Perhaps the most famous Jew in Ireland’s fight for independence was Robert Briscoe, who was much promoted by—Robert Briscoe. Briscoe had his moments during the War of Independence, working as a quartermaster for Michael Collins, mostly collecting guns from Germany and distributing them to Irish brigades throughout the country. He later famously went on to become the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin.
However, the Jew Collins depended on most was a solicitor named Michael Noyk.
Ireland’s history is colorfully highlighted by its Jewish population. One need go no farther than James Joyce’s "Ulysses" to get the feel of Jewish Dublin, personified by the wandering Jew, Leopold Bloom. The Jewish influence extended into the time of the War of Independence. One of the causalities of Easter Week was a London Jew named Abraham Weeks. Weeks was a socialist and while avoiding conscription into the British army ended up in Dublin with the man he admired most, James Connolly. When Connolly marched into the GPO on Easter Monday Weeks went with him and was killed while trying to escape with the rest of the rebels into Moore Street at the end of the week.
Also, prominent during the War of Independence was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Isaac Herzog, who became known as “The IRA Rabbi.” He provided shelter for Eamon de Valera when he was on-the-run, urged IRA hunger strikers to quit, and was the father of Chaim Herzog, who grew up on the South Circular Road. Young Chaim went on to become the sixth president of Israel—not bad for a Dublin lad.
But the man Michael Collins turned to time after time was Michael Noyk. Noyk was born in Lithuania in 1884. He arrived in Ireland at the age of one, graduated from Trinity College in 1907, and was a part of the nationalist movement from early on. He was a close personal friend of Arthur Griffith and soon became an integral part of Collins’ clique. Collins depended on him to rent his various offices around Dublin. He also played an important part advising the Minister for Finance, one Michael Collins, on the financial dealing of the Dáil, especially on the National Loan.
Read more: The many faces of Michael Collins
Michael Collins’ Confidant
Noyk’s witness statement at the Bureau of Military History is remarkable in that it tells tales about the War of Independence that are not well known. Noyk insights into how Collins compartmentalized and worked are enlightening. “I used to see Mick Collins every day,” he wrote. “He was very young, handsome and full of personality, but still I did not think he possessed the depths which he later showed. He was full of fun and had a keen sense of humour which he exhibited in practical jokes. He had, in addition, a command of language that even a British Tommy might have envied.”
“The Dáil, having set up various ministries, including the Ministry of Finance, my services were constantly called on by Michael Collins,” Noyk wrote. His work on the National Loan with Collins also saw him get involved in the plot to eliminate Alan Bell, the notorious British spy. His work on Bell also gives insights into what a tough taskmaster Collins was. Collins was a great delegator and had little patience with people who did not get the job done.
“As the Dáil Loan was becoming more popular and making more strides,” Noyk wrote, “naturally Dublin Castle became very alarmed and in their desire to find out the source of the money they brought to Dublin in March 1920, a retired Resident Magistrate called Alan Bell, who had a particularly bad name in the administration of the Crimes Act 1880…It appeared that Alan Bell had summoned all the bank managers in Dublin and was holding an inquiry in the old Police Courts and Mick wanted me to get in there and find out what was happening.
“I then proceeded to the Police Courts and tried to get into the room where the inquiry was being held, but no one was allowed in. On the Sunday night following I met Mick Collins as usual in Vaughan’s Hotel and, with characteristically assumed cross expression, he said ‘That is a nice way you carried out your duty.’ I was beginning to say how difficult the task was, but before I could finish my explanation he put out his hand in his usual way and gave me a warm handgrip. A great feature about Michael Collins…was that he did not like excuses when a project was suggested, but it was a different matter if the project could not be carried out…The word ‘cannot’ did not figure in his vocabulary.” Bell, incidentally, was soon after eliminated by the Squad, forestalling any more inquiries into the National Loan.
Vinny Byrne and Seán Lemass Did the Shootings, But Thomas Whelan and Patrick Moran Got the Rope
Although involved in real estate and finance, his biggest job was defending IRA men in a crooked British “justice” system. The events of November 21, 1920 brought tremendous stress to Noyk. He notes bitterly that he had trouble finding attorneys to represent captured rebels. He singles out several solicitors and Parnell’s old tormentor, Tim Healy, for scorn: “My own opinion is that they had not the courage to defend those men…” He notes that with the creation of the Free State they were some of the first to line up for jobs.
Noyk’s witness statements is obviously a first draft of a book he wanted to writing. He submitted it in 1952 and it runs just over 100 pages. A good portion of the book is about his defense of two of the “Forgotten Ten,” young men who were hanged by the British in the months leading up to the Truce in July 1921.
What Noyk doesn’t say is almost as important as the things he does say. Two of the young rebels, Thomas Whelan and Patrick Moran, were respectively accused of the assassination of British spies at 119 Lower Baggot Street and 38 Upper Mount Street. Being in constant touch with Collins and knowing Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the IRA, and Liam Tobin, Assistant Director of Intelligence, Noyk knew that these boys were innocent and may have even known the identity of the real shooters. What is doubly remarkable is that the shootings were done by two of the most famous Irishmen of the 20th century—Vinny Byrne (Mount Street), shooter extraordinaire of the Twelve Apostles, and Seán Lemass (Baggot Street), future Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of Ireland. So Noyk found himself in the difficult position of defending two boys without acknowledging who the real shooters were.
Thomas Whalen Takes the Fall
Noyk tells the sad tale of the naïve Thomas Whalen: “When I returned to my office I received a bit of a ‘cooler’ because a note had been left for me to defend six men charged with ‘murder’ in connection with Bloody Sunday, all the trials to take place within ten days…I then went to see the various men I had to defend. One party consisted of James Boyce and Thomas Whelan. They were being charged with the murder of a court-martial officer called Captain Baggelly [Note: this name is spelled differently almost every time, depending on the writer] who lodged at 22 Lower Baggot Street [Note: this address is incorrect; it should be 119 Lower Baggot Street]. Whelan was a soft country boy with a beautiful character and a nice fresh complexion and very talkative. Boyce, on the contrary, was a typical Dublin boy who might almost be described as ‘a bit of a nark.’ ”
“…Captain Baggally,” Noyk noted, “was not only a court-martial officer, but he had been engaged in some very objectionable intelligence work. I think he was connected with the Kevin Barry case. It is mentioned by Piaras Beaslai in his Life of Michael Collins that he was particularly obnoxious and that he was concerned in the questioning of Kevin Barry.” Collins personally approved his liquidation.
In captivity Whelan foolishly admitted to the British that he belonged to “C Company of the 3rd Battalion, Dublin Brigade.” Boyce, the tough Jackeen, kept his trap shut.
Whelan had a solid alibi—he had been at mass near his home in Ringsend at the time of the shooting. The priest who gave him communion vouched for him. He also had solid alibis from his landlady and others as he went to a second mass in Clarendon Street Church later in the morning. But the British court was having none of it. Noyk describes how the court described mass as “A delightful Irish alibi.” Noyk also points out that the British liked to use “foils” like Boyce so they could let one go—then convict the other—validating the British justice system as imposed on Ireland. In this case, Whelan drew the short straw and got the rope.
Noyk quotes young Whelan as saying “I can solemnly swear before God, I was never in 119 Baggot Street in my life, and I wasn’t in Baggot Street that Sunday…I got up on the morning of the 21st November, and went to my religious duties as usual.” Whelan went on to say “I hope God will forgive those who is [sic] responsible for the taking of my own life.”
Patrick Moran Refuses to Escape
The story of Patrick Moran is equally tragic. He is accused of the shootings at 38 Upper Mount Street which was done by the legendary Vinny Byrne. “The next trial in order of date,” Noyk went on, “was the trial of Patrick Moran who was tried with another man called Rochford. Again, it was a case of Rochford being put up as a foil for Moran, Rochford being eventually acquitted, I surmise, to show how fair British Justice was.”
Moran was a tougher case for Noyk because he had a real Fenian’s resume: member IRB, fought at Jacob’s, did time at Frongoch and at the time of his arrest was Captain, D Company, IRA, in charge of the port of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire). Since he was at Frongoch he must have known Michael Collins. Still he had several alibis and was sure he would be acquitted. From Arbour Hill he wrote: “This place is the limit. I wouldn’t be here at all but one young soldier said ‘twas me, so I’m here on suspicion. I wasn’t in Mount Street for years so I hope the scales come off their eyes. Of course, I can prove I was miles away but let them see their folly out, I’ll make no statements.”
The tragedy of Moran was that he had a chance to escape. Before he was convicted he was moved to Kilmainham and had a chance to get out with famed rebel and author Ernie O’Malley. “O’Malley mentions in his book,” wrote Noyk, “that the reason Moran did not escape was that he did not want to let down his witnesses, but I am of the opinion that the reason he did not leave was that he was firmly convinced that he had a perfect defence and would not stand in the way of another prisoner escaping.”
Moran was convicted and sent to Mountjoy Gaol where he joined Whelan. They were both hanged on March 14, 1921, some of the last soldiers to die for Ireland in the War of Independence.
Seán Lemass Says Goodbye
After the end of the War of Independence Noyk went on to a successful law career, keeping offices both in Lower Leeson Street and College Green. He married Mabel Stein and together they had four children. He was a founding member of the Association of the Old Dublin Brigade (IRA) and was active in Kilmainham Jail Restoration Committee. Always interested in sport, he was the solicitor for the Shamrock Rovers Football Club and maintained a keen interest in racing. He died in London on October 22, 1966 and was given a full military funeral by the surviving members of the Dublin Brigade. Ironically, the mourners included An Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, the shooter from 119 Baggot Street.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, now available in paperback from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.