Ned Broy pictured when he was Garda Commissioner
It’s the morning of July 12 1921. A daring spy, jailed in solitary confinement for five months on 56 charges of High Treason, is released under the War of Independence Truce. A Rathangan native, who became a trusted party to two giants of modern Irish history, Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera. A Hollywood film character played by Stephen Rea. An aspiring athlete, who became Irish Olympic Council President, and met Jessie Owens at the Berlin Olympics. A man who took charge of the gardai as the State struggled to find its feet. Beyond all, a loving husband and father.
These are the many faces of Col Ned Broy, who is being saluted by the local community with a new monument at his graveside at Coolegagen cemetery.
This is his story.
The Secret Room
It’s ironic that Col Broy, who savoured the tales of Sherlock Holmes, ended up pulling off one of the most outrageous espionage operations in Irish history in April 1919. In fact, Col Broy’s daughter Áine points out Michael Collins and her father got the idea of smuggling ‘The Big Fella’ into the bowels of the detective division of Great Brunswick Street, where Col Broy worked for the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), by reading a plot in a French detective novel.
In a statement submitted to the Bureau of Military History 1013-21 in 1955, Col Broy describes how he made a copy of the masterkey.
“The same key opened the political office and opened the secret small room, built into the wall, which contained the records. I gave Collins and Nunan the candles and, getting them to close the door fairly tightly, I left them to carry on their investigation,” he says.
Looking back, Áine is impressed with his audacity; “Imagine, he locked the door of the dormitory upstairs with all the DMP men asleep. What would have happened if one of them had woken up and wanted to go to the toilet?”
Collins and Nunan scanned the documents before sneaking out at 5am. Col Broy continued working undiscovered by the authorities for some time. In her first ever newspaper interview at her home in Dublin, Áine tells the Leinster Leader her father was a Rathangan man at heart, a Kildare man to the core.
A childhood in Ballinure
So how did Col Ned Broy come to play such a pivotal role during the War of Independence?
“My studies of Irish and the memories of the stories of the old people round Rathangan about ‘98 (1798) leveled in me a very strong nationalism,” Col Broy writes in personal correspondence in 1924 to his former teacher Thomas Byrne (father of poet, William A Byrne).
Secretary of the Col Eamon Broy Memorial Committee, Michael Shanahan points out; “It’s the local people that inspired him and the wrongs that he perceived to be done to his neighbours, that prompted him to get involved.
“I don’t think one can overstate the influence of the local area of Ballinure, Rathangan and the places like Clonbrown and townlands in Clonbullogue.”
Raised on a farm on the Rathangan to Clonbullogue Road, Col Broy’s father Patrick supplemented his income by repairing local roads for the council. His mother Elizabeth (née Berry) hailed from the nearby townland of Clonbrock.
“The land was good and highly suitable for tillage, but cursed, as it was everywhere else in Ireland, by the blight of rack-renting landlords and their agents, bailiffs and miscellaneous camp followers,” says Broy in his 1955 statement.
He refers to the 1642 Ballynowlart atrocity, where English soldiers burned a Catholic church full of parishioners, and how people recited stories of the Battle of Rathangan in ‘98 (1798). He says such events kindled a hatred of the English authorities.
Despite this, he recalls a country life enriched with celebrations, threshings followed by sing-songs of the patriotic variety, and unofficial GAA matches in country fields. He talks about his neighbours, the Halpins and their voracious appetite for reading, and poacher, Micky Mooney who loved to give exhibitions in musketry. There was a belief in phantom horsemen heard galloping across pastures, and an old man once told a young Broy they were the Geraldines, who would one day return to drive the English out.
Áine recalls her father bringing her on frequent visits to Ballinure to visit his brother and sister, Michael and Maggie.
“They were farmers. I thought it was great. The people there were lovely and they made fabulous soda bread and the bacon was gorgeous. I had such freedom, I used to cycle for miles on my bike and I’d meet nobody. I went around with my father and met up with people like Tom Guinan, the blacksmith, he was a great friend of my da’s. He loved going back there.”
Tutored by Joseph Byrne and William Considine at school in Rathangan, Col Broy describes Byrne as a “very remarkable man of outstanding ability”. He also makes reference to local man George Hanks and his “excellent library of nationalist books.”
He describes games of rounders played on the street outside the chapel gate during school breaks. A gifted scholar, Col Broy emerged with a good knowledge of French, German, History and Maths, and subsequently acquired Irish. His language skills were put to good use in later years, when he had to warn Michael Collins police were on the way to arrest him.When he rang Dublin Castle, he feared his voice might be recognised at the telephone exchange, so he spoke in French when De Valera answered. His French was so fluent, De Valera had to hand the phone over to Pearse Beasley to interpret and Collins escaped.
His educational ability was noted by Byrne, who wrote in a letter to Broy in 1924 , “Of course I remember you and the pleasure I felt in developing your abnormal abilities which I had very soon discovered.”
Áine explains how he loved French and Irish and enjoyed travelling to Paris in later years.
Another long lasting love was also fostered in Rathangan.
“On my return to Ballinure from school in Dublin I learned that there had been an athletic sports meeting in Rathangan and athletics had become the craze of the youth of the parish,” he says.
Challenged by a local athlete, Col Broy was surprised to win the race by several yards.
The Dublin Metropolitan Police was famous for its athletes, who competed all over the world and this prospect attracted Col Broy to sign up in 1911.
The Double Agent
In 1915 Col Broy was appointed to the G Division and worked in the clerical section at Exchange Court to monitor suspects in the political movement. These observations were stored in the office and typed up by Broy. Having mulled over the value of these
documents to the Irish volunteers, he decided to make contact.
“Notwithstanding all these dangers, I made up my mind that I would go all-out to help them, regardless of the consequences,” he says.
He decided to give information to his cousin’s husband, Patrick Tracy, who would pass it to O’Hanrahan’s shop on North Circular Road for the volunteers.
Towards the end of 1915, the G. Division was moved to No. 1 Great Brunswick Street. Ninety per cent of the RIC correspondence was transmitted by Broy to the Volunteers from March 1917 until 1921. He was not involved directly in the 1916 Rising.
When Ned met Michael
“He was dressed in black leggings, green breeches, and a trenchcoat with all the usual buttons, belts and rings. He was very handsome, obviously full of energy and with a mind as quick as lightning... He thanked me for all the documents I had sent and all the information, and said it was of the utmost assistance and importance to them.”
This is Col Broy’s impression of Collins when they first met at a Cabra Road residence.
“In that discussion I agreed entirely with Michael Collins that force was the only chance, however difficult and dangerous,” he says.
Both men placed great credence in the ideals of Wolfe Tone.
There is no doubt Col Broy had a huge influence on Collins.
“Amongst the matters I discussed with Mick Collins at the first meeting was that he and all his people should cease wearing leggings, or anything looking like uniform, and dress in the least remarkable manner possible. He agreed and did that from then on,” says Broy.
Kildare historian, Seamus Cullen, who gave the first talk on Broy back in 2004, emphasises the intelligence system was the key to the success of the War of Independence.
“Ned Broy taught Michael Collins the tricks of the trade and the fact that intelligence must be used as it was in the War of Independence.”
He points out; “There are rural towns all across Ireland that have connections to individuals that were in important in the Irish Revolution, and I would argue that Ned Broy is up there with any of them.
“He never got the actual credit he deserved. Rathangan has produced many important people, certainly more than any rural town of its size,” he adds.
It was only a matter of time before Col Broy’s activities were discovered and in February 1921, he was arrested and imprisoned in Arbour Hill until the Truce was announced.
Collins was eager to break him out, but Col Broy refused because he didn’t want to compromise anyone else’s safety.
Áine points out; “He had a raincoat, the same raincoat he had the whole time he was there and he had to wash it all the time. When he was leaving, Michael (Collins) arrived up with a new suit for him. My father would have his uniform made up in Callaghan’s and they had his measurements. Remember this was 1921 and you would think at that time, he had so much going on. To do such a thing just shows what a fantastic guy he was.”
“Then he brought him to London as his bodyguard — a spy that had been up for high treason.”
Col Broy was charged with ensuring Collin’s safety in London but every morning, the Cork man would disappear. One day, Col Broy trailed him and discovered his destination was The Church of St Mary.
“Michael used to go up and light the candles and he followed him up there and Michael turned around and asked him ‘What the hell are you doing following me?’
From then on Col Broy accompanied Collins to St Mary’s or Brompton Oratory during the negotiations.
The title of Colonel
The Kildare man played no part in the subsequent Civil War. He was made secretary of the Department of Civil Aviation, and just a month before Collins died, he appointed him adjutant of the first Irish Air Corp, which is where he got the title of Col. This appointment is significant as it is his first official recognition by the State, Michael Shanahan points out.
On the formation of the Dublin Metropolitan Garda in 1925 he was appointed Chief Superintendent before being made commandant in 1929. In February 1933, he became chief of the Detective Division and a month later he was appointed Commissioner of the Garda Siochána by De Valera.
In the same year, Col Broy established a new force to deal with the refusal of some farmers to pay rates. They escorted bailiffs on cattle seizures and were involved in many violent incidents. They became known as the Broy Harriers, but Áine points out the men who were involved in such violent conduct were recruited after her father’s time at the helm.
He retired in 1938 but held the position of President of the Olympic Council of Ireland from 1935 to 1950.
Col Broy married Elizabeth Usher from Birr in 1923 and they went on to have five children — Paddy, Eamon, Maura, Eilish and Aine. Elizabeth died in 1958.
“He was a fabulous father. I was the youngest. The others were off in college and there was only me. He used to bring me around the country to all these events and commemorations, but I was only a child. I didn’t understand the significance of the people we were meeting,” she says.
Those included Michael’s brother, Johnny Collins, and Sean Kavanagh, Governor of Mountjoy prison and many friends from the War of Independence days.
“In 1948 at the Rath 1798 commemoration in Rathangan, I was there and he gave a speech in Irish. I was only young and was taken by the magic of the place,” she adds.
At the age of 85, Col Broy passed away in January 1972 after suffering a heart attack several months earlier. Áine had given up her job to look after him. He was a fit strong man up until his illness.
“He was into the high jump, running and athletics. I think he may have done a bit of boxing. He loved watching Kildare play and always followed the matches. We met Larry Stanley, a famous footballer at that time. He always bought the Leinster Leader to keep up with all the news from home,” says Aine.
He was also involved in the committee that erected the John Devoy memorial at Kill/Johnstown.
The Hollywood Blockbuster
In 1994, Aine heard about Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins film.
“I contacted Neil and I said ‘I am interested to see what you are going to say about my father’. I met him and got to go on set. He said he couldn’t show me the script because Warner Brothers said it was all finished.”
Áine was struck by Stephen Rea’s portrayal of her father when she saw both him and Liam Neeson during filming at Marshes library.
“He introduced me to Stephen, who played my father. Any time I met him after that, he called me ‘my daughter’.”
Áine was impressed with the final product, which she emphasises was not supposed to be a documentary and acknowledges certain things had to be altered for it to work. The Ned Broy character was an amalgamation of three people and Broy survived in real life. The Secret Room break-in was at Brunswick Street and not Dublin Castle.
She tells how Rea went to Rathangan and Ballinure when researching his part. Seamus Cullen points out the film was pivotal in bringing Col Broy’s name to the fore.
Áine is planning to complete a book about her father and is thrilled with the prospect of the Coolegagen monument being put in place. Sitting amongst the many papers, files and notes, she wishes her dad was here today to answer the many questions she still ponders about his espionage days.