O'Donovan, James Laurence (‘Jim’, ‘Seamus’) (1896–1979), scientist and republican, was born 3 February 1896 in Castleview, Co. Roscommon, fifth among seven children (three daughters and four sons) of Daniel J. O'Donovan, excise officer, and Margaret O'Donovan (née Brennan), of Co. Cork. Educated at St Aloysius Jesuit college, Glasgow, where his father had been posted, and UCD, he graduated M.Sc. in chemistry (1919). At college he was recruited into the Irish Volunteers by his chemistry professor, Tom Dillon (qv), and was appointed IRA director of chemicals in December 1920.
During the war of independence, while also working as a research student with Nobels and as a science teacher in Clongowes Wood College, he was responsible for testing and manufacturing explosives, purchasing bomb-making materials, establishing IRA explosives shops, and contributing articles to the IRA journal An tÓglach on the manufacture of simple explosives which could be produced by those with little or no technical training. While experimenting with explosives in May 1922 he blew off two fingers and part of a third on his right hand. He later claimed to have considered the use of biological warfare, including the spreading of botulism among British army cavalry horses, but this was never acted on.
Opposed to the Anglo–Irish treaty, he was a member of the anti-treaty IRA executive formed in 1922, and during the civil war served as IRA director of munitions and chemicals. Opposed to the IRA's policy of executing pro-treaty TDs (which he believed was ineffectual and unnecessary, though not unjust), he favoured incendiary and destructive operations in Britain, the targeting of breweries and distilleries to cripple the Free State economy, and the kidnapping of senior civil servants. Arrested on 29 June 1922, he escaped from Newbridge jail on 14 October 1922, but was recaptured on 15 March 1923 and imprisoned until 17 July 1924. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a paint manufacturing business, he was employed as an operations technical assistant in the ESB, manufacturing paints for electricity pylons, a position he held until retirement in 1961.
In 1936 he established and edited the journal Ireland Today (the editorship of which has often been erroneously attributed to Frank O'Connor (qv)), a radical magazine, seen as a precursor to The Bell, which had as contributors Sean O'Faolain (qv), Owen Sheehy-Skeffington (qv), Liam O'Leary (qv), Peadar O'Donnell (qv), Lennox Robinson (qv), and O'Donovan's close friend Michael Tierney (qv). Its anti-Franco stance during the Spanish civil war led to accusations of communism and anti-catholicism, and it was forced to cease publication in 1938.
Encouraged by IRA chief-of-staff Seán Russell (qv) to assist in the bombing campaign in Britain in the late 1930s, he drew up the ‘S’ (sabotage) plan, based on ideas initially formulated by him in prison during the civil war, which targeted public facilities in Britain such as telephone booths, railway depots, letterboxes, public lavatories, etc. He also assisted in training IRA volunteers to carry out the plan, but it proved beyond the organisation's capabilities, had little success, and led to the execution of two IRA men, Peter Barnes (qv) and James McCormick, in 1940. However, it brought the IRA to the notice of German intelligence, and during 1939 O'Donovan travelled to Germany on three occasions to discuss cooperation between Germany and the IRA, and to try to secure money and weapons for the IRA, a mission that ultimately achieved little more than the establishment of a courier route between Ireland and Germany. Known by the code name ‘agent Held’ during the second world war, he harboured the German agent Herman Goertz (qv) and made pro-German propaganda broadcasts, which were tinged with anti-Semitism. The G2 intelligence section of the Irish army believed that he ‘tried to indoctrinate the IRA with Nazi ideology’ (Military Archives, G2/3738). Such links were objected to by more left-wing members of the IRA, especially George Gilmore (qv), who described O'Donovan as ‘fascist-minded’ (Cronin, 183). He was also involved briefly in Coras na Poblachta, a short-lived fringe political party formed in 1941 by IRA members opposed to what they saw as ‘de Valera's collaboration with Britain’ (Foley, 196). His activities went unnoticed until he was arrested on 26 September 1941 and interned in the Curragh until 8 September 1943, after which he severed his links with the IRA.
He married (26 April 1926) Maureen (‘Monty’), daughter of Tom Barry, dairy farmer and shopkeeper of Tombeagh, Hackettstown, Co. Carlow, and 8 Fleet St., Dublin, and Mary Barry (née Dowling); she was a sister of the executed rebel Kevin Barry (qv). They had three daughters and two sons, and lived in Dublin at 9 Fairfield Park, Rathgar; Laurel Lodge, Ballybrack; ‘Florenceville’, Shankill; and 114 Rathgar Road. During his retirement he wrote a biography – ‘Ireland's Kevin Barry’ – which was never published. Suffering from disseminated sclerosis, he spent the last ten years of his life in Our Lady's Manor nursing home, Dalkey. He died 4 June 1979 in the Meath Hospital, Dublin. His papers are in the NLI and UCD archives, and his statement to the Bureau of Military History is in the Military Archives. Portraits by Frances Kelly (qv), Leo Whelan (qv), RHA, and Frank Kelly are in the possession of his family. His brother Dan O'Donovan was secretary of the Department of Social Welfare, and another brother, Colman, was a diplomat. His son Donal, journalist and writer, married Jenny, daughter of the architect Raymond McGrath (qv).