Leopold H. Kerney

Written and compiled by Eamon C. Kerney

Conversation with a German

During one of his visits to Madrid, possibly in January 1942, Clissmann mentioned that he knew an influential man who was interested in Irish affairs and he thought he could make a valuable contact. Kerney agreed to see him deeming an exchange of views could be of some importance. Accordingly when Clissmann made a subsequent visit in August he was accompanied by a man he introduced as a Mr. Veesenmayer [40] . Some historians have suggested that Kerney could have checked Veesenmayer's identity with the Legation in Berlin but this was of course impossible as in the first instance he did not know the name beforehand and in any case coded messages were anything but secure. They have also suggested that Kerney should not have agreed to meet a German official. This suggestion denotes a surprising ignorance of a diplomat's function of which an important part consists in gathering information. As a diplomat, Kerney never refused to meet anyone; to do so would be most improper and could even amount to a dereliction of duty. [41] To ensure privacy and avoid eavesdropping he arranged to meet the German at an open air café in the Retiro park at 11 a.m. on Monday 24th August. [42] The conversation ranged over a number of topics including Germany's aims and expectations and then turned to Ireland's position. Kerney was of course aware that his interlocutor was likely to be anything but well intentioned, and he left him in no doubt that Ireland would resist the violation of her neutrality from whatever quarter. His report of the conversation, written the same day, states:

"I told him that the public declarations of the Taoiseach proved clearly that Ireland would resist the violation of her neutrality by Americans, English or Germans, and that he lost no opportunity of warning the people that they must be ready at all times to find themselves suddenly at war, of which no previous declaration would be made; that he had also expressed publicly the view that, if Germany were to be the aggressor, England would, in her own interest, come to Ireland's assistance. ..... There could be no question for us of abandoning neutrality in exchange for concessions of any kind. We believed that if either of the belligerent sides attacked us, this would be playing into the hands of the opposing side. ..... As I had had time and opportunity during the past 25 years to form a fairly reliable opinion of him (Mr. de Valera), I was absolutely convinced that neither the years that had passed nor the life of a parliamentarian which he had led during recent years would lessen in any degree his power of decision, his readiness for action or his spirit of sacrifice in the face of new dangers which might arise."

As regards partition, "Ireland's ambitions were limited to recovering its territorial integrity, securing complete independence for a united Ireland and friendly relations with all nations and more particularly - because of our geographical situation and our economic necessities - with our nearest neighbour, England." Kerney pointed out that if Germany was sincerely desirous of helping Ireland, it was a pity that they had sunk some of the ships such as the "City of Bremen" and others, nor was it helpful to drop parachutists in an attempt to form contacts without the knowledge of the Government. As regards Frank Ryan, if he were to return to Ireland, it would be prudent on the part of the authorities to have him watched or even interned as otherwise his return might be misinterpreted and cause complications. In any case he should not be allowed to return to Ireland without the Irish Government's knowledge and consent. [43]

Veesenmayer no doubt expected to lay the groundwork for securing Irish co-operation in the case of a German invasion of England but he got no encouragement from the Irish side and according to Clissmann he came away disappointed, stating that Kerney was "not a revolutionary Irishman any longer, but a very careful family man". [44] The Germans were thus actively discouraged from their plans to unite the I.R.A. and the Irish government in an action against England. This conversation - and there was only one such meeting - was turned into "negotiations" by some historians. There was in fact nothing to negotiate about and it consisted only in an exchange of views. [45]

The meeting lasted for a couple of hours and as soon as he got home, Kerney personally typed a lengthy confidential report and sent it to the Department of External Affairs by the diplomatic bag. This of course was always exposed to violation in the post by the intelligence service of one country or another, but he considered that interception of the document could produce no ill effects other than show that he had met a high-placed German. He had already rubbed shoulders with the heads of the British, American and Spanish intelligence services in Madrid. The report did not call for a reply, nor did it receive any acknowledgement or reply. During a subsequent visit to Ireland in February 1943 the matter was not referred to in any way by any official of the Department nor by the Taoiseach, who was also Minister for External Affairs. [46]

On the 21st July 1943, on the way to visit family members near Bordeaux, Kerney had a brief meeting with Clissmann and Veesenmayer at 8.30 a.m. in Biarritz. The latter would have been aware of his presence in the vicinity and arranged this meeting at which Kerney stated that he had sent a full report but that it had not evoked any reply or comment nor was it referred to during his visit to Dublin. Veesenmayer appeared disappointed and there was nothing more to discuss. Kerney did not meet Clissmann again until after the war. [47]

[40] It is stated in the introduction to Vol. VII of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (p.xvi) that "in 1942 the Department of External Affairs learned via British intelligence channels that Leopold Kerney, Ireland's Minister in Madrid, was meeting German agents". This refers to two distinct events. In the first instance Helmut Clissmann made several visits to Madrid and called to see Kerney who received him, not as a German agent but as a pre-war friend bringing news of Frank Ryan. The second event, presumably referred to here, was the meeting with Veesenmayer. Whether British intelligence knew of this meeting and communicated it to the Irish authorities and if so at what date is not clear. One way or the other this is a very tendentious statement as it omits to mention that on the very day of the meeting Kerney wrote a very comprehensive report to the Department (reproduced on page 231 of this Volume). This was his only meeting with a German agent as such apart from a further brief encounter at which he made it clear that there was nothing further to discuss. Far from trying to "open a new chapter in Irish-German relations" as mentioned further in the same paragraph, his only purpose was to listen to anything the German might have to say and to make very plain Ireland's policy of neutrality which would be defended against all comers.

Again in the same paragraph it is stated that in the 1950s "it was suggested in sections of the Irish media that he had overstepped the boundaries of diplomatic practice with his contacts with these agents". This refers to a single set of articles by Professor Desmond Williams in which he made a number of allegations without quoting a single reference and no mention is made in this paragraph of the subsequent libel action following which Professor Willliams had to withdraw his allegations. This omission is somewhat incomprehensible.and does not reflect well on an otherwise interesting and valuable publication.
[41] Kerney Private Papers: Notes by L.H.Kerney dated 29th October 1954
[42] Kerney Private Papers: Memorandum dated 23rd July 1953
[43] NAI, D/FA File A47, report 24/8/42
[44] Kerney Private Papers: Notes by Helmut Clissmann dated 23rd April 1954
[45] ibid. Clissmann was present at the meeting.
[46] Kerney Private Papers: Memorandum by L.H.Kerney dated 23rd July 1953
[47] ibid.