5 THE INSURRECTION
When Collins arrived in London he took up his post in the Post Office Savings Bank in West Kensington and lived with his sister Hannie at 5 Netherwood Road until he returned to Dublin in 1916. He quickly made friends with the other young men in the Bank, was brought into the Irish circle in London and resumed his friendship with his cousin Sean Hurley. He joined the Gaelic League and the Geraldine G.A.A. club with which he played hurling and football and graduated to becoming treasurer of the club. In the early years in London he mixed mainly with a group of young Corkmen who played games, attended Irish classes and spent a fair amount of time in pubs. In addition to Sean Hurley his friends included Joe O’Reilly from Bantry – his “guardian angel” during the Anglo-Irish War – Sam Maguire from Dunmanway of G.A.A. fame, P.S. O’Hegarty a future Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, Corkmen all and all members of the I.R.B. Others were Patrick Belton, who in time would become a T.D. and a pub owner and Padraic O’Conaire the Irish writer who at the time worked in the Civil Service and also taught Irish. P.S. O’Hegarty became a great admirer of Collins in later years but regarded him then as a wild youth though with plenty of ability.
Michael stayed in touch with all his family and would return to Woodfield every summer for holidays. He became a member of Sinn Fein, the organisation founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, and read a paper to a Sinn Fein club in which he attacked the Catholic Church’s attitude to Irish nationalism. He also lent his support when the club agreed to give financial support to Sinn Fein’s first parliamentary challenge for a seat in the North Leitrim by-election of 1907 in which Sinn Fein polled only a third of the votes. That year also his mother died aged fifty-two from cancer.
In November, 1909 at Barnsbury Hall in London, Michael Collins was sworn in as a member of the I.R.B. by his fellow post office worker, the Protestant Sam Maguire. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) was the secret oathbound society founded by James Stephens in 1858 in Ireland. The name “Fenian” was given to the movement at the suggestion of John O’Mahony.
The aim of the I.R.B. was to establish and maintain a free and independent Republican Government in Ireland. The governing unit of organisation was a “Circle”. The whole organisation was divided into eleven divisions, eight in Ireland, two in England and one in Scotland. The governing body was the Supreme Council which after the 1917 reorganisation consisted of fifteen members. The organisation demanded absolute obedience from its members; Clause 20 of its consitution read, in part: “The authority of the Supreme Council, shall be unquestioned by members of the Irish Rebulican Brotherhood”.
Membership of the I.R.B. had fallen after the failed Fenian rising of 1867 until only a few thousand remained. Clan na Gael and the I.R.B. agreed a policy of supporting Parnell and of infiltrating national organisations like the G.A.A., the Gaelic League etc., and aiming to influence the policies of these organisation in a republican direction.
In 1909, Tom Clarke, the old Fenian who had survived fifteen year’s penal servitude returned to Dublin from America and set up a small tobacconist’s shop in Parnell Street. He was co-opted on to the Supreme Council where he was supported by a young militant wing who ousted an ageing leadership past its best. Sean MacDiarmada, a dedicated tireless, magnetic young man was appointed a full-time organiser and a steady stream of carefully-selected dedicated young nationalists began to join the organisation. For the remainder of Collins’ life the I.R.B. was to be his chief interest. He would quickly become treasurer of the South of England Circle, would re-organise the I.R.B. after his internment in Frongoch, become its Secretary in 1917 and President in 1919. He also became more studious and attended night classes at King’s College, was an avid theatre-goer and, encouraged by his sister, became an omnivorous reader. Michael remained with the Savings Bank until 1910 when he joined a firm of stockbrokers, where he was responsible for organising the messenger service. He left this firm to join the Board of Trade in September, 1914. In April of the same year, enraged by the activities of Carson and the Conservative Party in their opposition to the Home Rule Bill, he joined No. 1 Company of the London Volunteers founded on 25th November 1913 and drilled each week with hired rifles in a gymnasium at King’s Cross.
After the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 the Supreme court of the I.R.B. council anticipating that England’s difficulty would be Ireland’s opportuntiy, set up a military council of Pearse, Clarke, Plunkett and Ceannt in May 1915 to make plans for a rebellion.
Collins’ boyhood hero O’Donovan Rossa died in 1915 and his funeral to Glasnevin Cemetry on 1st August brought forth a massive display of strength and solidarity by all national organisation. Special trains brought mourners from all over Ireland. The police kept a low profile. Patrick Pearse, dressed in his grey-green Irish Volunteer uniform and with his hand resting on his sword, gave the famous funeral oration at Glasnevin:-
“Here by the grave of this unrepentant Fenian, we renew our baptismal vows; ……………………….. We know only one definition of freedom; it is Tone’s definition, it is Mitchel’s definition, Life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The defenders of this realm…………………. think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have foreseen everything ….. but the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”
After a deep silence the immense crowd broke into round after round of thunderous applause. The speech and the patriotic emotion of that day turned many young men into fervent Republicans.
The threat of conscription in England and the rumoured rising in Dublin caused Collins to give in notice to his London employers. He told them that he was going, “to join up”, that is, enlist in the British Forces and got an extra week’s pay. On 15th January, 1916 he crossed to Dublin and took a job with the accountants, Craig Gardiners, in Dawson Street. He became a member of the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League where he was friendly with Richard Mulcahy and Gearoid O’Sullivan from Skibbereen who was a teacher in St. Peter’s National School, Phibsboro. He was a regular visitor to the “refugees” – a group of Irish camping in Kimmage who had come over from England to escape conscription. The Rising began on Easter Monday. James Connolly gave the order to attack the G.P.O. Staff and customers were ordered out and Connolly ordered the ground-floor windows to be smashed. Patrick Pearse, standing in front of the building, read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to a small group of by-standers. Gearoid O’Sullivan as the youngest officer present was given the honour of raising the Tricolour flag of the Republic over the building. Collins, dressed in his staff officer’s uniform, acted as aide-de-camp to the seriously ill, Joseph Plunkett. Desmond Fitzgerald described him “as the most active and efficient officer in the place”.
On Friday British guns began to hit the G.P.O. with incendiary shells and, despite valiant efforts to shell it, fire took hold of the building. Volunteers tried to break through the encircling British barricades but failed. In one of those attempts Collins boyhood friend, Sean Hurley was killed.
At 4 pm on Saturday 9th April, Pearse issued an order declaring an unconditional surrender “in order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered”.
After their surrender the G.P.O. prisoners were brought to O’Connell Street where later they were joined by those from the Four Courts, then brought in front of the Rotunda Hospital, grouped close together and surrounded by British soldiers with fixed bayonets. While under guard, the officer in charge, Captain Lee Wilson had some prisoners, including the aged Thomas Clarke and his brother-in-law, Ned Daly, hauled before him, stripped naked and publicly degraded. Collins and Liam Tobin witnessed this. Later, in 1920, when it was discovered that Captain Wilson was a District Inspector of the R.I.C. in Gorey, an order for his execution was issued and carried out..
The reaction of some Dublin citizens to the Easter Week rising was hostile and the prisoners, on their way to internment were abused and spat upon, but that was to change quickly. John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who was in his family house in Dublin all that week, foresaw the changing mood and advised caution on the British Government. He wrote “the wisest course is to execute no one for the present, and if there is shooting of prisoners on a large scale, the effect on public opinion might be disastrous in the extreme”.
The British Commanding officer, General Maxwell, decided to deal with the offenders with the utmost severity. After secret trials fifteen death sentences were carried out between 3rd and 11th May – a long drawn-out period of rising anger in Ireland. In the House of Commons Dillon declared that “thousands of people who ten days ago were bitterly opposed to the whole Sinn Fein movement were now infuriated against the Government” and continued: “It is not murderers who are being executed; it is insurgents who have fought a clean fight.” However, seven hundred and sixty-three influential Dublin businessmen all Unionists, signed a memorandum protesting against interfering with the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Ireland and the operation of martial law. Henry Asquith, the Liberal Premier, visited Ireland after Dillon’s speech and General Maxwell, who wished to execute the Countess Markiewicz who had played a fighting part in the Rising as “bloody guilty and dangerous”, was ordered to cease all further executions.
The poet, W.B. Yeats caught the mood of the nation at this time in his poem, The Rose Tree.
“It needs to be but watered,
James Connolly replied,
To make the green come out again
And spread on every side,
And shake the blossom from the bud
To be the garden’s pride.
But where can we draw water,
Said Pearse to Connolly,
When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There’s nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose tree.”
The surrender of the leaders was followed immediately by large-scale arrests by the R.I.C. all over Ireland and by the setting up of general courts-martial 3,340 men and 79 women were arrested.
The reported civilian casualties of the Rising were two hundred and fifty-six killed and some two thousand wounded while British forces suffered one hundred and forty-one fatal casualties. The rebels numbered about one thousand six hundred of whom sixty two were killed outright and an unknown number wounded. The wounded Cathal Brugha with almost a score of wounds would live to fight another day.
The prisoners had been brought to Richmond Barracks, Inchicore, Dublin on Sunday and ordered to sit on the floor of the gymnasium. Pierce Beaslai would later describe how political detectives from “G” Division of the Dublin Police would act like a flock of carrion crows to pick out suspects for court-martial and that anybody who had seen that sight might be pardoned if he felt little compunction at the subsequent shooting of these same “G” men. Collins had a lucky escape. The “G” men initially selected him but at a later stage he heard his name called from across the floor. He walked over to that group and by staying with them finished up among four hundred and eighty-eight prisoners marched to the North Wall in Dublin Port and put on board a cattle boat. On arrival at Holyhead in Wales, Collins and two hundred and eighty-eight other rebels were put on a train for Stafford while the remainder went to Knutford. The former group were brought under military escort to Stafford Detention Barracks where they remained for two months when they were removed to Frongoch internment camp in North Wales.
The camp was an old distillery with a number of wooden huts surrounded by barbed wire. Into it were crowded some one thousand eight hundred Irishmen. Some were involved in the Dublin Rising, others were men taken prisoners in Co. Galway after their association with Liam Mellows. A large number were men rounded up because they were deemed by the police to be Sinn Fein sympathisers although, in many instances, the suspicions of the police had no basis in fact.
The dedicated Republicans in the camp separated themselves from the others and formed their own groups from which the I.R.B. formed a nucleus of men dedicated to the national cause. These men gained positions of power and influence over the rest of the camp. Collins was chosen as the leader of Hut no. 10. Much of the prisoner’s time was devoted to reading, lecturers and discussions.
Collins favourite companion was Sean Hales, later to be Vice O.C. of the 3rd Cork Brigade of the I.R.A. There was constant friction in the camp between the prisoners and the soldiers guarding it. The prisoners refused to clear away the refuse from the soldiers’ quarters and were then sent to the North Camp and deprived of privileges. The authorities tried desperately to identify men like Collins, who had worked in England, so that they could be pressed into military service but large numbers of prisoners refused to identify themselves and in only a few cases were the authorities able to identify prisoners deemed eligible for service in the British forces.
It was in Frongoch that Collilns got the nickname “The Big Fellow”. Some prisoners thought that he was over-assertive in his relations both with other prisoners and the gaolers. They wanted a peaceful existence in the camp while Collins wanted to create trouble. He took part in the Frongoch sports in October where he won the 100 yard sprint and was second to his friend Sean Hales in throwing the 56 lb weight. Two hundred prisoners took part in the a three day hunger strike that commenced on 2nd November.
Though the Volunteers were already strongly motivated, internment further strengthened their commitment; new friendships led to a stronger and deeper spirit of common cause. An amnesty was finally declared on 21st December by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, probably to conciliate American public opinion. When Collins was released on 24th December he had mentally matured. He had concluded that the Rising had been badly organised and bungled as a military operation. His deep I.R.B. convictions of securing freedom for his country were not overawed by such obvious considerations as that the organisation to which he belonged was challenging in arms the only superpower in the world with its four hundred and seventy-five million subjects encompassing a quarter of both the earth’s surface and of its population and that Imperial Britain had always insisted that the control of Ireland was essential to her security.
Frongoch was the I.R.A. University where, as Batt O’Connor said “many a lad came in a harmless gossoon and left it with the seeds of Fenianism deep in his heart”. The foundations for the policy of resistance in jails and internment camps were laid there. It provided many of the leaders of the I.R.A. during the Anglo-Irish war. Among its prisoners were the aforesaid Batt O’Connor, Thomas Malone, Thomas McCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Padraig O’Caoimh, Seamas Robinson, Sean Hales and Gearoid O’Sullivan. The camp contained nine hundred and twenty-six prisoners from Dublin and ninety -two from Cork, but every county had representatives. Its ex-internees who became T.D.s would later split eventually on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, fifteen voting each way.