Added to the site, March 30th 2007
Review by Manus O'Riordan of

Leopold H. Kerney -
Irish Minister to Spain 1935 - 1946

written and compiled by Eamon Kerney (

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 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."

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 him".

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 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

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.

Manus O'Riordan