Eugene Dunphy tells how a high-ranking British official hired an agent from central-Europe to infiltrate Irish radicals in New York.


Though seven years had passed since he gave evidence in a Dublin court, in 1872 the editor of The Irishman still remembered him as ‘the worst type of informer that ever took the witness table’. The informer in question was Herman Schönfeld, whose odd-sounding surname (pronounced ‘Shoon-felt’) would appear in the Press as ‘Schofield’, ‘Schoelnfield’, and ‘Schoenfield’.

The son of middle-class Jewish parents, Herman Schönfeld was born in Kepno, south-central Poland, an area which became known as Kempen in Posen when it was annexed by Prussia.

To avoid conscription into the Prussian army, Schönfeld absconded to England in 1852 and spent the ensuing three years training as a compositor with Cox & Wyman, a printing firm based in Great Queen Street, London. When his employers realised that their Polish trainee was also fluent in English and German, they often commissioned him to act as a translator for various publishing outlets.

Having renounced his Jewish faith to become a Protestant, in early 1863 Schönfeld moved to Dublin where he secured a printing job at the offices of the Irish Times. We cannot say for certain if he was ‘sent’ to Ireland on a spying mission, but his arrival in the country coincided with the growth of the Fenians, a determined group of Irish people who wished to ‘break the yoke of British rule’.

By way of ingratiating himself to the Fenian cause, on the 11th of May 1863 Schönfeld presented a rousing lecture on ‘The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of Ultimate Success in Poland’, at the Mechanics Institute, Lower Abbey Street. The few who attended the talk heard him call for an independent Poland, free from the shackles of Prussian tyranny.
On the 22nd of May he gave a similar lecture at the Foreign Academy on Westland Row, and one month later he spoke on ‘Poland’s Struggle for Freedom’, at Sussex Hall in Kingstown, present day Dún Laoghaire.
In a nutshell, Schönfeld had now found allies among the ranks of Irish separatists.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own