British intelligence in Ireland was especially keen to spy on and infiltrate the world of advanced nationalism once war commenced in 1914. However, it seems the British and their local supporters were more successful in gathering intelligence than in using it.
The plainclothes G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had run a large number of agents in the city since the mid-nineteenth century. G division was based opposite the Crampton Merorial at the end of D’Olier Street, in what is now Pearse Street Garda station. The DMP crest can still be seen above the door. Michael Collins’s “squad” was later to assassinate a fair number of G men who were actually not that hard to identify as many had spent years visibly shadowing nationalist suspects.
In February 1916 intelligence reports forwarded to Dublin Castle from the DMP contained reports received from an agent within the IRB codenamed Redmond. It seems intelligence officers had a sense of humour, or could it perhaps have revealed something of their outlook?
Informers were only one method used. The opening and examining of suspects’ mail was conducted on a large scale. Overall, the intelligence gathered gave clear warning of the Rising but, for a variety of reasons, the Castle was unable to act on the intelligence it received in a coherent and effective manner. An essay in Irish Historical Studies by Ben Novick describes the intelligence-gathering scene in the two years before 1916:
The briefest examination of postal censorship files remaining in the Public Record Office shows clearly how far-reaching this censorship was. A list of men and women under censorship in December 1915 reads like a Who’s Who of advanced nationalism before the Easter Rising. Every leader of the rising, with the notable exception of the Pearse brothers, had his or her post censored at some point in the first twenty-one months of the First World War. Packets addressed to Sir Roger Casement were being intercepted and pulled apart as early as January 1915. Also in January 1915, acting under the advice of Major Price, Brigadier Greenfield, aide-de-camp to Major-General Friend, asked for, and received, warrants for the seizure of all post addressed to or issuing from either 41 Kildare Street, the headquarters of the Sinn Fein organisation, or 12 D’Olier Street, the old offices of the I.R.B. newspaper Irish Freedom. All information gleaned from these numerous letters and packets was written up in memo form and neatly filed away in the voluminous ‘personality’ files of Dublin Castle intelligence.
Newly opened at the Public Record Office, these files show clearly that information about the planned rising was revealed to the British months before it actually occurred. Even the older postal censorship files show that the British authorities and the D.M.P had succeeded in riddling the I.R.B. with informers by the winter of 1916. These informers reported regularly to their handlers, usually men in the G Division of the D.M.P., and occasionally their reports resulted in further cases of postal censorship. Intelligence reports from the G Division to Nathan in February 1916 reported on information gleaned from an informant within the I.R.B. and Clan na Gael ironically code-named ‘Redmond’: “I saw ‘Redmond’ on night of above date [3 February 1916]. He says that the Volunteers are now becoming very active, and organising work is being pushed ahead with vigour. There is apparent pressure being brought to bear on the leaders by the Clan-na-Gael executive to be ready for some move. Instructions on mobilising are being issued, and the organisers throughout the country have been requested to look to the equipment and efficiency of every Branch.”
Extract from: “Postal Censorship in Ireland, 1914-16”, Ben Novick: Irish Historical Studies, Vol 31, No 123 (May, 1999)