Balfe, John Donnellan (1816–80), politician, journalist, and British government spy, was born in Co. Meath, son of James Balfe, gentleman, and Sara Balfe (née Sutherland). He was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, and had a brief career in the British army, joining the Life Guards. Stationed at Windsor castle, he was one of the royal escort for Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838. He left the army and returned to Ireland, where he became a prominent member of the repeal campaign, speaking at public meetings and writing letters to the Dublin Evening Post.
An associate of William Smith O'Brien (qv), Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and John Mitchel (qv), in June 1847 he was appointed a member of the council of the Irish Confederation and actively began to promote the work of the Confederate clubs. It is now certain, however, that Balfe was in reality a British agent provocateur, and he was sending reports to Dublin Castle, informing the authorities of the intentions of the Young Ireland leaders. He sent many letters directly to Lord Clarendon (qv), the lord lieutenant, and although Lord John Russell, the prime minister, and Sir George Grey, the home secretary, urged Clarendon to exercise caution regarding these reports, he valued them highly, referring to Balfe as ‘our general’. In September 1847 Balfe founded Peter Carroll's Penny Register, which only ran for a couple of months and which he used to attack the Young Ireland movement. At the same time anonymous letters, hostile to Young Ireland, appeared in the Dublin Evening Post; it is generally accepted that he was the author of these.
In March 1848 he was observed entering the Irish Office in London, and he was denounced in the council of the Irish Confederation as a spy. Expelled as a member of the council, he remained active in the Confederate clubs, joining the Dr Doyle club in Dublin in April 1848. In this way he was able to maintain a constant flow of information to Dublin Castle, and after Mitchel's arrest (May 1848) he tried to help the crown's case by identifying possible Young Ireland sympathisers on the jury panel. He also endeavoured to prevent any reconciliation between Young and Old Ireland, writing letters to the press and sending anonymous letters to John O'Connell (qv) in which he criticised the motives of the Young Ireland leaders. From June 1848 he also began to send some of his reports to Dublin Castle using the initials ‘J.O'C.’ (‘John O'Connell’). After the failed rebellion of 1848, he toured the country, identifying Young Ireland leaders for the authorities, and was in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, on the day that William Smith O'Brien was arrested.
As a reward for these services he was given a grant of land in Tasmania, made a JP, and appointed as assistant comptroller of convicts. He arrived in Tasmania in October 1850, and it is a grim irony that he found himself in such close proximity to Smith O'Brien and Mitchel, men that he had betrayed. He was immediately involved in further agitations as he became a prominent campaigner in the pro-transportation camp, writing incendiary (and anonymous) articles in the Hobart Town Advertiser. T. G. Gregson, the prominent politician and leader of the anti-transportation movement, denounced him for these clandestine journalistic attacks, and, in December 1852 Balfe publicly assaulted Gregson. He was taken to court but got off with a fine, which was paid by a public subscription fund. In 1853 he resigned his position with the convict department.
He decided to concentrate on running his estate at Port Esperance in the Huon district, but immediately became embroiled in a long dispute with the police magistrate at Franklin. On two occasions some of his servants were arrested and he went armed to the local police station and demanded their release, later maintaining that they had only been arrested to annoy him. The local magistrates petitioned the lieutenant governor to have him removed from the list of JPs, claiming that Balfe was both a drunk and a perjurer. Despite this he was a popular figure locally and continued to write articles in local newspapers, using the pseudonyms ‘Dion’ and ‘Bill Shingle’. He later served in the Tasmania house of representatives for Franklin (1857–70), West Hobart (1871–2, 1877–80) and South Launceston (1874–7). Known for his stinging attacks on government corruption, he sat on several committees of inquiry and later served as chairman of committees (1863–6). In 1868 John Davis, ex-convict and now newspaper proprietor and politician, employed him as editor of the Mercury on condition that he remain sober for a year and that he also vote in keeping with his own editorials. Within four months Davis dismissed him for drunkenness; Balfe later sued for £500 but lost. In the 1870s he served as editor of the Tasmanian Tribune, and in 1875 published Life in old Ireland in olden times, which was based on a lecture that he had recently delivered to the St Patrick's Society. He died on 13 December 1880 at his home in Battery Point and was buried in Connelian Bay cemetery.
He married (1850) Mary O'Reilly, sister of Christopher O'Reilly of Co. Meath, later a farmer, engineer, and politician in Tasmania. They had four daughters and one son. There are collections of John Donnellan Balfe's letters in the William Smith O'Brien papers in the NLI and in the Clarendon papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.