- Education and Science
Séan O'Callaghan - IRA Informer
Life In The IRA
Séan O’ Callaghan was born on the 26th of January 1954 in Tralee, Kerry into a republican family. His father was a committed member of the IRA and growing up there were meetings in his house frequently and a lot of influence from his father. As a young boy O’Callaghan showed no interest in politics. He and his friends would pretend to search for diamonds and as a quick way of searching they made explosives.
In the late 1960s there was revolution in the air with civil rights marches for the equality for the Catholic minority in the North. This gave the IRA a reason to be back in business. Every young person O’Callaghan met on the street was now wondering how to join the IRA and at the age of 15 O’Callaghan did just that. At his first meeting he got a 20-minute safety briefing and they cleaned guns that were to be sent up to the North. Around this time the Provisional IRA grew very quickly. Training camps were set up all over Kerry. O’Callaghan went to a training camp just outside Tralee in an old farmhouse and noticed that everyone who came to the training camps all really wanted to be there and to learn how to use the weapons. They all really wanted to fight for their cause.
O’Callaghan used to bring some of the explosive materials home to practice with, and one day he accidentally blew up the materials destroying his house and part of the neighbours’ houses. At the age of only 17 he was taken to jail for 6 months. He was seen as too dangerous to go to a juvenile prison so he was sent to Limerick Prison. When O’Callaghan was released from prison he was enlisted to create a new modern training camp inside the Kerry Mountains. Here people were taught to use heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and explosives. Most of the men in charge were young men. O’Callaghan said this made him feel important as he was in charge of men twice his age. He felt as if in a few more years he could be running the entire IRA.
O’Callaghan’s first taste of actual combat was at the Ulster Defence Regiment Barracks in Clogher. He was sent to fire at the barracks intending to kill as many UDR soldiers as possible. The men had no sense of any deaths at the time of the shooting as they were all on an adrenaline high. One man was even going to shoot a rocket launcher from inside the IRA truck and had to be stopped as it would have destroyed the truck. It wasn’t until 4am when they were listening to the news on the radio that they found out that one woman was killed in the attack. She was Private Eva Martin. At the time O’Callaghan was unsure how he felt. In his memoirs he talks about the event. He found out that Martin had no links to the Unionist terrorist gangs and that she was only a part time volunteer. She was about 27 years old and was a secondary school teacher.
Then at the age of 19, O’Callaghan was sent off to assassinate Peter Flanagan. Flanagan was an RUC Special Branch Inspector. He was a Catholic and a figure hated by the public. He had two accomplices on his task a man named Paul and a woman he had nicknamed Lou Lou. None of them slept the night before the attack as all of them were extremely nervous. They highjacked a car and drove to Omagh. They were told they would recognize Flanagan as he drove a blue Volkswagen and was usually in a pub at a certain time each day. When they arrived they spotted the car and Paul was sent into the pub to check he was there. Once Flanagan spotted Paul and O’Callaghan he knew what was happening. He begged them not to kill him shouting “No” over and over again. They shot him repeatedly and fled the scene immediately. They took refuge in a house run by priests who were IRA sympathisers. The priests blessed them upon entry of the house and reassured them that they had not committed a sin as they had killed a very evil man.
A little while later O’Callaghan was making tea in an apartment with a good few other IRA members when the news came on. The news said that a police woman had been killed by an IRA bomb. Kevin McKenna, chief of staff in the IRA, turned around to O’Callaghan and said “Maybe she’s pregnant and we get two for the price of one”. This was one of the turning points for O’Callaghan. He walked out of that room walked down the hall and cried. He did not want to be part of an organisation that wished babies dead and he lost all respect for McKenna. O’Callaghan went home to Tralee just after this and resigned from the IRA at the age of 20. His superiors in the IRA assumed he would take a few years break and would come back but O’Callaghan had no such intention.
O’Callaghan moved to England and married. There he realised that the Provisional IRA was the worst thing to have ever happened in Irish history. He stayed in England for almost 4 years and realized that what he did as a member of the IRA was wrong so he decided to re-join it, but this time as an informer. In August 1979, Lord Mountbatten (a British statesman) was on holidays in Ireland when his boat was blown up by the IRA. This was seen as a final straw for O’Callaghan so he swiftly returned to Kerry with his wife.
When he returned home he re-joined the IRA prepared to betray family, friends and the cause that he had once fought for. The consequences, if he was caught, would be torture and certain death but he wanted to do it. He called a detective in An Garda Síochanna who had arrested him a couple of times and knew he could trust him. He planned to meet him in a graveyard. The detective was very nervous to meet O’Callaghan but he came along anyway. O’Callaghan told the detective his plan and told him that he would work under his own terms, he would only work with that detective, he wouldn’t be paid and if there was anything he didn’t want to do he wouldn’t do it. The detective agreed to his terms and O’Callaghan became an informer.
At first O’Callaghan alerted the police to new covert IRA activity like the new training camps in Kerry. He arranged for the camps to be raided by the police and worked mainly in Kerry at the beginning. Then in 1981 the hunger strikes started in the H Block prisons, led by Bobby Sands. The whole world watched the situation to see what the British government would do and when they let them die there was uproar. There was boosted support for the IRA at this time. O’Callaghan became the republican face in Kerry and no one would dare suspect him of being an informer as he was so active.
After the devastation of the Hunger Strikes, the IRA were determined to hit back. They set up a long ferocious bombing campaign in England and even attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister in Brighton. O’Callaghan then claimed he was drawn into this campaign. In 1983 he was sent to England to help assassinate Prince Charles and Princess Diana at a charity concert. The plan was to plant a bomb as close to the royal box as possible. O’Callaghan didn’t know how to stop the plan without being caught and he felt as though he had to do something. He used his contacts to leak the story to the British press as he figured that would give the IRA a plausible reason to abort the mission. O’Callaghan then fled back to Ireland as the story broke. The British press published stories about Séan so the local Kerry newspapers took photos of him so it looked like he was in Kerry the whole time and any suspicions of him were overshadowed.
O’Callaghan now informed at a local level for the next few years. To avoid slip ups he passed information to his Garda contact by coded telephone calls. In the autumn of 1984 a huge shipment of arms was coming from a criminal gang in Boston. A fishing boat was due to meet the shipment just off the west coast of Ireland but it was intercepted by An Garda Síochanna and the Irish Navy. This was the biggest haul of arms that had ever been seized in Ireland. This wrecked the IRA because they were well aware that the information which led to the interception of the weapons came from inside the IRA and everyone wanted to know who this spy was. They thought it was unthinkable that somebody within the IRA would be against them. Séan acted his part even more so now and he won a seat on the council for Sinn Féin and appeared ever more committed to the nationalist cause.
The pressure of leading a double life was taking its toll on O’Callaghan. Nobody, not even his family knew that he was an informer. He tried to forget that he was an informer unless he was talking with his contact. It was easier to do that than to know that he was constantly telling lies to everyone around him. However he said that he enjoyed fooling them.
O’Callaghan then claimed in the 1980s that he became a leader of the IRA in the southern command. In 1985, O’Callaghan’s faced his biggest moral dilemma. The IRA thought that Séan Corcoran was an informer so they hatched a plan to see if he was. O’Callaghan decided it would be best if he went along with the plan to keep his cover. Micky Morgan was a Belfast IRA man who had just been released from prison. The plan was that he would travel to Cork where he would meet up with Corcoran on IRA instruction and it would be made clear that Morgan was on the run and Corcoran had to drive him to a safe house. If there was a Garda raid on this so called “safe house” it would be obvious that Corcoran was an informer. O’Callaghan warned the Gardaí not to respond but Corcoran’s handler sanctioned a raid on the 2 republican sympathiser’s houses in the area the following morning. Corcoran was kidnapped for interrogation to which he confessed to being an informer. O’Callaghan was the senior man around and had to try to save Corcoran’s life without blowing his own cover. He travelled to Dublin to ask for Corcoran to be given another chance but Corcoran was killed. Some say O’Callaghan killed him but he himself denies that fact.
After that incident O’Callaghan wasn’t as involved in IRA activity and he had pretty much no meetings with his Garda partner. He wanted to get away from his life. He left Ireland in December 1985 with his daughter and girlfriend in the middle of the night and was relocated to Holland by MI5 for nearly a year, and then he lived in England. On November 29th 1988 he turned himself in at Tunbridge Wells for IRA involvement and admitted to murdering Eva Martin, Peter Flanagan and Séan Corcoran.
After 4 years in prison, he reached out to the press to tell his story. Everyone was completely shocked when they found out that he was an informer and his father was devastated. He asked numerous times for early release and for his case to be reviewed and he even went on hunger strike. Then in December 1996 after only 8 years in prison, O’Callaghan was released. His memoirs were published in 1998 creating a massive blow to the IRA. Since then he has been working and hoping for peace in Northern Ireland. Because of his role as an informer he will never be safe and will probably never get to go home to Tralee.