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Belly of the Beast podcast: The spy who helped Michael Collins crack the British code

Podcast review: You might think you know Ned Broy from Neil Jordan’s film, but this podcast tells his true story

We’re so steeped here in the legends of the Big Fellow and his Squad that stories about their derring-do have acquired a kind of historical sheen, preserving them at a sepia-toned heroic distance as pivotal actors in the War of Independence. But when you follow the steps taken by one individual, when you tell that one story with all its emotional stakes, physically grounding it in a city and time and ultimately a house in Terenure, then you get The Belly of the Beast.

You might know of Ned Broy from Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins biopic, but - forgive me, Mr Jordan - don’t mind that version. The Ned Broy we get in the Belly of the Beast is an athletic young man eager to help the cause of Irish independence, possessing what at the time was a rare combination of nerves of steel and typing skills, both of which turn out to be key to his role in the war and in the trajectory of the nation.

Brendan McCauley is a Dublin history teacher who discovered that his house in Terenure once belonged to Broy, which set McCauley on a path to explore - with the aid of the Go Loud Podship, a €20,000 bursary for new podcasters - the steps that led Broy to high-stakes espionage: to smuggle the most wanted Irish criminal (Michael Collins) inside the barracks of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. And not just into the barracks, but into the super-secret sanctum within the Great Brunswick Street building containing the British forces’ intelligence on the Irish revolutionaries. Jason Bourne would doff his hat.

That fateful night - Collins in the secret room with Sean Noonan, combing through the police files, with Broy handling the dangers and distractions: a rock thrown through the window, a constable at the door - is the fulcrum around which The Belly of the Beast turns, but it doesn’t stop at that moment in history.


Rather, it takes the listener through the build-up and onwards to the event’s lasting consequences - the G-Men assassinations, Bloody Sunday, the delegation to London to meet with Lloyd George - with animating and amusing detail (Collins, it turns out, was an early riser and inveterate joker, who liked to bend the legs of the beds of his comrades so they slid off them in their sleep), through Broy’s arrest (spoiler alert: he wasn’t killed then, as his character was in Jordan’s film, though he may have gotten alarmingly close), and into the Civil War, when he stayed loyal to Collins all the way to Béal na Bláth.

McCauley may not be as slick and practised as others on the airwaves - he lacks smoothness of patter and vocal charisma. But, over the course of seven episodes, that becomes part of the project’s charm. The various animating voices at times fall flat, and the script can be repetitive - how many times do we need to hear the Belly of the Beast analogy? - but it’s also warm and energetic, with contributions from UCD’s Diarmaid Ferriter and Broy’s own daughter, Aine, among others, adding expertise and context.

In the end, the best podcast is a good story well told, and stories don’t get much better than that of Ned Broy, typist, spy, trader in secrets and friend of revolutionaries. McCauley, with his wealth of research and personal connection to his subject - he sleeps in Broy’s bedroom, after all - is just the man to tell it.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast