Added to the site, March 30th 2007
Review by Manus O'Riordan of
Leopold H. Kerney -
Irish Minister to Spain 1935 - 1946
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 Eamon Kerney. This is a study of his father, Leopold H.
Kerney, Irish Minister to Spain 1935 - 1946. Readers of the recently
published Volume V of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, which covers
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 Irish
Sunday Independent on December 3, 2006, Professor John A. Murphy [formerly of National University of Ireland, Cork] leaped forward from Volume V's time-frame into the later 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" had in fact been penned by Professor
Eunan O'Halpin [of Trinity College, Dublin] 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 [formerly of National University of Ireland, Dublin] 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. Veesenmayer was later convicted as a war criminal at the
Nuremberg Trials on account of his role in the Holocaust of the Hungarian Jewish
community, although he would be mysteriously released from prison by
the US authorities not long afterwards. No doubt he had his uses as an
"expert" on Eastern Europe.
The first detailed historical narrative of the issues at stake between
Kerney and Williams, including the libel proceedings themselves, had
been provided by Enno Stephan, in his book Spies in Ireland (1963). It was Sean 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 both
actively and successfully undermining the pro-Nazi and anti-de Valera machinations of the former Irish Minister to Germany, Charles Bewley. [Eamon de Valera was Ireland's wartime Prime Minister] 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.
[Note: Readers should check out this Kerney website for the following
chapters, in particular: "Frank Ryan in jail"; "Frank Ryan out of
jail"; "Frank Ryan in Germany"; "Frank Ryan's correspondence". For more on
Irish International Brigade leader Frank Ryan, see my review -
Was Frank Ryan A Collaborator? ; and see
also irelandscw/org-RyanComm.htm for my graveside
oration on 16 October, 2005 at the International Brigade Memorial Trust's commemoration of Frank Ryan - MO'R]
One later historian who did make an effort to present a balanced
account of the Williams / Kerney controversy was Professor Dermot Keogh [of
National University of Ireland, Cork] in his book 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, University College Dublin,
and member of British Intelligence during the Second World War". Moreover,
his sense of fairness moved him to not only refer to, but also to a limited degree 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 Foreign Affairs in
Dublin. Such quotes included Kerney's insight - prompted by Ryan - 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 full reproduction of that same report - entitled Conversation with a
German - on this new website. As Minister Kerney had bluntly put it to
"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
The Kerney website also quotes the following from a 1954 report to the
Department of Foreign 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 Eamon
Kerney's own research is one revealing that the British Foreign Office shared
the view that Williams had not a leg to stand on. In March 1954 Frederick
Boland, Ireland's ambassador to the UK, had been shown all of the
captured German documentation that Britain was making available to Williams for
his libel defence. Boland reported back to Dublin his own conclusion 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
Boland went on to point out to his Departmental Secretary 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 documentation from the archives of
Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs, website http://www.leopoldhkerney.com/
which is adorned with a full-colour portrait of Kerney himself - also draws on his own private papers and has now emerged as a valuable resource for
all future researchers on Ireland's wartime foreign relations.
Manus O'Riordan is Head of Research with Ireland's largest labour union, SIPTU, and is the International Brigade Memorial Trust's Executive Member for Ireland.
He has edited the second, expanded, 2005 edition of Connolly Column - the Story of the Irishmen who fought in defence of the Spanish Republic
1936-1939, authored by his late father, International Brigade veteran Michael O'Riordan [1917-2006], and first published in 1979.
The above review has been published in the March-April 2007 issue of the journal History Ireland.