CLOAK & DAGGER
Why Did The IRA Assassinate This American?
Peter Ashmun Ames was a Pennsylvania kid who joined MI5 because he couldn’t find a job. His career as a spy didn’t last long, as the IRA was hunting men like him.
Famed in sentimental ballads as Ireland’s “fair city,” during the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence Dublin was anything but.
In the countryside what is also known as the Anglo-Irish War was largely a guerrilla conflict, waged by the Irish Republican Army against the British-controlled police and Crown military forces. The rural fight was characterized by ambushes, attacks on isolated outposts and reprisals against civilians by army auxiliaries known as “Black and Tans.” In Dublin the struggle was a shadow war, a lethal game of cat and mouse in which the British sought to capture or kill IRA members who, in turn, attempted to neutralize the police and army through assassination, intimidation and covert penetration. It was a brutal urban conflict in which pistols were the preferred weapon, battles were fought at close range, and quarter was rarely given.
In the spring of 1920 Pennsylvania-born Peter Ashmun Ames joined the fight in Ireland—on the British side. It was the worst decision of his life.
“Ash” Ames was born June 10, 1888, in Titusville, a town north of Pittsburgh that was then the center of America’s oil industry. His father worked for Standard Oil and by the time of the elder Ames’s death at age 40 his widow and the couples’ four children were financially set for life. Mrs. Ames promptly moved the family to Morristown, N.J., where Ash and his siblings grew up in wealth and privilege. Though raised Roman Catholic the children attended secular schools, and following high school Ash earned an engineering degree from Stevens College. In 1912, at 24, he moved to London to take a position his mother had arranged through her social contacts.
In 1917, before America’s entry into World War I, Ames renounced his U.S. citizenship and joined the British army’s elite Grenadier Guards. As a second lieutenant he fought in France at Passchendaele and Cambrai, and was lightly injured by mustard gas. In April 1920 Ames relinquished his commission and attempted to reintegrate himself into civilian life. Part of that reintegration was a blossoming romance in London with Millicent Orr Ewing, an aristocratic young woman he’d met through Terence Langrish, a former Irish Guards officer engaged to Millicent’s best friend, fledgling writer Barbara Cartland.
Though Ames’s romantic life was going well his professional life wasn’t. He was among thousands seeking postwar work and was unable to secure anything commensurate with his skills or social standing. Ames and Langrish—who was also finding gainful employment elusive—therefore volunteered for service in Ireland. Embroiled in an increasingly violent war with Irish nationalists, the British government was recruiting veterans for undercover operations in Dublin as part of a small, “hush-hush” sub-unit of Military Intelligence known by the suitably cryptic designation MO4(x). The work paid a very generous £600 per year, and also offered men bored with civilian life the chance to again serve king and country by helping defeat a nationalist movement many saw as a threat to the cohesion of the Empire.
While both Ames and Langrish had undertaken traditional military intelligence activities on the Western Front, neither was conversant with the skills required of a covert agent. They and scores of other volunteers therefore underwent training at a “spy school” run by MI5 (the United Kingdom’s domestic security service) at London’s Hounslow Barracks. Upon completion of the course the volunteers were appointed Class II temporary army lieutenants and assigned “special duty” as MO4(x) case officers.
Following his September arrival in Ireland, Ames was partnered with another Roman Catholic, Lt. George Bennett, and the two were given leadership positions in the covert effort. The MO4(x) men lived in rooming houses and hotels scattered throughout Dublin, trying to pass as businessmen, academics and even tourists. Their attempts to remain anonymous were futile, however, for IRA agents within British headquarters at Dublin Castle quickly discovered the identities and lodgings of most of the undercover officers.
The information gathered by the MO4(x) men was generally of only marginal value, but their continuing efforts to penetrate the republican movement prompted the IRA’s director of intelligence, Michael Collins, and several of his colleagues to devise a bold plan to cripple MO4(x) in one sudden, brutal blow.
At approximately 9 o’clock on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 21, 1920, teams of IRA gunmen launched simultaneous attacks around Dublin targeting some 30 known or suspected members of MO4(x). Not all of the men on the IRA “hit list” were actually members of the covert British intelligence unit—several were army legal officers, one was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary police, a few were former soldiers simply living in Dublin and at least two were innocent civilians. Nor did all of the hit teams eliminate their assigned targets. But unfortunately for Ames and Bennett, the IRA’s plans for them came to tragic fruition.
The day before the attack the two MO4(x) officers had been warned that the small hotel in which they had been staying was no longer safe, and they had moved to separate rooms in a boarding house at 38 Upper Mount Street. When the IRA gunmen arrived on Sunday morning they encountered a maid named Catherine Farrell who—willingly or under duress, it’s not clear which—pointed out the British officers’ rooms. The leader of the hit squad sent men to fetch Bennett, then led several others through a flimsy folding door into Ames’s chamber. The American-born officer was still in bed, and vainly attempted to reach a .45-caliber Colt automatic hidden beneath his pillow before being pulled upright and made to stand facing the wall. As the IRA men searched his rooms for valuable documents others brought Bennett in and stood him next to Ames; moments later both were killed by a fusillade of bullets. A British post-mortem report noted that Ames was hit a total of six times, with wounds to the right side of his chest and center of his back likely being the cause of death.
The IRA attacks that grim Sunday morning were less successful than Collins had hoped. Of the targets the teams managed to locate, 14 were killed outright or died of wounds, four were wounded but survived and the others escaped. Yet “Bloody Sunday,” as it soon became known, was a psychological blow that ultimately helped convince the British government to sign the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that a year later led to the creation of the Irish Free State.
In a cruel irony, on the day Ames died the New York Times carried a notice of his engagement to Millicent Orr Ewing. She was understandably shattered when told of his death by Barbara Cartland, who had received the news in a telegram from Terence Langrish. Three weeks after Bloody Sunday a Requiem Mass was held at Westminster Cathedral for Ames and Bennett, after which both were interred in London’s St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery.
On August 22, 1922, Michael Collins—the primary architect of Bloody Sunday—was himself gunned down, killed by IRA members for supporting the 1921 Treaty, which left the six counties of Northern Ireland as part of Britain, which they remain to this day.