Leopold Kerney was a pioneering Irish diplomat from the revolutionary generation who, with no formal training, expertise, adequate staffing or finances, forged political, economic and cultural links between Ireland and the world with the dual purpose of breaking Ireland’s link to Britain and to assert the national independence of the state. Born on 11 December 1881 in Sandymount, Dublin, his childhood was defined by financial privilege, a Protestant schooling and a British-centred outlook best displayed through his sports activities – captaincy of the local cricket team. In time however, his private readings of Irish nationalists, especially the writings of John Mitchel, whose argument that British maladministration caused the Great Irish Famine, had a lasting impression on Kerney and led him to question what he was being taught at school: “one hour of English history five days a week and one half-hour of Irish history every Saturday – the Irish history being a narrative of English military victories in Ireland and Irish crimes, and written by an Englishman of course.”
In 1901, having left Trinity College without graduating, he emigrated and travelled across Europe before finally settling in Paris in 1912 where he worked as a cashier and chief accountant at Lady Duff Gordon’s international fashion firm, Lucile Ltd. Kerney lived in the French capital throughout the First World War. He avoided conscription into the British Army and it was during this time that he read in the French newspapers about the Easter Rising in Ireland. Whilst he personally greeted the rebellion warmly such events were too remote for him to take an active part in and it was viewed negatively by the majority of French people. 1919 was a crucial year in Kerney’s connection with the Irish Revolution. After the new Dáil appointed a delegation to campaign for Ireland’s admission to the Paris Peace Conference, Kerney called into the delegation at the Grand Hotel to offer voluntary assistance of any kind. He impressed Seán T. O’Kelly with his fluency in French and his expertise in trade matters which led to Kerney agreeing to offer “advice and assistance to Irish firms desirous of trading with France” and any matters of a “commercial nature”. Kerney believed that promoting closer economic ties between France and Ireland would psychologically reinforce the idea of Irish independence from Britain: “I was convinced of the soundness of Arthur Griffith’s policy of direct trade between Ireland and other countries and of the desirability of eliminating the control exercised by English intermediaries over all trade between Ireland and countries other than England.” On 31 July he met Arthur Griffith who formally appointed him trade representative of the Dáil in France: “Arthur Griffith produced from one of his pockets £50, representing the first quarter’s payment in advance, in £1 notes, the dirty appearance of which struck me very much; he also handed me my Credentials as Trade Representative to France from the elected Government of the Irish Republic.” So began a lifetime of service for the Irish state.
On his own initiative Kerney then travelled around France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain for which he claimed no expenses and built up a network of clients, businessmen and investors who were willing to deal directly with Irish companies rather than through the intermediaries of the British. Kerney had no facilities, no car and no staff to assist him with this boycott British policy, but “nothing gave me greater pleasure than to translate and circulate as widely as possible the successive Boycott Orders which reached me from Mr Blythe, Minister for Commerce.” Soon Irish products were being sold in the shops of Paris. He was writing reports back to Dublin on industries he saw in northern France that he recommended be established back home: “I visited sugar factories in the north of France and made reports on that industry with a view to its introduction into Ireland.” He achieved a lifetime’s ambition by establishing the first direct shipping lines between Ireland and France on a large-scale by floating a 500,000 franc loan that broke Britain’s domination on Ireland’s maritime traffic.
During the fallout from the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Kerney sided with the anti-treatyites: “I could not, in my heart and conscience, accept the theory that the government of Ireland by England was legal in any degree.” He served as the anti-treaty representative in France, a position he held until 1925. For several years thereafter he found himself in the political wilderness until 1932 when Éamon de Valera won the general election and recalled Kerney back into service. The diplomat continued in his position in France, working alongside colleagues who had taken a different view of the treaty. After de Valera initiated the Anglo-Irish Economic War, Kerney travelled across Europe to secure new markets for Irish agricultural products that had been lost overnight when Britain imposed punitive tariffs on Irish imports. He secured landmark treaties with Belgium and Spain.
In 1935 he was rewarded with promotion to lead his own mission to Spain. Despite the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Kerney maintained an independent viewpoint advising his government not to recognise General Franco. In time he reported to Dublin on the repressiveness and mass killings committed be General Franco’s forces, even after the conflict ended: “I have just got very direct proof of the shooting of a batch of 50 prisoners, ten at a time.” These confidential reports were suppressed by the department’s secretary Joseph Walshe, a former seminarian, who did not want the truth about Franco’s regime made public given the Catholic hierarchy’s and official Ireland’s support for the nationalist side.
Throughout the Second World War Kerney was based in Madrid. It was here that one of the most sensational moments in Irish diplomatic history occurred when senior Nazis, led by Joachim von Ribbentrop, developed a plan to use Kerney as a backchannel to contact de Valera in the hope that Ireland would alter its neutral position. As a lifetime friend of the Taoiseach who was also godfather to Kerney’s youngest child, the Nazi elite hoped Kerney could be persuaded to influence the Irish government to abandon neutrality in return for a united Ireland. This correspondence went all the way to Hitler who was receiving these reports even as he conducted the initial offensive against Stalingrad from his Werwolf headquarters in Vinnitsa Ukraine. On 24 August 1942 Kerney secretly met SS leader Dr Edmund Veesenmayer – who two years later worked with Adolf Eichmann to transport over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Kerney upheld Irish neutrality and his government’s decided position in the war: “There could be no question for us of abandoning neutrality in exchange for concessions of any kind.”
In 1946 Kerney reached statutory retirement age yet he was persuaded by de Valera to once again come to Ireland’s assistance the following year when severe Arctic conditions caused the harvest to fail. Kerney led a special mission to South America, securing over 250,000 tons of maize to stave off an economic catastrophe back home. The mission also led to direct diplomatic ties between Argentina and Chile at a time when Ireland was isolated internationally for its neutral position during the war and debarred from entering the United Nations. The mission also revitalised Ireland’s link to its diaspora on the Latin American continent and expanded the reach of Irish foreign policy.
In 1954 Kerney was embroiled in a famous libel action against a leading historian Professor Thomas Desmond Williams of UCD who had written articles, without naming Kerney, that charged an Irish diplomat in Spain during the war with endangering Irish neutrality for having met senior Nazi officials. Kerney won his action forcing a public apology from Williams that stated that any such imputations the historian had made were “based on statements now proved to be wrong”. Despite his good name and reputation being restored, the libel action did little to aid Kerney as the stress caused by the affair took a heavy toll on his health. He suffered repeated strokes and died in June 1962. In attendance at his funeral was his lifetime friend and colleague – Éamon de Valera, who once said of the diplomat: “There is nothing that can be said about Mr Kerney except that which is good”.