Category: Archive

Hawaii doc is on trail of 1920s IRA

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The papers were the thousands donated by the family of Maurice Twomey, the longest-serving IRA chief of staff (the 10 years from 1926).
The alma mater was University College Dublin, from which Mahon qualified as a medical doctor 25 years ago.
And the discovery was a treasure trove of coded material relating to a crucial moment in the IRA’s history, the years 1925-1928.
It casts new light on several subjects, notably the organization’s increasing marginalization as the new Fianna F_il party grew in Ireland; its sale of U.S. and British military secrets to the Soviet Union; its acquisition of information on chemical weapons; and its use of the Kerry football team’s 1927 tour of America for fundraising purposes.
“These are documents that should have been destroyed,” said Mahon, who works as a consultant radiologist in Honolulu.
“Actually getting the working documents of a revolutionary organization, I think, is virtually unique,” he said.
Certainly, the IRA’s predecessors in the Irish Republican Brotherhood never kept written minutes. And given that the lieutenants of the IRB’s last leader, Michael Collins, were now running the police and army of the new independent state, filing away such papers was undoubtedly careless.
Mahon said that all military and paramilitary organizations display ingenuity and incompetence to varying degrees, and the documents he found reveal plenty of both.
With the UCD archivist’s permission, he contacted the National Security Agency in the U.S., which directed him in turn to the American Cryptogram Association. The latter organization distributed three samples to its membership.
“One of the messages came back within an hour or two from Jim Gillogly,” he said.
Mahon recalled the translation: “‘Send the stuff to Mrs. McSweeney in Harold’s Cross [the Dublin neighborhood], a greengrocer, and make it look like fruit.’
“The ‘stuff’ is always a euphemism for explosives,” he said. “I knew that Jim was onto something.”
Mahon then joined forces with Gillogly, America’s best-known civilian cryptologist, to write “Decoding the IRA.”
Gillogly came to national prominence in 1999 when he became the first person to publicly solve a challenge set by the CIA when he deciphered the first three sections on the Kryptos sculpture at its Langley, Va., headquarters.
Cryptography is something of a sideline for computer scientist Gillogly, just as history is for Mahon.
The latter spends his free time away from sunny Honolulu doing research in archives in Ireland. In fact, he makes several trips to Ireland annually, and is a regular visitor to New York where he has family.
Mahon, who moved to the United States in 1989, met his wife Sui Lan, a Hawaiian of Chinese heritage, when they were both working as radiologists in Los Angeles. They relocated to Honolulu in 2003 so that their son Tommy, now 10, could be raised near his grandparents and cousins.
Born in Liverpool in 1959 to a dentist mother and a doctor father, and raised in Dublin, Mahon himself remembers his own maternal grandfather as a “very kind, jovial man, with a great sense of humor, and a great raconteur.”
Tom Crofts, of course, had a storied past. He led the IRA’s Active Service Unit in Cork City during the War of Independence. He took the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War and played a leading role in ending it.
Crofts was one of the vast majority of republicans, his grandson said, who followed Eamon de Valera when he formed his new constitutional party, Fianna F_il. (Later on, Crofts, who died in 1971, helped launch the career of future Taoiseach Jack Lynch.)
“They were devastated by the defeat in the Civil War and the majority didn’t fight that hard anyway,” he said. “They were really traumatized by it from every point of view.”
They believed, he continued, that the IRA’s militarism “wasn’t going to go anywhere; wasn’t going to get them a Republic.”
Even though most had left its ranks, the IRA was able to leverage its fame to do deals with the Soviets in a desperate attempt to get arms and money.
Meanwhile on the home front, the organization discussed such harebrained plans as taking power in Dublin through the aid of a gas attack.
Mahon’s book also shows the human dimension to the story. Twomey, for example, showed real concern about his comrade Michael Price who was suffering from depression in prison. “It was said that he took all the problems of Ireland on his shoulders,” Mahon said.
His plight was the subject of “very sweet, poignant letters,” he added.
Price was a “very dedicated and very serious person,” who later became a leader of the IRA’s socialist faction. The left, Mahon added, had no real base in the movement, but the IRA needed a social policy to compete with Fianna F_il. In reality, there was a tacit alliance between Twomey’s centrists and the hard-line militarists on the army council. (The leftists eventually walked away in 1934 to form the short-lived Republican Congress. Price joined the Labor Party in 1936).
In any event, the IRA found it difficult to combat the enormous popularity of de Valera. One New York leader, for instance, reported in despair that 90 percent of the city’s republicans regarded his policy favorably.
During the Civil War, de Valera controversially allowed the IRA to make the running. “In this period [1925-1928], it’s very impressive how he reasserted himself very strongly. And he was streets ahead of the army council in terms of ability,” Mahon said.
One IRA leader though — referred to in the coded documents as “Mr. Ambrose” — was obviously a highly talented operative. However, Sean MacBride, too, would in time abandon the organization.
“Ultimately I’m trying to say something serious about the nature of society and violence in the book and to look at issues such as tolerance,” the author said.
“It’s a peek into a very shadowy world,” Mahon said, adding, “Jim [Gillogly] compared it to looking into a keyhole.”

“Decoding the IRA” is published by Mercier Press and available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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