Niamh McGarry, Conservation Asst., Dublin Castle Clippings Conservation Project
One of the most surprising items that I have come across during my time working on the conservation of the Dublin Castle Clippings files is a translation of a Danish newspaper article on a typewritten page, with comments from the translator. Surprising, because most of the files consist of folders full of cardboard sheets onto which are pasted newspaper clippings taken at the behest of British Intelligence in Dublin and dating from 1919 to 1923, arguably the most turbulent and traumatic years in Irish history. The clippings reflect how the conflicts of the time were being discussed and perceived by the newspapers of the day and the majority are from British newspapers.
However, there are a number of ‘foreign’ press cuttings files and it was in one of these that I came across that page with the exclamation, ‘Strewth!!!’ amidst the dry political dissections and sad reportage of murders, executions and other atrocities. As I read his other remarks it became clear that it was most unlikely that this person worked for British intelligence, not least because he had signed his name: Seán O’Duinn. I liked his colourful turn of phrase: for example, a Danish journalist ‘knows as much about politics as a Hindoo does about skating’, and I was intrigued by who this man was, why his work had turned up in the Dublin Castle Clippings folders and how he came to be translating Scandinavian newspapers.
Luckily, some of the answers lay close by. Having Googled Seán O’Duinn, the most significant hits came from the papers of Art O’Brien (Ó Briain), which are accessible in the Manuscripts Reading Room here at the National Library. O’Brien was instrumental in the formation and running of the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain. An essentially propagandist organisation, one of its remits was to manage and disseminate information regarding the cause of Irish independence and O’Duinn was one of O’Brien’s foreign correspondents.
The letters span 1920 and 1921, when O’Duinn was based in Odense, Denmark and it appears that his work involved placing articles in the Scandinavian newspapers and supplying friendly journalists with material that they could use to counter any negative images or interpretations of Irish Republicanism. He also wrote dispatches to O’Brien on how the War of Independence, the truce and the resultant negotiations between Britain and Ireland were being reported in Scandanavia. He was idealistic – distinguishing between the ‘Friends of Irish Slavery’ and the ‘Friends of Irish Freedom’; and he was cultured – he repeatedly compares journalists to ‘Aslaksen’ from the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People whose gospel is ‘one must wriggle through life’. But he didn’t mince his words: a leader writer for the conservative newspaper, ‘Politiken’ is a ‘human vacuity’ and his cynicism is evident when he accuses certain newspapers, particularly Danish ones, of propagating the view that ‘peerless Brittania [sic] nobly seeks nothing save the pleasure of the thankless task of making peace between the Irish assassins, murderers and semi-barbarians’ .
His contributions to the O’Brien papers also suggest how some of O’Duinn’s dispatches ended up in the British intelligence files. He was aware that he was on the ‘Royal Letter Opener’s List’ and seemed to take it in his stride as one of the inconveniences of his job. As for who he was – supporting documentation for a passport application tells us that he was born in Mountmellick, Co. Laois in 1873, that he lived with his parents until 1896 when he went to work for his uncle, William MacEvoy and that he left MacEvoy’s employ, and the country, voluntarily in November 1908. However, why he settled in Denmark and what became of him after he was appointed Commercial Representative of the Dáil in August 1921 and posted to Rotterdam remains a mystery and it seems a shame that this passionate, amusing, and insightful character seems to have faded somewhat into obscurity. Any information that a reader may have would be most welcome.