“Our only way to carry on the fight was by organised and bold guerilla warfare. But this in itself was not enough. England could always reinforce her army. To paralyse the British machine it was necessary to strike at individuals outside the ranks of the military. Without her Secret Service working at the top of its efficiency England was helpless… robbed of the network of this organisation throughout the country, it would be impossible to find ‘wanted’ men.” – Michael Collins
Throughout Irish history, rebellions were always failures because of cowardice, drink, and most ominously, informers. Returning from Frongoch Prison in Wales with the other survivors of the failed 1916 Rising, Michael Collins realised this. Britain had always been able to either place spies in rebel parties or else succeed in enticing Irishmen to ‘rat out’ their colleagues for money and protection. With his own intelligence network, he took on, and beat, Britain at its own game.
Building up the Network
“For the first time in the history of separatism we Irish had a better intelligence service than the British… this was Michael Collins’ great achievement and it is one for which every Irishman should honour his memory.”- Todd Anders
Michael Collins was appointed the Director of Intelligence of the Irish Volunteers in January 1919. By this time, he had already laid much of the groundwork for his intelligence network.
Collins had penetrated the Irish and English postal, telephone and telegraph systems. Letters and dispatches could be moved to various contacts by certain train inspectors. The railway workers were organised so effectively that the military frequently had to move troops and stores by road, which would play into the hands of the IRA ambushes as the war intensified. The trade unions were mobilised to hamper police and military movements by road, rail and sea. For many months the army had to tie up thousands of men on the major ports as the dockers had paralysed all attempts to land stores.
One of Collins’ key activities was gun running. He established a network of agents across the British Isles using his IRB (the Irish Republican Brotherhood) connections. His secret channel was dubbed the ‘Irish Mail’. Gelignite from Wales and England came carefully packed in tin trucks, rifles came in wicker hampers, revolvers and ammunition in hand luggage. In December 1918 a munitions factory was set up in the cellar of a bicycle shop in Dublin, with Collins taking over the operation of it several months later.
The most important event in 1918 for the intelligence network was Collins’ meeting in March with Detective Ned Broy of the DMP (Dublin Metropolitan Police). The police in Ireland was divided into the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) throughout the country and the DMP in Dublin city. Broy gave Collins a detailed, inside knowledge of the British police system in Ireland. He learned how the system worked and how the police were trained. Particular attention was paid to the special ‘G’ division of the DMP, whose job it was to keep watch on any national movements. Anyone suspected of being an agitator had an ‘S’ placed after their name and their movements were followed by the ‘G’ Men. Each ‘G’ man transferred his files every night to ‘a very large book’, of which Broy had access to. Collins was from then on able to get a copy of every secret file that went into the very large book. As well as Broy, Collins got in contact with two other detectives who were based in Dublin Castle.
Collins set up an intelligence office at 3 Crow Street over a print shop. Liam Tobin became the Chief Intelligence Officer. The office’s initial task was to gather as much information as possible about the DMP, especially ‘G’ division. Collins continued to recruit agents for his intelligence network. The chief clerkess at British military headquarters in Cork provided a vast amount of information on raids, spies and informers. A typist in Dublin Castle supplied information concerning field security and counter-insurgency operations, as well as personal details of British intelligence officers. On April 7th 1919, Detective Broy smuggled Collins into the Detective Headquarters in Brunswick Street, where he spent the entire night going through police records. Collins was the first Irish revolutionary to have the entire modus operandi of the British police in Ireland laid out before him.
On April 9th, a new and bloodier phase of the intelligence war began. Acting on Collins’ orders, a number of ‘G’ men were warned by the Volunteers against an excess of zeal. ‘G’ men who did not comply would pay with their lives.
“I am a builder, not a destroyer. I get rid of people only when they hinder my work.”- Michael Collins to Ned Broy
Collins set up ‘the Squad’, a small band of Dublin Volunteers attached to the Intelligence Department, in July 1919. It was a full-time assassination team, made up of clerks, tradesmen, and general workers, who were paid £4.10 a week. According to Bill Stapleton, one of its members-
“Our chief function was the extermination of British spies and individuals.”
Strict rules were laid down for Squad shootings. Assassinations were a last resort, coming after repeated warnings to the target. Once the order to shoot was given, the Squad would study the locale carefully and work out where and when the shooting would take place. After a job the guns would be dropped in the pockets of ‘the Black Man’, a former boxer who perpetually walked the streets of Dublin.
On July 30th, Detective Sergeant Smith of the ‘G’ Division was shot dead by the Squad on the authority of Dail Eireann. On September 12th, Sergeant Daniel Hoey was shot dead outside of Police Headquarters at Brunswick Street. Both Smith and Hoey had disregarded several warnings from Volunteers. As a result of these killings, political detectives became less inclined to go beyond the letter of their duty, or taking any risks in its execution. Collins explained his strategy in 1922-
“Without her spies England was helpless… Spies are not so ready to step into the shoes of their departed confederates as are soldiers to fill up the front line in honourable battle. And, even when the new spy stepped into the shoes of the old one, he could not step into the old one’s knowledge… We struck at individuals, and by doing so we cut their lines of communication, and we shook their morale.”
The other main result of these killings, and Volunteer activity in Munster, was the banning of Sinn Fein and Dail Eireann. This created a fertile climate for Collins’ extremist tactics, allowing him to assassinate more British police and agents without being restrained by moderates.
Following the suppression of Dail Eireann, the Dail and the Volunteers (by now popularly known as the IRA) agreed that the IRA should intensify its campaign. With the demise of the DMP in Dublin, the British authorities decided to bring down Mr. William C. Forbes Redmond from Belfast to reorganise the detective force. But his assistant in Dublin Castle was one of Collins’ agents. Redmond was identified and his movements were recorded. On January 20th 1920, Redmond was shot dead by members of the Squad as he returned to his suite in the Standard Hotel in Harcourt Street. According to a Squad member, Joe Dolan-
“We knew he had a bullet-proof waistcoat, so we shot him in the head.”
Following Redmond’s death, his own undercover detectives pulled out and returned to Belfast, and thereafter ‘G’ Division “ceased to affect the situation”, according to British military intelligence. By the following month, a Secret Service Branch of the RIC no longer existed.
It may be wondered how Collins and his intelligence officers went about seemingly unhindered during this time. The remaining DMP men were generally too afraid to go after Collins, even though many of them were able to identify him. The twin evils of spies and raids remained however. Many of Collins’ office and hiding places, dotted throughout Dublin city, were turned over during the War of Independence. He usually got forewarning from one of his agents and was able to be elsewhere. It also helped when one of his ‘friendly’ detectives was leading the raiding party. In November 1919 Collins’ financial offices on Harcourt Street were raided. Nothing important was discovered because the detective in charge of the search simply didn’t bother looking. What he actually did was-
“I went upstairs and counted the roses on the wallpaper until the raid was over.”
The Squad was officially established at 46 Rutland Square on the 19 September 1919.
Though by the time it had been in operation for two months and had already carried out two killings. Members were paid £4 10s per week. The first four members were: Ben Barrett Paddy Daly (Paddy O’Dalaigh, sometimes said to have succeeded Mick McDonnell as leader, but usually considered as leader; he became a major general in the national army). Sean Doyle and Joe Leonard (came right behind Daly in the chain of command. Other original members were; Mick McDonnell (decribed by some as the first leader). James Conroy. Jim McGuinness , Jimmy Slattery (a clareman with only one hand, after been injured in the Custom House fire) William “Billy” Stapleton (a Dubliner) Added to the original nine after a few months to form the Twelve Apostles (a name first applied, derisiverly by Austin Stack) were; Vinney Byrne , Tom Kehoe (from Wicklow, later killed in the Civil War) Mick O’Reilly.
Others were added in 1920 and there after and were chosen for jobs as needed. Not all did many jobs for Collins, and many were members of various Dublin units who were picked by Collins to assist the regular Squad members this was particulary true on Bloody Sunday. The other members were; Frank Bolster. Ned Breslin. Ben Byrne. Charle Byrne (a Dubliner called The Count because of his cheerful mien in all situations) Eddie Byrne. Sean Caffrey. Paddy Colgan (from Maynooth, Co Kildare) James Connolly. Jim Conway (the one-man column) Andy Cooney , Tom Cullen (a teetotaler) Charlie Dalton , Jim Dempsey (a Dubliner and an old IRB man who faught in the Rising) Joe Dolan, (another Dubliner,always armed with a .45 and wore a british army badge in his lapel) Joe Dowling, Pat Drury, John Dunne , Tom Ennis , Paddy Flangan (the oldest member of the Squad) Paddy Griffin , Jack Hanlon, Sean Kavanagh (a Dubliner and later a prison governor) Ned Kelliher (a Dubliner) Mick Kennedy, Paddy Kennedy ( from Tipperary) Martin Lavan, Paddy Lawson , Sean Lemass, (the future Taoiseach) Pat McCrae, (a great driver) Pat McKeon, Peader McMahon, (later Chief of Staff of the Free State Army) Diarmuid O’Hegarty, (a corkman, Director of Organisation of the Volunteers) Bob O’Neill, (a Clareman) ,Albert Rutherford, Frank Saurin (a Dubliner, known as the best dressed Volunteer) Frank Teeling, Liam Tobin, George White , Johnny Wilson. (No headstone)
Michael Collins and the Organisation of Irish Intelligence, 1917-21
Three spies came close to getting Collins caught at this time. One was a pretend Marxist sympathiser who Forbes Redmond was using to get to Collins, but once Redmond revealed the spy’s true intentions in Dublin Castle, word got out to Collins who promptly dealt with the spy. Another was a former Irish P.O.W. from Germany in World War I, who double-crossed Collins to get money from the British police. The Cork Volunteers executed him. The third spy offered to buy arms for Collins, but his true purpose was discovered, and he was shot dead by the Squad in broad daylight.
Early 1920 saw several more successes for Collins’ intelligence network. Collins had established a system of meeting his various agents regularly at a house in Clontarf. The keys to police and official cipher codes were ascertained, and over time a system was developed to decode official British police and military messages. A clerk in the RIC fed Collins with information and codes from the RIC headquarters, as did an RIC Sergeant stationed in Belfast. One of his agents managed to get into the British Secret Service, and was able to introduce some of Collins’ intelligence officers to Secret Service men. The Resident Magistrate who had opened a much publicised inquiry into Sinn Fein funds was dragged from a tram and killed on March 26th. On April 3rd, tax offices throughout the country were fire bombed, on Collins’ suggestion, to disrupt the British tax collecting apparatus. By this time, IRA units in various parts of Ireland were shooting policemen. In one day, 350 unoccupied RIC barracks were burned down. Resignations in the police force were running at more than 200 a month at the start of 1920. The IRA appeared to be succeeding in taking over the country. But Britain would fight back.
The Year of Terror
“One of the cardinal maxims of guerilla warfare: the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”- Henry Kissinger
On February 24th 1920, a curfew was introduced from midnight until five o’clock in the morning. British policy in Ireland would become more hardline, with the army and police operating a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy and areas sheltering IRA fugitives to receive economic punishment. In practice, this meant burning, looting and shooting up towns all over Ireland. The Black and Tans first arrived in Ireland on March 25th. They were fairly undisciplined ex-British army soldiers, mainly from World War I, here to undertake “a rough and dangerous task”. In September, they were joined in the country by the Auxiliaries, ex-officers from the British Army. Both sets of soldiers joined the regular army and the RIC in combating the IRA.
As the surface war intensified, so too did the undercover intelligence war. Throughout much of 1920 Ireland was being infiltrated by Secret Service agents intending to take on Collins and the IRA at their own game. These men became known as the Cairo Gang as a result of their spying backgrounds in Egypt and also because they frequented the Cairo Café in Dublin. They all had cover jobs and their addresses were kept secret. Their plan was to kill prominent members of Sinn Fein and make it appear that they had been killed in an IRA feud between moderates and extremists. The Lord Mayor of Cork was killed in such circumstances. The Secret Service agents had to rely on Irish touts for information, which brought them into direct contact with Collins’ key intelligence officers. In October 1920 these men were picked up and released only after days of questioning. Several days later the Cairo Gang realised who they had let go. The IRA Chief of Staff, Dick Mulcahy, wrote-
“We were being made to feel that they were very close on the heels of some of us.”
Collins knew that it was only a matter of time before he was finished. But just as it the British Secret Service were closing in on Collins, Collins was closing in on them.
The sister of an IRA man told her brother that some of the gentlemen in the house spoke with English accents, kept odd hours and went out after curfew. A DMP man secured the names and addresses of these Secret Service Officers. Collins was able to obtain room keys for all their houses as a result. Detailed reports were prepared on each agent. Sunday, November 21st was chosen for the date to strike against these agents. Shortly after eight o’clock that morning, groups of Volunteers and members of the Squad converged on eight different addresses in Dublin. Nineteen British soldiers were shot dead. In reprisal, the Black and Tans opened fire on the crowd watching the GAA match at Croke Park. Fourteen people were killed and hundreds were injured.
It is believed that up to half the Cairo Gang may have escaped assassination, but ‘Bloody Sunday’ (as it became known afterwards) was overall a huge success for Collins’ intelligence network. Spies and their wives flocked to Dublin Castle in despair, and Collins’ intelligence team were able to jot down the names of those they didn’t already recognise. Bloody Sunday had a crippling effect on British intelligence in Ireland. One of Collins’ agents wrote-
“The effect was paralysing. It can be said that the enemy never recovered from the blow.”
Collins himself wrote-
“My own intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens… If I had another motive, it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile… There is no crime in detecting and destroying in war-time, the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.”
A week after Bloody Sunday, seventeen Auxiliaries were killed in an ambush by the IRA in Kilmichael, Co. Cork. That same day, partly through Collins’ organising, the British-based IRA fire-bombed more than a dozen warehouses in the Liverpool docks area, causing millions of pounds worth of damage. The British government, whether it would admit it publicly or not, knew that the IRA were far from surrendering.
Towards a Truce
“The tenacity of the IRA is extraordinary. Where was Michael Collins during the Great War? He would have been worth a dozen brass hats.”- British civil servant Tom Jones writing to Bonar Law
On December 20th, Eamon de Valera returned from America. De Valera argued that it would be better to change from hit and run guerilla tactics to having a series of battles with the British, mainly for propaganda purposes. This resulted in the burning of the Customs House on May 25th 1921. It was a publicity success worldwide but resulted in many of the best IRA men in Dublin at the time being captured. As the summer reached its peak, Collins had been preparing to assassinate around sixty fresh agents sent in from Britain, as well as groups of soldiers who were based in Dublin. Half an hour before this operation was due to begin, it was called off. Lloyd George had sent word that he wanted peace.
Britain had been facing growing worldwide pressure, especially from America, to negotiate a settlement. The Anglo-Irish Truce came into effect on July 11th 1921. As the peace talks were going on in London, and the guns were silent across the country, things were still going on in the murky underground war. The IRA were all coming out into the open, including intelligence officers, and the British Secret Service were noting their appearance and their various whereabouts. Collins ruefully admitted-
“Once a truce is agreed, and we come out into the open, it is extermination for us if the truce should fail… We shall be like rabbits coming out from their holes.”
This didn’t stop him continuing to run his intelligence office as the truce was maintained. A truce it had in no small part brought about.
Several things forced the truce of July 1921, of which Collins’ intelligence network is only one. But it is arguably the most important one. One of the key reason that the War of Independence of 1919-1921 actually achieved a tangible result (the Anglo-Irish Treaty), unlike scores of previous rebellions, was intelligence.
British spies and informers were wiped out by the Irish. People were now afraid to be seen supporting or passing information to the British administration. Spies were routinely shot. British intelligence lines were intercepted and used against them. The State became effectively paralysed by Collins’ network. This is acknowledged by British historians, none more so than Lawrence James in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. As he looks at the reasons behind the British agreeing to a truce in July 1921, he notes-
“The British army had still not overcome many of its operational problems, not least the lack of a competent intelligence-gathering service. In fact, by early June, the two sides were facing deadlock.”
1)Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland by Piaras Beaslai (published 1926)
2)The Big Fellow: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution by Frank O’Connor (published 1937)
3)Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan (published 1991)
4)The Man Who Won The War by T. Ryle Dwyer (published 1990)
5)Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State edited by Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (published 1998)
6)Michael Collins: The Lost Leader by Margery Forester (published 1971)
7)Michael Collins: A Life by James Mackay (published 1996)
8)In His Own Words: Michael Collins edited by Francis Costello (published 1997)
9)The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James (published 1994)