RYLE DWYER: How Irish diplomats were caught up in tangled web of wartime deceit

WHILE at the National Archives previewing the State papers, which were officially released yesterday, I happened to be sitting beside Prof Ronan Fanning when I came across a letter written to him by the Irish ambassador to the US in 1977.

The ambassador was looking for information about secret Irish cooperation with US intelligence during World War II.

A former CIA employee, R Harris Smith, had sensationally alleged in his book, The OSS, that Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) had furnished the Americans with information from the Papal Nuncio in Japan on strategic bombing targets in Tokyo. “The intelligence from the Japanese capital was sent to a contact at the Vatican, then relayed to the Irish embassy in Rome,” Smith wrote. “With the secret approval of President de Valera, the information passed by Irish diplomatic pouch to Dublin.”

From Dublin it was reportedly handed over to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA. The whole thing — known as the Vessel Project — was given a ring of truth by the fact that de Valera had indeed authorised such cooperation with the OSS.

Ervin ‘Spike’ Marlin — an American graduate of Trinity College Dublin — was the first OSS agent sent to Ireland in September 1942. He was supposed to be an economic adviser at the US Legation, but his OSS ties were promptly uncovered by Irish intelligence.

In January 1943, the Department of External Affairs approached Marlin with an offer to cooperate with the OSS. David Gray, the American minister, objected because he preferred to portray the Irish government as unhelpful.

Although Gray was overruled, Marlin found it so difficult working with him at the US Legation in Dublin that he got himself transferred to London from where he made periodic visits to Dublin and had information forwarded to him through the Department of External Affairs.

In July l943, Marlin approached Joe Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, about the possibility of securing Irish help “in communicating with Switzerland or any other part of Europe” where the Irish had diplomatic missions.

“Walshe replied,” according to the OSS report, “that if the material consisted of a single sheet of paper without identification as to its origin or destination, in short, a document that might be going to an Irish representative in case it should be picked up by the enemy, he would aid us by having one of his men take it personally, or by sending it through the Irish pouch.”

Since this opened the possibility of using Irish diplomats as American spies, Carter Nicholas, the head of the Irish desk at OSS headquarters in Washington, visited Dublin for exploratory talks. He arrived with Marlin on September 25, 1943 and met Walshe at the Hibernian Hotel that evening.

“I told Mr Walshe that the information which had been received as a result of the liaison had been very useful and that the source had been scrupulously protected,” Nicholas reported. “Quite naturally he had been somewhat concerned over the possibility that the source might be revealed in one way or another. I then said that the rapid progress of the war was fixing attention more and more on information from the continent and I wished to sound out the possibility of Irish help, including particularly the possibility of our receiving information from Irish diplomatic sources,” Nicholas continued. “He (Walshe) said he thought he would be able to give an answer on Monday morning and we made an appointment at his office.”

After consulting with de Valera, Walshe told Nicholas and Marlin that he had been authorised “to transmit to the Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin a request for information on the political situation in Germany at the top and to transmit the substance of the answer to Marlin. He also agreed to ask Irish diplomats questions that the OSS might ask in the future. He then read them reports from the continent that he thought they might be interested in, and he agreed to forward further reports of interest to


In short, Walshe had, with de Valera’s approval, agreed to use the Irish diplomats as American spies.

I first learned of Smith’s account of the Vessel Project in the early 1970s. This secret arrangement with Walshe certainly lent credence to Smith’s story, but the truth behind it is much more complicated.

Martin Quigley, who served undercover as an OSS agent in Ireland for about six months in 1943, later went to Rome. As one of several agents involved in the Vessel Project, he later explained that the highly prized material was in the form of voluminous reports from Japan.

He did not know how the initial contact was made, but he told me in the 1980s that he thought it very significant that when the controversy following the publication of Smith’s account arose, Earl Brennan, his OSS boss in Rome, seemed to be particularly forgetful even though he had a very good memory about everything else.

Quigley admitted to receiving some help from the Irish minister, Michael MacWhite, whom he met on a number of occasions, but he seriously doubted the OSS would have had to rely on an Irish diplomat to get the Vessel information out.

The Vessel project was actually part of a great scam run by a former journalist named Virgilio Scattolini, who directed the Social Centre of Catholic Action in the Vatican. Scattolini had sold bogus Vatican information to various wire services before the war. With the liberation of Rome, he sought to re-establish this lucrative trade with forged documents. The Vessel information was considered so good that some of the raw material was actually shown to President Roosevelt.

SUSPICIONS were roused in February 1945, however, when one of the documents purported to be a report on a meeting between Myron Taylor, the American minister to the Vatican, and the Japanese representative at the Vatican, Harada Ken. The State Department was taken aback because Taylor had not reported any such meeting.

When Taylor denied that he had ever met or talked to Harada Ken, the material came under suspicion and the OSS soon realised it had been ripped off. Some of the Vessel messages were actually embellished reports from the Vatican’s representative in Tokyo, Monsignor Paolo Marella. The Allies had broken his code, however, and they were reading his messages.

Scattolini’s handiwork could easily have been detected if the various branches of American intelligence had checked with each other. But they were more intent on retaining all credit for the supposed intelligence coup for themselves.

Although Scattolini had used Montini’s name to lure and deceive the OSS, the future Pope had nothing to do with the whole thing. But those who were duped used his name to cover up their own messing. They pretended that the whole affair had to be kept secret in order to protect the future Pope and the future Irish President from exposure. The truth was they were covering their own ass.

The whole thing helps to explain why some sceptics thought military intelligence was the classic oxymoron, and OSS stood for Oh So Silly.

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