- Mad, bad and dangerous to know? Perhaps Jim O'Donovan was all three. Perhaps he is best understood as a disturbed product of his disturbed times, but there is no doubt he was disturbed. Irish Independent review.
So begins the 29th November 2012 ‘updated’ Independent.ie review of the book by David O’Donaghue on the life of IRA man Jim O’Donovan. The review then proceeds to give an extremely short and somewhat negative and sensationalist account of the Nazi connections which O’Donovan and his WW2 IRA compatriots formulated in an attempt to enlist German aid to reunify Ireland. It is a review which unfortunately in its preoccupation with attacking the subject of the book, actually gets somewhat sidetracked from reviewing the book itself, concentrating on historical facts at the expense of the human story so vividly presented in the book. Rather than giving an objective assessment of what O’Donoghue has produced the review merely gives us a few brief paragraphs on anti IRA Nazi sentiment in what looks like something rescued from the cutting room floor. This does the book and the author a great disservice indeed.
Having lifted O’Donoghue’s book ‘The Devil’s Deal – The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O’Donovan’ two days ago, I was unable to put it down until I finished it late last night. The book is an easy to read account of Jim O’Donovan’s life which is full of primary source material both from historical intelligence archives and from first hand interview accounts of former comrades and protagonists alike. An enthralling read for the Irish historical and political enthusiast which gives a first-hand insight into not only the trajectory of the life of Jim O’Donovan but the inner workings and personality clashes within the IRA during the white heat of conflict from which the modern Irish State was forged. It also sadly details the splits and vicious antagonisms of the civil war and how they poisoned human relations beyond that period.
We get a picture of the young Irishman O’Donovan educated by the Jesuits in Scotland and who as a teenager at the onset of WW1 applied like countless others to join the Royal Navy, only for his application to be graciously declined after failing an eye test. His father’s employer relocated him and subsequently the family back to Ireland and Jim enrolled in UCD as a Science (chemistry) student. This happened just in time for the Rising and the War of Independence. The reader gets an intriguing insight into the republican sympathy of many of the UCD professors, who turned a blind eye to chemical experiments of a highly questionable nature taking place after school hours in the labs; a heartwarming revelation for this reader (a revelation which may elevate UCD’s esteem as an institution considerably in some readers’ estimations.) Jim O’Donovan was to quickly go from anti 1916 Rising to becoming the DC (Director of Chemicals) on the IRA GHQ staff after the transformation of feeling in the country post executions. It was a career choice which cost him most of his right hand during the Civil War.
The book because of all the primary source information from comrades, foes and relevant historical data from the time of the events takes us on a journey of a man who once committed never altered his course. He refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Free State and stuck rigidly to the technicality that the second Dail had not reconvened to confer power to the third Dail and therefore the legitimate government of Ireland lay with the IRA. Even as he was interned by the Free State and later remarked that whilst on hunger – strike he ‘outdid Jesus’ by fasting for 41 days, and even whilst watching his brother become a Diplomat and many former comrades carve out successful careers post treaty, he never recanted. The book takes us on O’Donovan’s journey with the likes of Ryan and Russell attempting once again to forge links with England’s enemy, Germany, in a time of war. He visits Germany three times during 1939, twice accompanied by his wife who was a sister of Kevin Barry. During this time he was also the architect, unknown to De Valera and the ESB who employed him, of the S-Plan in which a bombing campaign was unleashed upon England during 1939-1940. It was not as some suggested a German inspired plot, rather an attempt by the IRA to attract German attention to a potential ally.
The book takes the reader on an emotional journey which goes from youthful adventure and amusement through the pain of falling out with comrades and an ugly civil war. He called Collins and Mulcahy traitors at meetings to their faces and refused to withdraw the accusation. He supported Dev tacitly in 1932 only to feel betrayed again when the FF government did not reinvigorate the IRA as he had hoped. Ultimately it is the story of a man who would make a deal with any power if he thought it would bring about the 32 county free Ireland he wished and fought for. It paints a story of a man so rigid in his politics that he brings problems upon himself unnecessarily and which might be better avoided. In truth there seems to be an underlying feeling that former comrades, friends and foes alike now in government positions, did as much as possible to smooth his path rather than make his self-imposed difficulties any greater. This is the humanity which shines through in the book for those able to detect it.
At the end of the book one is left with that familiar, sinking and almost inevitably melancholy feeling for someone who was true to the project they undertook in the beginning only to be left behind by his inability to see that things do change with time and events. Such is life. It is impossible not to admire Jim O’Donovan’s commitment to the Irish Republic but it is ultimately a book that whilst impossible to put down leaves the reader feeling a little sad, but definitely the happier for having read it. A wonderfully detailed and enlightening read and if you want to cut beyond the hype and see what it was like from the inside of the IRA from the War of Independence through to WW2 espionage intrigues, then this book by David O’Donoghue is one you will not want to bypass.
David O’Donaghue, 2010, The Devil’s Deal – The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O’Donovan. New Island Books: Dublin. ISBN 978-1848400801