telephoned Cmdt Young with this information.

“Right,” he said, “you found out by yourself, come up and I will show you the files.” It was then that he told me that 18 years earlier when I was shown but not allowed to read the files, it was because the army had assured Lenihan that it would not show the files on German landings to anyone who did not know already about Joe Lenihan’s background.

Joe had been something of a black sheep in the family. Educated at St Flannan’s College, Ennis, Co Clare, he won a county council scholarship to university. He studied medicine for a short time before quitting to join the Customs Service, from which he was dismissed in 1931. He was subsequently convicted of forgery and sentenced to nine months in jail.

After he got out of prison, he immigrated to Britain and was working in Jersey in May 1940, when the Germans seized the island. He offered his services to the Germans as a spy.

Lenihan was dropped by parachute near Summerhill, Co Meath, on Jul 18, 1941. His mission was to radio weather information to Germany.

After visiting family members in Dublin, Athlone, and Offaly, Lenihan headed across the border into Northern Ireland, just one step ahead of the gardaí. He promptly offered his services to British intelligence and was recruited as a double agent and given the code name Basket. He was reputedly a very effective double agent, but his British files are still classified.

Was the late Brian Lenihan Sr, embarrassed that his uncle Joe had pretended to work for the Germans, or that he had actually worked for the British intelligence?

* Ryle Dwyer is author of Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality during World War II.

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

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

Sign up