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Tuesday 23 October 2018

I'm staggered by the wartime bravery of my father, the spy

My novel celebrates the extraordinary story of my Irish father with the British Army, writes Peter Cunningham

HOW DO WE DEAL WITH THE PAST: Peter Cunningham with his father
HOW DO WE DEAL WITH THE PAST: Peter Cunningham with his father

Peter Cunningham

I remember the day I realised it was my destiny to write a story about a spy. I was sitting with my father, Redmond, then an old man, in the sitting room of his house in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin.

For many years I had wondered about the sequence of events that had led to my father becoming an officer in the British Army in 1943. He had gone to Northern Ireland to join the army - or so he had always said - but how exactly had that happened?

Dad looked at me that day, as if I had failed to grasp the most obvious of facts. He said: "My main function was to provide information."

My father was a Waterford man, from a family strongly in favour of home rule. He had left school at 16 and worked as a draughtsman in a firm of Waterford architects. At the outbreak of war in 1939, a real fear existed in Ireland that Germany would invade.

My father passionately wanted to fight to defend his country. But since Ireland had declared neutrality at the start of the World War, he decided to join the British Army. At that time a wave of anti-Irish feeling was sweeping England as a result of IRA attacks there. It meant many Irishmen found it difficult to enlist. My dad's ambition to fight Hitler was going nowhere.

In 1940, through family connections in the livestock trade, contact was made with an officer in the British Army and my father travelled north to Omagh to begin a new job. His position was as a civilian clerk of works on a British Army building project in anticipation of the arrival of the first American GIs. The Royal Engineers frequently contracted out building projects to civilian contractors.

Northern Ireland, with its long land border with the Free State, presented the Allied authorities with an additional problem to Hitler: in Ulster there was an enemy within.

Their vigilance was well justified: in January 1939, the IRA had formally declared war on Britain. Twelve months later, on Christmas Eve, 1939, the IRA raided the Irish Army's Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, Dublin, and got away with over a million rounds of ammunition.

For three years, Dad worked in Northern Ireland for the army, first in Omagh then in Belfast, he told me.

He was a Catholic and spoke with an Irish accent. Every Sunday he went to Mass. He drank in Omagh's "Catholic" pubs. But Dad's background placed him firmly on the opposite side of the divide from IRA republicanism.

Once a month he travelled from Omagh to Belfast, where he was debriefed. He provided British Army intelligence with the names of likely IRA workmen employed on British Army building projects, with details of suspicious movements of goods or people from the Free State, and of loose anti-British talk in the pubs.

He mingled, observed, listened, reported. His first taste of action in the British Army had been as an agent for British military intelligence. My father had been a spy.

Then in June 1943, something happened. Perhaps he had been spotted reporting to his debriefing officer, and his cover was blown.

Perhaps, like all spies, he knew it was time to get out.

Whatever the truth, at the beginning of June he was still receiving correspondence from the British War Office as 'RC Cunningham Esq' at an address in Antrim Road, Belfast.

Ten days later, on June 11, he had been gazetted as a second lieutenant in the British Army with No 6 Training Battalion, Royal Engineers, in Elgin, Scotland.

Such a posting direct from civilian life was to say the least highly unusual if not unique. His appointment was the payoff for his work in Northern Ireland as a British agent.

My father went on to have a distinguished military career. He took part in the epic D-Day invasion of Normandy and received the Military Cross for his actions on that day.

A bar was added to the medal for his bravery during the Allied advance on the Rhine in February 1945. The Belgians also awarded him the Croix de Guerre.

He left the British Army in 1947 with the rank of major and returned to Waterford.

Over 50 years later, he was able to describe to me the precipice along which the spy must always walk; the effect that leading such a life has on a man's personality, and the deadly realisation that one day the cover will be blown.

I became acutely aware of the inner conflicts that a spy carries with him.

When I began to write my novel Acts of Allegiance - about an Irishman who spies for the British, but in the modern era - I realised this was a novel I had been destined to write.

I could not avoid confronting what had happened to my father, and what he must have gone through for the sake of something he believed in.

'Acts of Allegiance' by Peter Cunningham is published by Sandstone Press

Sunday Independent

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