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Ruthless Duplicity

The historian Fearghal McGarry has described the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s way of doing things as ‘ruthless duplicity’. Joseph Plunkett, who was responsible for the so-called ‘Castle Document’, was inducted into the IRB by late summer 1914 after the Kilcoole gun-running. Already a leading member of the Irish Volunteers, he followed his dual career right up the moment of his court-martial in May 1916 and beyond. His IRB duties included a trip, starting in March 1915, to Germany linking up with Roger Casement, and another in September to New York for talks with Clan na Gael. His private writings during these absences —note-books and ‘unwritten letters’—display an uneasy mix of ‘good fooling’ (his own phrase) and contrived emotionalism.

Joseph Plunkett ('Irish life ...', 1916)
Joseph Plunkett (‘Irish life …’, 1916)

Secret Orders ranks among his few separate publications, though it is a forgery masquerading as secret orders to suppress the leaders of advanced nationalism. All that survives are a few copies of the printed item, a single sheet existing in two different ‘states’. Several hundred were run-off at the family stronghold near Kimmage on a printing press Plunkett had acquired from Thomas MacDonagh. It was ready for clandestine distribution by Spy Wednesday, 19 April. He spent much of Holy Week in a north-city nursing home, while the printing job was carried out by Rory O’Connor, Colm O Lochlainn and either one or both of Plunkett’s younger brothers. O Lochlainn, who knew more about the black art than the others, left half-way through the process, having recognised the bogus nature of the contents or Plunkett’s sinister intention.

The story of the document’s emergence is incomplete and likely to remain so. The primary agent in transmitting the contents to Plunkett was Eugene Smyth, a civil service clerk in Dublin Castle. According to the generally accepted tradition, he had access to internal communications indicating the authorities’ preparations for a clamp-down; these communications (or synopses of these) he passed to Sean MacDermott through an intermediary never identified. But a curious gap in his patriotic career relates to the massively under-defended state of Dublin Castle in Holy Week 1916. Why was this strategically invaluable information not passed to MacDermott?

The published text gives evidence of being composed from several sources, the most obvious clue being the ellipsis appearing in the top half of the page, the printer’s sign of omitted material. The two ‘states’ in which Secret Orders survives are made manifest in the difference between the ellipsis’s length in each—three dots or five. No personal names and no dates are specified. Further textual editing is indirectly signalled by a concentration exclusively on Dublin in the supposed orders to seize buildings and detain leaders. No government strategist in 1916 would have assumed the feared insurrection would concentrate on the garrisoned capital. Plunkett however—officially Director of Military Operations for the Volunteers, and covertly a member of the IRB’s Military Council—was well aware of the limited forces at the insurgents’ command and acutely aware of German unreliability as gallant allies. This awareness leached into the document which he concocted, either by ‘doctoring’ or fabrication.

Ironically, circulation on Spy Wednesday (19 April) galvanised Eoin MacNeill to countermand Volunteer parades arranged for the weekend thus greatly reducing the numbers who turned out on Easter Monday. In this context it is worth considering what motives and intentions lay behind the operation. Plunkett’s objective, perhaps unknown at first to some of his Military Council comrades, was to stimulate public outrage or alarm at the imminent prospect of martial law and the detention of nationalist leaders. This reaction would be implicitly violent, riotous or proto-insurrectionary, prompting the authorities to take actions apparently in compliance with the (at least) partially forged secret orders. By manipulating public opinion to a point of general crisis, he sought to condense the Marxist theory of cumulative immiseration into instant crowd psychology. Things must get worse or, more importantly, appear worse.

Such a tactic could not be published by its practitioners. Copies were astutely circulated through well-known figures—Frank Sheehy Skeffington, Arthur Griffith notably—who would not be suspected of mass deception. Alderman ‘Honest Tom’ Kelly read the text into the records of Dublin Corporation, hoping to stabilise reactions in the city. Skeffington posted a copy to Bernard Shaw in England; the latter diagnosed a ploy ‘much too clever to be German: only an Irishman could be at once clever enough and scoundrel enough (or bigot enough) to have planned such a trap.’ Or, in McGarry’s phrase, ‘ruthless duplicity’

The Library holds three copies of the document. Copy A, which belonged to Diarmid Coffey, was purchased in 1966. Coffey refers to the work in his diary entry dated April 25 1916:

‘Douglas Hyde here in Evg & shewed us a copy of the supposed orders of General Friend which may have been the spark which fired the whole business’

Copies B and C are available to view on the Digital Collections website

-Bill McCormack, author of Enigmas of Sacrifice; A Critique of Joseph M. Plunkett and the Dublin Insurrection of 1916. East Lancing: Michigan State University Press, 2016. 400pp.  [ISBN 978 1 61186 191 4].