A lively tale of spies, ciphers and codebreaking as author gives talk in Limerick

Norma Prendiville


Norma Prendiville

Richard Hayes, codebreaker and Abbeyfeale man

Richard Hayes, codebreaker and Abbeyfeale man

THIS is a story of many characters, but chief among them is a humble librarian from west Limerick, whose efforts alongside his colleagues in Irish Military Intelligence helped turn the tide of the Second World War.

With these dramatic and arresting words, Marc McMenamin opens the untold story of Richard Hayes, mathematician, polyglot, Director of the National Library, Ireland’s foremost Nazi code-breaker and an Abbeyfeale man.

And this Friday, the author himself will be the guest speaker at the Rathkeale Historical Society, telling the story of Richard Hayes and of how he came to find out about him.  

It began, he explained, by chance. A colleague spotted a Dublin house for  sale in the property pages known locally as the ‘Nazi house’ and said to Marc: “There’s a story in that”.

That began a long period of research for Marc, a history teacher, researcher and documentary maker.

“I had  no idea of the extent of German espionage in Ireland,” Marc explained following the launch of his book this week.

“It was amazing to see what was going on. What I had been taught was that Ireland was neutral and we stayed out of the war. There were rations and butter vouchers and that is it, nothing like this at all.”

The information Marc gleaned from various sources became first a radio documentary, and then the book Codebreaker. In it, Marc makes the case that Hayes was responsible for three major and significant breakthroughs.

The first centred around a spy called Schutz who arrived in Ireland armed with a special microdot code where innocuous messages contained secret messages hidden within dots on the page and which were visible only by being magnified. It was Hayes who spotted something amiss with a full-stop which led to this discovery.

The second major breakthrough concerned Herman Gortz who was dispatched to Ireland with one of the most sophisticated ciphers or codes in use by the Germans. At the time, there were 16 people working in Bletchley Park in England trying to break this code and they were having difficulty, Marc explained.

But Richard Hayes broke it and some of the measures he took to do so read like an old-fashioned spy thriller. Gathering up burnt pieces of paper and applying chemicals to them is as James Bond as you can get.

A third significant breakthrough involved the spy from Kilkee, John Francis O’Reilly, who was trained as a spy in Germany and was parachuted into West Clare. He brought with him a code-cipher wheel or device which Richard Hayes analysed and discovered that Germany had developed an entirely new system of carrying out substitution and transposition ciphers, the keys to any code.

This information was shared with British intelligence and was the break-through in decoding German messages in the build-up to the Battle of the Bulge.

To hear about these and more, come along to the Rathkeale Arts Centre, above the library on the Ballingarry Rd, at 8pm this Friday. Admission is free.