Leopold H. Kerney

Written and compiled by Eamon C. Kerney

Frank Ryan's correspondence

Between then and the 13th August 1942 Ryan wrote a further six letters to Kerney, each one being delivered on the occasion of a visit by Clissmann. These visits were also the occasion of conveying news to and from Ryan's family as Kerney had done while he was in prison. Kerney considered Ryan's letters to be purely personal. In those days it was dangerous to express one's opinions in writing unless the letter was transmitted by hand, and even then, this was not totally safe. Consequently Kerney thought it prudent not to forward copies to Dublin until sometime later, after Ryan's death, [35] with one exception as noted below. Eventually the originals were lodged there, too. They are often written in a veiled language, the finer points being sometimes difficult to interpret. The first of these, dated 26th September 1941, was delivered during Kerney's absence as he was on leave in Dublin until 1st November. Apart from expressing thanks for receiving news of his family, Ryan says he recently "raised very strongly" the question of his going home but received the answer that if he went, "the respective governments of the greater and lesser islands might form wrong conclusions and might (without cause) get nervous". He concluded that he would be remaining there for quite a while.

The subsequent letter of 6th November 1941 is somewhat more lengthy and gives as his reason for the views he goes on to express the fear that Kerney might be blamed by others or indeed by his own conscience for active assistance to a "trouble-maker". He states again that he is treated as a "distinguished guest" with the status of a non-party neutral acting in a "consultative" capacity when his views are asked regarding situations and news that require interpretation. He makes the point that he is "not working for - nor even in communication with - any organisation at home", but that he only claims to represent himself, and only himself, and that he intends to maintain that attitude. Should an "improbable situation" arise in which he might be asked to "do something I don't like", he promises "I won't do the dirty". He states that "so far as I can judge" the German Foreign Office has a definite "hands-off" policy as regards Ireland and that twice in 1940 things were done behind their backs. He also says that he doesn't write to Gerald O'Reilly for fear of endangering the latter's personal safety. Towards the end of 1941 the Department asked Kerney to enquire about the circumstances of Sean Russell's death which was the subject of many rumours at the time. It was known that Russell had been in Germany and Kerney took the opportunity when replying to Ryan's letter of the 6th November to ask discreetly if he could shed some light on the matter. He wrote:

"I do not want to betray any confidences, but I would greatly like to have your permission to make discreet use of some statements which would surely be welcomed by some and the divulgation of which could hurt nobody and injure no interests. And the death a long time ago of a friend of yours is a matter about which there is so much rumour, speculation and doubt that it would greatly clear the air to throw some light on the circumstances and establish the fact beyond yea or nay." [36]

Following this there are two letters dated 14th January 1942. The shorter one is a reply to the request for information on Sean Russell's death and is obviously meant for "official" eyes. He states:

"The rumour of Sean's death which you have heard is unfortunately true. He died of an ulcerated stomach on August 14, 1940, after a final acute illness of four days. (He had - as he told me - suffered previously from "stomach trouble".) I was with him, day and night, throughout his illness, and I can vouch that he received all the attention that was possible.

For reasons that you will readily appreciate, it is unwise to mention such details as place of death, and names of others present during his final illness. My word has - for some time yet - to suffice as proof." [37]

A copy of this was immediately forwarded to Dublin. The other is marked "Personal". In it he sets out his views regarding events in Ireland based on two main points: First, in the present national crisis country must come before party, a unified command is essential, and de Valera should get 100% support in his neutrality policy. Second, those (including himself) who disagree with his social and economic programme and who are suspicious of his political programme should organise to form eventually "a more extreme Republican government." He doesn't, however, comment on how they should "organise" to achieve this end. Once again he stresses that he is not working for any party or organisation, nor is he the successor to "any one who has passed away" (i.e. Sean Russell), but nor is he for the Fianna Fail party. He says that he would like to be home "so that I can play a part.....in unifying my friends to support Dev in his foreign policy, while reserving our rights to differ on other matters." However, in Germany "they raise the objection that my appearance at home, now, would make Bull think I'm coming with 'orders of the day', and that a crisis would be precipitated." In his reply, dated 20th January 1942, Kerney wrote:

"The last home papers I received were dated October; you are more fortunate than myself in that respect and have more up-to-date information on general matters.
D's attitude is that, as the Constitution removes all obstacles from the path of those who could, if they got the support of the people, easily remove him from office and change the country's policy, he cannot admit cooperation on any other than constitutional lines; to connive at violence by a minority would be to leave the way clear for violence by other minorities and would lead to anarchy and disaster; ..... If you were at home, I imagine you would be closely controlled, not because of your social or economic ideas, but because there are some who would welcome Jerry - and damn the consequences - and then as some suspect D., mistakenly, others would suspect you, mistakenly, because of your new friendships. D. must be on the alert from all sides, and there is at least some foundation for his suspicions;" [38]

Of the two remaining letters, the first dated 14th May 1942 says very little except that time hangs heavily on his hands. The last letter, marked "private" and dated 13th August 1942, mentions that he knows - illegally - of another visitor to Madrid. It is obvious that Ryan knows this person fairly well. He says that he is more capable than he appears, and that he has been persistent and successful in preventing dealings with certain people "in the little island". He continues: "He has the extraordinary gift of quickly understanding a small-national problem; hence, I presume his visit now to you." He also writes: "I noted a reference to our old friend Owen. It is certainly not for want of trying that his ambitions to star as 'a revolutionary Generalissimo' are not today realised. ..... I have supplied pungent biographies of him and of Bewley who, last year, showed signs of activity in a neighbouring country. I have every reason to believe that neither are taken note of, in authoritative quarters. (Incidentally, to the bearer of this as well as to me, goes the credit for that.)"[39] The contents of this letter, as of all the others, would of course have been known at least to Clissmann.

It should be noted that on the occasion of Clissmann's visits, the ostensible reason was his work for the Exchange Service, but having joined the Brandenburger Regiment he was now working for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence, Kerney being unaware of this. As a consequence of this, when current affairs were discussed in the normal course of events during his visits, Clissmann reported the contents of these conversations to his authorities as information on Irish views on the war and on Irish-German relations. These reports were passed on, summarised and edited and sometimes the contents may have been distorted by the time they found their way into the official documents.

In January 1943 Frank Ryan suffered a stroke and while he eventually made a partial recovery, he spent the rest of his life in and out of hospitals until his death in June 1944. Also around this time the tide of war turned against Germany and there was no further contact between Ryan and Kerney.

[35] NAI, D/FA File A20/4: Letter to Boland dated 22nd January 1945
[36] Kerney Private Papers: Letter dated 10th November 1941
[37] Kerney Private Papers: Copy of Frank Ryan's letter
[38] Kerney Private Papers
[39] NAI, D/FA file A20/4 (Frank Ryan's letters)