Hayes, Stephen (1902–74), revolutionary, was born 26 December 1902 in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, one of eleven children of Thomas Hayes, publican, and Ellen Hayes (née Brown). In 1920 he left the local CBS and became a clerical officer with Wexford county council. Having been an active member of Fianna Éireann while still at school, he was appointed commandant of the Wexford brigade (1920–21) and was subsequently obliged to go on the run in early 1921.
During the civil war he took the anti-treaty side and was arrested (1922) and interned in the Curragh for fourteen months. On his release (1924), he returned to his job with Wexford county council and was a member of the Wexford team that won the Leinster senior Gaelic football title (1925). He also represented Leinster in the Railway Cup competition and was secretary (1926–35) and later chairman of the Wexford county GAA board. Still holding extreme political views, he unsuccessfully contested the August 1936 Wexford by-election (brought about by the death of Sir Osmond Esmonde (qv)) for Cumann na Poblachta, polling the lowest number of first-preference votes (1,301 from a total of 45,754).
A supporter of Seán Russell (qv) and the militarist wing of the IRA, Hayes resigned from Wexford county council in 1938 to take up a full-time position on IRA GHQ staff and the executive council. Through the GAA Hayes had become a popular figure in Wexford, and his contacts at the port of Rosslare were vital to the importation of arms. Having suffered wholesale arrests of men in Belfast at the end of 1938, the IRA was short of manpower and cash. Russell, Hayes, and others on the executive were determined to take their ‘war’ to the British through a bombing campaign in Britain. On 12 January 1939 an ultimatum was sent to the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, demanding the withdrawal of British troops from Irish soil. When the deadline expired on 15 January a proclamation, signed by Hayes and others, was posted around Ireland calling for support in compelling a British evacuation to make independence and the Irish republic effective. The proclamation was later referred to by the Northern Ireland government as ‘the egregious proclamation issued by the so-called republican government and the IRA’ (Times, 17 Jan. 1939). On 16 January seven explosions were reported in several cities in England, and attacks continued intermittently over the following months.
When Russell travelled to the USA on a fundraising mission in April 1939, Hayes was appointed acting IRA chief of staff (April 1939–June 1941) and was determined to continue the offensive in England. Although the campaign attracted much attention it was not a success, in that it ultimately provoked severe reactions from both the Belfast and Dublin governments. In Northern Ireland it was largely responsible for the introduction of internment, and south of the border the government passed the Offences against the State Act, 1939, which provided the authorities with wide-reaching powers to assist in suppressing the IRA. On 9 September Hayes was nearly arrested during a garda raid on an IRA safe house at 16 Rathmines Grove, Dublin. Although he escaped, many members of GHQ were captured and a significant amount of cash seized. From this point onwards Hayes was forced to go on the run.
The English campaign and its reaction left IRA resources depleted, and Hayes made the decision to obtain help by exploiting the tensions between Britain and Germany. Through his Wexford contacts a radio was smuggled into Ireland, and on 29 October 1939 Hayes established contact with the German intelligence service, from which he requested arms and cash. In November Hayes planned a daring raid for ammunition on the Phoenix Park magazine fort and the Islandbridge army barracks, and on the night of 23 December 1939 the plan was put into action. The raid on Islandbridge was ultimately abandoned, but thirteen lorries carrying more than 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition (nearly the entire reserve stock of the Irish defence forces) were taken from the Phoenix Park. Although this appeared to be a major coup, it did not solve the problems of lack of money and men facing Hayes, and only served to intensify government pressure. The IRA needed cash and bomb-making equipment rather than ammunition, and it was in no position to deal with the volume that had been taken. The subsequent government raids in search of the ammunition resulted in the rounding-up of more men, and on 29 December the radio was seized. By the beginning of January 1940 the government had succeeded in recovering more than 800,000 rounds of ammunition.
The overall result of the bombing campaign and ammunition raid was to force Hayes deeper underground. By early 1940 he was the only active member of the executive council in Ireland, with Russell in the USA and the remainder in prison. Hayes began to rely on non-IRA members such as his brother-in-law Larry de Lacy and Jim Crofton. De Lacy became his de facto counsellor while Crofton, a disaffected member of the ‘Broy Harriers’, provided intelligence relating to police raids. Hayes also attempted to reestablish contact with German intelligence by sending Stephen Held, a Dublin businessman, to Germany via Belgium to request help. At the same time as Held arrived in Germany, Seán Russell had succeeded in making his way to Berlin. The result of IRA entreaties for help was the dispatching of German agent Hermann Goertz (qv) to Ireland in May 1940.
Goertz was unimpressed with Hayes and reluctant to provide money for an organisation that lacked cohesion and direction. When Held's Dublin home was raided on 22 May 1940, Goertz's belongings and a large sum of cash were found and Goertz was forced underground. Although he evaded detection by Col. Dan Bryan (qv) and the Irish intelligence service, he was effectively neutralised and of little use to Hayes. Russell died in August 1940; by the time word reached Hayes in November, the IRA in Dublin had little direction and lacked the resources to fight any campaign that might present itself. The proof of a German link with the IRA led to Col. Bryan being provided with greater resources, which resulted in fewer safe houses around the city for Hayes, who again narrowly evaded capture in November 1940. By 1941 two years on the run had changed Hayes; from having great physical presence and an outgoing personality, he had become nervous and prematurely aged.
Unlike the decaying organisation in the south, the IRA in the north had a very clear direction under its commanding officer, Seán McCaughey (d. 1946). McCaughey was a republican zealot, and the lack of communication and direction coming from the south made him suspicious of Hayes. He visited Dublin and was shocked to discover that the republican ‘government of Ireland’ had disappeared and that there was no knowledge within the organisation of who was on the executive or army councils. Viewing Hayes's reliance on non-IRA personnel as evidence that the chief of staff was betraying the organisation, McCaughey arrived in Dublin in May 1941 with his adjutant, Charles McGlade, and insisted that GHQ be reorganised. Under pressure Hayes appointed McCaughey and McGlade to GHQ, but the northerners’ distrust of him grew. When a ‘safe house’ in which McCaughey had been staying was raided, he was convinced that Hayes was an agent of the government.
On 30 June 1941 McCaughey arranged to meet Hayes at a safe house in Coolock, Dublin. When the chief-of-staff arrived, Liam Rice and four other supporters of McCaughey kidnapped Hayes and took him to a house in the Cooley Mountains. Beaten and questioned for days, he was then moved to a house in the Wicklow Mountains before being taken to a safe house at 20 Castlewood Park, Rathmines. After continued torture Hayes finally began to ‘confess’ and on 23 July a three-man IRA court sentenced him to death. McCaughey was concerned that there was no signed confession, and – seeing an opportunity to delay his fate – Hayes agreed to draft the document. In an attempt to forestall the execution of his sentence, he wrote for days; the final ‘confession’ ran to 160 pages and was not signed until 28 August.
At the beginning of September McCaughey was arrested in Dublin before he had the opportunity to oversee the execution of Hayes. On 8 September Hayes, left unguarded in a room of the Rathmines house, swiftly grabbed a gun from a table and threw himself from the window on to the street. He gave himself up at Rathmines garda station and eventually gave evidence against McCaughey and the other kidnappers who had not evaded capture. McCaughey was sentenced to death by special military court, but the sentence was commuted and he died 11 May 1946 on hunger strike in Portlaoise prison. Hayes served five years in prison. On release and until the end of his life he protested that his confession was a fiction given under torture and in desperation, but the controversy was never authoritatively settled.
After his release he worked as a fishery bailiff in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, and was later employed by Enniscorthy veterinary surgeons, Kavanagh & Kent. Unmarried, he died 28 December 1974 in St John's Hospital, Enniscorthy. His brother Thomas Hayes (d. 21 June 1979), was a member of Enniscorthy urban council and Wexford county council. A photo of Stephen Hayes as a member of the 1925 Wexford GAA football team is included in Purple & gold: a photographic record of Gaelic games in Wexford, 1885–1996, ed. Sean Courtney (p. 14).