Features & Columns

San Jose's Irish Assassin Pre-Dates
Sister City Connection

Irish revolutionary Michael Collins recruited 'Mick' McDonnell to
lead a hit squad before the latter moved to San Jose.
COLLIN'S GUY: Assassin 'Mick McDonnell' rests in Mission Cemetery in Santa Clara.

San Jose's connection to Dublin is quite a rocking story, going back to the administration of former mayor Tom McEnery during the '80s. Soon after becoming mayor, McEnery lobbied the city of Dublin to become one of San Jose's sister cities, but no one in Ireland had heard of San Jose. The task proved daunting.

Eventually, McEnery rang up Tim Pat Coogan, a legendary Irish journalist, historian and author of numerous books.

Coogan relayed McEnery's request to Charles Haughey, then the Irish Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shook). From there, the proverbial ball began to roll and in 1986 the sister city relationship went legit. Silicon Valley companies eventually opened up shop in Ireland, exchanges were forged, and to this day the relationship is much deeper than most sister city partnerships in the U.S. Coogan mentions all of this in his book, Wherever the Green is Worn.

Last week, the sister city program staged an elegant reception at the Silicon Valley Capital Club to celebrate its 30th anniversary. As a concept, the Sister Cities International Organization began in 1956, following President Eisenhower's conference on Citizen Diplomacy. Not only do we now have three decades' worth of San Jose-Dublin exchanges and a 60th anniversary of the organization's founding, but 2016 will also see the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin.

However, I submit the relationship might go back even further. At Mission Cemetery in Santa Clara, one finds the gravesite of Michael McDonnell (1889-1950). After McEnery told me the story, it only took a few moments to unearth more details.

McDonnell, sometimes referred to as Mick McDonnell, was the first leader of "The Squad," a.k.a. "The Twelve Apostles," the assassination unit employed by Michael Collins during the Irish War of Independence. This was the group that systematically bumped off British spies in Dublin, especially members of the "Cairo Gang." Before the squad was formed, McDonnell took part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and then with the Twelve Apostles was involved in the actions on Bloody Sunday as well as several other "jobs."

McDonnell's own testimony can be found in the easily searchable Bureau of Military History Collection, a series of Irish state records documenting the years 1913-1921. In those records, McDonnell and his cohorts described in harrowing detail specific hit jobs they carried out against British operatives. From McDonnell, there's also stuff like this:

"Some time in the autumn of 1919 I was approached by Dick McKee and asked to make myself available to go to London for special duty with the object of looking the situation over in London and coming back and reporting as to the possibility of wiping out the British Cabinet, and several other prominent people including editors of newspapers, etc., who were antagonistic to this country."

Fortunately, that particular action never unfolded. In another passage, McDonnell also describes a botched attempt to execute the British Commander Lord John French. It wasn't pretty.

As the Irish Civil War began in 1922, McDonnell came to the U.S. and eventually settled in Los Gatos for the rest of his life. He died in 1950 and was buried in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery. He even named his son Michael Collins McDonnell, who went on to serve in the Air Force during WWII, Korea and Vietnam. If one stands at the grave in Mission Cemetery, it's hard to fathom one of Michael Collins' assassins living here in his old age, but that's what happened. McEnery even recalls, as a kid, seeing his dad working with McDonnell in the same building that now houses O'Flaherty's Irish Pub.

"It's interesting to look back on, how this nice old guy sitting there with a slouch hat and smoking a pipe was one of the foremost antagonists to the British Empire," McEnery said. "And a great Irish patriot in a horrible battle for independence that forever marked his life for good and bad."

The 2016 US-All Ireland Sister Cities Mayors Summit will unfold in April, with delegations from over 60 sister cities descending upon Dublin. Any U.S. city twinned with an Irish city is invited.