Women in Intelligence – Part 1: Annie Mary Smith née Brennan

Over the course of processing and cataloguing the records of thousands of individuals in the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) it has become very clear that the type of work and indeed a little bit of luck factored in to the likelihood of an individual’s service being fully recognised. Those working alongside fellow IRA Company members, or Cumann na mBan branch members on activities well known amongst not just both organisations but the general public could find themselves at an advantage to the lone solitary individual working on vital intelligence gathering unbeknownst to those around them. Annie Smith’s case is an excellent example of the latter, and while it shows the kind of  detail which can be gleaned from the files in the MSPC, giving as it does great detail into the intelligence work she carried out both during the War of Independence for Michael Collins and the Civil War for Michael Carolan on the anti-Treaty side, it simultaneously shows some of the difficulties facing applicants in proving the veracity of their claims, in particular those who worked in Intelligence who carried out their tasks in absolute secrecy, under extreme stress and threat of discovery without the knowledge even of those within the aforementioned organisations.

Annie’s story starts in 1920, when her brother John J Brennan, who was connected to the Irish Republican Army Headquarters (IRA GHQ) Intelligence and who also worked for Michael Collins, Director of Intelligence (D.I.) in the Telegraphs section of the General Post Office (GPO), asked her to begin frequently visiting Robert (Bob) Collins on Saint Alban’s Road, Dublin. Bob, who was a personal friend of hers, managed a canteen in the Lower Castle Yard at Dublin Castle which was opened specially for the use of the military and Auxiliary Police Force. Annie was to obtain information from Bob relating to the treatment and location of prisoners held in the Castle, and concerning the habits of the new police forces. This included information for her brother on the procedures relating to the receipt of telephone messages or of bell indications from the electric switches which had been installed in all the government offices. These switches were to notify of any attack on the offices by the IRA, and IRA Intelligence wanted one of their members working in the Telegraphs section to put them to the test.  This work continued until the Treaty when the canteen was closed. In addition, Smith also claims to have kept arms and to have procured safe houses for IRA men.

1 Annie Smith's Typed Statement Pg1

2 Annie Smith's Typed Statement Pg2
Extract from Annie Smith’s statement

During the Truce Period, Smith was employed by Gavin Duffy in the Foreign Affairs Office on Kildare Street. She states she was advised to keep this post on the outbreak of the Civil War to assist the anti-Treaty side and it is at this point that things get really interesting and further complicated.

Firstly, in addition to her work during the day, Smith went from Kildare Street to 23 Suffolk Street (known as “The Red Cross Depot”) every evening throughout this period. Along with Mrs James Ryan, wife of the future Minister for Agriculture, she worked in conjunction with Lily O’Brennan [MSP34REF2229], Dr James Ryan, P J Little and Fr Albert. Fr Albert and Smith visited hospitals, where he introduced her to wounded IRA men whom Smith would later help remove from the hospital. She also worked as a stenographer for Fr Albert. Her brother visited on a daily basis to exchange information.

Secondly, in terms of her work in the Foreign Affairs Office, it is when Mrs Ryan was dismissed from Foreign Affairs immediately after the destruction of O’Connell Street, and all other staff were moved to External Affairs on Merrion Street, that her intelligence work really came into its own. Smith was left in sole charge, took control of moving all documents from Kildare Street to Merrion Street and secretly arranged for important documents to be copied for her brother before they were moved. In a show of concern for the safety of the documents, Smith asked External Affairs to improve the manner in which the documents were transferred and they obliged. This action was to prove vital when she later came under suspicion, as it introduced some doubt into her suspected guilt. At this point, Brennan told his sister he was no longer able to keep in contact with the IRA since the intelligence work did not seem to be appreciated, and was becoming too risky. When Foreign Affairs finally closed, Smith moved to External Affairs, and claims she was instructed by her brother to develop intelligence in this section herself. Here she made short hand notes of important documents and communications passing through, and a few other members of staff assisted. Any documents which were long and could be withdrawn until the morning were secretly removed. She claims she had two typewriters at home which were used every evening by Smith and Miss G Murray, a member of the Telegraphs Intelligence Staff, to type out her shorthand notes and to copy reports and documents before they were returned.

3 Annie's Work in External Affairs
Details of Smith’s activities in External Affairs

In September 1922, Smith states that her brother put her in direct contact with Michael Carolan who had been appointed the new IRA Director of Intelligence. At Eamon de Valera’s urgent request Smith made copies of certain documents for the support of the Childers’ Habeas Corpus Case [DOD/P/387]. When Mr Childers was “hurriedly executed”, Smith was asked to pass on the Castle Attorney General’s (Campbell, later Lord Glenavy) opinion on events communicated to Asquith in 1916. This was to potentially aid the legal claim of next-of-kin to demand a coroner’s inquest. Also secured by Smith were two “Dáil Credentials” for de Valera [MD765] and Mr Laurence Ginnell [DP1755] who was going to South America (as a Special Envoy for de Valera). Reports from all the Free State Foreign Representatives were also secured, particularly those in relation to Count O’Byrne (Rome) in view of the Government’s efforts to secure a condemnatory statement from the Vatican and of Cardinal Logue’s political bias. The propaganda activities of Seán Lester were also analysed, summarised in shorthand and typed at Smith’s home.

Smith became a suspected source of leaks and was “practically boycotted by the staff the exceptions being Mr Seán Lester and Mr Frank Cremin”.  Miss McKenna, a member of staff who was close to the minister D Fitzgerald, accused Smith of being an “irregular supporter” and suggested that she be dismissed. She was offered another position elsewhere by Miss Sullivan (Kevin O’Higgin’s aunt). She claims she was partly told of the danger but was promised that she would be well protected, and that subsequently she would be given a good position and ten years would be added to her service. She was told not to discuss this with anyone including her brother, and that there were only four of the Cabinet Ministers aware of the real function of the office (it was supposed to be dealing with the Boundary Question). She consulted with her brother who discussed it with Michael Carolan and she was advised to accept the offer. Sullivan told Smith to resign and let it be known she was returning to commercial life. Lester pressed her hard to stay, offering to see if an increase of salary was possible. Shortly after her departure three other republicans were dismissed (no names given).

4 Annie's Move to CDF
Letter concerning Smith’s transfer to the Citizens’ Defence Force (CDF).

Smith’s new position was with the Citizens’ Defence Force (CDF) situated in the Upper Castle Yard, which was the headquarters of Oriel House and was later to be absorbed into the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The head of the institution was Captain Henry Harrison who went by the alias Peter Joyce, and who had been a great friend of Erskine Childers. Smith claims Mrs Childers was very surprised when she was made aware of his real identity.  Smith’s brother insisted on great secrecy, therefore only a select few were aware of the nature of the work (Carolan, de Valera, Mrs S T O’Kelly, G Murray and Mrs Childers) although several more were engaged in the disposal of the information.

5 Annie's Work in CDF
Details of Smith’s work in CDF

Smith was mainly involved in frustrating CIDs planned raids, securing the names of supposed Republican sympathisers who were giving information, and preventing the capture of persons in important Republican positions. Every report was translated at Smith’s home into a cipher on a daily basis and Smith, her brother or Miss Murray were responsible for delivering it to the D.I. at much risk. Despite the fact that on several occasions this information led to the D.I. evacuating his residence “minutes” before it was raided, Smith’s brother became alarmed at how casually the information was being treated. He advised Smith to approach Mrs S.T. Kelly and inform her that services would be withdrawn unless a proper delivery system was developed. He suggested a new system, which was accepted, whereby Smith only had communication with Miss Murray, and organised delivery of the message to Mrs Childers’ house before it was collected by an ever changing member of Brennan’s team in the Telegraphs section of the GPO. It seems Childers was not aware she had been brought in as a liaison to protect Smith, and instead her reference implies Smith was assisting her, rather than the opposite. Smith states that de Valera had several narrow escapes from arrest and claims she “received a note of appreciation from Mr De Valera [sic]… [and] was given the credit of saving at least 40 lives during this horrible period of Irish history”.

The failures of the CDF aroused the suspicion of Captain Harrison. Smith noticed a report which bore the name and occupation of her brother, who then advised her to stop all activities. Shortly afterwards she was cross-examined by Harrison, court martialled twice and accused of being the source of leaks. She was able to point out that she had been left in sole charge of Foreign Affairs on Kildare Street, and had insisted on the careful transport of important documents by escort to External Affairs. While it could not be proven that Smith was the source of the leaks, she was nevertheless dismissed and the CDF was closed down shortly after due to its lack of effect. The rendering of this unit redundant by Smith clearly illustrates how effective her intelligence work was.

6 Reference Letter from Mrs Childers
Reference Letter from Mrs Childers

She was shadowed on a constant basis but continued with intermittent intelligence work for de Valera. Her health failed, she attended doctors for “nerve trouble” and was unable to return to commercial life for approximately a year. She was offered a position as special reporter in the Dáil to the “Redmonite Party” [The National League] but her brother, worried that it would draw too much attention, advised her to turn down the offer. On her health deteriorating further she emigrated to America.

7 Annie Smith's Life Certificate
Life certificate for Annie Smith

She was awarded 4 and 11/12 years of service for pension purposes at the lowest rank “E” and her appeal was based on the fact that the Pensions Board assigned her this rank when calculating her pension. Smith and references state that very few were aware of the true and important nature of her work and she therefore had insufficient or inaccurate references. Most of those select few who knew of her work had died, including both Directors of Intelligence, Collins and Carolan. The only other person who had any clear idea of the substance and importance of her work was her own brother, who was initially not invited for interview due to the family connection. In a rare letter from Eamon de Valera on behalf of an applicant, he states of her brother: “I believe he is truthful, and I urged that he should give this evidence in regard to his sister just as if she were somebody quite unrelated to him”. In addition de Valera declares “There is no doubt that the Intelligence work in which Mr Brennan and his sister were engaged was of first class importance”.

8 Reference Letter from Éamon De Valéra
Reference letter from Éamon De Valera

In a letter supporting her appeal, her brother wrote that he could not understand why the lowest rank was awarded to the people who actually gathered the information nor why they were “subordinated to those chosen by the D.I. to collect their summaries”.

9 Letter from Annie's Brother Pt 1

10 Letter from Annie's Brother Pt 2
Letter from Annie’s brother John Brennan, brother

Unfortunately as he failed to show at the final interview, due to delayed receipt of the summons, her case was prematurely closed resulting in an unsuccessful appeal.

Letter from Oscar Traynor to An Taoiseach Éamon De Valera

12 Letter from Pensions Baord to Taoiseach Éamon De Valéra Pg 2

It can be hard to accept that true recognition was not forthcoming for the solitary, dangerous work of an individual such as Annie Smith, who worked under constant dread of being discovered, and for whom the comradery of being part of a group wasn’t available. Neither is intelligence work in the real world the glamorous affair it is often portrayed to be – the constant fear of being discovered, continuously living a false life, the daily pressure of secreting documents at every opportunity and the nightly drudge of typing until the small hours obviously worked their toll on Smith whose health deteriorated. While her work may not have been fully appreciated then, it is such cases that continuously prove the value of this collection, and the work of those who toil to get such stories told.