Sean O’Callaghan: did he really see the light?

“He was a man of exceptional ability and courage and he spent most of his life finding ways of atoning for the crimes he had committed before, at 20, he realised he was fighting in a squalid sectarian war rather than a resistance movement.”

That’s Ruth Dudley Edwards talking about the IRA informer Sean O’Callaghan, who is reported to have died in a Jamaican swimming pool while visiting his daughter. O’Callaghan was  a friend of Ruthie, (Lord) Paul Bew and various other unionist figures. In their tributes, they all agree that he was courageous and very helpful to the British security forces.

What they also sing in unison is that O’Callaghan turned from being an IRA volunteer to being an informer on moral grounds: that is, he realised he was fighting on the side of darkness and moved over to the side of light. Several mention that he was an unpaid informer

They may be right or, then again, they may be wrong. I never knew Sean O’Callaghan or what was the bargain he struck with the British. In my life I’ve known (as far as I know) just one informer, Eamon Collins (no relation, though coincidentally both our fathers were cattle-dealers). Eamon was part of a writing class I taught at the University of Ulster, and through his writing and through conversations, sometimes prolonged, I got to know him reasonably well.

He had many motives for turning supergrass – intense and prolonged interrogation by the RUC, a resentment that his voice was not being heard, a recklessness that the IRA would not tell him where to live (they said south of a line between Dundalk and Galway, he chose to live at home in Newry, where he was eventually killed. ) At no point did Eamon ever suggest that he had turned informer because he felt horrified by IRA violence. In fact, he spoke of the need to use a new (and unspecified) type of violence that would “leave the Brits not knowing whether they were coming or going.”)

I don’t know, but I suspect the Sean O’Callaghan’s role of informer – which doubtless cost the lives of some of his former comrades – was not wholly motivated by a desire to see the good guys win and the bad guys defeated. There are those who’d say far from being a key source of information on the IRA ( he is said to have advised David Trimble, which is perhaps a dubious distinction), others who say he was at best delusional and at worst a pathological liar.

If you believe that the IRA were part of the darkness, then you’ll probably be inclined to ascribe the highest motives to O’Callaghan. If you think the IRA emerged as a result of loyalist and British violence, you’ll probably be inclined to ascribe rather less exalted motives to him. If he was anything like Eamon Collins, he was another victim of RUC/British manipulation.


33 Responses to Sean O’Callaghan: did he really see the light?

  1. Pointis August 26, 2017 at 9:11 am #

    I watched an interview once which Sean O’Callaghan gave in a TV programme. I couldn’t help getting the impression that Sean felt that he was leadership material, an unappreciated talent, confident in his own ability to be better than those around him and was comfortable telling others how it was and how things should be done in order to be the best.

    If that was the case then the IRA or any other organisation that requires individuals to act as team players would be no place for Sean. Ask any team sportsman who played with someone with a supreme ego and they will laud the talents of that individual but the rule of thumb is that they will tell you that they are overall bad for team moral.

    What is for sure is that some Pro-British believe that he was a hero but the truth of the matter is there will never be a statue erected for him either in Britain or in Ireland.

  2. Perkin Warbeck August 26, 2017 at 9:33 am #

    John Ford directed The Informer (1935) and The Quiet Man (1952), featuring the unprpossessing visage of Victor McLaglen in both.

    Prophetically, perhaps, the fillum of The Informer also features a fellow singing (gulp) ‘The Rose of Tralee’.

    Sean O Callaghan was born in Tralee in 1954 and later, erm, rose to prominence as a Snitch with an itch for the Switch.


    O Callaghan as the then in-form informer
    Was called afield on Team PIRA (former)
    No Quiet Man
    To apply, can
    Sadly, he left us in climes that are warmer.

  3. Eddie Barrett August 26, 2017 at 9:42 am #

    I knew O’Callaghan.
    His father served with my Dad during The Civil War in An Fianna.

    Sean’s god was lifestyle – money for his drinking batters and his numerous women relationships.

    He was being paid off by Special Branch in Tralee during the period that he was here , no doubt – he always had money, when most had very little.

    None of us were surprised when he ‘dissappeared’ after The Marita Ann debacle.

    He was ever a descipible unsavoury character !

    Just a pity that he didn’t drown in Kerry !!!

    Ironically , he has a very nice family surviving here. I offer them my personal sympathy at what they have suffered here over the years at having him as a relative.

    • Mary wall August 26, 2017 at 10:20 pm #

      In response to Eddie barrett.
      Im afraid you are mistaken about my father fighting alongside your father in the civil war, of 1922/23, as my father was born in.1920.

  4. giordanobruno August 26, 2017 at 9:59 am #

    You don’t know his motives yet you feel free to speculate. All you are doing is inviting the usual suspects to indulge in a bit of character assassination, and no doubt they will oblige.
    Which of the two camps in your last paragraph do you belong to by the way?

    • Perkin Warbeck August 26, 2017 at 10:26 am #

      The fifth and final line of one’s eulogy had orignally read:

      ‘Sadly, left us in / for climes that are warmer’.

      But out of respect for the Morally Superor Sensitivies of the British Peace Keeping Forces and their followers, both camp and otherwise, decided to amend the ending to a more friend-trending one.

  5. huge Celt. August 26, 2017 at 10:10 am #

    He initially claimed that he had personally killed 6 people.
    Then that went down to 3.
    Then it went down to 2.

    Now, unless you believe in reincarnation., then it’s safe to assume that Sean O’Callaghan was a fantasist of the highest order.

  6. Eolach August 26, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    Remembering , probably , the same interview , he came across as a mittyesque type of character with definitely more ego than intelligence…someone who would fit in comfortably with Dudley’s sycophantic affair with Britain. I believe that he was a minnow in a big pond , jealous of his more “adventurous” former colleagues for whom he harboured an unhealthy residual grudge.
    It’s hard to comprehend the mindset of an informer….in my eyes , a loathsome creature with unscrupulous ethics but certainly one despised by the populace in general. Most seem to have been set up for blackmail , a tool much favoured by British security services and even used against their own politicians and “Royalty” …..but in Ireland this usually results in remuneration…..something flatly denied by O’Callaghan….so why did he become a collaborator ….or was his information so “low-grade” that he was ignored by the IRA and only feted in the press as “pepper in the eyes” for Republicanism ? One thing’s for sure , he’ll quickly fade from memory , even from his momentary eulogisers . His fleeting dance with fame has ended and he is forgotten already !

    • giordanobruno August 26, 2017 at 10:56 am #

      It is hard too to comprehend the mindset of a terrorist say Martin McGuinness for example.
      Loathsome creatures with unscrupulous ethics and certainly despised by the general population.

      • Wolfe tone August 26, 2017 at 1:27 pm #

        Mask slips again gio. Tut tut.

        • giordanobruno August 26, 2017 at 4:00 pm #

          My view on paramilitaries has always been the same, even though I am using Eolach’s words on this occasion to make a point.

      • Emmet August 26, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

        If by ‘general’ you mean loyalist then ok (lol). McGuiness was a hero of the same calibre as Nelson Mandela. Most of the world knows it. He will go down in history as one of the men who brought peace to Ireland and put it on the path to re-unification. O’Callaghan died looking over his shoulder.

        • giordanobruno August 27, 2017 at 7:05 am #

          Some hold the IRA in contempt for killing so many people, men women and children.
          Some hold in contempt those who tried to stop the IRA from killing.
          Funny old world.

          • Emmet August 27, 2017 at 11:40 am #

            Gio, Some people hold contempt for Vegetarians, it’s a rough world, best get used to it.

          • giordanobruno August 27, 2017 at 12:42 pm #

            Yes true.
            But the adulation of violent men has always seemed odd to me.

          • Emmet August 28, 2017 at 8:38 am #

            Look at all the statues of violent men in capital cities all over the world- I much prefer the statues of men who responded to the violence inflicted on them (yes granted usually they respond with violence).

      • Eolach August 27, 2017 at 6:52 pm #

        You Gio ,I believe , are a sanctimonious whited person …..who would ,perhaps, like to be lauded as a rational ,moderately pacifistic Unionist. You arrogantly quote (misquote) me and feebly apply reverse logic to attempt to score vacuous points. When I talked about the populace , I was referring to the people of my country ….not a gerrymandered defunct sectarian entity moronically referred to as “Our Wee Country” . Even a cursory glance at Irish history would educate you to the contempt in which informers are held and have always been held in this country. Martin McGuinness was a giant of a man ,unequaled in this country for a long time, and there is certainly no one in Unionism capable of the intelligent thought , the composure , the genuine sincerity and the charisma he exuded. To compare him to a lying scheming cretin like O’Callaghan is acutely repugnant and deeply offensive. I genuinely wish Mr O’Callaghan peace now for his time here is over but I find your fixated and habitual denigration of Republicanism extremely irksome , tiresome and hypocritical

        • giordanobruno August 27, 2017 at 9:02 pm #

          I’m not a unionist.

  7. Cal August 26, 2017 at 10:44 am #

    O’Callaghan will go to his grave as a British informer – Irish history tends not to hold such informers in high regard. May God have mercy on his soul.

  8. Brian Patterson August 26, 2017 at 11:55 am #

    What makes someone become an informer? Some are no doubt blackmailed into it, cornered by the Special Branch and offered a way out to escape a long prison sentence. Others through greed or a desire for the “high life”, combined with a “buzz” perhaps from the risk you are running and the control you exercise? Is it because you are a fantasist, a Walter Mitty? Or is it as Bew, Edwards et alia claim, because you are an individual of the highest calibre who undergoes a damascene conversion and decides to work, altruistically and at great risk, for the (now) good guys, against former comrades?

    Whatever the motivation, , a common feature of informers appears to be that they are ultimately betrayed or deserted by the organisations that control them, and by their handlers, that they then descend into a long downward spiral of drink and despair. Is this through guilt at betraying former comrades and once deeply held principles, is it is a reaction to the widely held opprobrium felt by many if not most people towards a “Judas”? Is it isolation, having no friends and being repudiated by family? Is it paranoia, a fear of being targeted by former comprades? Or was the fatal flaw already there, the weakness of spirit and character that enabled them to be manipulated, used and ultimately discarded by their new masters as well as being repudiated by their familes ?

    One thing is sure,it seldom ends well. While they may be fêted by a handful of journalists and politicians, they seldom go on to have happy successful lives and/or serene peaceful deaths in the bosom of a loving family.

    Better perhaps to join a political party, preferably left-wing and, after a decent interval, betray all formerly held principles. While repudiated by your electorate, you could nonetheless end up being rewarded for your betrayal with a fat salary, a seat in the House of Lords and regular fees for pontificating on Nolan or Talkback. And having your tummy tickled by the media.

  9. michael c August 26, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

    Gio, McGuinness was so “despised by the general population” that he had the biggest funeral seen in the north for more than 3 decades.

    • huge Celt. August 26, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

      Bigger than George Best?

      Bigger than Joey Dunlop?

      Think before you speak.

    • giordanobruno August 26, 2017 at 4:03 pm #


  10. Michael Cummings August 26, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    I wouldn’t wish anyone dead but I am delighted to acknowledge his passing.

    • Tam August 27, 2017 at 8:54 am #


  11. Donal Kennedy August 26, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

    THE TIMES of London Obituary 26 October has the old Canard of the Christian Brothers being fanatically anti-English I doubt that came from O’Callaghan himself, or anyone taught by the Christian Brothers see my BLOG 29 December 2015 on the Christian Brothes , based on a much earlier article – “SCHOOLS OF VIOLENCE -BROTHERS AND ARMES in THE IRISH DEMOCRAT.

  12. Martin Molloy August 26, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    I knew him in C Wing, Crumlin Road prison in 1989. He was on the Republican wing for a while before leaving shortly before his trial. I remember a pleasent, intelligent fella who appeared a bit unstable. He was treated sympathetically by the republican prisoners even though his story was common knowledge. He seemed to have more of a problem with his treachery than with his activities as an IRA volunteer. I seem to remember reports of some comments he made in court post sentencing that do not fit squarely with the narrative he spun later.

  13. Sherdy August 26, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

    How awful an eternity for you to have your eulogy written by fantasists like Paul Bew and Ruth Dudley Edwards!
    Sean O’Callaghan, turncoat, has died – enough said!

  14. Tommy Mooney August 26, 2017 at 11:27 pm #

    Would not the description “Sectarian War” be accurately applied to a war to establish one religion over others ? The “war” fought by the IRA was to end the rule of one country over part of another, the fact that one religion’s followers supported the retention of the status quo gives a somewhat false appearance to the conflict in Northern Ireland and revisionist historians are now attempting to condemn our War of Independence (1919 – 1921) in a similar way. Republicanism embraces all religions and none.

    • huge Celt. August 27, 2017 at 8:02 am #

      It would also be a mistake to assume that Sectarianism doesn’t flow through the veins of many a “Republican”, but they’re cuter in how they express it.

    • Tam August 27, 2017 at 8:57 am #

      Not necessarily. It could also be used to describe a “war” fought by one ethnic community against another, as in the PIRA campaign, seeking to annex the latter into a state dominated by the former.

  15. Dan August 27, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    If you’ve drawn the support and praise of the DUP and their cheering squad in RDE, EOH, and their little band of Irish haters, then you know you’ve done the wrong thing.