Neligan, David (1899–1983), intelligence agent, police detective and superintendent, was born 14 October 1899 in Templeglantine, Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick, youngest among four sons and four daughters of David Neligan, a Co. Kerry native, and Eliza Neligan (née Mullane), a native of Templeglantine; both his parents were national school teachers. Educated in his parents’ school, in 1917 he joined the local Volunteer company, probably of the Redmondite National Volunteers. Enlisting (April 1918), despite his parents’ objections, at age 18 in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), he soon tired of the monotony of beat duty, and seized the opportunity of promotion to G division, the force's armed, plain-clothes detective unit, in the early months of the Anglo–Irish war (autumn 1919). Shortly thereafter the division's political wing, to which Neligan was assigned, was moved from Brunswick St. (latterly Pearse St.) station into the more secure quarters of Dublin castle, the seat of British administration. As the nationalist insurgency intensified, with attacks on detectives and other police personnel escalating, Neligan was distressed by the decline of morale within G division, and felt the acute tensions between his duties and their attendant risks, on the one hand, and his private nationalist sentiment, on the other. Concluding that he was in ‘the wrong shop’, he offered his services to Sinn Féin, and was advised to resign his position (May 1920). When Michael Collins (qv) learned belatedly of Neligan's overtures, he induced him to rejoin the DMP and act as an undercover agent, equipping him with bogus threatening letters from the Limerick IRA as a pretext for his reenlistment.
Throughout the remaining year of the conflict, Neligan fed valuable information to Collins in the latter's capacity as IRA director of intelligence. A detective constable with quarters inside Dublin castle, Neligan was the most strategically situated of the several agents within the DMP who spied for Collins. His information on the relative importance of police and military personnel, and details of their movements, facilitated the IRA's crippling campaign of assassination. He passed information on troop movements, and frequently warned the insurgents of raids and ambushes. While his activities involved the routine betrayal of police colleagues, often with fatal consequences, on several instances he warned off likeable colleagues whom he judged harmless, or deflected planned IRA attacks that he thought unduly bloodthirsty. He contributed to the meticulous compilation of particulars about the British secret service that culminated in the coordinated assassinations of fourteen agents by Collins's ‘squad’ on the morning of ‘Bloody Sunday’ (21 November 1920). On the following day, on Collins's orders, Neligan combed the cells of the Bridewell in a futile search for Dick McKee (qv), the Dublin Brigade OC arrested by RIC auxiliaries on the eve of the attacks, but who, with two companions, had already been tortured and killed in the castle in reprisal.
In May 1921 Neligan resigned from the DMP to join the British secret service, which by then had assumed the bulk of British espionage operations in Ireland. One of only a few Irish in the service, he was instructed to penetrate the IRA and ‘get Collins’. Based in Dún Laoghaire under the cover of an insurance agent, he engineered the unprecedented meeting of twenty-five secret agents to discuss their separate operations and share information, all of which he passed to Collins; the potential value of these activities was obviated by the truce. During the treaty negotiations (October–November 1921) he was dispatched by the secret service to London to spy on Collins and his entourage. Neligan was the only one of Collins's detective spies both to survive the war, and to remain unexposed. His cover remaining intact, he was awarded a British secret-service pension which he collected until his death.
After ratification of the Anglo–Irish treaty by Dáil Éireann (January 1922), Neligan was placed by Collins in the criminal investigation department operating since the truce out of Oriel House, Westland Row. On the commencement of the civil war (June 1922) he was appointed a chief intelligence officer in the pro-treaty national army, attached to the units of the Dublin Guard that pursued a bitter campaign of attrition against republican forces in Co. Kerry. Linked to such excesses as mistreatment of prisoners and torture during interrogation, he has been identified as selecting the prisoners involved in the Ballyseedy incident, executed as a reprisal while supposedly clearing a mined barricade (7 March 1923). Recalled to Dublin as army director of intelligence with the rank of colonel, he advised the Free State government on the reorganisation of detective operations. He reentered the DMP as chief superintendent in G division (October 1923–September 1925) after its reinforcement by selected personnel from the disbanded Oriel House unit. Facing a precarious law-and-order situation, he oversaw operations against maverick republican units eschewing the IRA ceasefire, and armed criminal gangs (often of demobilised national army officers). Frustrated by deficient cooperation with the Garda Síochána – the newly formed unarmed police force that operated outside Dublin – he consulted with the minister for justice, Kevin O'Higgins (qv), on proposals for a nationwide detective force, perceived as a more acceptable alternative to either arming the gardaí, or redeploying the army in police functions. The scheme was a key element in O'Higgins's initiative of amalgamating the DMP with the Garda Síochána, effected in April 1925.
As chief superintendent heading the new detective division of the Garda Síochána, Neligan organised two branches, one for ‘crime ordinary’, the other for ‘crime special’ (i.e., political offences). The latter, the ‘special branch’ – a network of small, armed, mobile units, quartered wherever possible in their own barracks – operated throughout the country, responsible for administrative purposes to the garda district superintendent, but operationally to Neligan's office in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The linchpin of government policy towards the IRA, and various other republican and leftist organisations, the special branch controversially engaged in such unofficial methods as unremitting harassment and intimidation of suspected subversives, thereby rendering Neligan a vilified bête noire of dissident elements. Neligan exerted considerable influence upon government as a trusted adviser on intelligence, security, and general policing matters. When the IRA in 1928 commenced a deliberate campaign of undermining the process of law by intimidating jurors, witnesses, and litigants, Neligan responded with a crackdown, involving intensified surveillance, cat-and-mouse patterns of arrest and rearrest, and increased prosecutions for IRA membership and illegal drilling. The reintroduction of emergency powers (October 1931) freed his detectives from the hindrance of civil suits by IRA volunteers for wrongful arrest and assault, and produced a short-term operational success, amid a mass roundup of suspects. However, the exercise of less restrained powers damaged the public image of the gardaí, contributing to the decline in support for the Cumann na nGaedheal government.
Neligan claimed in later years to have played a decisive role in squelching a purported plot mooted by garda commissioner Eoin O'Duffy (qv) in 1931 for a combined garda–army coup should Fianna Fáil win the imminent general election; some commentators have suggested that he overstated the situation. After the February 1932 election, Neligan remained in office, assured of support by Labour party leader William Norton (qv), on whose votes the minority Fianna Fáil government depended. In September 1932 he was suspended from duty for organising a collection for two police detectives dismissed from the force after a tribunal of inquiry sustained allegations that they had shot and severely assaulted two IRA leaders in Co. Clare. Weeks after Fianna Fáil won a majority in a snap general election, Neligan resigned (February 1933) amid a furore involving alleged breaches of the official secrets act, arising from his accumulation of material from detective files to assist research by Professor James Hogan (qv) on the communist movement in Ireland.
Neligan was reemployed in a sinecure in the land commission until his retirement in the early 1960s. His memoir, The spy in the castle (1968), an anecdotal account of his intelligence work for Collins, was a significant contribution to the history of the Anglo–Irish war, the counter-espionage aspect of which had theretofore been scantily treated. Tough, shrewd, and highly able, Neligan was deceptively casual and self-deprecatory in manner, with a sense of humour that, undiminished under stress, endeared him to subordinates. While he was an entertaining raconteur, boasting a seemingly remarkable recall of detail, his precise historical role remains enigmatic, as befits the shadowy world of espionage and counter-espionage that he inhabited. Republican insinuations that, while supposedly working for Collins, he was actually a double agent in the service of the British can be dismissed as biased owing to his subsequent record on behalf of the Free State. Nonetheless, the sole primary source for most of his exploits as Castle spy, and for critical events of his subsequent career, are the accounts in his own memoir and his interviews with scholars, uncorroborated by additional testimony or documentation. He and his wife Sheila had one son and three daughters, and resided at 15 St Helen's Road, Booterstown, Co. Dublin. He died 6 October 1983 at St Vincent's hospital, Dublin.