The German Intelligence Services (Abwehr) in Northern Ireland were very effective before the last World War and played a large part in the Belfast Blitz. Why were they so effective?. The answer lies with their top spy in Ireland just before the War, Adolf Mahr. One of his academic colleagues was the fine intellectual Emyr Estyn Evans whose testimony on Mahr follows, as contained in a superlative book Ireland and the Atlantic Heritage – Selected Writings. This was given to me by his son Alun and wife Gwyneth Evans on 27 September 1996, during my tenure as Lord Mayor of Belfast, as a memento of my participation in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health’s Centenary Meeting, Queen’s University of Belfast organised by Alun that month.
Emyr Estyn Evans (1905-1989) was born in Shrewsbury, England, of Welsh parentage. He studied under H.J. Fleure at Aberystwyth and in 1928 moved to Queen’s University, Belfast, where he founded the Department of Geography and held a Chair from 1948 to 1968. He helped to establish the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, County Down, in 1963, and in 1970 became the first Director of the Institute of Irish Studies. His books include France (1937), Irish Heritage (1942), Mourne Country (1951, rev. 1967), Irish Folk Ways (1957), Prehistoric & Early Christian Ireland (1967), and The Personality of Ireland (1973, rev. 1992).
Adolf Mahr Archaeologist and Nazi Spy
“It may be noted that earlier in this century the making of some axes for a commercial purpose had been a minor industry in mid-Antrim. W.J. Knowles records that genuine axes made of stone from Tievebulliagh were so plentiful (he himself said that he obtained over 2500 from Glen Ballyemon) and were so keenly sought by private collectors and museums that local farmers began making them for sale. This put an end to collecting for a time.
One of the keenest collectors of axes and other artifacts later on was Dr Adolf Mahr, Director of the National Museum in Dublin. Born in Austria, he was a good archaeologist and I came to know him well. He published a comprehensive survey of Irish prehistory in 1937. In Dublin he became a powerful force. Membership of the Royal Irish Academy is a much-prized honour to which I did not then aspire. All I know is that Mahr told me one day that I was now an MRIA. (Nowadays, quite eminent people are proposed more than once before they succeed in being elected, and I did not even know that my name had been proposed.) Mahr invented what he called ‘the ether test’, by which, he claimed, the presence of machine-oil on the surface of a polished axe could be detected and forgeries revealed. We often discussed archaeological topics and monuments, and I showed him many of the famous sites in Northern Ireland. Only later did I suspect that he may have been spying out the land for a sinister purpose.
His appointment as Museum Director in Dublin when there were, I believe, excellent applicants for the post from Britain, seemed to illustrate the strength of the hatred of all things British prevailing in Éire in the years following Partition. In fact it was another German who was first appointed, Mahr succeeding him on his early death. I could not believe the rumour that, like many other scholarly Germans, Mahr was a dedicated Nazi. But apparently he had been a young museum assistant in Germany looking for a faith, and though first tempted to join the Society of Friends, eventually he fell under the evil spell of another Adolf. I was profoundly shocked to learn subsequently that he had told a Dublin archaeologist that after the war, following the German victory, he would see I was made Gauleiter of Ulster!
Suspicion fell too on another German, a certain Herr Hoven, then living in Belfast, though officially domiciled across the border. He often called to see me, and I once asked him when he hoped to return to Germany. His unguarded reply, ‘Not until early September’, seems to have been prophetic, for war was declared on 3 September 1939. I should add that neither Mahr nor Hoven, to the best of my knowledge, was ever charged with spying, for legally they were residents in a neutral country.
Mahr wanted to enrich the collections in Dublin and questioned both the claims of the Belfast Museum and the quality of its staff and of the inspectorate in Northern Ireland. The senior civil servant who was in charge of historic monuments was a Trinity College historian who had little archaeology, and Mahr described him to me in this way: ‘He is just a big fat elephant: he is hard to move, and ven he does move, he goes in the wrong direction.’ Classical archaeology was then taught at Queen’s in Belfast but no Irish archaeology, and no prehistory.
Mahr appeared to take a special interest in coastal sites, especially on the Lecale coast of South Down, but only some years later did I discover a possible explanation. In 1941 I had occasion to check the condition of some stone monuments there which I had listed earlier. I found that the roof of one of the early corbelled structures had been removed, and when I peered inside I found myself staring into the barrels of half-a-dozen heavy machine-guns, pointing out to sea. Belfast was being heavily bombed by German planes at the time (as I well remember, for the house near the University where I then lived was hit by an incendiary bomb) and I came to realize that it was the possibility of their use as defensive posts which probably explained Mahr’s particular concern for these apparently innocent historic monuments along an ‘invasion coast’.”
Mahr tried to return to Ireland after the War. But de Valera had had enough and would not permit it. However his influence remained strong in the perpetuation of the Hallstatt myth of early “Celtic” origins in Austria, the birthplace of both Mahr and that other Adolf, his hero and devoted master. The Gaelic myth itself originated in the nineteenth century Celtic Romantic movement and was pursued by Patriot Poets, as well as by writers of popular history and Irish nationalist political propaganda, including “serious historians”. The cell structure of academic elitism protected those Celtic scholars who continued to disseminate notions of a Gaelic Aryan Race, to whom Ireland rightfully belonged.The Hallstatt myth is slowly losing ground, although it was still being promulgated by the BBC in its recent series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice. However this myth is unfortunately now being replaced by new myths for old. The Mallory/Warner myth of Irish/Irelander. the Koch/Cunliffe myth of Tartessian Celtic origins and the Woolf/Frazer myth of Gaelic Dalriada and the “Northern Ui Neill” will create their own continuing difficulties for the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the forseeable future. And indeed for the whole World if the United Kingdom loses its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. But it is to the Hidden History of Herr Hoven that we will now turn….