McDermott, James (‘Red Jim’) (1843–p. 1896), agent provocateur, was born in Dublin of unknown parents. Michael Davitt (qv) claimed he was an illegitimate son of a lawyer named O'Brien. Educated at Clonliffe College, Dublin, he joined the Irish papal brigade in 1860, fought in Italy, and was allegedly decorated for bravery. After returning to Dublin, he joined the IRB but was disliked and distrusted by almost all the Fenians. He emigrated to the USA and, despite the warnings of the Dublin IRB, won the confidence of John O'Mahony (qv), the leader of the Fenian Brotherhood. He joined the British secret service in 1865 and encouraged the Fenians to invade Canada – a move that subsequently split the movement in America. In the late 1860s he worked as a journalist in Brooklyn and blackmailed his associates; as a result, he got into a quarrel in a Brooklyn saloon and killed a man. He was tried for the crime, but acquitted. In the 1870s he continued to work as a journalist and earned his nickname ‘Red Jim’ from the Irish community in New York on account of his amoral behaviour.
In 1881, while in the pay of the British secret service, he encouraged Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (qv) to send him on a terrorist mission to Britain. Between 1881 and 1883 he helped to organise dynamite teams in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Cork and subsequently secured their arrests. Under orders from E. G. Jenkinson (qv) at Dublin Castle, he tried, without success, to bring about dynamite conspiracies within the IRB in Dublin and Paris. In February 1883 he visited Michael Davitt and Tim Healy (qv) in Richmond Prison and tried to make them condone the use of political violence. When Rossa's supporters were arrested in Liverpool in March 1883, Rossa denounced McDermott as a British spy and ordered his assassination. When Jenkinson learned of this, he arranged McDermott's escape to Canada, where the latter published articles in the Montreal Evening Post alleging that Davitt sympathised with the dynamite war. This prompted Davitt to write to the paper and expose him as a British spy. McDermott subsequently fled to New York, where he narrowly escaped assassination. Jenkinson tried – but failed – to get the Canadian government to extradite him. Instead he was sent under a false name to Liverpool, where he was arrested and held in prison for a month, while Jenkinson discussed with the home secretary and the lord lieutenant what to do with him. On his release the home office gave him a false name and allowed him to escape detection.
Thereafter he lived mostly in the USA. At the time of the special commission (1888–90), Irish nationalists claimed that Dublin Castle intended to use him as a witness. In the early 1890s he frequently travelled to Belgium, where his wife had relatives. In 1896 he was in Antwerp, where another dynamite conspiracy, involving the ex-Invincible Patrick Tynan (qv), was being planned. Shortly after McDermott's visit, several suspects were arrested and an unsuccessful effort was made by the British government to extradite Tynan. Little is known of McDermott's life after 1896, although he may have died in Brussels. The most notorious of all Irish agent provocateurs, McDermott was the inspiration behind D. M. Lenihan's novel about the Land League, The red spy (1914).