Colonel Dan Bryan – Ireland’s Great Intelligence Chief

Written and read by Eamonn Kiely (2018)

Military intelligence is often put forward as an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. That is to misunderstand the study. In the military context “intelligence” means processed information. If one were to see ten soldiers going across country, it would be reasonable to assume that was a section. If you saw this repeated by two equal other such troop movements, you would deduce the military body was a platoon. Dan Bryan had to deal with much more complicated matters than that, but the principle remains the same.

The future head of Irish Intelligence during the Emergency, as World War II was known in Ireland, was born on a large farm in Dunbell, Kilkenny. A product of Kilkenny CBS and UCD, at seventeen he joined the Volunteers in Dublin. His unit worked in collaboration with Michael Collins’ Squad whose job was eliminating British spies during the War of Independence. He was drafted into Intelligence as a Free State officer in the Civil War. On the return of peace the next major crisis was the Army Mutiny of 1924. This was caused by the slimming down of an Army much too big for peace time and the reduction in rank of many with inflated ranks. A considerable number of disaffected officers formed a body protesting their dismissal, in some cases, or reduction in rank in other situations. Dan Bryan and his youthful commander in Intelligence Michael Costello were well ahead of the conspirators and had the key men arrested. They even had to deal with seven such personnel in their own int department. In Sep/Oct 1923, 763 officers were dismissed. Bryan recorded that the disgruntled officers ‘were hopelessly indiscreet’. Bryan’s men had bugged the Crown Alley phone exchange and learned the full story.

Dan Bryan was so highly esteemed in the Army that he was picked to attend the Imperial Conference of 1926 at the age of twenty six. He discussed coastal defence with the British but at that time they weren’t engaging.

With the change of Government in 1932 and the coming to power of Fianna Fail many officers in the Army weren’t sure of being retained in service. As Tim Pat Coogan so colourfully describes the General Staffs dilemma on their first morning meeting the new Minister –‘Will we shoot or salute’? Fortunately, they saluted. Dan Bryan subscribed to that policy –they had fought the Civil War to uphold the lawfully elected government. They would be hypocrites were they now to alter their position.

Dan continued to serve the government loyally and efficiently through Blueshirt and IRA threats in the 30s. He was deputy director of intelligence or G2 as it was known. His section submitted a paper to Government called “Fundamental Factors affecting Irish Defence Policy 1936”. This warned of an impending war and the necessity to boost the Defence Forces. He had a Postal Interception Unit reporting to G2 by 1938. MI5, through Guy Liddel, and G2 had developed an effective operational unit before war broke out in 1939. Despite the early warning to the Government the Defence Forces were at their lowest level ever.

By 1940 the British wanted co-operation on Coast Watching –the very thing they had declined with Dan fourteen years before. Mr De Valera declared Ireland neutral in the war and like the man who walks in the middle of the road ran the risk of being run down by either or both belligerent bodies. In 1940 there was a call to arms in the State and at the height of what we called the Emergency there were 40,000 under arms. However, the Army was poorly equipped and efforts to get necessary military equipment from the usual sources were largely rejected. Our independence was on a knife edge with threats from British under Churchill, also from the maverick US Minister Grey as well as German spies parachuting in on reconnaissance and linking with the IRA.

Dan Bryan visited London in 1941 and spoke with a cabinet minister Sir John Anderson. He was now Director of Intelligence or head of G2. He seems to have successfully dissuaded Anderson from imposing conscription on Northern Ireland. Ireland’s neutrality was somewhat benign to Britain vis à vis Germany. The biggest Irish concession was the allowing of British seaplanes from Castle Archdale on the Erne to fly out over Donegal Bay clearly violating Irish airspace but saving the British hundreds of miles of travel to the Atlantic. Not alone that, but their rescue vessel Robert Hastie was allowed operate for them from Killybegs harbour. Crash landed British pilots in Ireland, who survived, were gradually released over the Northern border while German ones were held albeit in reasonable comfort in the Curragh.

Dr Herman Goertz was the most famous German spy to land in Ireland. By facilitating the captured Goertz with a much needed shower, G2 managed to extract his secret code from his temporarily abandoned trousers. The great code breaker Dr Hayes had it all sorted quickly. Dan Bryan got captured Irishman John O’Reilly to disclose to him the ciphering system he had been taught by his German handlers. Joseph Lenihan, although working for the Germans, turned himself over to the British in Northern Ireland and disclosed he was to operate a weather station from Sligo for the Germans. It is ironic that it was such a one working for Irish intelligence caused the changing by a day of D day for Allies in 1944. Irish Lookout Posts around the coast kept G2 informed of aircraft activity plus naval, including U Boats. Much of this information was discreetly passed to the British and most of their key players were aware of this and appreciated it despite an apparent belligerence from their Prime Minister to Irish policy makers.

Excellent work by our diplomats helped keep Ireland out of World War II but it is likely that no one’s contribution matched that of Col Dan Bryan, albeit very pro Allies. He was discreetly honoured by the British when invited to the May 1945 surrender of the German U boat fleet in Derry. Dan attended in civilian attire.

Sources

  • Guarding Neutral Ireland – Michael Kennedy
  • Colonel Dan Bryan and the Evolution of Irish Military Intelligence – D Biddlecombe
  • Colonel Dan Bryan – Obituary by Ellen Prendergast Old Kilkenny Review 1985
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