The Stephen Hayes Confession

In 1941 the IRA’s Adjutant-General Sean McCaughey investigated security lapses that had led to arrests of key personnel and the loss of weapons and equipment. He focused on the role of the organisation’s Acting Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes. McCaughey had Hayes arrested and interrogated at various locations in Dundalk, Wicklow and lastly at 20 Castlewood Park in Rathmines in Dublin. The amount of physical force, used in attempts to coerce a confession from Hayes, is described differently depending on the source (e.g. Tim Pat Coogan, John Bowyer Bell, Uinseann McEoin and Hayes himself). Ultimately, whatever the degree, Hayes made statements implicating himself under duress.

Two charges were subsequently brought against him by McCaughey and heard by an IRA court martial on the 23rd July. These were:

1. That you, Stephen Hayes, conspired with the Irish Free State Government to obstruct the policy and impede the progress of the Irish Republican Army.

2. That you, Stephen Hayes, are guilty of treachery by having deliberately given information of a secret and confidential nature concerning the activities of the Irish Republican Army to a hostile body, to wit, the Irish Free State Government.

Hayes was found guilty and sentenced to death although McCaughey seemed in no hurry to have it carried out. Hayes’ offer to write a full confession then bought him time until a lapse by one of his guards allowed him to escape from Castlewood Park and hand himself into the police in Rathmines on 8th September. McCaughey, then Acting Chief of Staff, had himself been arrested a week before Hayes escaped. Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) states that, while Hayes was kept shackled and largely subsisted on bread and tea, he wasn’t subject to further violence after the court martial. This was the period in which Hayes wrote out his confession and he was mainly guarded by Liam Rice and Liam Burke. When the police attempted to raid 20 Castlewood Park, Rice had stayed nearby to intercept Pearse Kelly before he walked into a trap at 20 Castlewood Park (Kelly was expected to arrive any time). Rice was shot in the back by the police and critically wounded, but Kelly evaded capture (Rice got 20 years in April 1942, when he had recovered enough to stand trial). The police arrested the owner of the house Catherine McGoone, and her daughter Una.

Testifying at McCaughey’s trial, Hayes indicated that he had written around 140-150 foolscap pages of what he described as ‘imaginary happenings’. The then Minister of Justice, Gerry Boland, was later to call it a “…weird, fantastic concoction of his alleged connivance with Fianna Fáil ministers…” (see Irish Times, 16/10/68). Pearse Kelly, who had been part of the court martial, had also taken notes and typed up Hayes hand-written admissions. These appear to have been circulated for comments to various people such as Sean McBride and Máire Comerford. According to The Irish Times (11/9/41), Hayes’ disappearance was first noted by the police around mid-August, which seems consistent with the increasing risk of leaks posed by an ever-larger circle being made aware of the Hayes case. McCaughey had been followed, then arrested, on his way back to Castlewood Park after showing the latest admissions by Hayes to McBride at his offices (based on comments by Liam Rice recorded in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice).

In his own account, published by Peadar O’Donnell in The Bell in July 1951, Hayes describes how his admissions evolved, claiming McCaughey began, more and more, to look for material that had potential to be politically explosive, in particular implicating Fianna Fáil ministers. It is clear, in The Bell, that Hayes is deliberately trying to diminish McCaughey here, while simultaneously alluding to Sean McBride’s influence. He paints McCaughey as being unwittingly controlled by others, clearly meaning McBride (who had been a government minister until June that year and was still a TD, the timing of Hayes article in The Bell isn’t coincidental). The shadow of McCaughey must also have still hung over Hayes in 1951, as he had died on hunger and thirst strike in 1946, still protesting his imprisonment on evidence supplied by Hayes.

The Special Communique
The Special Communique

Pearse Kelly (later Head of News in RTÉ) had replaced McCaughey as Acting Chief of Staff a couple of days after his arrest and issued a Special Communique announcing what had transpired with a summary of Hayes’ confession (against the express advice of McBride and in face of protestations by Máire Comerford that Hayes didn’t get a fair trial). In spite of the misgivings of McBride, it was printed and circulated to members of the Oireachtas and read out at specially convened IRA parades (you can access copies in the NLI). The government went as far as to issue a denial, on 24th September, of the allegations made in the Special Communique. Even twenty years later, Gerry Boland was still repeating those denials, saying that “…there was not the slightest foundation, for the allegations or fabrications in the famous confession.” Oddly, though, the Special Communique was mentioned in the Special Criminal Court in the various trials in December 1941 and January and February 1942 for Michael Devereux’s murder (which was detailed in the Communique). George Plant was subsequently executed in March 1942 following the trial (also based on evidence extracted under duress).

John Bowyer Bell, in The Secret Army, recorded that Hayes’ bundle of hand-written foolscap pages had been stored in an IRA documents dump from where it was later retrieved by an un-named former Chief of Staff in the late 1940s but gives no further indication of its fate. A 53-page long typed version of Stephen Hayes’ confession survives in the Annie O’Farrelly Papers in the National Library of Ireland. O’Farrelly was active in Cumann na mBan and it is not immediately recorded how the document came in to her possession. Bowyer Bell notes that a number of versions of Hayes confession had been circulated but that the full text had never been published.

Comparing it to the Special Communique, the O’Farrelly Papers version of the confession is clearly based on the same core text and is likely to be a transcribed version of the 140-150 foolscap hand written pages, presumably the one prepared by Pearse Kelly. Most of the pages are the original typed pages while some are the carbon copy undersheets (indicating that more than one copy was produced at the time of transcription). The first page is a cover page that had a statement of guilt that was apparently to be signed by Hayes and dated 28th August 1941. The formula of words used in the confession differs in emphasis from the charges brought at the court martial on 23rd July:

I, Stephen Hayes, have made the following confession of facts concerning my complicity in the conspiracy with the Free State Government through their agents, Dr James Ryan, TD, Minister for Agriculture, Tomás Derrig, TD, Minister for Education, Senator Chris Byrne, and Laurence de Lacy, to wreck the Irish Republican Army. It has been made with the hope that it will undo some of the harm and injury I did to Óglaigh na h-Éireann through my co-operation with them. I decided on making this Confession after I was made aware of the verdict of the Court martial. I further affirm that this Confession of facts is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and has been made voluntarily by me.”

The last page (MS 47,650/53) indicates that this was not the final page of the document as it ends mid-sentence. Annotations that appear in the margins include pencilled numbers and red ink. The pencilled numbers seem to indicate that the typed version of the confession had attached notes or possibly was the text used to prepare the Special Communique (which is consistent with it being Kelly’s version). A footnote indicates that names marked with an ‘x’ in red ink were (or had been) members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In December 1941, Hayes was to write that “…I was severely taxed for all the information I could give them about the I.R.B. Was I a member? Did I know if it was still in existence? Did I know who were likely to be members of it, and different other aspects of it?” (for contents of the letter see The Irish Times, 20/06/1942). These red ‘x’ in ink are worth noting.

The typed confession can be broken down into a number of sections, based on an assumption that their order reflects the foolscap pages completed by Hayes.

  1. The only exception is possibly the first section which is the cover page with his admission, dated 28th August 1941.
  2. The second contains Hayes full ‘confession’ beginning with how he first had settled into a modus vivendi with a police Chief Superintendent while he was O/C in Wexford (in the early 1930s), then how that had progressed into using his brother-in-law Larry De Leacy to put out feelers to the Fianna Fáil government on various matters. Hayes describes a policy of directing IRA strategy informed by insights into government strategy (he later dismissed all of this as imaginary). This section covers the next seventeen pages of type (pages 2 to 18). At McCaughey’s trial (reported in The Irish Times on 19/9/41), Hayes own evidence suggested he began recording his ‘imaginary happenings’ for about a week beginning around the 25th July. According to Hayes chronology he was then ill-treated for a number of days before he began writing again.
  3. The next seven pages of the typescript (roughly pages 19-25) revisits points already covered in pages 2-18 and were presumably then added from around the 3rd or 4th of August up to the 28th August. It is clear from the accounts by Hayes (in The Bell), Bowyer Bell (The Secret Army) and Quinn (A Rebel Voice) that Hayes progress was regarded as overly slow and that it was believed he was merely dragging out writing the confession. At this point the admission was written that appears on the coversheet and was dated 28th August.
  4. This is followed by almost ten pages (roughly pages 26 to 35) of lists of names detailing Hayes contacts in various places and organisations. This seems to include both those in the Free State government that Hayes claims he communicated with, plus safe houses and others that Hayes knew. This can be read both as providing details of a network of safe houses and supporters, or people who were at risk. There is no explanatory note attached to the lists but in The Bell, Hayes makes it clear that McCaughey had wanted to extract as much information from him as possible.
  5. In court Hayes described how he “… kept writing out page after page while I played for time, because I knew that when I finished the statement the verdict of the court martial would probably be carried out.” While this is apparent throughout the typed document, it is particularly so in the fifth section, from roughly page 36 to around page 47 as he again revisits the admissions made in pages 2-18, rambling backwards and forwards over various episodes.
  6. The last six or seven pages of the document are different in character as they read like briefing notes with commentary on various aspects of Fianna Fáil strategy and tactics. Clearly Hayes changed tack by this point.
  7. Unknown number of pages missing after page 53.

The admission on page 1 is dated the 28th August. Hayes claimed in court that he had his legs chained for about ten days before he escaped on 8th September (a week after McCaughey’s arrest). As he kept writing up until his escape on the 8th September, roughly from page 19 to page 53 was written (in ink on the relevant portion of the original 140-150 pages of foolscap) from around 4th August to 8th September. According to The Irish Times (11/9/41), Hayes’ disappearance was noted by the police around mid-August (as noted above) apparently as the contents of page 2 to 18 were being circulated amongst those McCaughey was hoping to convince of Hayes guilt. Meanwhile Hayes revisited those points, apparently until 28th August. Then, he had to change tactic and began adding the lists of names to continue stalling McCaughey. Pages 36 to 47 were also written sometime after the 28th August and it is tempting to see the change in emphasis from around page 47 as coinciding with McCaughey’s arrest, with Hayes now effectively writing briefing notes for Pearse Kelly (the new Acting Chief of Staff).

This schema seems reasonably credible and suggests that the typed confession in the Annie O’Farrelly Papers is close to the finished manuscript written by Stephen Hayes. The red ‘x’ marked in ink beside certain names to indicate former I.R.B. membership seems to indicate that this is the copy transcribed at the time by Pearse Kelly and used during the interrogation of Hayes.

As to the charges brought against Hayes by McCaughey? Hayes himself was sentenced to five years, for usurping the functions of the government, in 1942. The sentence is usually offered in defence of Hayes to support his innocence, but arguably prison was the safest place he could be for a number of years. Oddly, he was also given back his council job in Wexford after petitioning the Department of the Taoiseach for both an early release and a pension (see TSCH/3/S12620, National Archives). Curiously, the court case against him was very slow to take place and the charges were based on a letter he wrote to Máire Comerford which was intercepted by the authorities in Mountjoy in December 1941 (where Hayes was being held at the time). The letter is a series of accusations against other people at a time when Hayes was under considerable pressure. By December 1941, a number of people were on trial for Michael Devereux’s murder (for which George Plant would be executed), McCaughey was on the blanket protest in Portlaoise having received twenty years on Hayes’ evidence, and, others like Seamus O’Boyle (accused of conspiring to imprison Hayes) and Liam Rice, were also either awaiting trial or in prison.

In the letter Hayes gave explanations for what he included in the confession (this was reported in The Irish Times during Hayes trial on 20th June 1942). One was a charge that McCaughey had actually been trying to make a deal on behalf of the Six Counties at the time (presumably meaning a deal with the same Fianna Fáil people he was accused of having as contacts). He also claimed “…All the stuff about the English campaign is built on the arguments of those who opposed the idea, and is really an apology for it.” Another was that McCaughey had even said that J.J. McGarrity had only backed the English campaign to try and help de Valera. Hayes also noted that he had inserted specific dates for meetings that he knew he hadn’t attended and that he knew others could vouch for. As far as the accusations against him, Hayes cited various events in Cork saying that they had “…done more harm to Republican opinion than all else in every part of Ireland. Yet no-one accuses those responsible of entering into a conspiracy…”. He was also critical of Charlie McGlade, saying that some of what he took responsibility for in the confession were McGlade’s actions, such as articles in War News. Jim Killeen and Sean McBride were both mentioned as Hayes mused over being interrogated about events in 1921 and the early 1930s that Hayes believed “…points to someone, or some group outside the Northern crowd who kidnapped me.” As to the Northerners, Hayes told Comerford, “…You can only convince them in one way, and that is by the methods they have employed on so many other unfortunate, even in their own territory.

In some cases, Hayes claim can be supported by other evidence. Tarlach Ó hUid, who is generally critical of the IRA, relates the same story about Charlie McGlade as editor of the Belfast edition of War News in Ar Thoir Mo Shealbh. He also makes clear he doesn’t believe the accusations against Hayes, though, as Ó hUid points out that he doesn’t think Hayes could have orchestrated the arrests of republicans in Belfast in December 1938 (they were detained then interned, some until 1945). However, no-one contests that they were advised to return to their homes after sleeping out for two or three weeks, just days before their arrest. Erroneously, Hayes writes “…all the principal officers of the Belfast Battalion were caught and interned” in the confession, when most had evaded capture. A point possibly not lost on his interrogators.

But notably, a circumstantial criticism against Hayes, that he doesn’t address in the December 1941 letter, gets picked up later on. In October 1968, Michael McInerney published an interview over various issues of The Irish Times with the Minister for Justice in the early 1940s, Gerry Boland, in which Boland “… mused to himself once or twice in my interviews with him why Hayes had not referred to himself, personally. After all, he was the Minister in charge of the whole police force, including the political police.

McInerney also repeats a story from the end of 1938 and start of 1939, claiming that at the time, “…the IRA was preparing to make an extraordinary proposition to the Government. Sean Russell and his new executive, while deciding on a campaign of bombing of strategic targets in Britain, had decided also to abandon any idea of physical-force within Ireland. The audacious proposition they put to the Government was that, in return for an offer of peace at home, they should be allowed to use Ireland as a base for the bomb attacks on Britain. Mr Boland recalls that, at first, the idea was actually considered seriously by one or two members of the Government, but when it came before the Cabinet as a whole it was thrown out at once.

This appears to contradict all the robust denials made at the time, and later, about some claims made in the Special Communique. It may also unravel the nature of Hayes’ relationships that opened him up to charges of conspiring with the Irish Free State Government and deliberately giving information of a secret and confidential nature away. Hayes did seem to believe that reducing direct conflict with the government and, to some extent, harmonising their strategies as far as practically possible, was a valid route to achieving the stated goals of the republican movement. This is borne out by Gerry Boland’s belated, and unheralded, admissions in 1968. In his confession, he wrote that they advised the Fianna Fáil government they could push the partition issue with Britain on the grounds that “If you won’t make a deal with us, you will have to deal with the IRA.” He also wrote that they advised the government that they could link the failure of an Anti-Partition campaign to the bombing if no concessions were given, or claim the credit if successful. While Hayes wrote these statements under duress, this is consistent with the admissions made by Gerry Boland in 1968, who goes further in identifying what Russell and Hayes offered in return.

Whether a Chief of Staff had the authority to make such offers is one issue. Hayes had quietly begun to develop some of his own network, people like Jim Crofton, his spy in Dublin Castle although to what purpose isn’t clear. To the northerners, like McCaughey and McGlade, who had been pushing for a campaign in the six counties, what they could see of Hayes actions were tantamount to treachery. The fact that this perceived treachery then made sense of a series of other misfortunes that had befallen the IRA merely served as a possibility that would deliver the justifications needed to swing the wider republican community behind them in deposing Hayes. Extracting a confession from Hayes under duress, which introduced deliberate inaccuracies and obfuscations, simply exacerbated the situation.

That Hayes, in his cynicism, didn’t seem to see fit to bring a wider circle into his confidence as to his wider strategic direction, appears to have contributed to his downfall. Without preparing the ground to significantly shift IRA strategy, Hayes was left unprepared to defend that strategy when challenged. But Boland confirms that, whatever his real motives, Hayes (and presumably Russell) had communicated the IRA’s intentions to the Fianna Fáil government, just as he had been charged.

Stephen Hayes, photographed in The Irish Times, 1/24/53
Stephen Hayes, photographed in The Irish Times, 1/24/53

10 thoughts on “The Stephen Hayes Confession

  1. Fascinating that there was still a post-civil war obsession with the IRB in (anti-treaty) IRA circles during the early 1940s, and that some were concerned over its possible existence. I know rumours about the IRB were still current in the early-mid 1930s. It raises an interesting question. When exactly did the IRB cease to exist?


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