In his new book Tom Wall tells the story of Roscommon’s John McGrath, the one-time Dublin cinema and theatre manager who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII
In the graveyard adjoining St Patrick’s Church in Elphin, in County Roscommon, lies the remains of John McGrath, possibly the most extraordinary of the thousands of Irishman who joined the fight against the Nazis during Second World War.
The inscription on his gravestone records that it is the resting place of his father, John, and mother, Mary, and of ‘Colonel John McGrath OBE’ who died on the 27th November, 1946.
No tombstone can encapsulate a deceased’s life story, but this inscription is as inaccurate it is inadequate. He was never officially a Colonel, and there is no record of him ever having been conferred with an OBE.
Even his Christian name is misleading: he was baptised Michael Joseph McGrath in the same church, in 1894. But none of this can take away from the fact that he was an immensely brave officer who twice became unwillingly immersed in bizarre Nazi intrigues.
McGrath was a veteran of the First World War, where he was wounded twice. After being decommissioned, he returned to Ireland and secured work in cinema management before becoming manager of the newly rebuilt Theatre Royal, in Dublin, in 1936, then the largest theatre in Europe.
On the opening night he was introduced on stage by Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Alfie Byrne, who told the audience that “it gave him the greatest pleasure to reintroduce Mr. John McGrath, whom they formally knew at the Savoy, and who had now come back to Dublin to manage this wonderful new theatre”.
Three years later, the Roscommon man went off to war again.
His active service in the Second World War didn’t last long, for he was among those who didn’t make it across the channel from Dunkirk. Nevertheless, he must have distinguished himself with the British Expeditionary Force, for he won a field promotion to Major.
After being wounded and captured at Rouen, he joined thousands of others in a horrendous 350-mile trek from Normandy to captivity in Germany. He was placed in an officers’ POW camp in Laufen near Salzburg, but his real problems only began when he was transferred to a special camp for Irish POWs.
The Germans, following their victory in France, had begun a process of segregating military prisoners along ethnic and national minority lines, with a view to winning recruits to their cause.
As part of this strategy, a secret camp for selected Irish POWs was established near the village of Friesack north of Berlin.
The project was the responsibility of German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, whose aim was to form an Irish Brigade, along the lines of Roger Casement’s in WWI, although their ambition moderated when the level of cooperation proved lower than expected.
The revised plan was to train willing candidates for espionage or sabotage work, for which they were to be parachuted into Ireland or Britain.