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Sean Kavanagh - An Irish Patriot

Sean Kavanagh (1897 - 1984)

Sean (John Joseph) Kavanagh entered the world in Tralee, County Kerry on February 2, 1897. He was one of six children born to William and Catherine Kavanagh. His father, who was employed by the Great Southern Railway, moved the family to Carragh Lake when Sean was three years old. Young Sean was educated at the primary school in Carragh Lake and later at the secondary school in Killorglin. About the time his academic days ended the family migrated across the country to Waterford City.

In January 1915 Sean followed in his father's footsteps and went to work as a clerk with the Great Southern Railway in Mallow, Co., Cork. In February of the following year he transferred to Fermoy in the same position. He left the Railway on August 31, 1916 and joined the faculty of the Mount Sion Christian Brothers Secondary School in Waterford City as an Irish language teacher. During the next three years Sean's imagination was captured by the struggle for Independence and he became active in the Gaelic League, Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteer organizations in Waterford and Kilkenny. In 1919 he left the Mount Sion School to become an organizer and teacher with the Gaelic League in Naas, Co. Kildare.

It was shortly after his arrival in Naas that he began his association with Michael Collins, the Minister for Finance in the Dail and Director of Organization in the Intelligence Service of the Irish Volunteers. Under the auspices of his friend Michael Staines, who would later become the first Commissioner of the Garda Siochana (Ireland's National Police Service) and a Senator in the Seanad Eireann, he was brought to Dublin in September 1919 to discuss intelligence strategies with Collins. Consequently, it was decided that Sean would be commissioned to operate in Kildare and report to the Director in Dublin. To keep his identity and mission secret, Collins insisted that only the Officer in Command of the Irish Volunteer Battalion in Naas would be allowed knowledge of Sean's activities.

As the Intelligence Officer for Kildare he was involved in a wide variety of operations that included stealing secret code keys from the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) Headquarters in Naas, stopping trains and hijacking dispatch and mail pouches intended for the British authorities in Dublin Castle and planning raids on military patrols and facilities in the county. Sean also was one of a hand picked group of Volunteers that Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha, the Minister of Defense, had at their disposal for special assignments. Some of the other members of the group were Sean McBride, Ernie O'Malley, Peadar McMahon and Paddy Colgan. These men lived dangerous lives and often became involved in shoot-outs with enemy forces. Collins would regularly assign one or more of them to harass the Crown forces in areas the Castle considered safe and quiet. After a word from Mick things would quickly heat up for the R.I.C. or the Auxiliaries in a particular area. Their successful hit and run tactics proved to be a thorn in the side of the authorities in Dublin Castle. After working for Michael Collins for more than a year it was inevitable that Sean would come to the attention of the R.I.C. Near the end of 1920 they were able to identify him as Collins right hand man in Kildare and he was forced to go on the run.

In spite of being a wanted man he continued to run the intelligence operation in Kildare and meet with Collins on Saturday evenings at Vaughan's Hotel in Dublin. However, on January 8, 1921 the "Big Fellow" failed to keep their regular appointment. Sean was concerned, but made the usual train trip to Dublin a week later. At the Sallins, Kildare station he met briefly with James Lennon, the railway ticket collector, who passed him three letters from Headquarters in Dublin. Two were for the county Volunteer organization and the third was addressed to him. He placed them in his pocket intending to read them later in a more secure location and continued the journey north. On arriving in Dublin he made his way to the Exchange Hotel in Parliament Street where he planned to have a late lunch. At the hotel he went into the private dining room and read his letter. It was an apology from Collins for missing the previous Saturday's appointment and was signed with the symbol M. It also suggested they meet at 8PM that very night. As he studied the note a voice commanded him to raise his hands; looking up he saw two blue-uniformed Auxiliaries pointing their revolvers directly at his head. His time on the run was over. He had been spotted by an informer when he arrived at Kingsbridge station and was followed to the hotel. It took the traitor only minutes to report to the Auxiliaries that a wanted man was in a hotel just around the corner. The note and the other letters were confiscated; Sean was taken into custody and brought to the Castle for questioning by the English authorities.

At Dublin Castle the interrogating officers were sure the note had been written by Michael Collins and that Sean could be "persuaded" to lead them to his chief. They spent the afternoon alternately questioning and beating him, but he steadfastly denied any knowledge of Collins, only telling them the note was from a friend he was going to meet that evening in Newbridge, Kildare. One of the officers eventually reached the conclusion the meeting would likely take place at the hotel where the arrest had been made. Hearing this, Sean felt a rush of relief because he knew his boss would be nowhere near the Exchange Hotel that night. Later in the evening a large force of Auxiliaries in civilian clothing was dispatched to Parliament Street where they took up positions around the hotel in anticipation of capturing the most wanted man in Ireland, but Mick Collins never showed. With their window of opportunity closed, the "Auxies" lost interest in their prisoner and on the following Monday transferred him to Kilmainham Jail. Sean's close association with Michael Collins was now at an end, but he would revere the "Big Fellow" for the rest of his life.

Sean Kavanagh was eventually convicted of being in possession of seditious documents and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. He served his sentence, first, in Kilmainham Jail and, later, in Mountjoy Prison and was released after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921.

Early in 1922 he entered the Free State Army and in August was assigned to the new government's internment camp in Newbridge, Co. Kildare as Deputy Governor. In March of the following year he was transferred and promoted to Governor at the Hare Park Camp in the Curragh. Sean left the Free State Army when the Civil War ended in 1923.

In 1924 the Minister of Justice, Kevin O'Higgins, appointed him Deputy Governor of Mountjoy Prison. In 1927 he was sent to Limerick Prison to manage that facility. One year later he returned as Governor to "The Joy" where he and his wife Elizabeth would raise their daughters Finola and Grainne. During his long tenure at Mountjoy there was a gradual but steady improvement in the living conditions of the convicts. Early in 1940 he was faced with the difficult task of dealing with hunger strikes and riots by Republican prisoners who were attempting to secure political status. During World War II he oversaw the internment of ten German espionage agents who had been apprehended on Irish soil. And, in 1954, on his watch, Mountjoy Prison saw the end of capital punishment.

One of Sean's fondest memories from his Mountjoy days was his relationship with Brendan Behan. Behan arrived at the prison in April 1942 after he had been sentenced to a fourteen year term for his involvement in a gun battle with detectives near Glasnevin Cemetery. A friendship developed between the two when Sean took an interest in Brendan's writing. In an effort to motivate the young man he arranged a meeting between Behan and Sean O'Faolain, the famous author and editor of The Bell. O'Faolain proved to be a positive influence on the budding writer and he provided Brendan with the direction he needed to develop his emerging talent. After eighteen months at Mountjoy Brendan was moved to Arbor Hill Prison. He was eventually released in 1946 as a result of the amnesty declared at the end of World War II. Behan would return to Mountjoy as a guest of the state in 1948 for assaulting a policeman and again in 1954 on a drunk and disorderly charge. Despite his recidivism, Brendan remained one of Sean's favorites. In 1965, twenty- three years after their first meeting and two years after Brendan's death, Sean wrote his reminiscences of the playwright and author in The World of Brendan Behan edited by Sean McCann.

Sean remained in his post at Mountjoy until his retirement in 1962. After retiring he continued to live an active life. He entered the business world when he joined Telecommunications Limited in Dublin as their Sales Administrator. He was an avid golfer and became President of the Elm Park Golf Club in Donnybrook, Dublin. He was a member of the 1916-1921 Club Ltd. where he enjoyed staying in contact with his many comrades from the Irish Volunteers. He even found time to author several magazine articles about the War of Independence.

In 1976 Kenneth Griffith, the Welsh actor and controversial historian sought out Sean Kavanagh and eight other veterans of the struggle for independence to see if they would be willing to collaborate in the making of a television documentary. The others were Tom Barry, Maire Comerford, Sean Harling, David Neligan, John O'Sullivan, Joseph Sweeney, Brigid Thornton and Martin Walton. Griffith envisioned producing a film that would chronicle the most important and turbulent period in Ireland's long history. The documentary would span an eight year period beginning with the 1916 Easter Rising and ending in 1923 with the cessation of hostilities in the Civil War. He planned to weave the memories, motivations and hopes of these individuals into the fabric of Irish history. Sean and the others would be asked to recollect their experiences and interactions with the great leaders of the time; among them, Patrick Pearse, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera. Griffith felt this approach would allow television audiences to view history though the eyes of people who lived it.

All nine agreed to the project and production began in the summer of 1976. The more than one hundred hours of interview time resulted in a one hour television documentary titled, Curious Journey. The film however, was not seen by the public until November 1980 when it was shown at the London Film Festival. In 1982, Kenneth Griffith and Timothy O'Grady published a companion book to the documentary entitled, Ireland's Unfinished Revolution.

Griffith's interviews with Sean Kavanagh took place in Sean's home in Rathmines, Dublin that summer. The highly personal sessions showed Sean, now nearly eighty years of age, to be a quiet and gentle man. They also revealed that this courageous patriot, like many of his comrades who fought for Ireland's freedom, still lived with the ghosts of the past.

In 1978, a few short years after the documentary was completed, Sean suffered the loss of his wife of more than fifty years. Elizabeth Kavanagh never saw her husband's part in the film, but she had made her own curious journey and knew Sean better than anyone. With Elizabeth gone, Sean closed his home in Rathmines and went to live with one of his daughters. After a long and truly meaningful life, Sean Kavanagh passed away at Dr. Steevens Hospital in Dublin on September 4, 1984. He was laid to rest by his family at Deans Grange Cemetery in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.


Copyright (c) 2004 Owen Kavanagh - Clann Member 374

Bibliography and Sources :


General Register Office, Dublin Irish Railway Record Society Archives, Dublin


Carey, Tim, Mountjoy the Story of a Prison, The Collins Press, (Cork), 2000. Coogan, Tim Pat, Michael Collins the Man Who Made Ireland, Roberts Rinehart, (Boulder), 1992. Griffith, Kenneth, and Grady, Timothy, Ireland's Unfinished Revolution An Oral History, Roberts Rhinehart, (Boulder), 1998. McCann, Sean (ed), The World of Brendan Behan, Four Square, (London), 1965. Neligan, David, The Spy in the Castle, Prendeville Publishing, (London), 1999.


Irish Independent, Dublin, September 5, 1984. Irish Times, Dublin, September 5, 1984.


Kavanagh, Sean, "The Irish Volunteers' Intelligence Organisation," The Capuchin Annual 1969.


Griffith, Kenneth, Curious Journey, HTV Wales, 1978.