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  • "The Indispensable Informer":Daniel O'Sullivan Goula and the Phoenix Society, 1858-59
  • Padraic Kennedy (bio)

As the weeklong treason-felony trial of accused Phoenix Society conspirator Daniel O'Sullivan neared its end on the evening of 12 March 1859, a visibly exhausted Thomas O'Hagan, Queen's Counsel, who had already spoken for nearly nine hours, closed his summation for the defense with a withering assault on the crown's most crucial evidence—the testimony of an informer named, coincidentally, Daniel O'Sullivan but called "Goula." 1 The renowned Belfast-born advocate implored the jury not to convict based on the lies of

a triple traitor—to his sovereign, to his comrades, and again to his sovereign. . . . You cannot act on testimony so corrupt, sustained by circumstances so contemptible as have been paraded before you by the crown. You will acquit the prisoner, and in acquitting him, you will tell the world that you do not approve of practices which have consecrated to immortal infamy the memory of Armstrong and made the name of Reynolds a word of fear with which the Irish mother stills her froward child. 2 [End Page 147]

Two of the jurors seemed swayed by O'Hagan's eloquence. Their refusal to vote for conviction led to the dismissal of the jury and a retrial two weeks later. 3 But in evoking the "hideous spectre" of traitors from the Rebellion of 1798, O'Hagan appealed to an Irish revulsion toward informers that was wider and deeper than the jurors' opinions of Goula. By 1859 informers were already well established as stock characters in the Irish national drama. 4 These folkloric villains manifested themselves in Irish legends as treacherous comrades who enabled the British to capture outlaw heroes; in broadside ballads, as the worst of all enemies of the Irish cause; in novels and short stories, as the scoundrels who entrapped and then betrayed peasants involved in agrarian secret societies; and in popular histories, as the turncoats primarily responsible for defeating the United Irishmen in the 1790s. 5 The occasional well-publicized [End Page 148] prosecutions of suspected Ribbonmen, which almost always seemed to feature one conspirator testifying against another, also kept informers in the public eye. 6

That the Irish particularly hated yet were particularly susceptible to becoming informers seemed self-evident when O'Hagan made his plea to the jury in 1859. This perception has remained. Despite a vigorous revision and reinterpretation of many other conventions of Irish history, scholars have largely accepted the oversized importance of informers without questioning or commenting on their significance or meaning. Even Stephen Greer's nuanced examination of the use of "supergrasses" during the recent conflict in Northern Ireland offered a far less critical interpretation of earlier informers, mentioning them mainly to establish the existence of a longstanding and dishonorable Irish tradition. 7 The few scholars who have tried to [End Page 149] explain the reasons behind Ireland's apparent preoccupation with informers have argued that it reflected a "constant resistance to a deeply resented colonial regime" and opposition to "the rule of English law." 8 But without directly addressing the role of informers, works examining agrarian crime, political violence, and nationalism in Ireland have suggested that the issue was too complex for such straightforward explanations. For instance, Robert J. Scally and W.E. Vaughan, among others, demonstrated the extent to which local or personal circumstances rather than hostility to authority might account for resistance to or cooperation with the forces of order. 9

Recently, some historians have directly questioned the importance of informers and their place within Irish nationalism. Thomas Bartlett suggested that the role played by turncoats and spies in undermining the 1798 rebellion has been exaggerated, in part because Catholic clergymen, Dublin Castle, and the rebels all saw advantages to highlighting these traitors. Oliver Knox focused on the exploits of informers in the 1790s but stressed the complexity of [End Page 150] their motives and the limits of their effectiveness. The most provocative reinterpretation came from Peter Hart in his study of the Cork IRA between 1916 and 1923. Hart contended that republicans exploited the "informer myth" in order to undermine their enemies within the...


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