News 1916

Saturday 18 November 2017

Double life of a newsman spy

The Irish Independent reporter who gathered intelligence for Michael Collins after the Rising

Spy: Michael Collins was given info by Irish Independent journalist Knightly
Spy: Michael Collins was given info by Irish Independent journalist Knightly
Irish Independent journalist Michael Knightly.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The Irish Independent reporter Michael Knightly led a double life as a journalist covering historic events, and as an activist for the Volunteers and the IRA.

In an earlier issue of Centenary Papers, we told how Kerryman Knightly was down in O'Connell Street in the midst of the action as the Rising broke out.

He witnessed the gunfire around the GPO, and the famous and ill-fated charge by British Lancers on horseback.

Later that evening, Knightly knocked on the door of the GPO, and joined the rebellion. He had already been drilling for it as a Member of F Company, 1st Battalion, of the Irish Volunteers.

In the following years, Knightly was able to use his contacts at the top of the revolutionary leadership to write colourful accounts of events for the Irish Independent and the Evening Herald. He was friendly with Éamon De Valera, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.

Working as a reporter also helped him to gather intelligence for Collins and his comrades in the IRA.

As he said in a statement to the Bureau of Military History: "Newspaper work... afforded opportunities of helping the cause in the political field and I was always glad to help in this way."

For much of Easter Week, Knightly was charged with defending the GPO, keeping guard at one of the windows with a rifle. But he took ill during the Rising with a severe throat infection and was escorted by a priest waving a white flag to Jervis Street Hospital.

When he was rounded up with other volunteers at the end of the Rising, Knightly thought he was about to be executed.

He said he was generally well treated by the "British Tommies" while he was held as a prisoner, even if the conditions were at times revolting.

Along with 400 others he was marched in a downpour of rain to the North Wall in Dublin and placed, soaking wet, on a cattle boat to Holyhead. From there the prisoners were taken to Wakefield Prison.

As he described it: "We were locked up for 23-and-a-half hours a day, but occasionally, as a privilege, got out to scrub corridors."

Knightly was later transferred with other Volunteers to the Welsh prison camp at Frongoch, which was dubbed the "University of Revolution".

When he was released from Frongoch, Knightly was allowed to rejoin the staff of the Irish Independent, even though the paper had steadfastly opposed the Rising.

Editor Timothy Harrington asked him if he would get involved if another situation such as Easter Week arose.

Knightly later recalled: "I replied that I would with more heart than on the previous occasion."

The editor told him: "I would build a special asylum for you people - and put you all in it."

Despite the opposition to the Rising, the paper gradually gave more positive coverage to Sinn Féin, while at the same time opposing IRA violence.

By 1920, the paper's stance against the British government had hardened and the Crown forces were termed the "army of occupation". A police inspector in Galway complained: "It is this paper which creates, fosters and foments hatred of the British government."

Knightly was not the only republican sympathiser working for the paper.

According to the historian Ian Kenneally, others included chief proof reader Martin Pender, sub-editor George Gormby and the reporter Ned Lawler.

The republican leanings of some of the staff did not prevent the paper being attacked, and the editor was lucky to escape with his life in December 1919 after an editorial described an ambush on the Lord Lieutenant as a "deplorable outrage".

The IRA considered shooting the editor Harrington, but destroyed print machinery instead.

During this period, Knightly was leading his double life as a reporter and spy for the IRA. He passed on knowledge about contacts in the police, and other valuable information, to Collins.

"On a few occasions, I was asked by Headquarters to procure photographs of wanted men," the journalist later recalled. In March 1920, Knightly supplied a photograph to Michael Collins of a magistrate, Allen Bell, who was involved in investigating IRA finances.

Days afterwards, Bell was bundled off a tram in Ballsbridge and shot dead by the IRA. That year, Knightly was imprisoned, spending seven weeks in Mountjoy.

When he was released, the Irish Independent paid his salary in full for the period of his incarceration.

"Nearly all my colleagues on the editorial staffs were sympathetic and helped the movement in no small way," he said. After the birth of the new State, Knightly was put in charge of producing the official record of the Oireachtas as Editor of Debates. He also served as the Chief Press Censor during World War II.

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