Chapter 10. – UNDER THE TERROR
UNDER THE TERROR
” THE one great lesson which the Irish people undoubtedly learned from the results of our fight in the three years from 1919 to 1921, seems to be forgotten today. That lesson was the unbeatable essence of unity. Under the Terror we were a united people, and we smashed the Black and Tans. Today, De Valera is doing his utmost to smash the Treaty and if he succeeds in doing that, he will also smash the Irish nation. Are we so blind we will not see the truth ? Must we have the enemy on our backs before we will work together in the common cause of Ireland ? “
Collins thus began the continuation of his narrative of the gradual approach of Irish victory over the British Secret Service.
” One of our great concerns during the earlier stages of our fight against the Black and Tans,” Collins continued, ” was to keep the national spirit at the highest possible pitch. The Irish Republican Army by this time had grown to be a national body. There was not a village in Southern Ireland without its contingent of troops. Maintaining a high morale among these young soldiers helped in a large measure to ensure good morale among the civilian population. Best of all, the well disciplined army served to keep before the whole country the thought that we were at last a united people.
” Among the instruments used for this purpose, was An t’Oglac a miniature newspaper published every week during the Terror by the Irish Republican Army. An t’Oglac Gaelic for the Volunteer was devoted to the education of the young soldiers in military matters and to strengthening their moral fibre.
” While a British army of 80,000 and half as many more Black and Tans and police left no stone unturned in their determined efforts to crush the publication the little four- page sheet was in the hands of each soldier of the Republic every week as regularly as clockwork. It has been said that the British exerted their greatest endeavours to effect my capture, but I am sure no less gratification would have followed the destruction of our national organ. To my way of thinking, the fact that not once in three years was a single consignment of the papers ever found by the British is one of the most striking proofs of the efficiency of the Intelligence Staff of the Irish Republican Army.
“An t’Oglac was printed in a building less than a hundred yards distant from O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare. In this building Pearse Beaslai, editor of the paper, had his offices. The Black and Tans knew, or if they did not know, at least they had reason to believe, that Beazlai was chiefly responsible for the publication of An t’Oglac. Furthermore, they knew that his headquarters were in the buildings mentioned. Sometimes his office was raided twice in a single day but nothing was ever found of type or of any of the other usual equipment of a newspaper office. And without evidence of any kind, even the Black and Tans found it imprudent to arrest Beazlai.
” A remarkable character Beazlai ! His pluck in covering a rearguard action in the Easter Week rebellion had earned him the rank of commandant-general. A journalist by profession and an able writer in both English and Gaelic, he is today one of the most dependable men working in Ireland’s cause. His recent journey to America resulted in a great deal of good for Ireland. Beaslai was one of the men who escaped from Manchester Gaol when Austin Stack and two others also got away.”
I had heard a great deal about this escape and pressed Collins for the whole story, but he firmly refused to say more about it.
” There would be no way,” he protested, ” of keeping it from sounding too much like self-glorification. It’s for others to tell.”
Wherefore I learned the details from another source. It is a story well worth the telling. Everything considered, it seems to me it must have been the most remarkable of all the hair-raising exploits which Collins engineered. Certainly it justified Mulcahy’s recent tribute to Collins’ ” gay bravery.”
Manchester Gaol is situated in the heart of the great English cotton town. On all four sides are well-lighted streets. Police patrol these streets day and night. With important Irish leaders in the gaol, the guard was unusually alert.
These were the conditions one Saturday evening with Manchester at its busiest when Collins arrived on the scene. At a prearranged moment the gaol was surrounded by men armed with revolvers, a whistle was blown, and in less than sixty seconds Beaslai and his comrades were at liberty. The escape had been planned with all of Collins’ usual skill. From start to finish there was not a single hitch.
A master key of the cell doors had been smuggled into the prison in a cake, and word got to Beazlai to be prepared at a certain hour to release his comrades and go to a corner of the prison yard where on a moonless night the shadows were deepest. Those were the only instructions sent to Beazlai. The other prisoners concerned in the escape were each notified separately. And so it was the quartette of Irishmen found themselves at the appointed place inside the prison wall. And then a rope ladder was suddenly thrown over to them. Up this they climbed and down another, at the bottom of which were Collins and his aids. Ten seconds later, a high power motorcar was speeding them away to Irish friends in various parts of Manchester.
Their escape was especially exasperating to the British Government, because they were all much wanted men. Their descriptions were published broadcast, and for weeks every port and every ship leaving for Ireland were closely watched by English detectives. AND YET ALL OF THEM WERE BACK IN DUBLIN WITHIN FOUR DAYS OF THEIR ESCAPE !
” Beazlai went back to his work of editing An t’Oglac, and for a long time was unmolested,” Collins continued. ” The fact that he was in Ireland was scouted by Dublin Castle. It was impossible for him to have slipped by the watchers at every English port ! Therefore so argued the logic of British officialdom he must still be in England. It was not difficult, under these conditions, for Beazlai to help to keep this delusion alive. He took the precaution of keeping out of sight whenever his office was raided information of impending raids always reaching him in ample time for him to get away.
” The reason the Black and Tans could not believe that the paper was published on these premises was, as I have said, that they could never find any of the machinery necessary for the production of a newspaper. The truth did not occur to them. Yet it was simple enough. Every night of the week a few Dublin printers devoted their time to hand-setting * copy.’ They came singly, unostentatiously and set a few ‘ sticks ‘ of type which they had brought with them. Immediately a page was thus set and locked in the ‘ form ‘ it was carried away to the basement of a nearby building. Here, on a little hand-press, between 70,000 and 80,000 copies of An t’Oglac were turned off every week.
” Circulation of the paper began each Tuesday night* This was obviously the most difficult part of the whole undertaking. The Black and Tans knew that it was being sent to every town and village in Ireland, and they were bent on finding out how it was done. Discovery of the method would bring a substantial reward. But so secure did Beaslai feel that he even risked meeting certain journalists every day, to inform them of the progress of the war in all parts of the country. Some of the newspaper men Beaslai thus entrusted with his personal safety were Englishmen but not once was his confidence abused,
” Many and ingenious were the methods of distribution. At one time a consignment destined for a distant part of Galway would be concealed in a sofa from which the stuffing had been removed. As often as not several hundred copies of An t’Oglac would be hidden in a bag of flour. The consignees of these camouflaged receptacles all knew their business. Under them were girls of the Cumman na mBan and boy Scouts of the Irish Republican Army. These did the actual house-to-house distributing, and thus every man of the rank and file had a copy of the paper in his possession by Friday of each week.
” For the success of the distribution of An t’Oglac a great deal of credit is due to the railway workers of Ireland and not only for this does Ireland owe them much. At all times they were ready to take any personal risk and incur personal loss if it helped the Sinn Fein organisation. Frequently they went out on strike and sometimes remained out for months at a time rather than handle munitions intended for the British forces. Time after time drivers refused to run trains in which were Black and Tans. By close co-operation with these railwaymen we were frequently able to organise a successful ambush when the foe, forced to reach their destination by road, were bound to pass a known point.
” If this citing of our ability to outwit our enemies seems to place me in the category of those who imagine that in time we could have routed them out of the country, let me dissipate that idea quickly. I hold no such opinion. English power rests on military might and economic control. Such military resistance as we were able to offer was unimportant, had England chosen to go at the task of conquering us in real earnestness. There were good reasons for her not doing so. About them I shall presently have something to say.
” At the General Election of 1918 the British Government had been repudiated by the Irish people by a majority of more than seventy per cent. The national Government was set up in a quiet, orderly and unassertive fashion, Dail Eireann came into being. British law was gradually superseded. A loan of 400,000 was raised. At last the issue was knit. The struggle was definitely seen to be as between our determination to govern ourselves and get rid of English rule, and the British determination to prevent us from doing either.
” It was all this this slow building up of an orderly self-government, this ignoring of English civil power which was becoming an intolerable provocation to the British Government. Whitehall was coming to realise that ordinary methods would no longer meet the situation. Violence alone seemed to be the remedy. But England as yet thought it unwise to make these facts known.
” At first the British had been content to ridicule us. Then, growing alarmed at the increasing authority of our new Government, attempts were made to check our activities by wholesale political arrests. But neither ridicule nor arrests accomplished their purpose. The final phase of the struggle was at hand.
” For two years such violence as the British armed forces had been guilty of in their efforts at suppression, had resulted in the murder of 15 Irishmen and the wounding of nearly 400 men, women and children. Let it be remembered that in this same period there was not an instance of reprisals in kind by the Irish Republican Army.
” In this period in the British records there is not one authenticated case of violence used against the English military forces in Ireland.
” The only bloodshed was the work of the British. The Black and Tans had been sent to Ireland by the British Government for the express purpose of goading the people into armed resistance. This would give them the excuse they wanted. Once we arose in righteous wrath and gave back blow for blow, they could come down upon us in real earnest and swiftly beat us into impotency. That was the cherished hope of those who sent the Black and Tans to Ireland. But it was not to be realised.
” Finally, in January, 1920, and again in May and June of that year, the people emphatically renewed their approval of our fight, in several elections. Our policy now had the virtually unanimous support of all classes. Britain felt that the moment had come for a final, desperate campaign of terrorisation.
” If there are people who doubt this, let them turn to the files of the Times published in London on November 1st, 1920, and there read that it was ‘now generally admitted ‘ that a deliberate policy of violence had been ‘ conceived and sanctioned by an influential section of the Cabinet.’ Of course this admission did not have the official sanction of Whitehall. Excuses, evasions and lies were still considered necessary to conceal the real object of the reign of terror which was about to begin. In August, 1920, a measure was passed in the English House of Commons, ‘ To restore law and order in Ireland ‘ which, in fact, meant the abolishing of all law in Ireland. It was preparing the ground for unbridled licence on the part of the Black and Tans.
” There can be no doubt that England went at this task with full knowledge of its brutality. This is proved by the kind of men chosen to do the work. Again, see what the Times had to say hi this connection. In one of its leading editorials it is stated :
‘ It is common knowledge that the Black and Tans are recruited from ex-soldiers for a rough and dangerous task.’
” And just what was this ‘ rough and dangerous task ? ‘ To begin with, there was the planned murder of certain leading Irishmen and officers of the Irish Republican Army. The names of these men were entered on a list ‘ for definite clearance.’ Next, all who worked for us or supported the national movement were to be imprisoned. Finally, the general population was to be terrorised to whatever extent and by whatever means might be necessary to ensure their being kept in submission.
“To do these things England concluded that it was wisest to pretend to have justifying causes. So we find Lloyd George in a speech at Carnarvon in October, 1920, talking about the Irish Republican Army as ‘ a real murder gang.’ It had become ‘ necessary to put down a murderous conspiracy ‘ to ‘ get murder by the throat.’
” The ‘ murders ‘ that we committed were legitimate acts of self-defence forced upon us by English oppression. After two years of forbearance we had begun to defend ourselves and the life of our nation. Let it be remembered that we did not initiate the war, nor were we allowed to choose the lines along which the war developed. Let the facts speak for themselves. England made it a criminal in large areas a capital offence to carry arms. At the same time she inaugurated a brutal and murderous campaign against us. By so doing England forfeited any right to complain against the Irish people whatever means they took for their protection.
” Our only way to carry on the fight was by organised and bold guerilla warfare. But this in itself was not enough. However successful our ambushes however many ‘ murders’ we committed England could always reinforce her army. She could always replace every soldier she lost. And that was the real reason for the coming into being of our Intelligence Staff.
” 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. It was only by means of the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of these spies that the British machine could operate. Robbed of the network of this organisation throughout the country, it would be impossible to find ‘ wanted ‘ men. Without their criminal agents in the capital it would be hopeless to effect the removal of those leaders marked down for murder. It was these men we had to put out of the way.
” 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 !
” I know that the English spies who came to their deaths at our hands deserved their deaths. I know also that a world Press reported those murders to be the limit of cold blooded villainy. But it is not true. We had to shake the morale of the organisation which meant to crush out the life of the Irish nation. We went at the grim business, difficult as it was, not because we relished it, but because the enemy left us no other course. And so far as it was possible we observed the rules of war. Only the armed forces, the spies and the criminal agents of the British Government were attacked. Prisoners of war we treated honourably and considerately and released them unharmed after they had been disarmed.
” Murders committed by the English forces were justified on the grounds that the perpetrators were but ‘ enforcing the law ‘ ‘ restoring law and order in Ireland.’ Murders committed by us were murder !
” In the end the British Government awoke to realisation of the fact that its policy of violence was as futile as it was conscienceless. Eventually the day arrived when the British Prime Minister invited the Irish leaders the ‘ murderers ‘ and ‘ heads of the murder gang ‘ to discuss with him the terms of peace.
” The fruits of that peace seemed to be within our reach in the Treaty. Is it possible that the dawn of peace is yet a long way off in the future ? Are the Irish people to struggle through long years of new misery because a minority of destructive, unnatural, bitter extremists insist on proving that we are unfit and unable to govern ourselves ?
” I cannot bring myself to believe that.”