Capturing ‘Earl Jellyfish’: the IRA plot to kidnap Earl Jellicoe, 1930

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Volume 21

Above: Earl Jellicoe (third from left) in Trinity College during his visit to Dublin on 12 October 1930. (NLI)

Above: Earl Jellicoe (third from left) in Trinity College during his visit to Dublin on 12 October 1930. (NLI)

Among the most serious public order issues facing the Irish government in the 1930s were the disturbances that annually occurred on and around Armistice Day in November. The IRA and other republican groups often seized the opportunity presented by the presence of British flags and symbols to put a significant presence on the streets, obstructing parades, heckling ex-servicemen, snatching poppies off lapels and scuffling with flag-bearers. The disorders were usually concentrated in Dublin and presented a policing issue for the Free State government, but in late 1930 news reached the Gardaí of a worrying plot that could have caused a diplomatic incident and could have severely embarrassed the young Irish Free State.

Elaborate parade planned by British Legion
In September 1930 the British Legion in Ireland wrote to the Garda commissioner, Eoin O’Duffy, informing him that Earl Jellicoe, the famous British admiral and then president of the British Legion, planned to visit Dublin during October 1930. The Legion planned to stage an elaborate welcome parade when Jellicoe arrived from Belfast at Amiens Street railway station: a band would play as he stepped onto the platform, and he would be conveyed in an open-topped car to the Mansion House through streets lined with ex-servicemen.

Bearing the annual Armistice Day trouble in mind, O’Duffy wrote to Henry O’Friel, secretary of the Department of Justice, pointing out that the likely presence of British flags and songs that would accompany Jellicoe’s visit would provoke a response from the IRA. O’Duffy recalled that the IRA had planned to kill Lord Birkenhead when he visited Trinity College in 1929, and he felt that, given that Jellicoe was a British war hero, ‘anti-imperialists may decide on action’.

Such was the seriousness of the issue that within six days of the initial letter from the British Legion it was being discussed in a meeting of the cabinet. In a memo O’Friel pointedly referred to the annual disruption in November and argued that Jellicoe’s visit was ‘calculated to aggravate the difficulties experienced each year on Armistice Day’. Things were further complicated by the fact that a football match between Kerry and Kildare (then the country’s top two teams) was scheduled for the same Sunday as Jellicoe’s arrival and the Gardaí faced the potentially volatile combination of a large ex-servicemen’s parade at a time when the city was likely to be mobbed with football fans, with the IRA planning to take advantage of the situation.

Diplomatic solution
43On 6 October, with Jellicoe due to arrive in less than a week, the Cosgrave government attempted a diplomatic solution. Timothy A. Smiddy, the Irish high commissioner in London, was instructed by the Department of External Affairs to use his contacts in the Dominions Office to halt the public procession for Jellicoe. The potential diplomatic damage to Ireland if an attack was made on Jellicoe, to say nothing of the consequences if it were successful, could be catastrophic. The Free State was heavily involved in the Imperial Conference at the time; even worse, at the same time as the Jellicoe situation was brewing, Irish leader W.T. Cosgrave and the minister for external affairs, Patrick McGilligan, were discussing the possibility of Dominion prime ministers visiting Ireland after the Imperial Conference.

On 7, 8 and 9 October there were intense contacts between the Departments of Justice and External Affairs and the British Legion in Dublin, with frequent calls and letters from J.J. Tynan, the Legion organiser. By the 9th, Tynan had agreed to cancel the public parade. Instead, Jellicoe would be met at Drogheda and conveyed to the Mansion House in a closed car. Once at the Mansion House, he would make a speech, with loudspeakers being erected to transmit it to assembled ex-servicemen on Molesworth Street. The Garda commissioner’s office expressed its satisfaction at this, and the deputy commissioner felt that such an arrangement could be easily policed.

The reason for Tynan’s change of mind was quickly revealed by a letter from Smiddy in London. Both he and McGilligan had met J.H. Thomas, the British Dominions secretary, on the margins of the Imperial Conference on 7 October and urged him to press the British Legion to change its plans. Thomas agreed and was as good as his word: on 10 October Smiddy telegrammed Dublin to say that the British Legion HQ had instructed the Dublin branch to ‘eliminate from programme anything considered undesirable by our authorities’. An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper, took the opportunity to comment sarcastically that the ‘land admiral’ Jellicoe, ‘the warrior who lost the battle of Jutland at sea and won it subsequently in the British press’, would now be protected by Dublin Castle detectives: ‘Tommies in plain clothes’ who resented having to give up their Sunday.

The consequences of an attack on Jellicoe while in Dublin would have been incalculable. The humiliation of such a leading British figure could not have gone unanswered by London; questions over the ability of the Free State to police itself might conceivably have been raised; Irish participation in the Imperial Conference of 1930 (from which emerged the Statute of Westminster) would have been made much more difficult; and the Cumann na nGaedheal government would have faced severe pressure from Fianna Fáil, waiting in the wings, and a disgruntled London government. It could have been the most damaging diplomatic incident in Irish history—and all because of an outlandish IRA publicity stunt. HI

Bernard Kelly is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

Read More: Item of ‘peculiar construction’ discovered

Further reading
J. Jellicoe, The Jellicoe papers: selections from the private and official correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa (London, 1966).
J. Winton, Jellicoe (London, 1981).

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