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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 December 2007, 09:53 GMT
Irish spymaster 'M' sparks debate
By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

Sean Connery
Characters from James Bond films were based on Melville
An exhibition being held in Tralee about the first head of the British Secret Service, William Melville, has caused some shaking and stirring in the county.

The original spymaster "M" of James Bond fame came from Kerry, but the hosting of the exhibition in the County Museum named after Irish rebel leader Thomas Ashe means it's not been without controversy.

William Melville was the first head of the British Secret service in 1903.

The original "M" - as later James Bond's boss would be known - spent much of his earlier career in the new Special Branch, pursuing Irish Fenians and European left-wing radicals in the late 19th century.

Among those he jailed was Tom Clarke, who was later to be executed as a leader of the 1916 Rising in Dublin.

Some Kerry republicans are furious at the exhibition in a hall named after Thomas Ashe, one of Clarke's 1916 comrades.

Republican Sinn Fein organised a protest against the exhibition and what Matt Leen of the party says is the "renegade" William Melville.

Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper was hunted by William Melville

"Me and my fellow republicans think this is an act of treason, to hold this especially in his hall that's here to commemorate Thomas Ashe who gave his life for the freedom we enjoy in this part of Ireland and who suffered a horrendous death - he was force fed - at the hands of the cohorts of William Melville," says Leen.

"To come along 90 years later and to see Melville being commemorated here in the Thomas Ashe Hall, surely there's a huge contradiction in this exhibition."

It was in what must be one of Ireland's most beautiful villages, Sneem, that Melville was born in 1850, before running away from home to become a London policeman.

He rose through the ranks, joining the new Special Irish Branch, forerunner of the Special Branch, where, along with other Irishmen, they targeted their countrymen in the Fenians who didn't share their allegiance to the Crown.

Once the so-called Fenian "Dynamite War" ended in the late 1880s, he moved his attention to international radicals.

Britain had become a haven for revolutionaries and anarchists opposing monarchies throughout Europe, and Melville had plenty of work on his plate, targeting Russians and others, while still finding time to chase Jack the Ripper.

But little was known of the spymaster from Sneem until recently-opened British secret papers enabled a biography, says village historian, John V O'Sullivan, editor of the Sneem Parish News.

"Locals don't have strong feelings about Melville," he considers.

"I wouldn't say that they're proud of it, but they certainly acknowledge that he was a genius and the reason he emigrated was by necessity.

"I don't think there's very strong views held on him by people - whether they'd condemn him or praise him - but they just acknowledge that at the time, he turned out to be the top detective in Europe.

"That was genius as far as the people here would be concerned, but they certainly wouldn't hold strong views on what way he operated later on."

Locals don't have strong feelings about Melville
John V O'Sullivan

The exhibition includes a bomb loaned by West Midlands Police, used by Melville to frame anarchists in Walsall in 1892, which helped his promotion to head of the Special Branch, a year before he strangely retired at the peak of his career as one of Scotland Yard's most famous policemen aged only 53.

He had in fact been secretly headhunted, to become the top field operative or spy - known by the alias 'M' - for the newly formed British intelligence service, in the new Directorate of Military Operations.

Its divisions MO2 and MO3 were the forerunners of MI5 and MI6.

He ran a network of agents, at home and afar, and worked as far as Persia where he was sent to help secure oil supplies for Britain.

As insurrection raged in Ireland in 1916, he is not known to have been involved in counter-insurgency work in his native land, being preoccupied instead in the war against Germany, before his death in 1918.

The Kerry County Museum rejects republicans' criticism of the exhibition, saying Melville's life is simply a remarkable story and for people to judge for themselves.

"I understand their point of view - I don't necessarily agree with it and nor does the museum necessarily agree with it but I can see why some people would feel it would be not appropriate," says Kerry County Museum curator Helen O'Carroll.

"But to examine the life of somebody like William Melville who took such an opposite path to Thomas Ashe, for a teacher such as Thomas Ashe, that would be something he would welcome.

"That we would examine these things, not pretend they didn't happen or hide them away or say we're not going to deal with that but actually to deal with it and look at it and see how we can integrate somebody like Melville into our conception of Irishness," she adds.

But what of a permanent memorial to Sneem's unlikely spymaster son?

The village green in Sneem has a monument to a famous wrestler, but considerable political wrestling in Kerry could be expected to follow any calls for a permanent monument to bring the legacy of the village's spymaster in from the cold.

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