By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The IRA planned to assassinate Sir John Betjeman, a future British poet laureate, when he worked as a press attache at the Dublin embassy during World War II. But he was spared because of his poetry, according to a TV documentary.
Using previously unpublished documents, the Channel 4 portrait of the "Real John Betjeman," which aired April 23, reveals that two members of the second battalion of the Dublin IRA approached Diarmuid Brennan, the IRA army council’s head of civilian intelligence, about killing him in 1941.
Betjeman, despite having what the program describes as his affable "English teddy bear" image, had been an effective spy and political analyst during his two-and-a-half year posting in neutral Dublin.
In 1967, Brennan wrote to the future laureate to tell him how close he came to death when the two IRA men approached him looking for a photograph of "a fellow called Betjeman."
"These second battalion types were known to us as the Edward Gees of the IRA, after Edward G. Robinson," Brennan said.
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Hollywood actor Robinson had specialized in playing tough-guy gangsters roles.
"I got communications describing you as dangerous and a person of menace to all of us," Brennan said. "In short, you were depicted in the blackest of colors."
Having read some of Betjeman’s work, Brennan decided to foil the would-be assassins.
Brennan wrote to the poet, "I came to the conclusion that a man who could give such pleasure with his pen couldn’t be much of a secret agent. I may well be wrong."
The program says that Brennan was indeed wrong and that Betjeman (1906-84), "beneath the cuddly exterior, was tough-minded and politically astute."
His dispatches to London showed a very good understanding of Taoiseach Eamon de Valera’s wartime neutrality policy and the workings and political leanings of IRA activists, many of whom had been interned by the government during the Emergency, as World War II was known in Ireland.
Betjeman’s spying efforts were first disclosed last year by biographer Bevis Hillier.
"It seems that Betjeman, who was very much in with the right crowd in Dublin, would work the social circles and find out who was hobnobbing with the Germans," Hillier said. "He would also look out for German sympathizers."
Betjeman was failed for active duty on medical grounds and got the Dublin press attache job under Ambassador Sir John Maffey, who later became Lord Rugby.
Best known for his nostalgic poetry and knowledge of architecture, Betjeman was knighted in 1969 and became poet laureate in 1972.
One of the people Hillier interviewed was Professor Nicholas Mansergh, of St. John’s College, Cambridge, who was in the British Colonial Office during the war.
"As soon as I arrived in his room to talk to him, he prefaced it by saying that he would not discuss whether Betjeman was a spy. I hadn’t even raised it."
Mansergh’s son Michael is one of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s closest advisers and may stand as a Fianna Fail candidate in the upcoming by-election in Tipperary South following the death of Labor TD Michael Ferris.