The Best Secret Service Man We Had.

‘The Best Secret Service Man We Had’

In order to conduct counter-insurgency operations in Ireland during the period 1919 to 1921, the British administration recruited and trained a number of its intelligence officers in England. Many of these men had served or were serving in the British Armed Forces, and one of them was John Charles Byrne.

It is impossible to know if John Charles Byrne was the quintessential British Secret Agent. Little is known of him or his time in MI6, yet he was the only British intelligence operative to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army, penetrate the organisation’s interior security and meet with one of Ireland’s most wanted man, Michael Collins.

John Charles Byrne was born in June 1885 at Barfett Street, Queen’s Park, London. On completion of his schooling he became a plumber’s apprentice and like many young men of the time, was a member of the British Territorial Army serving with the Royal Artillery. During World War One he served in Salonika for over a year before being discharged on medical grounds.

In the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, the British Government sought to combat Bolshevik agitation in the armed forces. The war with Germany was still ongoing and British Intelligence

were concerned that Bolshevik agitators may harm and disrupt the military and the war effort.

 The man tasked to establish a new Directorate of Intelligence, which would incorporate the combating of all domestic subversion as well as analysing intelligence on revolutionary cells, was the newly knighted Sir Basil Thomson. He was to compile the information gathered and report directly to the British cabinet, and his brief would also include Ireland. Since January 1919 political agitation there had developed into violence and information on those orchestrating the campaign was sparse.

As part of Thomson’s plan, men like Byrne was recruited into A2, a military intelligence unit, Byrne initially began work in England infiltrating the Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Union in London as an agent provocateur. He also gradually infiltrated Irish circles in the capital.

He posed as one of these fiery communistic speakers who appeared on the platform in Hyde Park every Sunday morning and at that time the communistic platform was erected next to the Irish Self-Determination League platform at the same venue. All the speakers on the communistic platform, including Jameson [Byrne], made it a point to support the Irish Self-Determination League’s Policy, and possibly as a result of this technique they gradually wormed their way into the confidence of a number of the Irish Self-Determination League Leaders.[1]

In his early thirties, Byrne suited the role he was playing, being described as an adventurer and having the appearance of a well-travelled seafarer, small with a muscular build and having both arms and hands covered in tattoos.[2] They were of Japanese women, snakes, flowers and a bird. He had a snake ring inked on the third finger of his right hand and two rings tattooed on his left hand.

Byrne was seconded to Thomson’s intelligence section and using the alias John Jameson, and posing as a Marxist sympathiser, he integrated himself amongst those in the Irish Self-Determination League and other Irish organisations, gradually gaining the confidence of those in authority.

Byrne met with T.J McElligott, a former member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, in Bishopsgate London. McElligott, a leading figure in the Police union and also in the anti conscription movement, and a republican sympathiser, had resigned from the force over his treatment by his superiors. McElligott later recalled of the meeting,

When the interview commenced, Jack Hayes forewarned me by going behind Byrnes’ back and putting his finger to his mouth. Byrnes’ real interest was to find out my connection with the IRA leaders in Ireland and what co-operation there was between the I.R.A and the police. I lied very frankly and told him I had no connection whatsoever with any of the leaders, and I did not know any of them personally.[3]

A plan emerged from Irish republicans in London to foment mutiny in the British Army and Navy, both in England and Ireland. Byrne received a letter of introduction and recommendation from Art O’ Brien, the Sinn Féin representative in Britain and another from Séan McGrath. On December 5th 1920, Byrne travelled to Dublin and stayed in the capital for eight days.

Byrne’s official handler in Dublin was Alan Bell, a former RIC Inspector and, at that point, a Resident Magistrate. Dublin Castle was informed that the agent would be acting in the city and Byrne received orders from Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Isham, another agent in Thomson’s unit based at Dublin Castle.

Michael Collins  had been informed about Byrne by his men and his wish to undermine the British system and more importantly, an offer by him to supply weapons. Collins had also received a report from T.J McElligott about his meeting with Byrne in London.[4] Suspicions were aroused amongst those in IRA intelligence about Byrne’s actions and McElligott’s report.

Despite this, a meeting was arranged for the 8th December and Byrne was picked up by members of Collin’s Squad, blindfolded and taken to a secret location that was the Home Farm Produce Shop in Camden Street.[5] Here he was met by Collins, IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy and Director of Engineering Rory O’ Connor. Another meeting was arranged for the following day that took place in the home of Mrs Wyse Power, a member of the Sinn Féin executive, in Ranelagh, Dublin. Although Collins and a number of his men were still suspicious of Byrne, the offer of weapons to wage against the British was too good to turn down.

Byrne returned to England and reported his progress to his superiors. He would continue his mission with the purpose of arresting Collins and others within the IRA network.

On the 16th January 1920 a third meeting took place at the home of Batt O’ Connor. Byrne reiterated his claims and assured those present that he would be as good as his word and on his next trip to Ireland would return with weapons. It was at this meeting that Byrne planned to have Collins apprehended.

The authorities had been tipped off by Byrne that Collins would be present at the meeting. Detective Inspector W.C. Forbes Redmond of G Division had assigned one of his detectives to watch the house. When the meeting concluded, Byrne left with Liam Tobin, a member of the Squad. The detective, believing that Tobin was Collins ran to inform Detective Inspector Redmond at Morehampton Road, Ballsbridge, where he was lying in wait with a platoon of soldiers.

The detective was not one hundred per cent certain of Byrne’s accomplice and knew that if he intervened and arrested the wrong man, the IRA would know that the meeting had been compromised. Suspicion would immediately fall on Byrne and his cover would be blown. As a result, Detective Inspector Redmond decided not to intervene and ordered his force to stand down.

However, unknown to British Intelligence, Byrne’s cover was already blown. Michael Collins had a number of agents working in Dublin Castle, one of them being Eamon Broy, a Detective Sergeant within the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Broy reported to Collins a story about a detective who had met with Detective Inspector Redmond concerning a grievance, only to have his complaint dismissed. The Inspector, who was from Belfast, was dismissive in his tone and disparaging about the Dublin Police Division as a whole, remarking,

‘You are a bright lot! Not one of you have been able to get on to Collins track for a month, and there is a man only two days in Dublin and has already seen him.’[6]

Redmond’s remark had exposed Byrne as an undercover agent. The IRA’s spotlight of suspicion immediately fell on him as he had only recently arrived in Ireland and had also met Collins on a number of occasions. To be sure, the IRA decided to set a trap for the spy.

Within a short period of time, Byrne returned to Dublin from England with a portmanteau full of Webley revolvers. He made contact with the IRA and a handover of the weapons was arranged. Byrne met with Tobin and the two men, with the case of guns, made their way to 56 Bachelors Walk, on the corner of Bachelor’s Walk and Sackville Street where New Ireland Assurance was situated with offices over Kapp & Peterson’s. Here Frank Thornton examined the cache of weapons. Byrne explained that he had acquired them through Communist sources and having handed them over, Byrne and Tobin left the building. Due to the suspicion that Byrne was a British agent, the weapons were quickly removed to 32 Bachelor’s Walk for safekeeping.

Because of their doubts about Byrne, IRA intelligence had asked their moles in Dublin Castle to keep them informed of any raids planned for that day. Within a short period of time information was received that a raid was to be conducted on the premises of New Ireland Assurance at 56 Bachelors Walk. From the opposite quay on the River Liffey, Thornton, Tobin and another IRA Volunteer Tom Cullen watched as police and military personnel raided the building. Extensive searches were conducted throughout the day with the authorities returning the following morning at 1am to excavate the basement for a secret passageway. Nothing was discovered but Byrne’s fate was sealed and it was decided that he had to be eliminated.

On the 2nd March 1920, Collins’ Squad made ready to kill Byrne. Liam Tobin informed Joe Dolan that he would be meeting Byrne in d’Olier Street during the day. This meeting was to enable Dolan to identify his target which Paddy O’ Daly, Tom Kilcoyne and Ben Barrett would eliminate later that evening.

The IRA plan was to lure Byrne to a secluded area and execute him.

The area chosen to carry out the killing was known as Lover’s Lane, off the Ballymun Road, Dublin.

Those carrying out the action assembled at Gardiner Street church before cycling to the pre-arranged place of execution. O’ Daly met with Byrne at the Granville Hotel on Sackville Street with the ruse of bringing the agent to meet Collins in the grounds of an asylum located off the Ballymun Road. That evening as the men left the hotel, Liam Tobin and Cullen entered the building and searched Byrne’s room, discovering incriminating documents. Byrne and Daly travelled via tram to Glasnevin where they disembarked and walked towards the Ballymun Road.

As Byrne and O’ Daly approached the site of execution, O’ Daly identified Byrne to Kilcoyne and  Barrett. Drawing their weapons, they told Byrne to put his hands up. O’ Daly stayed back as the IRA gunmen searched their quarry, taking all the papers he had in his possession. Byrne attempted to bluff his way out of the situation, referencing his friendship with Collins and Tobin. O’ Daly later recalled,

I told him that we were satisfied he was a spy, that he was going to die, and that if he wanted to pray he could do so. The spy jumped to attention immediately and said, ‘You are right. God bless the King. I would love to die for him.’ He saluted and there was not a quiver on him.[7]

John Charles Byrne, alias John Jameson, was shot twice at close range, once through the heart and then, to make sure, once in the head.

His body was later identified in Dublin’s Mater Hospital by his wife Daisy who claimed that he was a commercial traveller for a well known London firm of music publishers.[8] His body was repatriated to England and interred at Romford cemetery, Essex. The twelve mourners in attendance were all family. His death left a widow and three children.

On hearing of the Secret Agents death, Walter Long, the first lord of the Admiralty reported to the British cabinet that Byrne was, ‘the best Secret Service man we had’.

[1] Thornton, F., BMH WS 615, p38

[2] McMahon, P., British Spies & Irish Rebels; British Intelligence and Ireland 1916-1945 ( Boydell Press,Woodbridge, 2008)  p 30

[3] McElligottt, T.J. BMH WS No. 472, pp12-13

[4] Ibid. p13

[5] Dwyer, T. R., The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins (Mercier Press, Cork, 2005) p79

[6] Ibid, p79

[7] Ibid pp79-80

[8] Irish Independent, 09 March, 1920

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