Secret Service Under Pitt



Twelve Presbyterian clergymen were concerned in the rebellion: the Rev. W. Steel Dickson, D.D., who wrote an interesting ‘Narrative’ of his ‘Confinement and Exile,’ Rev. Samuel Barbar, Rev. William Porter, Rev. Sinclair Kelburne, Rev. Arthur McMahon, and the Rev. Messrs. Stevelly, Simpson, MacNeil, Sinclair, Glardy, Birch, and Warwick. Of these men three were executed: Porter, Stevelly, and Warwick. It is to be feared that one of the twelve became a Judas.

There are two informers, McMahon and Durnin, who have never been noticed by Madden or other historians of the time. I now quote from Bourrienne, formerly the private secretary of Napoleon, and afterwards ambassador to Hamburg. Berthier will be remembered as the Minister of War and Prince of Wagram, who met a violent death during the Hundred Days.

‘Previous to my arrival in Hamburg in 1804,’ writes Bourrienne, Marshal ‘Berthier had recommended to Bernadotte two Irishmen as spies. Bernadotte employed them, but I learned that McMahon, one of the two, rendered himself more serviceable to England than to us. I communicated this fact to Bernadotte, who ascertained that my information was accurate.’ The future King replied:–

I have the honor to inform you, Marshal, that two Irishmen residing in Hamburg, MM. Durnin and MacMahon, who had been liberally rewarded by the English Government for coming to France to act as spies on the Irish refugees and the views of the French Government, have offered their services to assist the designs of France in the cause of the United Irishmen.

His Majesty wishes that you should accept the offer of these two Irishmen; that you should employ them in obtaining all possible information, and even furnish them with whatever money may be necessary.

For the sake of expedition, I have written on this subject to General Dessolle, who commands in Hanover during your absence, and I beg that you will transmit to him the orders necessary for following the Emperor’s instructions.

I have the honor, etc.


Bourrienne says that, but for the information he had transmitted to Berthier, Bernadotte would have conceived himself bound to employ the two men recommended to him. The following was his answer:–

I have received your letter, my dear minister, and thank you for your attention in communicating to me the information it contains.

I never had great confidence in the fidelity or intelligence of MacMahon. He was never entrusted with any business of importance, and if I furnished him with the means of subsistence, it was because he was recommended to me by the war minister, and, besides, his unfortunate condition could not but excite pity. I at first allowed him four hundred francs per month; but finding him perfectly useless, I reduced that allowance to two hundred and fifty, which was barely sufficient for him to live on. He has not been at headquarters for the last three months.

I enclose a copy of the letter which the war minister wrote to me respecting MacMahon.


Bernadotte’s missive, like a shell, bursts with crushing force. The fact that McMahon’s movements in ’98 are continually reported to the British Government would show, however, that it was not until after the collapse of the rebellion, and want stared him in the face, that he sold his information. When hunger sent its spasm remorse lost its pang.

In the report of the Secret Committee of the House of Lords, issued in 1798, it appears, from the sworn testimony of John Hughes of Belfast, that

in June 1797 he attended a meeting at Randalstown, which consisted of Teeling, Lowry, Robert Moore, and Colonel James Plunkett. He attended said meeting by the direction of Lowry and Teeling to hear the report of the Colonels of the County of Antrim. The Report was brought by Dunne, accompanied by the Rev. Arthur MacMahon of Holywood. The first resolution was that it would be imprudent to act at that time without foreign aid, but that if the County of Down would act, a part of the Antrim Colonels, who could bring out nine or ten thousand men, would act with Down. The meeting broke up in consequence of the division amongst the Antrim Colonels. The Rev. Arthur MacMahon told the meeting that he had been sent by the Colonels of the County of Down to state to the Colonels of the County of Antrim, who had met at Park Gate that day, that they (the Colonels of Down) were willing to rise, and that he had delivered such the message of the Down Colonels to the Antrim Colonels. MacMahon was then a member of the Ulster Provincial Committee, and he told him that he had been one of the seven Colonels of the County of Down who had been selected and appointed leaders for said county; and he also told him that he (MacMahon) was a member of the National Executive.

MacMahon was informed on his road home (as he heard) that he would be taken; and he, Robert Rollo Read, Hastings Mason, once an officer in the Downshire Militia, and John Magennis, took boat at Bangor and got over to Scotland, and afterwards MacMahon got to France, where he still is.–Pp. 28-9.

The report and appendix of the Secret Committee is known to have been edited by Alexander Knox, whom Lord Macaulay afterwards described as ‘a remarkable man.’ Mr. Knox was the private secretary of Lord Castlereagh; and, in compiling the report for the Government, he disclosed as much of McMahon’s proceedings as was convenient for their purpose. The Government well knew that McMahon had engaged deeply in treason between the period of his taking boat at Bangor and getting to France. The second volume of Lord Castlereagh’s Correspondence opens with the following secret letter. Quigley, or O’Coigly, will be remembered as the unfortunate priest who was hanged at Maidstone in May 1798:–

‘McMahon, member of the executive committee, a Presbyterian parson from the County of Down, forced to emigrate in June last, came over to London, where he met with Quigley, who was likewise obliged to leave Ireland. They started together in London, imitating the Patriots in the mode of forming societies after the plan of the United Irish. They had heard of the expedition at the Texel being intended for Ireland, and it was agreed on that an insurrection should be attempted in London, as soon as the landing was effected in Ireland. Colonel Despard was to be the leading person, and the King and Council were to be put to death, &c. Their force was estimated at 40,000, ready to turn out. McMahon, hearing he was traced to London, resolved on going for France, and took Quigley as his interpreter; he got a subscription made to pay Quigley’s expenses, and collected twenty-five guineas, fifteen of which were given by a Mr. Bell, of the City.

‘McMahon and Quigley went over to Cuxhaven, thence directly to Holland, were on board the fleet, and, when the expedition went off, proceeded to Paris. They there found Lewins, but could get no satisfactory answers from him relative to his communications with the French Government. A quarrel was the consequence, and Father Quigley was despatched privately by McMahon to London, to get some one sent over to represent the Patriots of both nations, and to replace Lewins.'[672]

Seaton Reid, D.D., the able historian of the Presbyterian Church, says that in 1789 McMahon was ordained to the pastoral charge of Kilrea, and in 1794 became minister of Holywood. He is described as a man of daring character, and considerable literary attainments. Dr. Reid’s History has been continued by Dr. Killen, an ecclesiastical historian of rank, who found McMahon’s subsequent career involved in great mystery. ‘On the Continent,’ writes Dr. Killen, ‘he embraced the military profession, and it is said–with what truth I know not–that he became distinguished as General Mack.’ Most notices of Mack, the Austrian general, say that he died in obscurity, and at a date unknown. It is almost a pity to disturb the romance with which Dr. Killen has invested this subject,–but ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ An inquiry into the life of General Mack is fatal to the suggestion of the Presbyterian historian.[673]

The arrival of Arthur McMahon at Paris is specially noted in Tone’s Diary on February 1, 1798.[674] Soon after the Hamburg spy announces, with other facts, that McMahon–O’Coigly’s companion–is appointed colonel and aide-de-camp to Napper Tandy.[675] A later letter of secret information, no doubt from Turner–who had been a colleague of McMahon when organising treason in Ulster–says:–

MacMahon has about 300l. sterling, property remitted him by Charles Rankin of Belfast; this he means to employ in buying a farm. Tired of politics,[676] especially those of France, he is to write to Citoyen Jean Thomas, à la Poste restante, à Hamburg, whom he looks on as a good patriot.

The ‘Castlereagh Papers’ give a secret account of Tandy’s expedition; and how ‘Joseph Orr and McMahon the clergyman, went out in a small corvette of eight guns, to reconnoitre the Irish coast and to fire signals; but the boat turned leaky, and they were obliged to put into Flushing, being chased by the English cruisers. These two refused to go any more, and went to Boulogne, where they follow privateering.'[677]

This is the last we hear of McMahon until he turns up in the letter of Berthier, the French Minister of War.

It would have been well for McMahon’s friends had the quondam shepherd entered on pastoral work of another sort, assuming that he seriously entertained the idea, and that it was not mooted by him to throw Turner off the scent. Turner–at this time–had begun to be suspected, as Reinhard shows (ante, p. 53). Certain it is, the soi-disant farmer chose dirtier work than scouring drains, or even spreading manure. But as his movements with Tandy are secretly reported to the British Government, it would seem that he had not as yet become a regular informer. Whatever proposal he made to Pitt, the bargain was apparently bungled. Unlike others, his name is not to be found in any pension list. Judging from the poverty in which Bernadotte found McMahon in 1803, his trade as a spy cannot have been very remunerative. But increased trade often brings large profits, and his opportunities for doing good work for Pitt were certainly greater after 1804.

Experience taught McMahon something. A disappointed man, willing to spy on behalf of whichever side paid best, had at least no difficulty in making a choice. How he gradually acquired facilities for plying his trade with profit now remains to be shown.

Miles Byrne–who held a command in the rebel lines at Vinegar Hill, narrowly escaped with his life, was afterwards the trusted agent of Robert Emmet in 1803, and became a colonel in the French service–supplies in his Memoirs an honoured list of ‘exiled Irish whom he met in France,’ including ‘Arthur McMahon.’ This would be about the year 1803. Matthew Dowling, Byrne’s host on the occasion, had been deeply compromised in ’98, and his name is often met in the autobiographies of Cloncurry, Hamilton Rowan, and Moore.

I spent [writes Byrne] one evening at his lodgings in company with Paul Murray and Arthur MacMahon, and he made us nearly forget we were far away from our home; he made us proud of being exiles in a good cause.

The statement of the historian of the Presbyterian Church that the Rev. Arthur McMahon embraced the military profession, and became distinguished as ‘General Mack,’ is true in every particular, except the last three words.

In 1804 the Irish legion was formed by Napoleon, and McMahon got a commission from Berthier. Colonel Miles Byrne speaks of McMahon as amongst his ‘best friends and comrades–we were happy and united.'[678] The risk he ran of a bear’s hug never struck him. ‘We could see the masts of the ships in the bay of Brest, from whence we expected soon to sail with an army to liberate our beloved country; this view caused sensations that exiles alone can feel and appreciate.’ Byrne goes on to say that General Sarazan was ‘suspected to have been in the pay of England.’ Not one word is dropped to the prejudice of McMahon.

A great crisis in England’s history had now arisen. Buonaparte was master of Europe. Russia joined him; Prussia and Austria were all but his serfs; North Germany was annexed to France. In 1809 the Walcheren expedition–consisting of 235 ships and 40,000 land forces–was despatched by England with the object of checking Napoleon’s advance into Austria.

Never had a grander fleet left England, or great expectation been more utterly crushed. After a prolonged bombardment, Admiral Strahan and Lord Chatham evacuated Walcheren on December 23, 1809. They returned to England, but with McMahon a prisoner.[679] This capture, however, failed to satisfy Parliament. Angry discussion rose, Canning and Castlereagh fought a duel, Burdett was lodged in the Tower, riots rent London, and Lord Chatham resigned to avoid deeper disgrace.[680]

Bernadotte, it will be remembered, while admitting that McMahon had never been entrusted by France with secret business of importance, yet complains of his inefficiency as a spy. What but disappointment could ensue? Bourrienne, the minister of France at Hamburg, learned long after, as he tells us, that MacMahon gave to England information vastly exceeding in value anything he told France. England could pay well when she chose, while the fund available in France for secret service was shallow and precarious.

As regards the second spy named in Bernadotte’s letter to Berthier, histories of the rebellion may be vainly searched for any mention of Durnin; nor is it surprising, when we know, as we now do, that this man had three or four aliases. Nay, more–he is sometimes described in the Government reports merely by an initial! Thus, Wickham encloses to Castlereagh a letter from Crawford, British minister at Hamburg, in which he says, ‘one D—-, alias C—-, who murdered Pentland at Drogheda–a man much esteemed by Mr. Beresford, is now here.'[681] The usually exhaustive index to the ‘Castlereagh Correspondence’ includes no name resembling Durnin. However, it turns up in a letter of Wickham to Castlereagh, dated November 23, 1798, announcing that a vessel named the ‘Morgan Rattler’ had just arrived at Hamburg from Dublin with some rebel fugitives, and bearing letters and papers from Coll, a colonel in the rebel army at Wexford, and ‘Duff, alias Campbell, but whose real name,’ he adds, ‘is Dornan.'[682] Lower down in the letter, Wickham adds that ‘Campbell, alias Duff, but whose real name is Dornan, is said to have been concerned in the murder of a person of the name of Pentland, or Portland, near Drogheda.'[683]

Here at last one gets upon a long-lost track–a track, it is to be feared, of a double-dyed villain. Dalton’s ‘History of Drogheda’ mentions (ii. 370) that in 1796, shortly after the arrival of the French fleet in Bantry Bay, ‘Mr. Pentland, surveyor of excise in Drogheda, was inhumanly and wilfully murdered.’

Officers of excise usually kept a sharp watch on the coast; and hence, probably, Durnin deemed it well to ‘remove’ him. Why Durnin figured under the name of Duff at Drogheda may have been because it was endeared to the people by historic tradition. D’Alton–the historian of Drogheda–often mentions the Duffs, and how for faith and fatherland they suffered attainder in 1691. I cannot find that Durnin attained any influence in the councils of the United Irishmen; but McMahon must have been a person of culture and prepossessing manners to succeed in exciting the sympathy of a stoical soldier of the Revolution, and who, moreover, had reason to doubt his fidelity. The name Arthur McMahon is found in the Fugitive Bill of 1798. But this circumstance affords no proof that he was not then a spy; for Turner also figures in the Fugitive Bill, and was afterwards subjected to the mock penalty of imprisonment. The Banishment Act includes the name ‘John Dorney.’ Durnin and Dorney are convertible names. A gardener named Durnin, or Dorney (for the peasantry hail him by both names), has been employed in the author’s family for many years.

When one considers the heterogeneous character of the throng who joined the ranks of the United Irishmen, it is only surprising that their secrets were so well kept. The late Frank Thorpe Porter, a well-known police magistrate, gave me a personal reminiscence not devoid of interest. His father had been one of the brotherhood; but one dark night in March 1798, a beggarman having given him ‘the secret sign’ in the street, he musingly said, ‘By Jove! if our Society includes such fellows as this, the sooner I get out of it the better.’ He had been a sergeant of grenadiers in the Irish Volunteers of 1782, and his tall figure may be recognised in Wheatley’s celebrated picture of the review in College Green under the Duke of Leinster and Lord Charlemont.

Many United Irishmen, whose names do not appear in history, had escapes as narrow, but on a more modest scale, as those which favoured Hamilton Rowan. Mr. Porter added a reminiscence worth preserving. The house of his father, an eminent Protestant printer, was 69 Grafton Street. The maidservant had a sweetheart in an opposite house, and one Sunday evening, while Mrs. Porter was entertaining Dignan, a proscribed rebel, the domestic left her master’s door ajar, and tripped across the street for a chat. Meanwhile, who should walk up to Porter’s but the city sheriff, holding in his hand the manuscript of a Proclamation which he required him to print. Finding that the hall-door gave no resistance, he proceeded upstairs. Mrs. Porter, thunderstruck, but with presence of mind, hailed him from the lobby above, exclaiming, ‘Oh! Mr. Sheriff, I am very glad to see you.’ Dignan took the alarm that she intended and, seizing a dark table-cover with which he concealed his person, flung himself under a pianoforte that stood in a corner. This had hardly been accomplished when the sheriff entered. ‘Sheriff,’ said Mrs. Porter, ‘you probably met your friend the Town Major, who has just gone after having a glass of punch–take his seat and make yourself comfortable.’ The sheriff, nothing loth, accepted the proffered hospitality. Mrs. Porter’s feelings may be imagined during the mauvais quart d’heure of his stay, when a single sigh from the outlaw would have sealed not only his doom, but probably her husband’s as well.[684]

Mr. Porter did not know what Dignan had done. But I find, among McNally’s secret letters to Dublin Castle, one enclosing a copy of the ‘Union Star,’ a revolutionary print, which, he says, ‘has been printed at Dignan’s house in Grafton Street.’ A later letter (endorsed May 23, 1798, the night on which the rebellion burst forth) announces ‘Ferris is the informer against Dignan.’ Ferris is described by Musgrave in his history (p. 176) as head of a committee of United Irishmen, who was waited upon by a blacksmith named Dunne offering to murder Lord Carhampton, the famous terrorist. Ferris warned Carhampton, and Dunne with his accomplice McCarthy was hanged. Frequent payments to Ferris through Lord Carhampton are recorded in the book of ‘Secret Service Money.’ Musgrave notices him as a rather meritorious man. Who Ferris was McNally tells Cooke in a letter of secret gossip. ‘Ferris, forty years ago, was an attorney and stripped of his gown for perjury; lived in Green Street; at present in Castle.’


[671] Napoleon’s marshals were rich men. The salary of a marshal was 1,600l. a year; but their emoluments were much increased by allowances made by Napoleon. Berthier had in addition 400l. a month as a major-general, and further received from his generous master 50,000l. every year.

[672] It may have been because Lewins, the shrewd attorney, and incorruptible envoy of the United Irishmen, suspected MacMahon, that he refused to yield information on being pumped. Hence the intrigue to oust Lewins of which we have already heard.

[673] MacMahon was in the pastoral charge of Kilrea at the very time that Mack, a native of Franconia, held high rank in the army of the Prince of Coburg, and was directing the operations of the campaign of 1793. From 1794 to 1797, while MacMahon was preaching at Holywood, and representing the rebel colonels of the county Down, General Mack was serving in the Netherlands, and in command of the Army of the Rhine. Charles Mack earned notoriety by delivering over to Napoleon, in virtue of the capitulation of Ulm, 33,000 Austrians as prisoners of war. For this act he was tried at Vienna, and received sentence of death as a traitor to his country. But Bourrienne denies that any secret understanding existed between him and Buonaparte. Mack’s sentence having been commuted, he was consigned to an Austrian dungeon, where for a long time his fate was lost in mystery. Even more inglorious was the final career of Arthur McMahon.

[674] Life of Wolfe Tone, ii. 460.

[675] Castlereagh Papers, i. 306.

[676] Compare the passages ‘sick of politics,’ in p. 6, ante, &c.

[677] Castlereagh Correspondence, i. 408.

[678] Memoirs of Miles Byrne, ii. 17. (Paris, 1862.)

[679] Memoirs of Miles Byrne, ii. 59.

[680] Hoche’s expedition was scattered by adverse winds. How the Walcheren came to grief was partly due to fever, which decimated the troops. A long report from Dr. Renny appears in the sixth volume of the Castlereagh Correspondence, and, on reading it now, one cannot doubt that the ‘antiphlogistic’ treatment then employed thinned the ranks more effectively than Napoleon’s shells. Antimony and calomel, blister and blood-letting, did their work.

[681] Castlereagh, ii. 226.

[682] Castlereagh, ii. 15.

[683] The Pentlands opposed the United Irishmen. Henry Pentland served as sheriff of Drogheda in 1799, with George MacIntagart as mayor. MacIntagart was the man who dressed up spies in French uniforms to entrap credulous peasants.

[684] F. Thorpe Porter, police magistrate, to W. J. F., January 1862.

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