THE American wife of Erskine Childers may have spied on Michael Collins and the IRA for the British government, according to a new book published this week.
In the book, Michael Collins's Intelligence War: The Struggle Between the British and the IRA 1919-1921, which is published by Sutton, historian Dr Michael Foy says he has uncovered papers suggesting British intelligence had a spy "at the very top of Sinn Fein" during the War of Independence.
The identity of the spy was not revealed in the papers, but Foy believes it was Molly Childers, whose son became President of Ireland in the 1970s.
Foy made the startling discovery while researching his book. He bases the controversial assertion in part on the agent's reports, which included American-sounding speech patterns.
The agent told her controller: "You know why I took this job on, not for cash but to feel that I was really doing something to help. I am risking my sanguinary neck every day, and all day. I wouldn't get 10 minutes' grace if they had the slightest suspicion."
The spy was close to a Sinn Fein leader she called 'Bob', who could have been Erskine Childers himself. Childers's lesser-known first name was Robert.
At their Bushy Park residence, Molly ran a press cuttings and reference service and established a political salon. It is clear from the papers that the unnamed agent gathered intelligence at informal gatherings where Sinn Fein leaders met and spoke unguardedly.
"That Molly Childers had the qualities to carry off such a dangerous role is not in doubt," writes Michael Foy. "Throughout her life this remarkable woman displayed intelligence, courage, decisiveness and single-minded determination." Elsewhere he writes, "She was a forceful personality with strong nerves who knew she was in considerable jeopardy."
Molly's father had given her the Asgard, the famous yacht that was used to land arms at Howth in 1914 for the Irish Volunteers. Foy believes that, after Erskine Childers became a Sinn Fein politician in 1918, his political role and his decision to move to Ireland put "considerable strain on their marriage".
Foy speculates that she volunteered for British intelligence before they moved to Ireland.
In addition, Foy has found papers detailing Michael Collins's understanding and exploitation of the power of an intelligence system was largely instrumental in bringing about the War of Independence. After establishing his own intelligence organisation, Collins's spies soon had more information on the G-men - Dublin's political detectives - than they had on him and the IRA. For the first time in Irish revolutionary history, the intelligence initiative had been wrested from the British.
Dr Michael T Foy is a former Head of History at Methodist College, Belfast, and Tutor in Irish History at Queen's University, Belfast.
Michael Collins's Intelligence War: The Struggle between the British and the IRA 1919-1921 is published by Sutton Publishing and will be in shops nationwide from tomorrow.
Michael Foy's book, The Easter Rising, (Sutton) co-authored with Dr Brian Barton, is published in paperback.