THE BIG BOOK: IRELAND’S REVOLUTIONARY DIPLOMAT: a biography of Leopold Kerney

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2019), Volume 27

BARRY WHELAN
University of Notre Dame Press
€74.90
ISBN 9780268105051

Reviewed by Manus O’Riordan

I approached this review with a certain degree of apprehension. I had previously commented on Leopold H. Kerney for History Ireland on three occasions—my Spring 2003 review of Fearghal McGarry’s biography of Frank Ryan; my March–April 2007 review of the Leopold H. Kerney website edited by his son Éamon, who was also a godson of de Valera and who passed away in July 2018; and my participation in the February 2012 History Ireland Hedge School on Frank Ryan. I had rejected Fearghal McGarry’s Nazi ‘collaborator’ charge against Frank Ryan and disputed Prof. Eunan O’Halpin’s contention, in his 1999 book Defending Ireland, that Kerney had been ‘a monumental fool’ in meeting with the notorious Nazi Edmund Veesenmayer in Madrid in 1942. My arguments depended on the then available documentary evidence, and I had been particularly indebted to Seán Cronin’s 1980 biography, Frank Ryan—the search for the Republic, for publishing the wartime Ryan–Kerney correspondence 28 years before any Kerney reports on Ryan began appearing in the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, with Michael Kennedy as Executive Editor and Eunan O’Halpin as a co-editor. I had been similarly indebted to Éamon Kerney for publishing, in full and six years before its appearance in the Documents series, the report that his father had forwarded to Joseph Walshe, Department of External Affairs secretary, on the very day of his 1942 meeting with Veesenmayer.

My apprehension centred on the cover of Whelan’s biography—showing Kerney about to present his diplomatic credentials to Franco in April 1939 and surrounded by regime officials with arms raised in the fascist salute. Although applauding the tireless zeal with which he had sought to save the life and secure the release of Ryan, I had never presumed Kerney himself to have been an ideological anti-fascist. As Irish minister to the Spanish Republic, his April and May 1936 reports to Walshe, which Kennedy was to reproduce in the Documents series in 2004, had anticipated the outbreak of civil war in July 1936, and there was a ‘plague on both their houses’ suggestion in his remarks that ‘the spirit of civil war is very manifest and is due to the fact that the extreme left believes in the policy of completely crushing the extreme right, and vice versa’. In the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Kennedy wrote that for the duration of the civil war ‘Kerney remained accredited to the Madrid [sic] government’. (The Republican government had actually moved to Valencia in November 1936.) Kennedy, however, next proceeded to charge that Kerney ‘did not attempt to hide his preferences for Franco and the nationalists’, and that ‘in March 1937 he unsuccessfully suggested to de Valera that Dublin recognise Franco before the collapse of the republican forces’. How true was this? I myself had failed to find any such interpretation in what had been published of Kerney’s March 1937 reports in Documents. Yet, on the other hand, how convincing should one consider Whelan’s caption to his cover photo that readers should ‘note that Kerney himself did not give an upright fascist salute’? Was this just special pleading?

All the more reason to read Whelan’s biography from cover to cover, not least because of this publication’s inadequate index. Whelan was particularly fortunate in being given complete access to Kerney’s private papers, but the reader further benefits from the fact that he accessed the Spanish Foreign Ministry Archives that paralleled Kerney’s own reports on relations between Franco’s Spain and de Valera’s Ireland, and which function as a commentary on the same. The author also went on to highlight key wartime reports from Kerney to Walshe that the editors of Documents had not seen fit to publish. Whelan tells the life story of a talented man, first picked out by Arthur Griffith to serve as Dáil Éireann’s trade representative to France, then victimised by the Cosgrave government for failure to swear loyalty to the Free State, but later reinstated to the diplomatic service after de Valera, his closest of political and family friends, had ousted Cosgrave in 1932. In this era of concerns about the trade implications of Brexit, it is indeed refreshing to learn how Kerney had been a visionary in seeking out export markets beyond Britain. Kerney further advocated direct shipping routes that would bypass Britain, and put his own money where his mouth was in an admittedly short-lived Cork to Brest shipping venture almost two decades before Irish Shipping would see the light of day.

Kerney’s journey towards constitutional republicanism represented a break with his family background. His father, Philip, had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism on marriage, was sub-editor of the Daily Express in Ireland for over 40 years, and also became editor of the West British Weekly Irish Times. Leopold’s older brother, Henry, was a thoroughgoing empire loyalist who served as a British civil servant on the Reparations Commission in Berlin after the First World War, who denounced the Irish War of Independence as a case of a mere ‘wolfhound’ taking on the gigantic ‘elephant’ of the Empire and who was a frequent anti-republican contributor to the Irish Times. Leopold himself, however, broke with a family tradition that he characterised as an ‘anglicised atmosphere of contented provincialism’. The decisive historical event in Kerney’s development was the December 1918 general election, and he was to recall with pride how Arthur Griffith had ‘handed me my credentials as trade representative to France from the elected government of the Irish Republic’.

There is indeed a villain in the narrative—Joseph Walshe, who resented having been a subordinate to Kerney as Dáil Éireann’s trade representative in Paris, who loathed Kerney’s reinstatement by Dev to the 1930s diplomatic service and who set out, as Kerney’s boss, to exact his revenge in ways both repetitively petty and scandalously foul. Prof. Desmond Williams had come to University College Dublin from wartime British intelligence and his 1953 libellous articles, which led to a successful lawsuit on Kerney’s part, had not emerged from a vacuum. Whelan reveals how, for the purpose of his libel, Williams had been briefed against Kerney by both Walshe and the very over-rated Colonel Dan Bryan of G2 military intelligence. Whelan takes particular issue with how both Kennedy and O’Halpin have treated the Kerney v. Williams libel action, and he provides chapter and verse to demonstrate how Kerney and de Valera had been perfectly ad idem as to Irish foreign policy in respect of both Nazi Germany and Fascist Spain.

As regards Nazi Germany, Whelan is particularly scathing that, for all their denunciations of Kerney for meeting with Veesenmayer, ‘at no stage did O’Halpin quote the Kerney report’, and Kennedy also failed to take a single quote from any section of Kerney’s 24 August 1942 report. Yet Kerney had won his libel action, with Williams unreservedly conceding defeat. For Kerney had bluntly put it to Veesenmayer:

‘I told him that the public declarations of the Taoiseach proved clearly that Ireland would resist the violation of our neutrality by Americans, English or Germans, that if Germany were to be the aggressor, England would, in her own interest, come to Ireland’s assistance. There could be no question of us abandoning neutrality in exchange for concessions of any kind.’

Whelan breaks completely new ground in being particularly revealing as to Kerney’s views on Franco fascism. Without a shadow of a doubt, he has indeed forced me to agree that one should never judge a book by its cover! Whelan records how, in a letter to his brother Maurice as late as August 1938, Kerney wrote that, if there was any question of recognising Franco, ‘this is NOT the moment to do so, and I hope wiser counsels will prevail’. Only after Franco had finally conquered Barcelona in January 1939 did Kerney advise Dublin on the practicality of now beginning the process of recognising his victory. Accredited to Madrid two months later as Irish minister to Fascist Spain, we are left in no doubt as to how he himself felt about the dominant atmosphere. Whelan points out how Kerney abstained from ever making an ‘outstretched arm’ fascist salute at official occasions, notwithstanding other members of the diplomatic corps falling into line with that practice, while telling Maurice how he wished he could have shown his regard for the defeated Spanish Republic ‘by saluting with his clenched fist’.

Secretary Walshe enthusiastically adhered to the contrary viewpoint, and firmly instructed Kerney to personally hand Franco a telegram from the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland with its ‘congratulations on his glorious victory in Spain’. In his Dictionary of Irish Biography entry, Kennedy maintained that Kerney’s ‘wartime reports contained much rumour and gossip about events in Madrid … lacking in analysis when compared to those of his contemporaries in the Irish diplomatic service’. Whelan begs to differ. Kerney furnished Walshe with report after report that detailed evidence of ongoing executions, in what historian Sir Paul Preston would sum up in the title of his 2011 magnum opus as The Spanish Holocaust: inquisition and extermination in twentieth-century Spain. Kerney began reporting back on such mass executions in July 1939. There were three separate reports that November, with a doctor’s eyewitness report of 50 executions in one night and Kerney himself regularly hearing such executions through the night. A similar report was sent in March 1940. Four separate reports were sent in 1943, headed either ‘Death Sentences’ or ‘Executions’. Six years after the Spanish Civil War had been declared officially over, Kerney reported on yet more mass executions in January 1945, and again in June 1945. Whelan is astonished ‘that Walshe remained silent on these reports and took no action beyond filing them away’.

On one occasion Whelan relies too exclusively on what Kerney had chosen to report to Walshe. This was on the July 1940 transfer of Frank Ryan from his Spanish prison into the custody of the German Abwehr and how Kerney had paid the Spanish lawyer’s expenses to accompany the convoy to the Franco-Spanish border, so as to ensure that Ryan would not be shot in the back while ‘escaping’. The reality was even more dramatic than that, for Kerney himself had also secretly followed the convoy at a discreet distance and Ryan had raised his hand in the slightest of farewell waves, as revealed in Cronin’s 1980 biography, which also reproduced the 1963 letter from Kerney’s widow confirming his eyewitness role. But that is a minor quibble regarding Whelan’s biography of Kerney, where his meticulous research successfully upends what has hitherto prevailed as academia’s received ‘wisdom’.

Manus O’Riordan is Ireland Secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust.

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