In our first Dictionary of Irish Biography blog of 2024, Patrick Maume highlights some examples of Irish ‘great detectives’, elusive figures who have nevertheless become prominent in our fiction, politics and popular culture.
The now familiar image of the heroic ‘great detective’, both in fiction and real life, emerged from the mid-Victorian era. A response to an increasingly fluid, impersonal and urbanised society, the ‘great detective’ presents the police (or private detective) as upholder of law and reason, combatting criminals and organized subversives in defence of civic and even cosmic order. The Dublin-born and educated Scotland Yard official Sir Robert Anderson, for example, combined the role of ‘agent handler’ to a Clan na Gael informant with exposition of alleged numerical codes within the Bible – his numerology and pursuit of Clan na Gael were two sides of the same coin.
An older view saw detectives as instruments of Continental-style tyranny, personally corruptible by association with criminals and maintaining a morally questionable status quo by breaking the laws they pretended to uphold. This view had particular resonance in Ireland, where the alienation of large sections of the population, coupled with the compromised legitimacy and declining power of the gentry classes, made a British-style model of decentralised justice administered by the gentry unfeasible. The authoritarian and centralized forms of law enforcement that took its place in Ireland resembled those of mainland Europe. Some British radicals even feared that elements of Dublin Castle’s approach to law and order would infect Britain with authoritarianism. These fears were reinforced in the 1880s when bombings in Britain by Irish-American dynamiters were followed by the recruitment of Irish detectives (including Anderson) to the nucleus of a new Special Branch who worked to undermine Fenian activities in London.
The ability of police detectives to retire early on full pension led some to establish a second career as private investigators, blurring the line between the two. (Private detectives were often seen as disreputable mercenaries doing dirty work, less Sherlock Holmes than Jake Gittes in Chinatown). J. G. Littlechild, former head of Special Branch and employed by The Times to gather evidence for the Parnell Commission, was accused of offering inducements to convicts with official connivance (he was later employed by the Marquess of Queensberry to incriminate Oscar Wilde).
In Ireland, private detectives were of course not just employed by Dublin Castle. John Meiklejohn, a former Scotland Yard detective turned private investigator after spending two years in jail for corruption, was employed by Irish nationalists in 1884 to collect evidence against sexually transgressive Dublin Castle officials; while his nationalist employers celebrated ‘Meiklejohn the detective’, official sources made accusations of blackmail and witness intimidation that were more typically levelled against state agents.
These tropes were displayed in the controversial careers of three late Victorian, Irish-born detectives. James McParland, from Mullaghbrack (near Markethill, Co. Armagh) was a Pinkerton detective who infiltrated the ‘Molly Maguires’ organization in the Pennsylvania coalfields in 1875–6; his evidence led to some twenty executions and won him a senior detective position in the American mountain west. McParland moved on to Colorado, where in 1905 he became embroiled in further controversy over the arrest and trial of leading members of the International Workers of the World (IWW) union for the murder of a former Governor of Idaho. The arrests were secured on the basis of confessions by alleged perpetrators after interrogation by McParland, who claimed to have detected an ‘inner ring’ within the IWW resembling the ‘Molly Maguires’. The defendants were acquitted after one witness retracted their statement and McParland suffered severe cross examination by the celebrity lawyer Clarence Darrow about his behaviour in Pennsylvania.
Another Co. Armagh native, James Mallon, spied on the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) before leading the hunt for the ‘Invincibles’ in the 1880s and becoming DMP assistant commissioner. William Melville, a baker’s son from Sneem, Co. Kerry, joined the London Metropolitan Police before pursuing Irish dynamiters and immigrant anarchists as a Special Branch detective. Officially retiring as head of Special Branch in 1893, he became one of the founding members of MI5, tracking German sleeper agents and addressing Home Rule meetings in Kerry (thus infuriating Arthur Griffith).
All three were celebrated as heroes, not least by themselves. In his Special Branch days Melville actively cultivated favourable newspaper coverage, including reports on his receipt of a papal decoration. (All three emphasized their catholicism as part of their overall respectability.) Mallon contributed reminiscences under his own name to Lloyd’s Weekly News and sponsored ‘as told to’ accounts of his exploits by Dillon Cosgrave and F.M. Bussy. McParland was eulogized in The Molly Maguires and the detectives, attributed to Allan Pinkerton and published in 1877.
McParland and Melville (or at least characters closely modelled on their careers) were immortalised in fiction, crossing the path of the archetypal ‘great detective’. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The valley of fear (1914) depicts Sherlock Holmes trying to protect a version of McParland, while in the short story ‘His last bow’ (1917) Holmes’s infiltration of the German spy apparatus in Britain draws on Melville’s counter-espionage activities (including his speeches in Kerry). Melville’s use of the letter M as signature allegedly inspired its use by the head of the secret service in the James Bond franchise; more equivocally, Melville appears in Joseph Conrad’s The secret agent as Chief Inspector Heat, who discovers that the bombing he is investigating was caused by his informant acting as agent provocateur for a foreign embassy.
Conrad thereby hints at the detectives’ more ambiguous activities; Melville used an agent provocateur to convict anarchists in Walsall in 1892. The Pinkertons, a private agency representing both the state and corporations, were inherently controversial. McParland’s activities helped to break the local mining union and reinforce the semi-feudal power of Pennsylvania coal companies; debate still rages about whether the Molly Maguires were understandable if doomed men of violence (as in the 1970 Martin Ritt film, with Richard Harris as McParland) or victims of McParland as agent provocateur and perjurer. Mallon’s reputation benefited from the ‘Invincibles’ usually being seen as futile rather than heroic, but disputes continue over whether his sardonic accounts of IRB shiftlessness and slow interrogations of prospective informers reflect legitimate comment or voyeuristic sadism.
The detectives themselves sometimes acknowledged the ambivalence of their position. Melville’s Home Rule sympathies may have been simulated for professional reasons. Mallon and McParland dropped occasional hints that Ribbonism might have been understandable in the darker Irish past. (This did not prevent unionists portraying the Phoenix Park murders and Molly Maguires as evidence of Irish psychopathy.) Mallon privately insisted he was a Home Ruler and victim of religious and political bias (lobbying nationalist MPs to secure promotion); whether a precursor of Garda Special Branch or colonial lackey, he encapsulates the ambivalent position of the late Victorian Irish ‘great detective’.
Beau Riffenburgh, Pinkerton’s great detective: the rough and tumble career of James McParland, America’s Sherlock Holmes (2013)
Donal P. McCracken, Inspector John Mallon: buying Irish patriotism for a five-pound note (2009)
Andrew Cook, M: MI5’s first spymaster (2004)
Haia Shpayer-Makov, The ascent of the detective: police sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England (2011)