British Espionage in Dublin after the Easter Rising: a case study

A Feature by Frances Devlin-Glass on Josephine and George Noble Plunkett’s British Intelligence File.

Serendipity furnished me recently with an 85-page digitised file from the National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew, London. It is a complete file with numbered pages and comprised internal memos from and between the Colonial and the Home Offices in London, Dublin Castle and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and some were derived from the War Office. The file was released in 1996. It has become available on some genealogical sites under the heading, Ireland, Intelligence Profiles, 1914-1922.

The DMP report and its annotation.

The file was focussed on George Noble Plunkett, Count Plunkett (he was a papal count) and makes frequent mention of my great-

‘Hard Hitter’, and Heavy-weight English boxing champion, Walter Edgeworth-Johnstone appeared in Vanity Fair in 1896. Image courtesy of Wiki-Commons.

great-aunt, Josephine, Countess Plunkett. To my astonishment, she was referred to by the Chief Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), W.E-Johnstone, as ‘the more dangerous of the two’ (pp.56-7).

Born in Dun Laoghaire in 1863, Walter Edgeworth-Johnstone would soon after appear in the New Year’s Honours List of 1918, and was again promoted in 1924, two years after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 which ended British rule in Ireland, to eventually become Sir Walter Edgeworth-Johnstone KBE CB. He had served in the British Army in 1886 in South Africa, was a heavyweight boxing champion, wrote a book on boxing (1901) and had taught gymnasium skills at the Curragh military base (Co Kildare) before becoming a Resident Magistrate.  When the Chief Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police was sacked for failing to prevent the Howth gun-running exercise, Edgeworth-Johnstone was appointed in his stead in 1915, and survived in the job until 1923, and was deemed by many to have managed a difficult job well. His counterpart in the Royal Irish Constabulary changed many times in the same period.

How did the Commissioner get it so wrong? 

How much of the revolutionary story did British Intelligence not know?  It seems quite a bit. To answer this, I need to provide some back-story of the period before the file opened on 29 December 1916, and I draw on Honor O Brolchain’s two accounts (one an edition of her grandmother’s eye-witness testimony, All the in Blood (2012), and the other a biography, 16 Lives Joseph Plunkett, 2012) and her academic paper on George Noble Plunkett’s involvement in the first by-election after the Rising (for North Roscommon in 1918).

Image of Joseph Plunkett for a commemorative stamp.

On the night of 3 May 1916, when their son Joseph Mary Plunkett, the Irish Volunteer’s ‘Director of Military Operations’ (responsible for military strategy) was allowed to marry Grace Gifford, four hours before his execution, Josephine Plunkett was brought from Mountjoy Prison to Kilmainham Gaol where her husband was jailed. Just why Josephine was brought to Kilmainham from Mountjoy Prison is not clear. She was not held in the same cell as her husband. Neither she nor George was required to witness their son’s marriage, or his death by firing squad. Joe’s father certainly caught sight of his son for a period of about 20 minutes the previous day and he heard the execution on 4 May. Geraldine, their daughter, and a hostile witness whenever her mother was in the frame, claimed Josephine was asleep at the time of the execution.

Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett, married 4 hours before his execution on 4 May 1916

Joe was terminally ill and would have certainly died within weeks as a result of glandular tuberculosis. When Geraldine, Joe’s sister, saw their father after only two weeks in Kilmainham, she was struck by his appearance: he was dirty, in poor condition, had lost much of his hair, and ‘looked eighty-five’ and not sixty-five. This impression of George Noble Plunkett being a fey, unworldly man, and one close to death, is one that permeates the Intelligence record.

British Intelligence knew a little about George and Josephine’s implication in the Rising, but by no means all, and what they knew had become significant only in retrospect. In 1913, Josephine had become the mortgagee of Larkfield at Kimmage, an old mill-site on the Poddle to the west of Dublin. Her family had built hundreds of opulent terrace houses with bathrooms in Dublin, mainly south of the Grand Canal since the 1860s – Ranelagh, Rathmines, Donnybrook – and she had engaged in her own entrepreneurialism and turned the existing boilerhouse at Larkfield into ‘palaces’ (Geraldine’s description) by installing bathrooms and indoor toilets for tenants. Such cottages normally didn’t have indoor plumbing. It was an innovation in the more modern houses built by George and Josephine’s builder fathers, Patrick Cranny and Patrick Plunkett. Hardwicke Street Theatre (also part of Josephine’s portfolio) and Larkfield, not necessarily with her knowledge, became a base for training for Irish Volunteers.

The Irish Volunteer Force had been established as a counter-force to the (newly armed) Ulster Volunteers, though this could not be openly safely acknowledged. Redmond’s call to join the British Army in September 1914 resulted in a split between the Irish Volunteers and Redmond’s National Volunteers, and it was answered by the majority of Irish men who went to the Western Front, leaving a depleted force of Irish Volunteers who subsequently adopted secretive IRB methods of recruiting. The force of ‘a few thousand’ gradually increased over the next year and a half. They were augmented by what Joe’s brother George referred to as ‘Liverpool Lambs’, about 40 refugees from conscription in England – Irish-born or of Irish descent who had returned from Liverpool, Glasgow and London. Most of these stayed at Larkfield, in the barn or cottages. They were armed and became the Kimmage Garrison, and Michael Collins joined them, ostensibly to do the book-keeping. Dublin Castle was convinced that Josephine was funding the Volunteers and kept Larkfield under surveillance.

Geraldine, who was a key (and armed) message-bearer between Joe at Larkfield and key members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Irish Volunteer Committee in central Dublin, did not immediately come under suspicion. She married Tom Dillon on Easter Saturday 1916 (Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford were to have made it a double wedding, but Joe was otherwise engaged). Tom, a trained chemist, advised on bomb-making, and would eventually be arrested, much later on 17 May 1917, and then not as a bomb-maker and adviser, but as a member of the Sinn Fein executive. Geraldine, though, evaded the heavy hand of British officialdom until 1921 when her house was raided in Galway and she was jailed for carrying papers hostile to the behaviour of crown forces.

‘Dangerous’: The Count and Countess and Mimi, in 1907, before the Rising and before their exploits in America.

Another Plunkett sister, the eldest, went under Dublin Castle and London Intelligence radar in the lead up to the Rising: Philomena (known as Mimi), a pretty, fashionable, marriageable society belle, was sent to New York after Christmas 1915 by the Military Council planning the Rising. She carried the date of the Rising (the first time this had been communicated outside the Military Council), and a message about the arms shipment being negotiated with Germany, including its landing point in Dublin Bay (the original location for offloading arms). She also brought back £2,000 in a chamois bag strapped to her thigh to support the Rising. She went to New York not once, but twice (in 1915, as noted above, and March 1916), to ensure the longtime Fenian physical force organiser in the USA, John Devoy, was in receipt of the exact date of the Rising.

What else, of deeper import, did British Intelligence not know?

Before his marriage to Josephine in 1884, George Plunkett had had bestowed on him a Papal Countship (Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulchre). He had endowed a convent in Rome for the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary. He was averse to using the title (being fearful of being taken for an English or European count) until requested by the Vatican to do so (his new wife had no such reservations). So, duly sworn in by Joe as a member of the (secret) Irish Republican Brotherhood, his papal countship became in 1916 the cover for a papal audience.

George had gone to Rome by a circuitous route to secure Pope Benedict XV’s support for the Rising. British Intelligence was unaware of this. H H Asquith, the British Prime Minister, had made a similar visit to the Vatican to request the Pope’s support for the British war effort in Ireland (the Irish were not enlisting at the rate he expected). Eoin MacNeill (later to gain notoriety for countermanding the Rising on Easter Sunday) confirmed the intention of Asquith’s mission while he was in Germany and George was aware of this. Asquith had misled the Pope, telling him, accurately, that the Irish had won Home Rule at Westminster, but neglecting to add it had been deferred when war broke out in 1914.

Earlier Irish insurrections had failed to get papal support, and rebels had not always been supported by the priests on the ground (some, like Fr Murphy in Wexford in 1798, were exceptions to the rule). Having been briefed on the actual situation by George, the pope tearfully agreed to give his blessing to the Rising,: ‘les pauvres hommes, les pauvres hommes (the poor men)! ( French was spoken at the Plunkett and Cranny dinner tables in Dublin).  George secured the Pope’s support and on his return spent much effort spreading the word amongst the bishops of Ireland, and he visited Joe in the GPO on Easter Tuesday and met for the first time, and was impressed by, James Connolly. He wanted to fight but was sent away by his son. British Intelligence was not aware of this.

What the file reveals of events after the Rising

The British Intelligence file deals with the period from May 1916 to January 1919. Honor O Brolchain tells how four days after the Rising began, on Friday 28 April 1916, George Noble Plunkett was arrested and taken to Richmond  Barracks and subsequently to Kilmainham. Josephine was taken to Richmond Barracks, and later spent the night in Kilmainham Gaol (as mentioned earlier), before being sent to Mountjoy Prison. From the start, conditions were appalling but George was referred to as an old man and given some consideration (he was 64 in 1916).  His influential friends, in particular Mr Dewar of Dewar’s Whiskey (met on a yacht in Dublin Bay), pulled strings for him with the prison cook who belonged to the Scottish Black Watch Highland regiment, and the food was much better than expected. Others with influence also protested his imprisonment. This was to be the tenor of his treatment, and his wife’s. His age and his ‘gentry’ status (unusual for Catholics) were noted, as were his wife’s. Josephine demanded eggs, flowers from her own garden, steel knitting needles(!), hairpins and a mirror, paper, and had meals sent in from a local shop. Money bought benefits.

The Intelligence authorities found it difficult to accept that parents whose eldest adult child had been executed for his role in the Easter Rising, and who moreover had two more sons Volunteers (initially sentenced to death but commuted to 10-year sentences), were not actively involved in the Rising. They were completely unaware of the involvement of Mimi and Geraldine. Their children had in fact striven to keep Josephine in particular ignorant of the plans for the Rising, as she was a loose cannon. George’s political views before the Rising were strongly nationalist and cast in a romantic mould (which gained validation from the 1798 United Irish Rebellion) but he was far from being a combatant, and Josephine was apolitical at best. Her passion was looking after her properties, and she was strongly family-focussed, and Joe was the favoured child. In the years leading up

A cartoon by Grace Gifford Plunkett of Josephine. There was no love lost between them.

to the Rising, she preferred to make a splash internationally among the American Irish, and her children went around her in terms of what was actually happening at Larkfield. Affecting a Cumann na mBan uniform (to which she was not entitled as she was not a member), she conducted a lecture tour in the USA in 1915 collecting funds for the beatification of Oliver Plunkett (now a saint).  What she collected was not accepted by the Vatican: it ran counter to their ways of doing business. The only glimpses of her we get during the Rising from her daughter and great-granddaughter, Honor O Brolchain’s narratives (All in the Blood and 16 Lives: Joseph Plunkett)  is of her trying to bribe soldiers at Dublin Castle with Woodbines to get news of her husband and sons. Geraldine claims that, while interned in England, Josephine sold to British Intelligence what she knew about Roger Casement (she knew him personally and disliked him) at the time of his trial. It seems the children’s wariness of her had real justification.

By December 1916, Josephine and George’s home at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street (Dublin) was raided and trashed, and the raid revealed that it had been used as a field hospital during the Rising. The Dublin Metropolitan Police strongly recommended their deportation (permanently?) from Ireland on 29 December 1916. A handwritten note on Superintendent Owen Brier’s more factual typed report by Edgeworth-Johnstone, the Commissioner of the DMP, was intended to persuade the Home Office to prevent their return to Ireland:

The Countess is the more dangerous of the two – I look upon Count Plunkett as comparatively harmless as an organizer and leader – these people however are of a better class than most Sinn Feiners and will draw together the literary artistic elements amongst the Rebels which really are the most dangerous. They are a wealthy family and their influence is considerable. I cannot therefore recommend that they be permitted to return to Ireland. (pp. 56-7 of the file)

Passing over the incorrect nomenclature ‘Sinn Féiners’ (a term used by the British to discredit the insurgents), Johnstone’s assessment is weakened by its lack of professionalism – it represents as fact what is based on animus and partial personal knowledge. Moreover, and more importantly, it tacitly overlooks two key points: first, that this couple were interned in both Dublin and later Oxford and Birmingham, without charge or trial; and secondly, it underestimates George’s burgeoning political persona and mistakes the apolitical nature of Josephine. Was it Josephine’s control of the family finances that led to this misdirection? She ‘owned’ Larkfield (though she had defaulted on mortgage payments), and also Sandymount Castle, both of which were used for Volunteer training. She was certainly a formidably proactive defender of the family’s business interests, as we will see. Did this distract the police?

Although non-combatants and never brought to trial, the count and countess accepted deportation to England rather than remain in prison in Dublin. Josephine had been a noisy prisoner, and restive in Mountjoy, and George acceded to her wishes. In lieu of jail, they were offered home internment in several cities in England. George chose Oxford hoping to continue his art-history research in the Bodleian Library, but his status as a political prisoner meant that the privilege of a Reader’s Ticket was denied. They lived for six months in a ‘small’ four-story house and were subject to surveillance. Eight of the nine Plunketts (the only exception was Moya, a nun) would be imprisoned in the period between 1916-1923.

When George requested the appointment of an election agent so that he could stand for a by-election Roscommon North (following the death of Parnellite, James J. O’Kelly in late December 1916), the authorities were not confident it should be given to him, but they did do so, possibly not expecting him to win. George duly appointed a Roscommon solicitor. One of his most active supporters was Fr Michael O’Flanagan who would campaign around the world for the Republic and be deported from Australia in 1923 (another of my Irish-born grandfathers publicly supported his controversial Australian tour). Fr O’Flanagan hoped that the inspiration of the executed leaders of the Rising could be more inspiring than the terror of their defeat, and George with a son executed and two more in jail, was a living link to the new history.

On 15 January 1917, the Home Secretary had agreed that Count and Countess Plunkett could return to Ireland, as had the other internees for Christmas 1916, but George and Josephine did not wait for permission and came back to Dublin when he was elected as the Independent Nationalist member for Roscommon North. The Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Ireland was more disquieted than the Home Office in London by their flaunting the conditions of their internment, which both had signed on 5 June 1916 (pp.37-8).

The first Dail Eireann. George is the bearded man in the front row, significantly older than most.

When George returned in triumph to Dublin on 10 February 1917 a week after being elected, he was committed to abstaining from sitting in Westminster, preferring to sit in an Irish parliament, he was carried shoulder-high and acclaimed. This made a mockery of his political adversaries’ depiction of him as feeble and old and unlikely to do much for Ireland (Irish Times, 7 February 1917). He would, in fact, live for another 31 years, contest the next general election as a Sinn Féin candidate, become a founding member of the Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) and the chairman who opened it in 1919, Minister for Foreign Affairs (1919-21), and Minister for Fine Arts (1921-2),  during probably one of the most precarious periods of the Dáil’s existence.

However, the rapture of those young men and women who came out onto the streets to bring him home singing Sinn Féin songs was not universal. The Royal Dublin Society (RDS) expelled him (Freemans Journal, 19 January 1917), and the fissures between the more liberal Home Office on the one hand and the Chief Secretary’s Office in Dublin and the Dublin Metropolitan Police on the other widened. The latter organization allowed to surface (leaked?) the communication, dated 29 December 1916, which had had the Plunketts interned in the first place in order, one assumes, to bolster the case for expelling him from the RDS. Police suspicion then rested on three factors: their home had been used as a first-aid station; the countess owned the property Larkfield in Kimmage where military preparations had occurred; and their eldest son had been executed and two more were serving long sentences. The telling silence in the letter was that neither of the parents had been tried, though it has to be added that under martial law, it was not required.

One might have expected more by way of natural justice from the RDS, especially given the testimony of friendly members like William Field MP and Fr Nolan SJ who both commented at the expulsion meeting on the lack of presumption of innocence in the proceedings. Another member who had spent time in gaol in England also pointed out that he should likewise be expelled. It was a rare event to expel a member (it had happened only once before in its long history).

By 13 March 1917, George was again in the sights of Irish Command at Parkgate Street, Dublin for

recent activities, his avowed object of rendering British government in Ireland impossible, and his intended creation of an organization for that purpose … travelling from town to town inciting disaffection … his house in Dublin is being used as a meeting place for Suspects and it is evident that his further residence in Ireland is highly undesirable in the interests of the Public Safety and the Defence of the Realm.

As a member of the Sinn Féin executive, George was jailed again for agitating against conscription in June 1918 and taken to Birmingham (England) to prison.

In August 1918, Josephine first telegrammed and then wrote a strongly worded letter (file, p.20) to the Birmingham prison governor from Dublin requesting a permit for George to see a solicitor about ‘private legal matters’ involving Executor and Trustee matters in relation to property. He argued his home in Fitzwilliam Street had been damaged by police and his business interests needed attention.  It is a hectoring letter from someone highly placed in society, and it worked. The team of Josephine and George (separated at this point) were mounting a combined effort to establish that he was a superior class of prisoner and entitled to special consideration. The appeal had gone to the Secretary of State, Home Office, to Dublin Castle, and in the margin, there is a handwritten request to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Inspector General’s Office to RIC personnel in Cavan to establish the solicitor’s standing and his political views. The response from the RIC County Inspector’s Office in Cavan was that the chosen solicitor, Aidan McCabe, and his brother were young, known ‘Sinn Feiners’, former close friends of Joseph Mary Plunkett in his student days and of his family, but had taken no part in politics, and that he had ‘no objection to the interview’ (file p.23). The authorities allowed the interview, subject to its being overseen by an experienced warder.

By mid-December 1918, the prison and the Directorate of Military Intelligence were concerned about George being ‘about to break down rapidly. The poor old man has fought gallantly but prison life is beginning to show upon him’ (p.11) The Medical Inspector of Prisons, Dr Dyer, on 28 December 1918, described him as

a frail old man, and that while there is nothing particular the matter with him at present, his general condition is that if he caught influenza or other disease, he would probably die quite quickly.

By this stage, the Home Office may have feared to have more Plunkett blood than was necessary on their hands. This man would live another 30 years, until 1948 and the age of 96, and his newly radicalized political career was barely begun. The arts scholar and museum official had begun to transform into a politician.

This file reveals that although the Whitehall Home Office was more class-conscious than the DMP (who continued to protest George’s release from both Oxford and Birmingham Prison), it was more flexible and more compassionate. It was often in conflict with on-the-ground personnel in Dublin who would have preferred the Count and his wife never to be able to return to Dublin.  The Dublin authorities also lacked the will, and probably the evidence, to prosecute, and were spared the need to do so under martial law. Their most egregious error was to underestimate the Count who had been, as we now say, radicalised by his various internments.

Frances Devlin-Glass is a direct descendant of Josephine Plunkett’s brother, Frank Cranny;  like his sister, he was not political. Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.

Frances thanks Honor O Brolchain, grand-daughter of Geraldine Plunkett, for her invaluable help in fine-tuning this article. She also thanks Elizabeth Malcolm for assistance in unravelling the mysteries of the RIC and the DMP, but any errors are her own.