The Irish Free State’s first diplomats: jealousy, anti-Semitism and revenge

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2016), Volume 24

HOW INDEPENDENT IRELAND’S EARLIEST ATTEMPTS AT DIPLOMACY IN BERLIN WERE SABOTAGED BY THE PERSONAL RIVALRY BETWEEN IRISH DIPLOMATS

By Darren Kelly

The Irish Free State is an entity that is often defined by its relationship with Britain, but its founders desired a close relationship with its Continental neighbours. Post-war Europe was a place where smaller nations had unprecedented opportunities for participation in international politics. Though a Commonwealth dominion, the Free State had the right to its own diplomatic representation. The Provisional Government’s first minister for external affairs in 1922, George Gavan Duffy, had ambitious plans for a diplomatic service that he believed could reinforce Irish sovereignty through establishing an international presence. He felt that Berlin was ‘likely to become very rapidly the most active centre in Europe of international ambition, political and economic, and will be far more important to us than Paris’. Only Washington and Geneva (at this time League of Nations headquarters) were considered of equal priority to Berlin.

The diplomatic missions in Washington and Geneva flourished during the 1920s—Irish representative in America Timothy A. Smiddy was formally accredited in 1924, and Michael MacWhite in Geneva engineered the Free State’s entry into the League of Nations in 1923. But the Berlin mission was abandoned during 1923, a victim of the chaos of civil administration during the Civil War and of the personal rivalry between the colourful characters who represented the Free State in Berlin.

The Irish plenipotentiaries at the Treaty negotiations in London, late 1921, including (right) John Chartres and (to his right) George Gavan Duffy, soon to be the provisional government’s first minister for external affairs. Duffy felt that Berlin was ‘likely to become very rapidly the most active centre in Europe of international ambition’. (George Morrison)

The Irish plenipotentiaries at the Treaty negotiations in London, late 1921, including (right) John Chartres and (to his right)
George Gavan Duffy, soon to be the provisional government’s first minister for external affairs. Duffy felt that Berlin was
‘likely to become very rapidly the most active centre in Europe of international ambition’. (George Morrison)

Unlikely representatives

George Gavan Duffy believed that to successfully navigate Europe’s elitist diplomatic social circles Irish representatives should have a cosmopolitan outlook—a problem, given that he felt that the Irish had an inherently insular mentality. He went as far as declaring that ‘the most suitable candidates from the point of view of familiarity with diplomacy abroad are those who have been brought up in the Anglo-Irish tradition and who have spent a good many years away from home, often in the British diplomatic service’, though he conceded that such candidates would likely hold an unsuitable political outlook for representing the Irish Free State. This policy on recruitment allowed for the appointment to Berlin of John Chartres and Charles Bewley.

Chartres fitted the profile ideally. Of Huguenot heritage, he worked for the London Times and the British civil service before embracing Irish nationalism when he began contributing to Arthur Griffith’s newspaper and assisted the Irish delegation who negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Despite his British background and airs (he wore a monocle and had a noted obvious upper-class accent) he showed tendencies of Anglophobia, publishing a serialised attack on all things Britannic, The Bloody English, under a pseudonym. When he was appointed to Berlin he enjoyed the friendship of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.

Charles Bewley—grew bored with his trade position and resented Chartres’s airs and graces. (NAI)

Charles Bewley—grew bored with his trade position and resented Chartres’s airs and graces. (NAI)

Charles Bewley came from a prominent Anglo-Irish Quaker family and was educated at Oxford. He joined the republican movement by providing legal representation to rebels during the War of Independence. His Anglophobia seemed even more pronounced than Chartres’s—he converted to Catholicism and in his memoirs he recalls telling his father and his classmates that he supported the Boers. Bewley initially offered to represent the Free State politically, but as the position had already been filled he accepted a trade envoy position, answering to the minister for trade, Ernest Blythe.

There was a third, silent element to the Free State’s presence in Berlin: a gunrunning crew led by Robert Briscoe, a Jewish IRA man following Michael Collins’s instructions. It was Briscoe’s presence that ignited the destructive rivalry between Chartres and Bewley.

‘A rather advanced state of intoxication’

Gavan Duffy had barely been in the job for a fortnight when Briscoe and Chartres wrote to Dublin about Bewley’s behaviour at a Jewish-owned music hall. When asked by staff whether he knew Robert Briscoe, an intoxicated Bewley began an anti-Semitic rant so obscene that he was barred from the premises. Briscoe also alleged that he had caught Bewley in the company of a Hamburg shipper who had tried to embezzle republican funds. Briscoe’s memoirs are not consistent with his account to Gavan Duffy—he did not tell his minister that he and a burly friend trashed Bewley’s office. Chartres recommended that removing Bewley from diplomatic service might ‘be in the interest of decorum, national dignity and commercial prudence. At present all of these interests have suffered at Mr Bewley’s hands.’ Bewley defended himself by attacking the credibility of Briscoe, whom he alleged had been introducing himself as Irish consul.

Gavan Duffy simply swept the matter under the carpet and gently reminded Bewley of the importance of discretion. He told John Chartres that if the diplomatic service expanded to Munich or Vienna, where there were fewer Jews for Bewley to offend, a transfer might be on the cards. ‘I have known Bewley for several years and have a high regard for him,’ Gavan Duffy reassured Chartres. ‘I wish you could get to know him better.’ Gavan Duffy did accept Chartres’s recommendation that Bewley should not replace him while Chartres was temporarily filling a vacancy in Paris. For Gavan Duffy, Bewley’s anti-Semitism was never an issue. Only his lack of discretion caused worry.

Character assassination

Bewley grew bored with his trade position and resented Chartres’s airs and graces. In March 1922 he made it known that he wanted Chartres’s job, and implied that he might resign his trade portfolio if not appointed. At first he was gently turned down, but he exploited the Treaty split to carry out a skilful campaign of character assassination.

Bewley’s dispatches characterised Chartres as a rabid republican whose Anglophobic tone in his Irish Bulletin publication might harm Irish–German relations at a time when Germany did not want to alienate Britain. These initial reports provoked little reaction, but when Bewley accused Chartres of using his Irish Bulletin to praise anti-Treaty leaders just as the Civil War was intensifying in July Chartres had to defend himself vigorously to George Gavan Duffy. Throughout 1922 Gavan Duffy had been purging the diplomatic service of known anti-Treaty personnel. Harry Boland in the United States, Seán T. O’Kelly in Paris and Art O’Brien in London had all either been fired or goaded into resigning.

Chartres claimed that the Bulletin in question was distributed before hostilities broke out and that anti-Treaty leaders were given only brief, factual, neutral coverage, and implied that Bewley may have purposefully mistranslated the Bulletin. It seems that there are no longer any copies of this Bulletin still in existence, but other evidence suggests that it is unlikely that Chartres had anti-Treaty beliefs—after all, he was a part of the delegation that negotiated the Treaty in London and was a close friend and devotee of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Brian Murphy’s 1995 biography of Chartres points to a British intelligence report of a pro-Treaty speech that he made in Berlin on St Patrick’s Day. The only contemporary evidence in favour of Bewley’s accusations are his own notoriously unreliable memoirs. Collins intervened, urging restraint, and Chartres kept his job.

Civil War and civil administration

As the Treaty split descended into civil war during the summer of 1922, cool heads would no longer prevail, as Chartres became a victim of the chaos of civil administration during the war. By the end of the summer his three greatest supporters in cabinet were no longer there. Collins and Griffith were dead and Gavan Duffy had resigned in protest over the government’s conduct of the war. Joseph Walshe, secretary with the Department of External Affairs, became an increasingly dominant character and was particularly hostile to Chartres.

In October Gavan Duffy’s replacement, Desmond Fitzgerald, dismissed Chartres from diplomatic service without consulting cabinet. Chartres’s position was previously relatively secure, as Collins urged restraint and Gavan Duffy was aware of Bewley’s grudge. The Civil War created an environment where Fitzgerald could act unilaterally without consulting cabinet, and the absence of Collins and Gavan Duffy left Fitzgerald with only the opinions of Joseph Walshe and Charles Bewley on which to base his decision. There is no evidence to suggest that Fitzgerald was even aware of Bewley’s grudge against and desire to replace Chartres.

Chartres didn’t take Fitzgerald’s decision lying down. He furiously accused Bewley of ulterior motives and of making slanderous accusations about Chartres’s living situation with his female assistant. Nevertheless, Bewley formally replaced Chartres in November, and a humiliated Chartres had to return to Berlin and hand over his office furniture to Bewley. In his final dispatch Chartres bragged that a German official approached him, having found Bewley unhelpful.

The chaos and panic of the Civil War led Fitzgerald to make a decision without consulting cabinet and without the benefit of Michael Collins’s and George Gavan Duffy’s knowledge of Bewley’s grudge. This decision deprived the diplomatic service of an able administrator and contributed to the failure to create a lasting diplomatic presence in Berlin.

Kristallnacht, Berlin, 1938—Bewley’s superiors grew worried as his dispatches became increasingly anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi in tone, culminating in a report defending Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht, Berlin, 1938—Bewley’s superiors grew worried as his dispatches became increasingly anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi
in tone, culminating in a report defending Kristallnacht.

‘The unaccredited representative of a half-independent state’

After all his conniving, Bewley resigned in the spring of 1923. Though he slandered John Chartres with accusations of anti-Treaty propaganda, Bewley claims in his memoirs that it was his own frustration with the limits of dominion status that motivated his resignation (declining to mention that he tried and failed to gain a seat in the Dáil). Bewley was replaced by Cornelius Duane, who resigned in late 1923, primarily because his salary was becoming worthless while Weimar Germany faced the spectre of hyperinflation. No replacement was sought and the Free State did not re-establish its presence until 1929.

Bewley would re-emerge as a key figure in Irish–German relations in the 1930s, when Hitler was in power. This time his anti-Semitism and Anglophobia had more serious repercussions than embarrassing himself in a music hall.

Darren Kelly wrote an MA dissertation on the foundation of the Irish Free State’s diplomatic service.
Further reading

C. Bewley, Memoirs of a Wild Goose (Dublin, 1988).
B. Murphy, John Chartres: mystery man of the Treaty (Dublin, 1995).
M. O’Driscoll, Ireland, Germany, and the Nazis (Dublin, 2004).
A. Roth, Mr Bewley in Berlin (Dublin, 2000).

Read More: Charles Bewley’s later diplomatic career

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