50 Years Ago


In May 1947, a full year after Seán McCaughey’s death on hunger and thirst strike, came the first breakthrough in the seven-year-old “strip strike” in Portlaoise jail.

The Republican prisoners there had been “on the blanket” since 1940, had endured solitary confinement from ’40 to ’43 and had not been out in the fresh air for seven years.

The breakthrough was signalled in a letter dated May 3, 1947 from Sheila Mac Curtain of Cork to Gerald O’Reilly of the Connolly Commemoration Committee in New York.

Enclosed with her letter was another from her mother, the widow of the martyred Lord-Mayor Tomás Mac Curtáin who was murdered in his home by British forces in 1920.

Sheila’s letter arrived just in time to be included in the booklet They are Innocent! The Story of the Irish Republican Prisoners which was published in New York at that time. The letter speaks for itself:

“Dear Gerald
“I was delighted to receive your letter. Since last writing I have some good news: we heard from Dublin yesterday that conditions in Maryboro’ (Portlaoise) have improved somewhat lately.

“Tomás and his companions are now allowed a wireless set and are also allowed to do leather work. I believe that the lights are no longer switched on in the cells during the night, and search in the nude has been discontinued. We are simply delighted – and all thanks to you, Gerald.

“I am sure Boland (Gerry Boland, 26-County Minister for Justice 1939-48) is preparing another statement for America and wants to make it sound as nice as possible. He is well aware that your pamphlet will attract great publicity in America, and as you know, he hates that.

“Unfortunately, Gerald, I am unable to send you a message of greetings from Tomás. He is only allowed one letter a month and that to be sent to the family. If he did write a special message in my letter I know the governor would only stop it until your meeting was all over.

“I am enclosing a short note from my mother to express her gratitude to you and to the Connolly Club for all the great work you have done for Tomás. You can hardly realise what it means to us.

“For nearly seven years everything looked hopeless and then, all of a sudden, things began to happen. As I said before, Gerald, it is absolutely impossible to get anything done here. I tried everything I knew, and failed. Your drive is too much for them and they are seeing it bit by bit.

“So far I have not received this month’s letter from Tomás, When it comes I shall send it on immediately. I am enclosing reply from the United Nations. It is just as you anticipated. I’ll close now as I want to get this off at once.

“With best wishes to you, Gerald, and to all of you, thanks.

“Yours very sincerely,

“Grosvenor Place,
“May 3, 1947.”


The publicity in the USA had obviously begun to bite at de Valera’s Fianna Fáil administration. Already Boland had “deliberately published an untruth to mislead the Connolly Memorial Committee and others in America.” (P.21 of the booklet)

In November 1946 he denied the charge of awakening the prisoner every fifteen minutes by the switching on and off of the cell lights.

Mrs Éilís Mac Curtain’s message dated May 1, 1947 is worthy of quotation. She was worried as she was advancing in years that she would never see her only son again.

“Dear Gerald O’Reilly,
“I wish through you to convey my deepest gratitude to the Connolly Memorial Club.

“The efforts of that club on my son’s behalf are a great consolation to me, not only because of the alleviation they have achieved in the awful prison condition under which Tomás exists, but also because it conveys to me the feeling that the cause of freedom for which James Connolly and my husband died still has disciples in your country, when so many of their companions here have altered their allegiance.

“Please God your efforts on Tomás Óg’s behalf will be completely successful, and I who have not been allowed to see him since July 1940 will be united with him again.

“I am not getting younger so I pray that day may be soon. Once again my grateful thanks to you and my prayers for success of your efforts.

“Yours sincerely,
“Éilís Mac Curtáin.”

Mrs Mac Curtain was correct in her prognostication. She passed to her eternal reward in the early 1950s.


Just before this article was written, on February 28, 1997 the redoubtable Sheila Mac Curtáin died in Cork city. Sincere sympathy is conveyed on behalf of this writer and the entire staff of SAOIRSE to her sisters Eilis and Maire; sister-in-law Mai and nieces Fionnuala and Orla.

Later in 1947, Tomás Mac Curtáin, Liam Rice, Harry White, Jim Smith and Éamonn Smullen were allowed to wear their own clothes and to exercise together in the prison yard. The Republican prisoners in Portlaoise jail had at last won political status.

The cost had been high in sacrifices and suffering: seven years on “blanket protest”, three years in total solitary and one death on hunger and thirst strike.

It was an epic performance by a group of prisoners whose number never exceeded 16 and who were totally cut off from the outside world.

Tomás Mac Curtáin told this writer in the late 1950s: “I do not know on what date in 1947 we were given civilian clothes and let go out into the fresh air. But I do know it was a wild day because we were afraid the wind would knock us down – we were so unaccustomed to the weather.”

When it became widely known, the atrocity of the treatment of the small group of Republican prisoners in Portlaoise shocked people’s consciences.

But wartime censorship of newspapers and radio hid it from the public until the inquest on Seán Mc Caughey laid it bare to the Irish people at home and in exile.

Ordinary prisoners benefited too from the Republican prisoners’ long delayed victory. A completely new set of Prison Regulations were drawn up for ALL prisoners in 1947.

These are still in force and now badly need to be reformed and updated after 50 years. But they were a great step forward in 1947, due entirely to the heroic endurance of that small band of Republicans and their devotion to a principle – that they were political prisoners and not criminals.

For another – this time a foreign national – caught up in the Irish situation May 1947 ended his seven-year involvement. Dr Herman Goertz, a Major in the German Luftwaffe had parachuted into County Meath in full uniform on May 5, 1940.

He was the German High Commands’ Liason Officer to the Irish Republican Army but soon for a variety of reasons he was working on his own with contacts he personally had developed. He was captured in December 1941 and imprisoned until September 1946.

He always maintained that his abiding interest was to promote and assist an IRA campaign against the British forces in the Six Counties. (In point of fact, this came to pass nine months after his arrest.) In no way did he or his country seek to violate the neutrality of the 26-County State, he insisted.

Enno Stephan records that it was “a heavy blow for Goertz that Erwin von Lahousen, the former chief of Abwehr II (German Intelligence Organisation), made himself available as a witness for the prosecution in the Nuremburg War Trials.

“When Irish newspapers subsequently reported – contrary to the facts – that German troops were to have landed in Éire (sic), Goertz, completely horrified, wrote to his Dublin friends:

“ ‘And recently came the last blow – General Lahousen’s story. I was already horrified when I heard for the first time that he had turned traitor, and I expected a mischief-making story about Ireland.

“ ‘It was worse than I expected. I knew this man well. He was my immediate superior. We had always held different views about Ireland. Nevertheless I thought that he was a man of honour and not a treacherous quibbler . . .’

“Already in this letter he said: ‘Under no circumstances will I return to Germany . . .’ ” Herein lies the key to his untimely and tragic end at the age of 56. His application for asylum in the 26 Counties was refused.

He had been sentenced in England to four years imprisonment in the mid-thirties and felt that if handed over to the allies he would get a long sentence which at his age would mean for the rest of his natural life.

The other German agents who were deported from the 26 Counties were in fact interrogated for some months and released but Goertz was determined to avoid deportation at all costs.

On the morning of May 23, 1947 he reported to the Aliens Registration Office at Dublin Castle to extend his parole. A Special Branch man told him he had orders to remove him to Mountjoy jail.


Goertz gave the impression of being completely calm and collected. However, he then took poison, potassium cyanide, from a small glass phial and died in Mercer’s Hospital an hour later.

This unusual man had served in WWI, was wounded and had won the Iron Cross. A barrister and a Doctor of Jurisprudence, he wrote essays, a series of sketches and two plays while in prison in Dublin and Athlone.

He also translated into German some of WB Yeats stories. This versatile, well-informed and highly gifted person – according to Enno Stephen – was also an enthusiastic sportsperson and lost no opportunity to keep himself physically fit.

He struggled hard to get a better understanding of Ireland, a land he came to love because of the friends he found here “who showed me the genius of the country”. His essay Germany Speaks to Ireland and the sketches That is Ireland and Irish Culture give proof of this.

Ireland did not answer his love, however; the beautiful Cathleen Ní Houlihan had nothing but bitter disappointments for him, he felt. “The more upright a lover is, the more he suffers if his love is unrequited,” he wrote.

The mortal remains of this talented man were taken to the Protestant chapel at Dean’s Grange Cemetery, Dublin. His friends draped his coffin with a swastika flag which later almost disappeared under a sea of flowers and wreaths.

It was the same flag he had taken with him as a recognition signal in his vain attempt to leave Ireland in a sailing boat in the autumn of 1941. His body, shrouded in a Luftwaffe jacket lay in a simple coffin.


On May 26 the funeral took place after a service conducted by the Rev KDB Dobbs. Photographs show to have been present: Jim O’Donovan “Agent V-Held” who had visited Germany three times in 1939 before WWII on behalf of the IRA; Anthony Deery of Dundalk, his IRA wireless operator who met him only once but transmitted coded messages for him many times to Germany.

Also present were IRA Veteran Charlie McGuinness who helped in his attempts to leave Ireland and fellow-internee in Athlone Werner Unland.

An official committee of enquiry investigated Major Goertz’s death. John A Costello, SC, a member of the committee and in 1948 head of the Coalition Administration in Dublin, spoke tellingly.

Stephan records: “He begged the committee to do nothing which would besmirch Dr Goertz’s memory and said it was not for any earthly court to judge the morality of the step which Goertz had taken in conformity with his code of honour as a German soldier.

“He had taken his life when in full possession of his faculties, and there were no grounds for the assumption that the balance of his mind was disturbed or that physical infirmity had affected his reason.

“He was obviously in no doubt what fate to expect if deported. When it was clear to him that he was to be deported, he chose what seemed to him the only way out.

“ ‘I ask you,’ John A Costello repeated, ‘to give for your verdict merely a finding as to his death and nothing which will besmirch his ideals or his honours.’

“The committee of enquiry accepted his view.”

(More next month. Refs. Spies in Ireland by Eanno Stephan (publ 1963 and ’65) Four Square edition 1965; They are Innocent! The Story of the Irish Republican Prisoners, by Gerald O’Reilly, issued by the Connolly Commemoration Committee, New York, 1947 and Poems and a Play in Irish by Brendan Behan publ Gallery Books 1981 and ’89.)

Correction: April 1997 instalment – “All the men arrested in April 1947 fought the deportation order in the courts.”