The Famous Republican and close associate of Michael Collins, Piaras Béaslaí, first brought attention to a certain Lady in a report by him which was published in the Irish independent in January of 1965. Béaslaí, had, at that time - among other literary accomplishments - published a biography of Collins. He was an author; journalist, playwright, biographer and translator. But first of all he was a Republican who fought in the Easter rising and later became director of publicity for the IRA. After the rising he spent thirteen months jailed in England, and was released during the amnesty of that time. He was later arrested again and spent time in jail at Belfast. In 1919 he was jailed in Mountjoy and escaped from there. Recaptured, he was sentenced to two years and again escaped, this time from Manchester prison. His credentials prior to the civil war were indeed impressive.
The particular lady, who he chose resurrect - long after she died - had played a pivotal role during Ireland's fight for independence, and indeed in Béaslaí's personal life. A heroine who slipped through the streets of Dublin, and also through the might of British intelligence like a shadow as she went about the most dangerous of assignments, assignments which could almost certainly have ended her life. We are all familiar with the great heroines who emerged from the shadows of obscurity when Ireland settled into some form of civility after the fight for independence and the fall-out of the civil war. Several women became household names, names which are cherished within the bosom of Mother Eire. But some choose to bury their past and continue their lives uninterrupted. Small attempts have been made over the years to drag one such lady who has strong Dungarvan / Waterford links, and who was braver than most into the limelight. But still, she seems to sit in the modest obscurity which she herself had chosen during her lifetime, even long after her passing. Much of the secret documentation which passed through Republican hands at that time held reference to 'Lt G' and 'The little Gentleman.' Who was this man that was spying for Collins at Dublin Castle, and who was in a position to lay bare the utmost secrets and plans of British intelligence? The spy in the midst of the mighty British military Command was not a 'he' but a young lady named Lily Mernin.
Researching Lily's family proved quite difficult, both 1901 and 1911 census gives Lily's place of birth as Dublin. Church records also failed to reveal Lily's birthplace. Béaslaí, on the other hand was quite positive about the Mernin family roots, which he stated were firmly placed in Dungarvan and indeed from an Irish Speaking family. The Mysterious and famous 'Little Gentleman' or 'Lt G' as she was known, who fed information to Michael Collins on a daily basis from the dark spectre of Dublin castle, who tread the streets under the shadow of the gun, pointing out undercover British agents to Collin's men was Lily Mernin. Béaslaí reveals the following; 'her name was Lily Mernin and she was a relative of mine, her father came from Dungarvan of which my maternal grandmother was a native'. Piaras goes on to say that Lily's great grand - father was a 'croppy' in 1798. And that when she moved to Dublin as a young girl, work was her priority, and being a shorthand typist, she secured employment at Dublin Castle.' Little did she know then that she was to play a major role in what has become known as 'Bloody Sunday' and the execution of the famed Military intelligence spy unit which were brought in to smash the Republican intelligence Ring. What we have established about Lily's family is that her father John Mernin, son of James Mernin and Catherine Farrell, of Patrick Street Waterford, married Mary McGuire, the Manor, at St. John's Waterford on the 4th July, 1882.Two children were born to the couple, Lily and May. John's father, James, was a confectioner as was John. James is listed as a baker and confectioner at, 16 Patrick Street Waterford in 'Slater's directory' for 1881. John is at listed at the same address as a Confectioner in 'Harvey's of Waterford directory' for 1871. From this information we may assume that it was James who first moved from Dungarvan. Interestingly, In a letter which is written by Lily to a distant cousin in Australia, informing him that ' my father died when were just six and seven years old and my sister and myself lived with my father's people ever since.'
In reference to Lily in his book on Michael Collins: Piaras says 'I had to refer to something's she did but without mentioning her name or even her sex, it is about time that due recognition is given to the memory a humble heroine of the struggle against the foreign invader. Her name was Lily Mernin and she was a relative of mine. Her family came from Dungarvan of which my maternal grandmother was a native.' Well certainly, Piaras left it late to reveal her identity. When she moved to Dublin, Lily worked in a number of places before she acquired a position at Dublin Castle, which was then the hub of the military occupation in Ireland. Its uncertain how politically minded she may have been, certainly the dashing Piaras may have been instrumental in influencing her. She also joined the famous 'Keating society'. Béaslaí commented that Lily did not have a problem with working at the Castle and learning Irish,' her grandmother in Dungarvan was a fluent Irish speaker' Béaslaí, himself would later address a meeting in Dungarvan using Irish only!
It was of course Béaslaí, who saw the potential in young Lily, and almost certainly would have discussed the 'spy issue' with her before approaching Collins and whispering in his ear that his cousin Lily was a typist in a position of interest and could he make use of her?… Could he indeed! Lily spied for Collins for at least two years; she acquired all sorts of official military documents which were passed to Collins almost every day! She was indeed in a most
precarious position at that time. So important was her work that Collins, having full trust in her, eventually gave her a key to a private room at 19 Clonliffe road in the city, where she typed up information to be passed on. Béaslaí recalls; 'Dame Street and Grafton Street were swarming with British spies and intelligence officers in mufti at that particular time. Miss Mernin used to parade these streets in the Company of Frank Sourin and sometimes Tom Cullen, two of Michael Collins's principle intelligence officers, pointing out to them who all those disguised enemies were, this was a useful, but very dangerous work – though not more so than the daily passing out of letters, carbons, and documents from Dublin Castle.'
On the 17th November 1920, Collins brought into play a plan that would certainly have a lasting effect on British occupation. Lily supplied information that sent a crashing blow to British intelligence. The impact of her contribution was very clearly exploited with devastating effect in the Michael Collins film.
Tim Pat Coogan tells us that 'Lily was the secretary to Major S.S. Hill Dillon, chief intelligence officer at Park Gate Street, on duty she wore khaki, off duty she was a member of the Militant Keating branch of the Gaelic League.' Piaras Béaslaí tells us that the list supplied by Lily was 'largely used in the Bloody Sunday operation.' And that she now began intelligence work outside of Dublin Castle in her spare time. He goes on to say that 'despite the appalling risks she took, she was never suspected by the British until after the truce.
John Power a solicitor from County Limerick was conducting the defence of the 'Knocklong prisoners' he was preparing the case for their defence and was aided by his principal clerk, John Lynch. During this time Lynch was a guest in the Royal Exchange Hotel in Dublin. A number of military entered the Hotel at 3 am, and Lynch, was shot dead in his bed. There were many questions left to answer about his shooting and the following inquiry which was held 'in camera' to protect the witnesses who were all Military that had taken part in the shooting. Enter Lt G. (Lily Mernin) Dr Brian Murphy, writing in the Irish Times, February, 1997, tells us that 'soon afterwards Michael Collins received a report from 'Lt G', giving details of the shootings. Subsequently Collins was able to inform Arthur Griffith that at 1.35 a.m., on the morning of the murder, a phone message was received by Captain Baggley, general staff. Baggley had then instructed a car to collect members of the RIC and the military who had carried out the shooting. Mernin also informed Collins that a certain Lt Angliss was operating under the alias of McMahon, and directly involved in the murder. Dr. Murphy goes on to report that over the next two months, Collins, with the help of Mernin and others built up a list of British agents. The list was scrutinised by Cathal Brugha, some names removed and the remainder became the targets for Collins's squad on 'Bloody Sunday'. Collins later phoned Power and informed him that those responsible for Lynch's death were taken care of. Among the dead were Baggley and Angliss. British Intelligence in Dublin had established an extensive network of spies and informers around the city. This included eighteen high-ranking British Intelligence officers. In January of 1920, British Army Intelligence recruited a special plainclothes unit of 18-20 demobilized ex-army officers and some active-duty officers to take action against the Republican spy network. The officers received training at a school of instruction in London under the supervision of the Special Branch. Some training was most likely given by MI5 officers and ex-officers working for Special Branch who were the experts in the field. In the most important scheme of things, no thought was given to young Lily Mernin.
Bloody Sunday was viewed as the most significant event to take place during the war for independence. In a letter to Dick McKee, Collins stated that. 'Arrangements should now be made about the matter, Lt G (Lily) is aware of things and he suggests the 21st, a most suitable date and day I think!' And so the execution of the undercover team of British intelligence agents living and working in Dublin began. The Republican Army called to a number of addresses and executed ten British Army undercover officers. One RIC and a civilian informer! . The British Auxiliary and RIC retaliated that afternoon when they went to a football match at Croke Park and opened fire on the crowd killing fourteen people and injuring sixty. Three Republicans prisoners were also beaten to death at Dublin Castle that same afternoon. In total 31 people were killed.
There can be no doubt but this had a devastating effect on Lily! Piaras Béaslaí records that. The list supplied by Miss Mernin was largely used in the operation of 'Bloody Sunday'.
'She told me afterwards when she read of all the shootings she felt scruples of conscience and confessed her doings to a priest in the Pro-Cathedral. He gave her great consolation by telling her that she was acting properly by helping her countries soldiers against a ruthless enemy! I told this to Mick, who remarked, with a laugh, 'it is luck that she went to Father so and so, some of the priests in the Pro-cathedral are not so sympathetic.'
After the treaty Lily Mernin slipped quietly into the background of an unfolding Republic of which she had played such an enormous sacrifice to create. Her departure into obscurity is now well noted, her last message to Michael Collins: 'Lily Mernin, the "Little Gentleman," was not able to provide any more assistance.
The remainder of her life was spent as a typist in Military Barracks until retirement age. She was indeed forgotten and airbrushed from Irish History, like so many others! Here then is a young lady that modern documentary film makers should be keen to portray! Did anyone want to remember her? Béaslaí would say of her, 'she never sought or received any special attention for the brave work she had so bravely done'. The measly military pension board did award Lily a meagre two year pension at the lowest rank, this, despite the important and most dangerous work that she was involved in. But we who have come to know her through our research of Cumann na mBan of County Waterford are proud to offer this small tribute of recognition to a lady who must certainly be one of Ireland's greatest heroines!
Author: Chrissy O'Connor Knight & Eddie Cantwell