An Intelligence Index Card from the Irish War of Independance

Is this index card taken from a British Intelligence file during the war of Independence? Is it the real thing? We have an ordinary index card, 6 inches by 4 inches, brown and fragile with age, a rough photograph, cropped from something larger, a description, not very accurate, and the typed legend of remarks, intended perhaps to be helpful, but of questionable value.
The card was found in an old book, a 1926 edition of Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland by Piaras Beaslai, his close political comrade. It was folded in three and tucked into the book, where it had perhaps been used as a bookmark, or placed there for safekeeping. The book came from the library of a Wicklow man, a man without connections to either the republicans fighting for Ireland or to the crown forces against whom they fought.

It is not too difficult to date the card in that the title refers to Collins as being head of the IRA and responsible for “all ambushes and murders” We know that the first ambush was the unapproved January 21st Soloheadbeg attack led by Dan Breen and Sean Tracey in which constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell (both Irish born Catholics) were shot dead. So it must be after that date. The phrase “All the ambushes and murders” indicates that the card was made quite late in the war of independence. Perhaps late 1920. And then there’s the photograph. It has been cut from a larger good quality photographic print, rather than from a newspaper, then it was pinned to a wall and re-photographed. We happen to know the date of the larger photograph.
It is not too difficult to identify the larger photograph from which it was cropped, as it was one that Collins was unhappy about being included in. It is the photograph taken in April 1919, in the gardens of the Mansion House, of members of the first Dail Eireann. The photograph was subsequently used, as Collins’ feared it would be, to identify him in wanted posters and it duly appeared in the December 1919 issue of the Police Gazette, the “Hue and Cry.”
There can be little doubt that famous group photograph was used extensively in intelligence circles to identify the Sinn Fein ringleaders and probably many of the men in the group had their faces cropped and stuck onto intelligence index cards. Of the four wanted men pictured in that December issue of Hue and Cry, two for certain and possibly three of the photographs used in the publication were cropped from the same Dail Eireann group who posed for history in the Mansion House gardens.
So we know for sure, that if genuine, the index card post dates the taking of the photograph of the first Dail.
We know too that at least prior to 1919, that British Intelligence had no photograph of Collins. Broy, his secret agent in ‘G’ Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had checked the file held on Collins just before he met him for the first time in 1919 and recalled that the police file contained no photograph of the man. It would have been difficult, in those early years of photography to take a covert photograph of Collins, or indeed of anyone else, and it was the common practice of intelligence services to crop photographs from whatever source they could, newspapers, wedding photographs, college photographs and so on. Indeed the practice remains common even today, although the sources of such photographs are much richer. We can be confident facebook images are regularly trawled by today’s intelligence services, of all colours creeds and kind.

The description of Collins that appeared in the Hue and Cry was a bit light on detail and got his age wrong calling him 26. But it got his height correct at 5’ 11” whilst the index card, gets his age correct at 30, but incorrectly, has his height at 5’ 7 or 8”. More of a little fella than a big fella.
So who might have put this together?
By January 1920 the December issue of Hue and Cry with the photograph and description of Collins would have been circulated to every Police Barracks in Ireland and no doubt pinned on notice boards throughout the 32 counties. It is therefore unlikely that the index card is a product of police intelligence services. Or if it is then it is unlikely to have been produced by police intelligence officers after December 1919.

The British intelligence war was widely acknowledged as being disastrous with Collins and his men and women consistently out spying His Majesties Secret Intelligence services. In the immediate post war period the British made a detailed analysis of their intelligence failures in Ireland and in a flurry of activity, papers were published, conferences held, reports commissioned and lectures given in which the failures were fully acknowledged. From that analysis, some of it published in Peter Hart’s British Intelligence in Ireland 1920-21, we know that as late as May 1920 the Chief of Police had an Intelligence staff consisting of one officer. Its primary source of information, from the political detectives of ‘G’ branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, had all but dried up as most of those detectives had been assassinated by Collins. By late 1920 Intelligence officers had been appointed to each Divisional Commissioner of the R.I.C. to co-ordinate military and police intelligence. The military, now present throughout Ireland in force, together with auxiliaries, had their own intelligence service with young military officers many of them noted for their zeal in intelligence matters and it is most likely this card, if genuine, emanates from a local centre of intelligence rather than from the castle.
So is it the real thing? In all probability it is. The miss-description of Collins height and the somewhat romanticised remarks as to his habits rather support it being genuine, for had it been produced after the events of the time then it would have been possible to be much more correct and accurate in such details. This then is the real thing and was produced at the very height of the war of independence, the very height of Collin’s reputation, in the very heat of the intelligence battle. It is how his enemies and pursuers saw him.

The Index card was sold at auction for in or about €6000

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A Chinese Banquet

Dinner at the Geisha Restaurant with the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland. An eighteen course menu prepared by a team of chefs specially flown in from the city of Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province of China. But wait. The Geisha restaurant? Is that not Japanese? On enquiry it turns out to be a fusion restaurant specialising in both Japanese and Chinese cuisine. It must be doing exceptionally well for it is a sumptuous place with large soft white leather chairs and floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the Royal Canal. But tonight it is reserved for the Ambassador and his guests and the food is exclusively Chinese. Not a sight nor a scent of the Japs. It occurs to me, what with warlike words occurring between China and Japan over those uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, that there might be a diplomatic incident if someone orders Japanese food: I check the canal for Chinese gunboats but all seems at peace.
As it happens we do not order. We are served. Eighteen courses. Tangerine flavoured beef, Fishballs in Chinese soup, Beggars Chicken, Crab meat served in hollowed Oranges, Hangzhou marinated duck, on and on it went, getting a bit hazy after the Prawns with gold foil, or was it the Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice. Between courses the Hangzhou chefs demonstrated their skills, making hand pulled noodles and sculpting swans from strange Chinese vegetables. The Ambassador was delighted with his new chefs and toured the tables extolling their virtues. In most embassies the more important diplomat, after the ambassador, is usually the head of the secret service, or perhaps the Defence attaché, but in the Chinese diplomatic hierarchy it is the chef!
I doubt that anyone in the whole of Ireland dined finer than we did that night at the Geisha.

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Blood on the Streets by Paul O’Brien – a review

Nottingham has been sending fighting troops to Ireland for over 800 years. There is a reference in the 1363 Rolls of Edward III calling upon the Sheriff of Nottingham to ” select 40 of the best and bravest of Archers in Notts and Derby, to assemble at Liverpool, furnished with bow, arrows and other arms, to go to Ireland at the Kings wages for the defence of that land”

But by far the most significant, and the most tragic visit of Nottinghamshire soldiery to Ireland occurred at Eastger 1916 at the time of the Rising when Irish revolutionaries struck for Irish Freedom and the Sherwood Foresters were rushed from their English training depots, to crush rebellion.

Over 300 casualties were inflicted upon the Foresters, by less than 20 Irish rebels. No other regiment has ever suffered greater losses in Ireland. The Englishmen who fell were predominately from Nottingham and from Newark, but their fight and their losses have been mostly forgotten in the long and difficult history of the British in Ireland, swept quietly under the sandbags of the Western Front where the horrendous casualty lists were bloody enough to drown out any embarrassment as to what happened in Ireland.

Paul O’Brien’s new book tells their story shot by shot as they lived and died in Dublin. They were supposed to be marching to Trinity College but came across a carefully prepared rebel position on the banks of Dublin’s Royal Canal, just half a mile from their objective. There they were slaughtered in the leafy tree lined suburb with the roadway and canal bank wet with Nottinghamshire blood. The Rebel Commander was none other than Eamon Devalera, a future President of a Free Ireland. He had placed his twenty or so men with great military skill and care as is evidenced by the casualty lists that followed. The men who marched upon him, Nottinghamshire lads of a terribly tender age, were unskilled soldiers most of whom had not yet completed their military training. Incredibly many had not yet fired their weapons on a range, let alone in anger at an enemy, yet here they marched, the very teeth of the British Empire, onto the rebel guns onto their place in Irish History, onto their destiny.

They are named here; at last, they are named, there are even photographs so you can look into the eyes of these no longer anonymous men. There is the Nottingham Barrister, the son of a Country Farmer, the Sunday School Teacher from Newark, the lads from the factories and mines and fields, schoolboys really. They had volunteered to fight in France these boys, not Ireland. They were prepared, as all the men of the Great War were, to die for their country in Flanders, but not, for Gods sake! Not in Ireland. The barrister, Dietrishen, was even married to a Dublin girl, he’d sent her, with their infant children, back to Dublin to escape Zeppelin raids on Nottingham. His dear dear wife and his dear dear children, to their eternal joy, saw him, cheered him, waved wildly to him as he marched into Dublin at the head of his beloved Robin Hoods. He was the first to die.

This is a graphic and moving story which looks at the battle as much as from the British perspective as from the Irish. Indeed I don’t think there is another Irish book that has ever given so much time to the men of an English Regiment as does this. It treats them with respect, occasionally affection, always as soldiers. It is their testament and if you value the memories of local men, if you wish to know the English history of your town, your people, your nation, your responsibility for what happened and happens in Ireland, then you must read it.

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The Incredible story of John Kirk: the man who ended the East African slave trade

I bought this book out of curiosity about the role of the British consular service in the emerging colonial development of Africa.
I had just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s fictionalised account of another British consular official, namely Sir Roger Casement who was consul to Congo Free State port of Boma in the African Congo in 1903. (reviewed here). Sir Roger was feted, is still feted, particularly in Ireland, as a hero, a man, amongst the first to recognise the horrors of colonial exploitation, a friend of the indigenous African, a fearless anti-slaver and a beaming and unique example, particularly in the Consular service, particularly amongst the British, of a concerned and considerate humanitarian, most unlike his other consular colleagues, who are, by implication, mere tools of their Imperial Government’s policies.
In the Irish republican context, and indeed in Llosa’s book, this humanitarian insight of Sir Roger is attributable to him only because he is Irish. Had he been an English born consular official, or indeed as Kirk was, a Scott’s born consular official, then the thrust of the argument advanced on behalf of Sir Roger is that there would not have developed, could not have developed, the insightful consular official, the fearless consular official, the friend of the indigenous consular official or the humanitarian consular official.
I am an admirer of Sir Roger Casement but often think this view of his role as a consular official is somewhat over egged by the Irish. His investigations and his report on atrocities in the Congo were carried out on his Government’s instructions and insistence. It was the policy of his government to expose the atrocities of the Belgium King Leopold against the native tribes and Sir Roger was the chosen consular official charged with the investigation of the King’s rubber trade. That he carried out his investigation with the utmost dedication and focus and did so in the most arduous and dangerous of conditions are beyond question. It was a magnificent achievement and he well deserved the knighthood which followed.
But I suspected that there are probably many other investigations and reports carried out by other consular officials of equal importance and produced in equally difficult, dangerous and arduous conditions, in Africa and elsewhere, and that are now forgotten and unknown and buried in the archives of the foreign office. There is an argument that what separated Sir Roger’s work in the Congo from the work of others, be they consular officials, missionaries or explorers, was his stretched neck. Had they too been hanged for High Treason, then we would probably know a lot more about them. As it is we are invited again and again to view Sir Roger’s work in isolation and with all the emotional context and the weight of martyrdom that is Ireland.
Perhaps not the best of motives for picking up Alastair Hazell’s story of the Last Slave Market and the role of the British consular in bringing it to an end. But I am so glad that I did.
John Kirk was operating in a slightly earlier period than was Casement. He was consul to Zanzibar from 1873. (Casement was consul to Boma in 1903). Kirk was in place before the great colonial scramble for Africa developed. Casement was there at the height of the colonial scramble.
This astonishing book gives a deep insight into those early imperial years, when the East Coast of Africa came under the jurisdiction of the Government of India rather than the Government of Westminster. Much of the interior was unexplored. Indeed Kirk had first encountered Africa as a botanist with Dr. Livingstone on his earliest explorations into the great unknown continent. His initial appointment to the consular service was several years later, as a medical doctor in Zanzibar. There he toiled for almost twenty years before being appointed as the actual British Consul. Twenty years as a mere functionary, with no powers and no substantial role other than the care of the Europeans stationed in that remote corner of the world.
Zanzibar was a separate sovereign state, controlled by and owned by the Arabs from Oman. The Sultanate of Zanzibar was, in its early days also the Sultan of Muscat. It became an independent Sultanate in 1856. Its riches and wealth grew from the trade in Ivory and Slaves. From the Sultan’s palace and harem on the Zanzibar seafront he controlled the slave trade for the whole of the middle east, sending raiding parties into the interior to capture slaves, transporting them to Zanzibar where they were fattened up, sold in the Zanzibar slave market and transported, in Arab dhows, on to the Gulf states, to Egypt, to Persia and to Turkey. It was a trade sanctioned by the Koran and carried on for centuries. It continued long after the abolition of slavery and its forcible shutdown on the West coast of Africa.
There was annoyance and embarrassment in the Westminster Government that this evil trade continued. They were under pressure from the anti – slavery campaigners who were affronted to find that having succeeded in abolishing slavery that it continued, on a massive scale in the Middle East. But by contrast, there was a high degree of indifference in the Indian Government who did not want to interfere in the sovereign rights of states with whom they enjoyed long established treaties and good relationships. And it was India that had jurisdiction. And so it was that the trade continued with the Imperial powers effectively turning a blind eye.
The British Consul to Zanzibar was always an Indian man. Appointed by the Indian Government. The East India Company and the Indian Government were indistinguishable. Kirk was not of the Indians. A mere doctor, who applied for a vacancy, he spent his early years in this godforsaken fever ridden posting, gathering botanical samples for Kew and tending to his duties as a medical doctor. But he also set about gathering information upon the slave trade. He got to know the principal traders, noted the volume of slaves passing through the slave market, the categories of slaves, where possible, their origin, their price, the names of the slavers who went into the interior to harvest the slaves, the financers, the customs men, the dhow captains, the slave routes from the interior to Zanzibar and from Zanzibar to the Arabian Gulf, the seasons of slave trading affected as it was, by monsoons and wind currents along the east African coast. In the end this mere functionary knew more about the slave trade than the slavers themselves. Which meant that Her Majesty’s Government, from his reports, knew more about what was going on than any other nation represented by consular staff in Zanzibar, Germany, America, Portugal, Dutch, even the Sultan himself. Kirk saw Consuls come and go. Indian men, appointed by the Indian Government, nominally committed to abolishing the slave trade. He saw bluster, gunships, threats of force, and weak treaties, and yet more bluster. But still the trade continued. When in 1873 he was finally appointed as the British Consul, he found himself, because of his systematic collection of information upon the trade, in a uniquely powerful position. The traders knew him, had known him for over 20 years, as a man without power, a harmless functionary of the consulate staff. He had befriended them and they had disclosed all the secrets of the trade to his meticulous notebooks. Now he set about with grim determination to destroy slavery on the east coast of Africa. He did it by bluff, negotiation, promises, bargains, persuasion. He made slavery, in the eyes of the Arabs, socially unacceptable. He persuaded the Sultan to crush this important source of his wealth and power, to discipline those who continued the trade, to stop the dhows, to close the slave market. And then, when the trade switched to land routes, marching their slave caravans across Africa to the North in order to avoid his energy and determination to wipe it out, he went into the interior, incepting caravans, freeing slaves, fighting slavers, closing down slave staging posts and successfully, almost on his own, defeating and crushing slave trading from the East coast. Not without reason did he become known as the man who ended the East African Slave Trade.
He was not hung for High Treason. Songs about him were never written. He was knighted and Sir John Kirk, Scotsman, British Consul to Zanzibar, retired. He lived until 1922 and died peacefully, and forgotten, in his family home in Sevenoaks, Kent.
I suspect that in the archives of the Foreign Office amongst the terrible tales of Imperial colonisation, that there are more stories similar to this. Sir Roger Casement’s story is but one of them. Both are heroes.

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The Edinburgh Charity Shops.

There are probably more charity shops in Edinburgh than in any other city in the British Isles. I don’t know why. There just is. On some streets there are more charity shops than ordinary shops. I long ago reached the view that at least one out of every three people you meet in Edinburgh must be wearing the other two’s clothes, or perhaps drinking from their glassware, cooking in their pots, reading their books, wearing their jewellery and listening to their music. For me it is one of the joys of Edinburgh, Each year, when I visit for the month of the festival, the very first charity shop purchase is usually a set of candlesticks, for we dine by candlelight during the festival. I now have a collection of about twelve pairs of charity shop candlesticks, for I always take them home with me. I have stopped taking shirts to Edinburgh in my luggage, for you can buy good quality shirts for £2.50, and why not?. Again I tend to take them back home and by now I have sufficient shirts to clothe a small army
The charity shops are so abundant in Edinburgh that there is a map, a sort of London underground type map, detailing the location of all the shops across the city. If you are really obsessive you can co-ordinate the charity shop map with the bus route map and systematically raid each shop in each district. It might take you six months but I am sure it could be done. Almost certainly has been done. But I much prefer to meander about the city. Leave a fringe show and catch a bus to Morningside or Stockbridge and see what’s to find. Last year I bought a fine pair of brogue shoes in Brunsfield for about £6.00. Of course we must have tins for our Edinburgh Flat. I only take Earl Grey tea, my wife takes Typhoo, my first son only organic tea and my second son Irish builders brew. We need separate tins for each of us and the charity shop tins are wonderful. Needless to say I now have a quite extensive collection of tins… I am a bit of a sucker for a good piece of glassware and have purchased good looking wine and beer glasses in Stockbridge, Morningside, Tollcross and Leith. Must admit, somewhat reluctantly, that we are beginning to run out of space at home.
This year I bought an audio book of Obama’s life story, five discs, £2.50 on the Lothian road; an audio book of Robert Harris’s Pompeii, four discs £2.00 in Shelter and another audio book of the No. 1 lady Ladies Detective Agency, five discs 2.50 Barnardo’s. A couple of books about the first world war, a cookery book for my son who is moving into his own flat and a small jazz book called Wild Party with illustrations by Art Spiegelman and signed by the artist! £5 on the Westport next to Hooters nightclub. There was also some music by Leonard Cohen, a tin tray featuring a London bus advertising good Scottish whisky and a glass fruit bowl for the flat in which we were staying. The only thing I left behind was the fruit bowl.

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