Leopold H. Kerney, Irish Minister to Spain 1935–1946

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Reviews, The Emergency, Volume 15

Leopold H. Kerney, Irish Minister to Spain 1935–1946
Éamon Kerney (ed.)

In this era of new technology, not all works of historical research end up in printed form. One recent publication that to date has only a website existence is by Éamon Kerney. This is a study of his father, Leopold H. Kerney, Irish minister to Spain 1935–46. Readers of the just-published Volume V of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, which cover the years 1937 to 1939, will find fascinating correspondence from Minister Kerney concerning the course of the Spanish Civil War and Irish involvement on both sides, based on the contacts that Kerney himself maintained on all fronts. That the creation of a new Leopold H. Kerney website could not be more timely is evidenced by the fact that, in a review for the Sunday Independent on 3 December 2006, Professor John A. Murphy leaps forward from Volume V’s time-frame into the Second World War period in order to denounce Kerney as a man ‘recently described by one Irish historian as a “monumental fool”’.
This not-so-recent description is in fact from Professor Eunan O’Halpin in his book Defending Ireland (1999), but it is a view also shared, if not so pejoratively expressed, by both Mark Hull in Irish secrets (2003) and John P. Duggan in Herr Hempel at the Irish Legation (2003). All three historians seem to share the assessment of Kerney published by the late Professor T. Desmond Williams in a 1953 series of articles for which, however, Kerney was to successfully sue Williams in the following year. The libel in question consisted of Williams’s spin on a meeting that Kerney had held in Madrid in August 1942 with Edmund Veesenmayer of the German Foreign Office, a man later convicted as a war criminal at Nuremberg, although shortly afterwards released by the US authorities.
The first detailed historical narrative of the issues at stake and the libel proceedings themselves had been provided by Enno Stephan in his Spies in Ireland (1963). It was Seán Cronin, in his biography Frank Ryan (1980), who would, in turn, be the first to make use of the wartime correspondence between Kerney in Madrid and Frank Ryan in Berlin. Ryan kept Kerney informed of how he was actively undermining the pro-Nazi and anti-de Valera machinations of the former Irish minister to Germany, Charles Bewley. No less importantly, Ryan gave Kerney advance warning that his meeting with Veesenmayer would be with a top official ‘far more capable than he appears’ and whose ‘attitude on all questions is that of his chief’—in other words, Hitler himself.
One later historian who did make an effort to present a balanced account of the Williams/Kerney controversy was Professor Dermot Keogh in his Ireland and Europe (1988). Notwithstanding his affectionate dedication of that book ‘in memory of T. Desmond Williams’, Keogh did not adopt the coyness of others but openly acknowledged the dual career of Williams as both ‘former Professor of Modern History, UCD, and member of British Intelligence during the Second World War’. Moreover, his sense of fairness moved him not only to refer to, but also to a limited degree to quote from, the full report of his meeting with Veesenmayer that Kerney wrote up on that very day and promptly forwarded to the Department of External Affairs in Dublin, including his insight that ‘if I had looked under the table’, Veesenmayer ‘might have been capable of disclosing something in the nature of a cloven foot’.
Kerney won his libel action, with Williams unreservedly conceding defeat, despite the fact that Kerney had been denied any access by his department to even a copy of his own report, while the British Foreign Office freely put at Williams’s disposal all the corresponding captured German documentation. The fact that O’Halpin, Hull and Duggan make no mention whatsoever of the 1942 Kerney report cited by Keogh makes all the more timely the fuller presentation of that report on this new website. As Minister Kerney had bluntly put 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 of concessions of any kind.’

The Kerney website also quotes the following from a 1954 report to the Department of External Affairs by Conor Cruise-O’Brien on an interview he had conducted with Veesenmayer’s right-hand man, Kurt Haller:
‘Mr Haller says that he saw Mr Veesenmayer’s report on his visit and that it was, from the German point of view, “disappointing”. Mr Kerney had simply adopted the formally correct attitude of a neutral head of mission and declined to hold out any hope that Ireland would be likely to come in on the German side, or at all. This account runs, of course, contrary to the versions published by Professor Desmond Williams in his articles in the Leader and in the Irish Press.’

But perhaps the most significant new document unearthed by Éamon Kerney’s own research is one revealing that the British Foreign Office was also of the opinion that Williams had not a leg to stand on. In March 1954 Frederick Boland, Irish ambassador to London, had been shown all of the captured German documentation that Britain was making available to Williams for his libel defence, and he concluded that ‘if Professor Williams is relying on these . . . to substantiate the allegations he made in his articles, I doubt whether he will find them of much use to him’. Furthermore, in reporting back to his departmental secretary, Boland pointed out that the British Foreign Office’s legal adviser had also

‘expressed the opinion that the papers on the file did not, in his view, justify the criticism of Mr Kerney which had been made in Professor Williams’s articles in the Leader and in the Irish Press. The legal adviser commented that Mr Kerney’s attitude, in the conversations he had with the emissaries from Germany, seemed to him to have been cautious and perfectly proper in every way.’

Apart from such hitherto unpublished Department of External Affairs documentation, the website www.leopoldhkerney.com—adorned with a full-colour portrait of Kerney himself—also draws on his own private papers and has emerged as a valuable resource for all future researchers on Ireland’s wartime foreign relations.

Manus O’Riordan is Head of Research with SIPTU.


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