Harry Gloster Armstrong.

Soldier, actor, spy, consular general… Harry Gloster Armstrong

John Le Carre who penned many a first rate spy thriller, including ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, often referred to the agency headquarters in London as the circus, a place of certain fictional drama. This week’s column is about a military man who entered the theatre, then left it for the world of intelligence gathering in New York, before moving into diplomatic circles as British Consul General of Boston and then New York.


Born in Belturbet, on January 17, 1861, Henry Gloster Armstrong, known better to all as ‘Harry’, was the son of John Armstrong, a wealthy solicitor who opened a practice on Farnham Street, Cavan Town. On his retirement, the practice was taken over by Richard Allen who later went into partnership with Mr Halpin, becoming Allen and Halpin Solicitors.

John Armstrong’s wife was Sarah Helen Moffatt, whom he married on February 12, 1851, at Drumlane. She was the daughter of the Rev George Beatty Moffatt and Joanne Richardson Moffatt, the Vicarage, Belturbet. John and Sarah Armstrong had a large family, their children were (beginning with the eldest) James born in 1852, Sophia A. Jane in 1854, John George in 1858, Henry ‘Harry’ Gloster in 1861, Constance Maria in 1863, and Kathleen Helen in 1865.

I would like to say thank you to Concepta McGovern at Cavan Genealogy Centre for her assistance with the Armstrong family tree.

By 1878, in leaving his schooldays behind him, Harry enlisted in the old 101 Cavan Militia (later to become the 4th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers), serving as Second Lieutenant. The young military man was soon bitten by another interest and often attended the shows put on in the Records Room in the Courthouse, Cavan, where a makeshift stage was erected for performances like the monologues of Charles Duval, Sam Hague’s Christy Minstrels and a variety of touring companies.

Having spoken with the Celt’s Editor, Harry was placed in touch with a ‘big man’ in the Daily Telegraph, the editor’s brother-in-law, who got Harry a job as assistant manager of a ‘prominent London theatre’. Harry was increasingly attracted to acting and entered Frank Benson’s Shakespearian and old comedy company as an amateur actor before joining the Haymarket Theatre; one day he would go on to take on a bigger role with the consular service in New York.

Penny Stamps

The Anglo-Celt did not forget Belturbet’s theatrical son, noting in 1886 that he was touring in a very successful show with the Haymarket Theatre, called ‘Dark Days’. At that time, Harry had a side hustle on the go in the form of a ‘company of limited liability’, established to sell penny postage stamps at half the cost of regular stamp prices. The method of issuing such a cheap stamp was ‘still a secret’ and Mr Armstrong had guaranteed a ‘clear profit’ of 20 to 25 percent dividend, while offering ‘to the public the penny stamp’ along with ‘a capital envelope at one penny’. The public were assured that the venture would be ‘one of the greatest marvels of 1886’. The upbeat reporter wished the enterprising actor every success, noting that Mr Armstrong’s rights were fully registered and protected in the scheme.

Secret agent

In 1890, when Major Gosselin took charge of Irish intelligence at the Home Office, he cast his eye upon Harry whom he picked to send to New York on behalf of the Mexican Land Company of London, as a spy operative tasked with infiltrating Irish-American secret societies. An account of his spy work can be read in ‘Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution’, by David Fitzpatrick, whose book informs us that Gloster Armstrong achieved the objective set before him ‘with marked success’, planting around seven ‘well-placed informers’ into organisations on the watchlist of the British government. Harry was, for a time, the manager and secretary of the Mexican Land and Colonization Company and was a visitor to South America on several occasions on their behalf.

In 1896, the Home Office had been informed about four fenians belonging to the Irish National Brotherhood in New York who were preparing to travel to Britain with the intention of starting a new dynamite campaign. An account of the would be bombers in ‘State Surveillance, Political Policing and Counter-Terrorism in Britain, 1880-1914’ by Vlad Solomon, emphasises that such attacks would have created embarrassment for the British government who had recently pardoned a group of Irish dynamiters who were originally sentenced to life behind bars but had walked free from Portland prison. Gloster Armstrong had an ace up his sleeve in the form of a spy who was planted in the Clan na Gael movement and could thereby inform him of its every move.

Harry had a sharp nose for potential plots during his time in New York and, in December 1921, he suspected Irish Republicans of assisting Indian rebels to obtain weapons to help them rise up against British rule in India. Armstrong alerted authorities to the misplacement of some several hundred cases of cartridges, which had miraculously gone missing. To add insult to injury, the cartridges were made for ‘British military rifles’ according to an account of the disappearance in ‘Ireland and India Nationalism, Empire and Memory’ by M. Silvestri. During that same year, a shipment of machine guns had already departed Boston for Bombay most likely under the auspices of the Irish Republicans. Harry Armstrong also was an author of military manuals and a member of the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, which was in effect a gentleman’s club.

World Fair

On March 20, 1892, Harry G. Armstrong expressed his annoyance at being misquoted when he corrected a London correspondent with the New York Herald for making a hash of his actual opinions on the World Fair. Armstrong had felt that the ground at the Tower of London would not be allowed to host the Fair and preferred for it to be held in New York, which would prove ‘more attractive to Europeans’ where the best transport and hotels in the world were to be found and indeed ‘in every way in advance of Chicago’.

His people, he said, had garbled his message to the newspaper and added: ‘Far be it from me to say any unkind word of Chicago, beyond that I like New York better, or, I may say, best in the world’. It is not surprising that he was eventually appointed Consular General to New York and that he remained in the job till the age of seventy because of his contract being renewed due to his popularity.

To be continued next week …


The United Irishman and his brother, the Lexicographer