Thursday, July 05, 2007

Irishman Who Inspired Bond’s “M,” Now Inspiring Controversy

Few fictional characters could be more British than James Bond’s boss, “M.” The inspiration for that character, however, may have been an Irish Catholic man born in Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland in 1850. The incredible life of that man, William Melville, is now being highlighted in an exhibit at the Kerry County Museum and some in the area disagree with that. It is another chapter in the dichotomy that is Irish history.

William Melville, right.

Melville immigrated to London in the 1860s and joined the Metropolitan Police. In the 1880s he joined the Special Irish Branch, which was set up to combat the attacks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, more commonly called the Fenians. Therein lies the rub with regard to celebrating his life in the eyes of some in Ireland.

Helen O'Carroll, the museum curator defended the exhibit: "Here is an Irish Catholic, who was proud of his Irish identity, defending Britain from terrorist threats that included Irish terrorism. As a Kerryman born and bred, Melville is part of our story and to fit him in we must acknowledge that Irish identity encompassed a broader spectrum in the past as indeed we are beginning to recognize that it does in the present."

Local Sinn Fein councilor Robert Beasley, expressed the other side of the controversy: "I don't think local people would want to commemorate anything to do with the British Secret Service, whether it is in the past or today. I don't see any reason to have him honored."

In 1893 he became the Superintendent of the Special Branch. Melville’s career would continue on past his involvement with combating the Fenians as part of the police to the activity that would connect him to the fictitious James Bond.

After he retired from Special Branch in 1903 he was recruited to work for the War Office's new Directorate of Military Operations. There he worked with the Secret Service Bureau, which became MI5 and MI6 in 1909. Through his work in those years combating German intelligence services, and his setting up of a spy school, many consider him the father of the modern British intelligence services.

His connection to James Bond is a result of him recruiting a spy name Sidney Reilly, aka Sigmund Rosenblum. It is believed that Ian Fleming based James Bond on Reilly, and his boss “M,” on Melville. Not everyone agrees with the theory, and with Fleming now dead, the absolute truth will likely never be known.

Melville had another famous connection. He met the renowned magician and escape artist Houdini while he was in London demonstrating for the London police how easy it was to escape their handcuffs. He then gave Melville instructions on lock picking. Rumor has it that Melville also recruited Houdini to spy for him, though that is, again, something that will probably never be known.

What is certain is that whether one considers his life to be notable or notorious, William Melville’s life was far from dull.


No comments: