Secret Service Under Pitt



A recent letter from the ex-Crown and Treasury Solicitor for Ireland quotes the following from Mr. Lecky’s notice of an unnamed spy, and asks me ‘Who is he?'[390] ‘He was a Dublin silk merchant,’ writes Lecky, ‘and can be identified by a letter from Cooke to Nepean, May 26, 1794, in the Record Office, London.'[391]

I may now state that his name was Collins. Cooke’s letter mentions that 200l. a year had been settled on the informer of 1794, and that he was recommended for office in the West Indies–his future residence in Ireland, after Rowan’s arrest, being unsafe.

Mr. Joynt’s query comes not amiss, for John Keogh, also a silk merchant, was broadly branded by Walter Cox as an informer, and the plausible indictment is transcribed by Dr. Madden and enshrined in his magnum opus.[392] The charge against Keogh, who, by the way, preceded O’Connell as leader of the Irish Catholics, is, however, baseless.

Mr. Cooke does not give the Christian name of this Collins, but later official records describe it as Thomas. Collins was the first of the systematic informers. Some sheaves of his letters are still preserved at Dublin Castle, addressed to ‘J. G.,’ and heretofore supposed to imply ‘Gregory,’ a highly distinguished secretary to the Lord Lieutenant. But Gregory’s name was William, and ‘J. G.’ stands for ‘Jack Giffard,’ whom Curran and Grattan, in often-quoted philippics, denounced. The reports furnished to Giffard were regularly passed on to Cooke, and two letters[393] from Collins to the latter speak of his confidant ‘Mr. G—- d.’

The daily reports extend almost unbroken from 1792 to 1795. All are without a signature, while the official endorsement usual on such letters is confined, in this case, to ‘U. I. M.,’ meaning, of course, the rebel brotherhood. On December 15, 1792, he writes to Cooke: ‘Implicitly depend upon my being totally unknown to mankind in this business, save and except to you and J. G.'[394]

Collins–at each conclave–feigned to be an advanced republican, and was regularly invited to attend. New members, on being admitted, repeated ‘a test.’ In an early letter to Giffard he writes:–

It is contemplated to abolish the Test, as it is found by experience that it prevents a number of very warm friends to a Reform from joining us; but I shall oppose it, as we have no business with any of your lukewarm fellows who may hesitate at going as great lengths as ourselves.[395]

In advance of every meeting a list was sent to Collins of the new candidates for election. Scores of his secret letters enclose these lists, and announce the results of the ballot, with the names of the rejected, and it is curiously illustrative of the precautions taken to ensure secrecy, and as showing how little Collins was himself suspected, that men much superior to him were refused admission. Carefully prepared reports of the proceedings, with the names of the speakers and of the number present, exist in endless evidence. In one letter he encloses, for the Viceroy’s satisfaction, the receipt given to him for his annual subscription to the Society, signed by Oliver Bond, but the part which names Collins is first blotted out, and finally cut clean away.[396]

In August 1792, Cooke deputed Collins to extend his secret inquiries to a wider area than the Hall in Back Lane where the United Irishmen met; and the result is found in the subjoined letter. Its stealthy style contrasts with the boldness of later missives.

Sir–I have made every possible inquiry and I have reason to think that there now are Foreign agents here who have frequent conferences with a noble Viscount and his Brother,[397] who is a lawyer; also with J–hn K–gh, Ed–d B–re and Richard McC–m–k.[398] For your Information you have a list of such U—- I—- men as I think really dangerous from abilities. As to Inclination, the whole of the Society are nearly alike.

You may be assured that whatever steps Mr. Tandy has for some time past taken, or is now pursuing, are by the advice of the before-mentioned noble Viscount[399] and Mr. Gr-tt-n; and also, that let the pretentions (for the present) of the R-m-n Ca—- be ever so moderate, the real design of their leaders is to effect a separation between this country and Gr–t B–t–n.

I remain, &c. &c.[400]

Collins had the same liking for dramatic mystery as Turner; many of the letters to ‘G.’ ask him to call at night to hear things that could not be put on paper, to tap at a certain door in a dark passage, and ‘no one would be the wiser.’ In the graphic sketch he daily furnished, special attention is paid to the chief ‘sitter,’ Hamilton Rowan, who presided as chairman until his arrest; while Tone, Tandy, Emmet, Drennan, Bond, Lewins, the Sheares, and B. B. Harvey (the last three afterwards hanged) stand forth in bold outline from a crowd of minor faces grouped in the background. Sometimes they all dined together. ‘When Paine’s health was given his picture was introduced and received a general embrace. Several French songs were sung by Mr. Sheares, with proper explanations for those ignorant of the language.'[401] Glimpses of further feasts are caught, revealing the same familiar faces: men who had not yet begun to realise the gruesome fact that the handwriting was on the wall.

John Keogh is not often mentioned as present; and never after 1793. In October ’92 Collins furnishes an abstract of a spirited speech delivered by Keogh. This led to queries, and in reply Collins tells Cooke: ‘The leaders are Hamilton Rowan, Tandy, Jackson, Bond, Dowling, McCormick, Warren, and some others. But Keogh and Drennan are the grand movers;'[402] and on the following day he writes: ‘Keogh is the principal performer behind the scenes–as the fellow’s art is such he does not appear amongst us, but has a set of fellows to constantly attend and broach his sentiments.'[403] Keogh, a man of rare sagacity–whose life has yet to be written–took the course described in consequence of having recognised in his audience a person whom he did not fully trust. Turning to Richard McCormick, in the hearing of ‘Billy Murphy,’ the subsequent millionaire, he said, ‘Dick, men’s lives are not safe here,’ and glided quietly away. John Keogh is the only man of mark who passed unscathed through the crisis of ’98; and Cox, mistakenly believing that this immunity was due to treachery towards his colleagues, sought to brand him as a spy.

In 1793, John Keogh, Sir Charles Ffrench and several other Catholic delegates,[404] waited on George III. at St. James’s and presented a petition craving relief from the disabilities by which their order was oppressed. The loss of America had preached the wisdom of concession; and the tempest of the French Revolution roared within measurable distance. While Pitt and Dundas were not indisposed to grant a full emancipation to the Irish Catholics, they were constantly opposed in this policy by Dublin Castle. The often sensational reports of Collins seem to have had due effect. A long letter to Cooke regarding the Catholics begins by saying that

There are few individuals better acquainted with the views and dispositions of those people than I am. If they are gratified the day is not far off when High Mass with all its mummery will be performed in Christ Church[405]–the auditors to be a popish Lord Lieutenant, a popish Chancellor, &c. &c., unless the use of the former be preceded by an entire separation from Honest John Bull, which is the grand object of the disaffected of every description in this country.

Where Government has resisted, the good effects have been found; when it has relaxed, demands have increased…. To come to the point: give the Papists all they want or nothing. Without the former the sword must be drawn at one period or another; and the query is, whether it’s not better to try the event when they are unprepared, than to continue going on to give the adder time to strengthen with the heat of summer: not that I think there is the smallest danger of any war but wordy ones from them–unless time and the interference of their Gallic Friends may embolden them to acts of desperation. [He then proceeds to advise the embodiment of military corps in Dublin, well officered. The pay to be such as to induce respectable Protestant tradesmen and others to enlist.]

Suppose the whole to be mounted and appointed as dragoons, this small corps will be found of as much use as any Regiment of Cavalry in the Kingdom.

If a friend of yours[406] should be thought of, I think there would be an end to all illegal meetings,[407] associations and combinations, and I will answer for his compleating and arraying the number in 10 Days.[408]

A small measure of Catholic Relief was at length offered by Pitt. Collins, a month later, courageously writes: ‘If you think it prudent to have me examined by the Secret Committee, I may give some useful information previous to the Catholick Bill going to the Upper House.'[409]

It is not surprising that, from the regularity and general accuracy of the spy’s reports, Giffard in his conversations more than once revealed a knowledge that fluttered the Inner Circle. On February 15, 1794, Collins reports, in the précis of proceedings that had taken place that night:–

A notice by Mr. John Sheares that he will on Friday next propose a new Ballot of the whole of the Society, or else the total dissolution thereof, in order, as he says, to get rid of some suspected Members, who, he says, are in the habit of betraying the Secrets of the Society to Government. At the time he gave this notice there were not more than fifteen members present and the proposition seemed to meet their approbation. The fact is they are all cursedly frightened by the examples made of some of their friends. Fear only can keep them in order; gentleness will only encourage their audacity.

Three months elapsed: they met and deliberated; the reports went regularly to Dublin Castle; arrests were made; the Society wondered; but Collins, though a loaded mine lay beneath his feet, stood his ground. On Saturday, May 10, 1794, he announces:–

Surgeon Wright proposed appointing a commission of inquiry to inspect into the character and conduct of not only the members of the Society, but of all other persons in this city who profess patriotism, as he had reason to suspect that Mr. Pitt’s system of having spies in all company and in all Societies, had made its way into this country.

Collins, no coward like Turner, maintained his character as one of the most regular attendants at the meetings, played his part, opposed some minor propositions,[410] and continued his carefully framed reports.[411] These reports perturbed Dublin Castle quite as much as the United Irishmen had been scared by the leakage of their plans. On April 28, 1794, Marcus Beresford writes to his father, who had long been regarded as the virtual governor of Ireland:–

Government are determined to hang Rowan if possible; but they have not yet shown any suspicion of any person here being concerned in the plot, in order to lull them into security. No person knows as much as I now tell you except Lord Westmoreland, the Attorney-General, and Sackville Hamilton.[412]

Judging from Cooke’s letter to Nepean, Collins’ chief enterprise was in bringing Hamilton Rowan within the meshes of the law. In 1792, as we learn from his Autobiography, Rowan was arrested on a charge of distributing a seditious paper. Informations were filed against Rowan, difficulties supervened, and he was not brought to trial until January 1794. Rowan offered proof that two of his jurors had declared ‘Ireland would never be quiet until Rowan and Napper Tandy were hanged.'[413] The challenge, however, was not allowed. Curran acted as his counsel, and delivered a speech reminding one of Cicero’s defence of Milo. Rowan was found guilty, fined, and committed to Newgate, but, by bribing his jailer, escaped; and, after various romantic adventures, reached France in a boat manned by two fishermen of Howth.[414]

A proclamation offering 1,000l.[415] reward for his capture was read by the men, but they told him not to fear. This remarkable escape took place on May 4, 1794. Cooke’s letter, saying that Collins’ further residence in Ireland would be unsafe, is dated May 26 following. An amusing proof of the general distrust which then prevailed is shown in the fact, recorded by Rowan, that on reaching France he was arrested as a British spy, sent under a strong guard to Brest, and lodged with galley-slaves.[416] Judging from Beresford’s letter, written two days before the escape, however, it cannot be said that he got out of the frying-pan into the fire, as Rowan seems to have thought.

Some few letters from Mr. Douglas, who filled a Government post in London, are intermingled with the Collins MSS. The Right Hon. John Beresford, in a letter dated May 13, 1794, writes: ‘Douglas called upon me this day; we had a great deal of conversation about Rowan. He told me that, as Rowan had escaped, Tone was the next guilty person, and ought to be hanged.’ This, however, it was not so easy to do. Neither Turner nor Collins would prosecute openly. Meanwhile some friends of Tone entered into negotiations with Government, and he was at last allowed to expatriate himself beyond the seas.[417]

Mr. Collins[418] did not get the post for which he was recommended until the year 1800. It was Dominica, one of the West Indian Islands, as we learn from the ‘S. S. Money Book.’ The first entry of his name is on November 23, 1797: ‘Mr. Collins.–Sent to him, in London, 108l.‘[419] Here he remains for two years–no doubt one of the gentlemen ‘recommended by Mr. Cooke,’ and mentioned in the ‘Castlereagh Correspondence’ as qualified to ‘set’ the movements of Lord Cloncurry in London.

In more than one of the secret letters sent by Collins to Cooke, he offers his services for fields in other countries, where he thinks he could be even more useful than at home. A large sheaf of papers regarding troubles in the West Indies is preserved at Dublin Castle. Dominica–the site of his first appointment–had been captured by the British in 1756, but in 1771 the French, after a hard fight, once more became its masters. In 1783 the island was again restored to the English, but its executive felt far from secure. Intrigue was at work; French emissaries were not few; and the presence of Collins, a practised spy, came not amiss. The French, however, again effected a landing in 1805; Roseau, the chief town, was obliged to capitulate, and pay the enemy 12,000l. to quit. In 1890, after the cession of Heligoland to Germany, there was talk of surrendering Dominica to France.

What was Collins’ later history I have been unable to discover. ‘Sylvanus Urban’ tells of a Thomas Collins who was hanged; but this is a mere coincidence of name. It is within the possibilities that our spy may have posed as Governor Collins, and even received at his levees Hamilton Rowan, who, during the travels by which his exile was beguiled, would pay his devoirs, as he says, to the British resident.[420]

An informer of a novel type was a priest named Phillips. Describing the events of the year 1795, Mr. Froude writes:–

Lord Carhampton went down and took command in Connaught. Informers offered their services, provided their presence was not required in the witness-box. A Priest named Phillips ’caused himself to be made a Defender with a view of giving information.'[421] Others came whose names the Viceroy dared not place on paper. With the help of these men, Carhampton was able to arrest many of the Connaught Leaders;[422] and legal trials being from the nature of the case impossible, he trusted to Parliament for an Act of Indemnity, and sent them by scores to serve in the Fleet. Thus, amidst the shrieks of Patriots and threats of prosecution, he succeeded in restoring some outward show of order.[423]

Among Mr. Froude’s startling passages, none created in Ireland a more painful sensation than this. That an Irish priest–the Soggarth Aroon[424] of the people–should be selling the lives of his friends, flock, and penitents, was indeed a novel incident. Interest in the episode has quite recently been revived by Mr. Lecky, who describes Father Phillips as having given the Government some really valuable assistance in detecting Rebel Leaders.[425] For all we know to the contrary, this Ecclesiastic might have gone on to the end undiscovered, posing and pontificating as a solemn Hierarch. But, in point of fact, Phillips, though in orders, had been degraded and suspended by his Ordinary. Dr. Madden, long before the publication of Froude or Lecky, casually notices Phillips[426] as an ‘excommunicated priest from French Park, co. Roscommon.’

His end was involved in some mystery which it may be well to penetrate. McSkimmins’ ‘History of Carrickfeargus’ records, under date January 5, 1796: ‘The body of a stranger, said to have been an informer, of the surname of Phillips, was found in a dam, near the paper mills, Belfast.’ How he came there we learn from James Hope, a Protestant rebel of Ulster. After the excommunicated priest, Phillips, had betrayed a number of the Defenders in Connaught, he proceeded to Belfast, only to find, however, that his character had cast its shadow before him. A party of Defenders seized Phillips, tried him on the spot, and sentenced him to death. ‘They gave him time to pray,’ adds Hope, ‘then put leaden weights into his pockets, and drowned him.’

Punishment of informers by death was not of the frequency that McSkimmin supposed and Turner feared. Hope, who is always truthful, adds, that at a meeting of the Craigarogan Branch, ‘they came to a resolution: “That any man who recommended or practised assassination of any person whomsoever, or however hostile to the Society, should be expelled.”‘

There is another informer whose name Mr. Froude undertakes to disclose. In April 1797 Camden sends Portland ‘A statement which had been secretly made to him by a member of the Military Committee of the United Irishmen,’–and we learn that the informer in this instance was a miniature painter named Neville. Due inquiry has failed to find any man named Neville in the Society of United Irishmen, though a respectable wine merchant, Brent Neville, appears as the uncle of Henry Sheares’s wife; ‘Neville’ has been reprinted in every succeeding edition of Mr. Froude’s book. But it is now quite certain that Neville is a misprint for Newell. The ‘Life and Confessions of Newell (a Spy),’ written by himself, and undoubtedly genuine, was published in London in 1798; and in it (pp. 13-15) he describes his calling as that of a miniature painter.


[390] William Lane Joynt, D.L., to W. J. F., Grange Abbey, June 29, 1891.

[391] Lecky’s England, vii. 8.

[392] Madden’s United Irishmen, iii. 331-2. Again, at p. 41, Dr. Madden says that so early as 1793, the very time that Collins is now shown to be at work, Keogh was suspected of infidelity. Mr. Lecky, in reply to a private query, agrees with me that Keogh was thoroughly true.

[393] Notably that of November 26, 1793.

[394] Anonymous to Cooke, December 15, 1792. One letter only, dated three years later, appealing to Dublin Castle for money and place, and in the same handwriting as the others, lays aside his disguise and is boldly signed ‘Thomas Collins.’

[395] To ‘J. G.’ April 13, 1792. MSS. Dublin Castle.

[396] The date of this receipt is November 1, 1793.

[397] The Hon. Simon Butler, K.C., was brother of Edmund Viscount Mountgarret, a peerage dating from October 1550. At a meeting of the Society of United Irishmen in February 1793, Butler in the chair, and Bond acting as secretary, a declaration was proposed and adopted, pronouncing as illegal certain proceedings of the Secret Committee of the Irish House of Lords, in compelling witnesses to answer on oath questions compromising themselves, and directed to the discovery of evidence mainly in support of prosecutions already commenced. For this act, Butler and Bond were sentenced by the Lord Chancellor to be imprisoned for six months and to pay a fine of 500l. to the King. (See Madden, ii. 244.) Simon Butler was fortunate in not living to witness the sad scenes of ’98.

[398] John Keogh, Edward Byrne, and Richard McCormick.

[399] Diplomacy sought to paralyse the more influential arm of the movement. This same Viscount Mountgarret was promoted to an earldom on December 20, following!

[400] Anon. (Thomas Collins) to Cooke, August 27, 1792.

[401] [Collins] to ‘J. G.,’ November 20, 1793.

[402] [Collins] to Cooke, November 29, 1792.

[403] Idem, November 30, 1792.

[404] As in the case of Lord Mountgarret subtlety was employed in the hope of moderating the tone of Sir Charles Ffrench. He had much influence with the Irish Catholics; and in 1798 a peerage was conferred on his aged mother, who, in her simplicity, said to a cousin, ‘I don’t know what I have done that they should make a Lord of me.’ In point of lineage few had higher claims.

[405] A Protestant Cathedral in Dublin used by the Catholics until the Reformation.

[406] Himself.

[407] Italics in original.

[408] Endorsed by Cooke, ‘U. I., Jan. 29, ’93.’

[409] [Collins] to Cooke, February 28, 1793.

[410] Letter of January 4, 1793.

[411] The zealous subserviency of Collins, as in the case of Reynolds and Magan, originated in pecuniary straits. A letter of January 24, 1792, to Giffard, speaks of the accommodation he had received at his hands; and addressing Mr. Cooke (June 26, 1793), he dilates on his ’embarrassments.’

[412] Beresford Correspondence, ii. 26 (unpublished).

[413] Autobiography of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, p. 183.

[414] Rowan, until the willing hands were found, remained in Mr. Sweetman’s house, now known as Rosedale, Raheny.

[415] Mr. Froude says that the proclamation named ‘£2,000 for Rowan’s apprehension’ (Hist. iii. 119). The proclamation, dated May 2, 1794, offers ‘£1,000 to any person or persons who shall apprehend the said Hamilton Rowan, wherever he may be found, or to so discover him that he may be apprehended or committed to prison.’

[416] Autobiography of Hamilton Rowan, p. 220.

[417] In December 1796 Tone accompanied the French fleet to Bantry Bay. Mr. Froude and other historians think that it was Grouchy who failed to attempt a landing. ‘Then, as twenty years later, on another occasion, no less critical,’ he writes, meaning Waterloo, ‘Grouchy was the good genius of the British Empire’ (iii. 205). In point of fact, Grouchy was not at Bantry. M. Guillon, in France et Irlande, written with full access to the papers of the French Admiralty, makes it clear that Bouvet, and not Grouchy, was the man who ought to have been named.

[418] Several persons named Collins, and described as silk mercers, appear in the Dublin Directory between the years 1770 and 1800. Thomas Collins vanishes in 1793; and ‘Samuel Collins, silk and worsted manufacturer, 35 Pill Lane,’ is also found for the last time in the Directory for 1793. They seem to have been brothers. A bill of Samuel, duly receipted, for goods supplied to Dr. McNevin, a leading rebel, is enclosed by Thomas in one of his secret missives to Cooke.

[419] Other entries follow: ‘Thomas Collins’ bill, from London, 54l. 3s. 4d.‘ is entered on September 22, 1798. These payments continue to be made until 1799, when they become very frequent.

[420] Autobiography of Hamilton Rowan, p. 318.

[421] Camden to Portland, July 29, 1795.

[422] The late Colonel the Right Hon. FitzStephen French, whose brother became Lord De Freyne, informed me that his father, Arthur French, M.P. for Roscommon from 1785 to 1820, had been threatened with arrest by Lord Carhampton. French lived at French Park, where ‘Priest Phillips’ also resided.

[423] The English in Ireland, iii. 161.

[424] Anglice ‘darling priest’ John Banim has given to the ballad poetry of Ireland a well-known piece under this title.

[425] Cooke to Pelham, Dec. 4, 1795.

[426] United Irishmen, i. 537.

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