Michael Collins returns to Dublin 1916

1906, Collins emigrates to London

At age 15 after passing the entrance exam for the British civil service he was posted to london, where from July 1906 to early 1910 he worked as a clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank. He would spend nine and a half years, almost a third of his life, living and working in London. Family tradition, followed by all previous biographers, states that throughout that entire period he lodged with Hannie in a furnished flat at 5 Netherwood Road in West Kensington. In fact, Michael and his sister resided at various addresses in West London, and only settled in Netherwood Road in 1914, One of Michael Collins closest acquaintances from his period in London wrote: – ”I can claim to have known Michael Collins as well as, if not better than, most people. Even so, I thought my personal knowledge of him to be no more than surface knowledge. He was a very difficult person to really know. The clerical work to which Michael was assigned at the Savings Bank was routine and dull, mainly concerned with the checking and issue of dividend warrants and the periodical auditing of passbooks which had to be sent to West Kensington every time withdrawals exceeded a certain limit. The work was relatively simple, and Michael had mastered it within weeks. It is incredible that he stuck it out for four years”.

“At first, however, he had a clear set of goals. There were Civil Service examinations that were the necessary hurdles to promotion and in particular he had set his sights on the newly unified Customs and Excise Service where the prospects were good and the pay excellent. This entailed qualifications in accountancy, taxation, commercial law and economics, so Michael enrolled at the King’s College evening classes. His reading during this period ranged from Adam Smith to Addison and Locke, the one to give him a broad understanding of economics, the others to improve his style in writing essays. One of the papers he was required to write discussed the British Empire and its future. He wrote passionately about Ireland as England’s oldest colony, acquired by military force and mismanaged for centuries. He concluded on a defiant note: “Every country has a right to work out its own destiny in accordance with the laws of its being. The first law of nations is self-preservation – let England be wise and not neglect it”.

(‘The Lost Leader – Margery Forester 1972 )

November 1909, Collins is sworn in as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood In November 1909.

Amongst those gathered to watch the future Commander-in-Chief, then 19 years old, take his oath at Barnsbury Hall, Islington, was Liam McCarthy a London-born Councillor for Peckham and a successful builder, and Sam Maguire, a Protestant farmer’s son from West Cork. Maguire had become an influential member of the London IRB by the time he befriended Collins at the Post Office. “You bloody South of Ireland Protestant” was how Collins often referred to him but the two West Corkmen became close friends. Later when Collins was head of the I.R.B., Maguire was one of his Chief Intelligence Officers. Many times Maguire travelled across on the night mail to Dublin at weekends with information that he dare not write down. He was also believed not to have accepted any money for the expenses but paid for them himself. Maguire it was who swore Collins into the IRB. Over the next two decades, all three men were to dedicate their lives to the cause of Irish liberty. Their reward was not bountiful. Collins was gunned down at BealnaBlath, while both McCarthy and Maguire died prematurely near destitute and bankrupt.

Today, McCarthy and Maguire are household names on account of the All-Ireland cups for hurling and football which are named in their honour. But few know just how intricately both men were linked with the meteoric rise of Michael Collins.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) was the secret oathbound society founded by James Stephens in Dublin in early 1858 in Ireland. The name “Fenian Brotherhood of America” was given to the American chapter of the movement at the suggestion of John O’Mahony and James Stephens at a meeting in the law Offices of Michael Doheny on St Patricks day 1858 (all three were Young Irelanders and had participated at “Ballingarry” in 1848). 
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 constitution read, in part: “The authority of the Supreme Council, shall be unquestioned by members of the Irish Republican 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. 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”

JANUARY 1916, Collins resigns position with Bank, returns to Ireland and joins the Irish Volunteers under command of Eoin McNeill.

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 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 a second cousin who was a teacher in St. Peter’s National School, Phibsboro.

EASTER 1916, 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 and Argentinian born Edmund Bulfin as the youngest officers present were given the honour of raising the Tricolour and the 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 out-numbered.

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 Collins 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.


December 1916, Collins is released under a general amnesty and returns to Ireland where he becomes a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council.

February 1917, Collins becomes Secretary of the Irish National Aid Association to assist dependants of Irish political prisoners or those killed during the Easter Rising.

Funding – John Devoy and Clan na nGaedhael USA. Subscriptions from SF clubs and sympathisers.

May 1918, Britain undertakes ‘German Plot’ arrests, but Collins eludes British dragnet.

June 1918, British Government suppresses Sinn Fein, but movement wins second consecutive by-election for parliamentary seat with de Valera’s victory in Co. Clare. Sinn Fein’s policy of abstentionism from House of Commons implemented.

1918-1919, Collins plays central role in setting up underground newspapers, building an intelligence network along with an arms smuggling system.

Set up Intelligence section in volunteers

Foran Papers (Unconfirmed) – ?

Volunteers – (command)

October 1918, British Government announces its intention of introducing conscription in Ireland.

December 1918, British General Election held with Sinn Fein winning vast majority of parliamentary constituencies, decimating the Irish Party in the process. Collins elected for South Cork constituency.

January 1919, Dail Eireann is established. On same day, two policemen are killed in an ambush in County Tipperary by local Volunteers, setting the stage for the Anglo- Irish War.

February 1919, Collins actively assists Eamon deVaIera escape from England’s Lincoln Jail.

November 1920, Guerilla war against British rule in Ireland escalates against backdrop of death via hunger strike of Cork’s Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney and the execution of Kevin Barry.

April 1920 Collins home at woodfield burned by Auxerillies.

20 November 1920 ‘Bloody Sunday’ when Collins’s assassination squad wipes out British MI5 intelligence network in Dublin, an event which is followed by attack by British forces upon spectators at Croke Park.

December 1920, De Valera returns from 18 months spent in the US. Seeks truce with British who are actively seeking such in the person of Andy (Alfred) Cope personal appointee of Lloyd George.

January-June 1921, Guerilla war continues. Britain introduces curfews in key Irish population centres, along with heightening of martial law.

11 July 1921, Anglo-Irish Truce takes effect.

14 September 1921, Delegation to negotiate with British representatives appointed by Dail Eireann.

11 October 1921, Irish delegation with Michael Collins meets Lloyd George for first time.

6 December 1921, Anglo-Irish Treaty Articles of Agreement signed.

6th January 1922, Treaty ratified by Dail. (64 votes to 57)

14 January 1922, Provisional Government appointed. Collins named as Chairman.

29 March 1922, Collins in London for conference.

13 April 1922, Four Courts occupied by Anti-Treatyite forces.

29 April 1922, Irish Conference to avert split ends in failure involving Collins, Griffith, deValera and Brugha.

18 and 19 May 1922, Collins and deValera meet in secret.

20 May 1922, Collins/deValera election pact announced.

27 May 1922, Collins meets with British officials in London after being summoned to explain pact with de Valera. He provides Draft Irish Constitution to British.

29 May 1922, British reject Draft Constitution.

1 June 1922, Lloyd George issues ultimatum to Free State Government calling for action against Anti-Trearyites.

5 June 1922, Joint Collins/dc Valera appeal to support pact.

16 June 1922, Pact election held. Constitution published.

22 June 1922, Sir Henry Wilson assassinated in London.

26 June 1922,Winston Churchill issues ultimatum demanding that Free State attack Anti-Treatyites in Four Courts.

2 July 1922, Collins covertly sends Tom Cullen to London to plan escape for assassins of Henry Wilson. Effort is abandoned and the two men are subsequently executed by British.

12 July 1922, Provisional Government meets. Collins becomes Commander-in-Chief of Army.

12 August 1922, Arthur Griffith dies.

18 August 1922, Collins is radioed terms of a ceasefire by Anri-Treatyite forces from Cork.

20 August 1922, Collins leaves Dublin ostensibly to conduct military tour of south-west Munster, first to Roscrea, then Limerick, Mallow and Cork.

21 August 1922, Collins tours Cork city and Macroom.

22 August 1922, 6:16 a.m. Collins leaves Cork city for Bandon,Clonakilty and Skibbereen via Macroom.

8 a.m. En route to Bandon via Macroom. Stops at Beal na Blath for directions. Lunch in Clonakilty.

5 p.m. Leaves Skibbereen and heads for Bandon.

7.45 p.m. Collins is killed in ambush near Beal na Blath.