Betjeman in Ireland – Poet and Spy?

1970s st enodoc

I remember well the day they buried Sir John Betjeman. The graveyard of St Enodoc’s Church (above, from a 1970s postcard), is close to the Cornish village of Trebetherick – his home for many years. On that day in May 1984 there was a downpour of torrential proportions, and all that could be seen when they laid him to rest was a sea of black umbrellas. The poet himself would have loved the very English spectacle of it.

Left – the larger than life 2007 bronze statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station, London: the sculpture is by Martin Jennings (photo Christoph Braun). Betjeman was a founding member of theVictorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture: his campaigning was responsible for saving the Station and the Chambers from demolition in the 1960’s. Right – the headstone of Betjeman’s grave in Cornwall

The poet is well known for his accessible and, often, highly amusing writing: perhaps less well-known are his Irish connections. During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’ in Ireland), John Betjeman was posted to Dublin, ostensibly as a press attache in the British embassy, tasked with planting British propaganda in newspapers and trying to counter the activities of Deutsche Nachtrichten Büro – the German Press Agency which, in 1939, appointed its own official representative in Ireland, Dr Carlheinz Petersen. As the war got under way British media were swamped with propaganda stories against Irish neutrality: for example, it was suggested that German submarine crews were being entertained in remote villages in the west of Ireland, and that wireless transmitters up in the mountains were at the heart of a vast espionage system against Britain. When Ireland refused to lease back its ports to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic, the idea began to take hold in Britain that ‘neutralit’y was a wilful act of hostility against the allies. John Betjeman was drafted in to the Ministry of Information to help calm the situation. Betjeman’s job was to rein in these anti-Irish fantasies. Luckily for future Anglo-Irish relations, he managed to put a stop to a Ministry plan to disseminate propaganda leaflets in packets of tea, soap and toilet paper. Betjeman recommended “the stopping of anti-Irish articles and cartoons”. Instead, propaganda should concentrate on backing De Valera “and showing the tightrope he is walking”. Although De Valera was convinced Germany would win the war, the poet said: “There is no doubt that he and most of his ministers feel that the better interests of Eire will best be served by a British victory. For this reason Mr de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.”

Betjeman and family Dublin

A surviving photograph of John Betjeman (left) in Dublin during the war years – note the two pipers; the context is unknown

It’s hard to know whether Betjeman was actually a spy – even his biographer can’t clarify that. But the IRA thought so, and dispatched two men to permanently put him out of action. Diarmuid Brennan was the IRA army council’s head of civilian intelligence in 1941, and he was approached by two gunmen from the second battalion of the Dublin IRA who were looking for a photograph of …a fellow called Betjeman… These second battalion types were known to us as the Edward-Gees of the IRA, after Edward G Robinson… 26 years later Brennan wrote to John Betjeman telling him about the plot: …I got communications describing you as ‘dangerous’ and a person of menace to all of us. In short, you were depicted in the blackest of colours…

However, Brennan was interested to know more about this condemned man and began to read his poetry. The story goes that Brennan was swayed by reading Continual Dew, a 1937 volume that contains several poems about Ireland and another about Oscar Wilde, as well as Slough, in which he implored the Luftwaffe: 

…Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow…

Brennan decided that someone who was as passionate about poetry as Betjeman should be given the benefit of the doubt and aborted the assassination. There’s no doubt that Betjeman liked Ireland – and had some appreciation of the Irish outlook on life, in particular the love of literature. He was a lifelong friend of the poet Louis MacNeice and also of Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote a poem for Candida – Betjeman’s daughter – in celebration of her first birthday in 1942:NPG x78423; Candida Lycett-Green; Sir John Betjeman; Penelope (nÈe Chetwode), Lady Betjeman; Paul Betjeman by Bassano

Candida is one to-day,
What is there that one can say?
One is where the race begins
Or the sum that counts our sins;
But the mark time makes to-morrow
Shapes the cross of joy or sorrow.

Candida is one to-day,
What is there for me to say?
On the day that she was one
There were apples in the sun
And the fields long wet with rain
Crumply in dry winds again.

Candida is one and I
Wish her lots and lots of joy.
She the nursling of September
Like a war she won't remember.
Candida is one to-day
And there's nothing more to say.
The Betjeman family: John, Candida, Paul and Penelope 1948 (Bassano)

Betjeman is also particularly remembered for the part he played in bringing Laurence Olivier to Ireland to film Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate. This film, itself a piece of wartime propaganda, brought a short period of prosperity to County Wicklow in 1943. The doughty yeomen who faced the French in the Agincourt battle scenes were actually Irish farmers: these ‘extras’ each received an additional pound if they brought along their own horse!


Battle scene – Agincourt in Ireland, Powerscourt, Co Wicklow

The small towns of Ireland by bards are neglected,
They stand there, all lonesome, on hilltop and plain.
The Protestant glebe house by beech trees protected
Sits close to the gates of his Lordship’s demesne.

But where is his Lordship, who once in a phaeton
Drove out twixt his lodges and into the town?
Oh his tragic misfortunes I will not dilate on;
His mansion’s a ruin, his woods are cut down…

(from The Small Towns of Ireland, John Betjeman)