Secrets of the powers that be
In 1989, Mrs Eileen Barrington, the wife of the eminent lawyer Donal Barrington, who was the niece of Harry Boland, the associate of de Valera executed during the Civil War, wrote to Brian Lenihan, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, seeking his help with a family mystery.
She and her sister, she said, were planning to visit Russia, and on this trip they were hoping to see and learn more about the jewels that the Boland family had carefully guarded through more than 30 years after Boland’s death, and which were she felt such an important part of their family’s tradition.
These were the so called ‘Russian Crown Jewels’ of political legend. Their special interest was natural enough, as the affair was one of the lingering enigmas of the Irish revolutionary period, the full dimensions of which have, even now, not been fully teased out.
The jewels were a pledge against a loan of $20,000 which had been extended by the Irish Republic, an unrecognised state, to the Soviet Russian State, which was then in 1919-1920, under an international embargo.
Confidentially Irish diplomats were asked to look into the matter at Mr Lenihan’s request. They had little hope of getting any information. One noted that Russian officials, in what were to be the last years of the Communist regime, were reluctant to help private individuals unless “there was something in it for them”.
Nothing of interest was revealed from Russia according to a released file, but the files as whole, which contain related notes and cuttings, brings into focus what was the truth about these notorious baubles.
Irish interest had long been focussed on the Irish end of the legend, on de Valera and the Boland family retaining the jewels as a continuation of the Civil War by other means.
When Harry Boland on his return from the US tried to pass them over to Michael Collins, who as Minister of Finance would have been the man with over responsibility for the money side of the Republican movement, Collins said he didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
“There is blood on those things,” he shouted, as he threw the package back at Boland to take away with him unopened. But the heart of the matter lay not in Ireland at all, but in New York during de Valera’s great tour of the US in 1919-1920. And at the centre of it lies the mysterious ‘Ambassador of Soviet Russia’, Ludwig Martens, on whom little attention has been focused, and whose relations with Harry Boland and other radical figures in the Irish-American community are opaque.
For historians this was yet another example of how the ivy of legend had grown up to conceal the grotesque nature of the truth”
Martens arrived in New York in March 1919. At this date there were still American military in Siberia as part of the Allied invasion of Russia in support of the White Russians and others fighting the Bolsheviki. But nothing was done by the authorities to prevent the establishment of the office. Some saw Martens as having an unnamed ‘friend at court’ in the US government.
Martens claimed that he had large funds at his call to make orders for many industrial and commercial items and other goods – the sum of $2.5 million was widely reported.
Manufacturers and bankers of all kinds flocked to take advantage of a new trading opportunity, despite the hostile conditions in which the Soviets worked. Sales of consignments were reported in the papers, but it is by no means clear that these were filled and paid for.
Martens had wide contacts among American communists and radicals, and with the more left-wing elements in Irish-American politics, such as those who were supporting the cause of James Larkin, after his conviction as a ‘criminal anarchist’ in November 1919. Martens engaged an Irish-American lawyer to assist him during one investigation into his activities by a New York City Commission.
At the beginning of July 1919 there was published in some US papers a dispatch from Berne in Switzerland suggesting that “an understanding among Irish republicans, Russians and Germans had been come to”. De Valera just back from a trip to Massachusetts denied this. His organisation, he said, had not received “a mark or a rouble”. This was not to deny, of course, that his organisation was lending some of the $20,000 to the Soviets.
That they had done so was not revealed at the time. If it had been it would have severely damaged the credit of the Irish Republic in the minds of many Americans, and the more conservative and clerical sections of his own support.
Martens returned to Russia where he renewed his career as a talented engineer. He remained close to the Communist leadership”
The sum advanced to the Russians, $20,000, was of little real use to embargoed Russia – which in any case had been said by Martens to have laid over two millions dollars at his disposal. But it would have been of use to Ludwig Martens to support his New York office and large staff, and that is where it must have gone.
De Valera and Boland had no assets on that scale. The loan to the Russians would have been taken out of the money raised by the pair on their tour. The donations from American supporter, de Valera later reported to the Dáil, amount to $5.5 million. The Dáil was told nothing about the Russian loan.
De Valera, or rather Harry Boland, accepted the ‘crown jewels’ as a pledge without having them appraised. However before they were returned to the Russian Embassy in London and the loan repaid, according to information in the file they were appraised by professional jewellers in both Dublin and London.
The Irish government was told they would be lucky to get £2,000 for them on the open market. There is no evidence in the file that theses cheap gewgaws were even Russian, let alone Imperial. The old saying about wool and eyes comes to mind.
The jewels were accepted by Harry Boland as a pledge of the Russians goodwill. But like so many pledges of Russian goodwill throughout history, they were fact a mere token.
The sum advanced to the Russians, $20,000, was of little use to embargoed Russia”
The whole saga of the Irish adventures has long been a good tale for Irish use. But the reality of the political situation in New York during de Valera’s great crusade should not be overlooked. De Valera at the time of the repayment in later years made light of the whole matter. But for historians it is yet another example of how the ivy of legend had grown up to conceal the grotesque nature of the underlying truth.
In 1922 a deportation order was estuary issued for Martens, but he left the country of his own accord before it could be served. He returned to Russia where he renewed his career as a talented engineer. He remained close to the Communist leadership, and was a trusted judge in the Stalin-era show trial of the British Metro-Vickers engineers in the 1930s. He died in 1948.
Yet in all those years no-one from Ireland thought to ask Ludwig Martens about the inner story of the Romanoff jewels. Perhaps no-one really wanted to know.
NA file 2019/101/ 302; US newspapers 1919-1920; Eileen Barrington and her husband Judge Donal Barrington recount their understanding of the affair on track 4 of their contribution to the Irish Life and Lore oral history archive.