With Joe Joyce’s wonderful Echoland the current choice for ‘One City, One Book’, there is great focus on the period of the so-called ‘Emergency’ and Dublin during World War Two.
It’s sometimes joked that the Second World War passed us by totally. The poet Louis MacNeice would remember being in Dublin on the day Hitler invaded Poland, and that in the pubs “the Dublin literati…hardly mentioned the war but debated the correct versions of Dublin street songs. Dublin was hardly worried by the war…her old preoccupations were still preoccupations.” Yet despite this seeming indifference to the outbreak of the conflict from some, the war would make itself felt here in different ways. Nazi bombs fell on the city, Nazi spies parachuted into the countryside, thousands of Irishmen joined the British armed forces and rationing and censorship became parts of life here too, though to a much lesser extent than on the neighbouring island.
There are, of course, countless fascinating individual stories around Ireland and World War Two. Some, like IRA Chief of Staff Seán Russell or Hermann Gortz (the Nazi spy who parachuted into Ireland in full Luftwaffe uniform) are relatively well-known. Then there are the tales of those who sought political asylum here, including Breton collaborators and others who managed to assimilate themselves into Irish life, in some cases avoiding prosecution for their activities during the war.
One rather strange story of Ireland and the conflict concerns John Francis O’Reilly, a figure who parachuted from a Luftwaffe plane into West Clare in 1943. He and his associate, John Kenny, have been described as “the last of the motley band of fanatics, adventurers and misfits in the pay of Nazi Germany who landed in neutral Ireland as spies.” Having escaped from captivity in Arbour Hill detention centre after being captured within hours of his arrival in Ireland, a sizeable reward was offered for information leading to the detention of O’Reilly, which his father availed of by reporting him to local Gardaí when his son had arrived back in Clare. Later, his father presented him with this reward money following the end of the war, which O’Reilly used towards the purchase of a pub and hotel on Dublin’s Parkgate Street.
From Clare to Berlin and back again:
How did a Clareman come to be parachuted into Ireland by the Luftwaffe in the first place?
David Murphy’s entry on O’Reilly for the Dictionary of Irish Biography gives good insight into a life that was somewhat nomadic before World War Two. Born in Kilrush in 1916, O’Reilly was a son of the RIC sergeant who arrested Sir Roger Casement upon his arrival at Banna Strand immediately before the Easter Rising. Murphy writes:
He worked as a clerk in the Customs and Excise Department (May 1936–September 1938) but left this job after failing an Irish exam and went to the Benedictine abbey at Buckfast, England, to become a monk. This plan was soon abandoned and he went to London and worked as a reception clerk in an hotel. He was in London when war broke out but, in May 1940, went to Jersey and was still there when the Germans occupied the Channel Islands in July 1940. Managing to ingratiate himself with the German administration, he initially worked as an interpreter and helped the German commander, Prince Von Baldeck, to recruit a party of Irish workers in exchange for papers to go to Germany. He later stated that he had hoped to go to Germany, contact the Irish legation in Berlin, and then organise his return to Ireland.
O’Reilly did make it to Germany, and become involved with the Irland-Redaktion radio service, an attempt by Nazi Germany to utilise radio propaganda to gain the sympathies of the Irish public. As one Irish Times article put it:
The service to Ireland, in Irish and English, and listened to very little in either language, consisted largely of a pot-pourri of Irish translations of Wolfe Tone’s diaries, homilies upon the virtues of Irish neutrality, lists of Black and Tan atrocities in 1920, and war news.
O’Reilly mostly appeared on the station under the pseudonym ‘Pat O’Brien’. Other Irish voices on the station included Francis Stuart, the novelist and husband of Iseult Gonne, daughter of veteran nationalist campaigner Maud Gonne MacBride. The station encouraged Irish listeners to “safeguard your neutrality in Ireland . . . combating by all means the anti-Christ, and the anti-Christ today is Judaeo-Bolshevism.”
By June 1942, O’Reilly was keen to return to Ireland, making it clear he was willing to work as an agent in Ireland. Initial plans “to land him from a U-Boat on the west coast of Ireland, from where he was to report on shipping movements” were soon ditched, and instead he parachuted into the country in December. While he made it to his family home in Clare, having landing about a mile away, it wasn’t long before he was arrested and taken to Arbour Hill in Dublin.
Detention and escape:
While held in Arbour Hill, O’Reilly was repeatedly questioned by Irish military intelligence. While Ireland was a supposedly ‘neutral’ state in the conflict, intelligence was shared with MI5, and as Joe Carroll has noted:
Now that the British files on these spies are being opened, a surprise is how much information was supplied by Irish military intelligence, called G2, even though Ireland was supposedly neutral. What MI5 called its “Dublin Link” was arguably the best-kept secret of that period.
The sheer level of collaboration between Irish and British intelligence services, becoming more apparent with time and archival releases, makes a mockery of Winston Churchill’s declaration that the Irish state had “frolicked” with the Germans during the war.
On the night of 5/6 July 1944, O’Reilly succeeded in escaping from Arbour Hill. As Anthony Kinsella has noted in a History Ireland article, O’Reilly had planned for such an eventuality:
He obtained a map of Dublin City from the duty officer and familiarised himself with the roads in the vicinity of the prison. He was checked by the prison staff at 11.30pm on 4 July 1944 and broke out during the following morning. As this was an extremely difficult feat army authorities suspected collusion. O’Reilly walked by the building that housed military intelligence after his escape. He hid until daylight in a potato field near the Phoenix Park, from where he walked to the Inchicore home of a distant relative. He was given breakfast and, having borrowed five pounds for a train fare, he left for Kingsbridge Station.
While the Nazi spy Hermann Gortz was able to avoid capture over an eighteen month period in Dublin, moving from one safe house to the next, there was no such network available to O’Reilly by the time of his escape. He did make it to the family home in Clare, and what occurred there next was quite remarkable, with his father writing to local Gardaí that “I beg to apply for the reward offered for the arrest of John Francis O’Reilly who escaped from Arbour Hill barracks on 6th inst. – Bernard O’Reilly.” The man who had captured Roger Casement was now handing over the most wanted man in Ireland, in the form of his own son.
O’Reilly returned to Arbour Hill, and naturally some in the authorities questioned if he would later financially benefit from his own capture. This prediction was proven to be true, as the money provided to Bernard O’Reilly, coupled with money John Francis O’Reilly had been given by Nazi Germany at the time of his return to Ireland, was instrumental in determining the direction his life would take after his release.
In October 1945, O’Reilly purchased the Esplanade Hotel on Parkgate Street, and he would maintain it alongside a public house named The Drop-In, an ironic enough name given the circumstances of his return to Ireland. As James Scannal has noted, O’Reilly’s bar was “more commonly known as The Parachute Bar while he was referred to as The Parachutist. ” He got a mention in E.H Cookridge’s 1948 book Secrets of the British Secret Service, where the author noted the irony that “hungry post-war visitors from England have enjoyed the lavish menu of the Hotel Esplanade in Parkgate Street”, not knowing the story of its proprietor.
Certainly, O’Reilly knew that his former life could create issues as a publican and hotel proprietor. Anthony Kinsella has written of how on Remembrance Sunday 1945, “a group of British ex-servicemen, wearing emblems and poppies, had marched through the Esplanade Hotel. At the same time O’Reilly had been attacked by a serving British soldier.”
O’Reilly’s life would take him to Nigeria and later England, where he died after a hit and run incident in 1971. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, the end of a life that had taken him to many strange places.