It’s 100 years since the specialised unit of IRA assassins undertook their first operation. Ryle Dwyer looks at the early days of a group who’d have a crucial role in the struggle
TOMORROW marks the centenary of the first operation of The Squad, which was arguably the most successful rebel group working within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the War of Independence.
It helped to clear the way for Michael Collins to expand the struggle for independence into a military confrontation with the British.
“All ordinary peaceful means are ended and we shall be taking the only alternative actions in a short while now,” Collins wrote to Austin Stack, after organising Éamon de Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail in February 1919.
“We mean to make a public declaration before starting.”
The struggle was entering a new phase, and Collins planned for the movement to take up where it had left off in 1916. Collins hoped that de Valera would lead this military struggle against the British.
After his election as president of Sinn Féin in 1917, de Valera had promised to “draw the naked sword” in order to compel the British to do likewise. But he had since come to believe that Ireland’s best chance of success was to get the Americans to promote the rights of small nations, for which the United States had supposedly gone to war in 1917.
He therefore decided to go the United States, to campaign publicly for popular American support. “My own idea is that I should be allowed to go to America, where I could come out in the open,’ de Valera explained.
“You know what it is to argue with Dev,” Collins told a friend.
History books tell us that the War of Independence began in January 1919, but there were very few military operations during the early months; it was nothing like a war.
de Valera deliberately frustrated the plans of Collins to provoke a confrontation with the British. Hence, it was not until after the Long Fellow went to the US in June 1919, that Collins gradually managed have his way.
Defence minister Cathal Brugha and IRA chief of staff Richard Mulcahy authorised the killing of a detective in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). Many policemen had been resigning, because they were being socially ostracised by the Irish public, but those nearing retirement were too old to find other employment. They stayed on keeping their heads down and ignoring political activities.
Detective Sergeant Patrick Smyth, on the other hand, was a thorn in the side of Republicans. He was warned on a number of occasions “to lay off republicans, or he would be shot”, but he had ignored the warnings.
After arresting Piaras Beaslaí for a seditious speech, he found incriminating documents on him. Collins and Harry Boland told Smyth not to produce those documents in court.
“I’m not letting any young scuts tell me how to do my duty,” Smyth declared in defiance. He produced the documents in courts, and Beaslaí was sentenced to two years in jail, instead of the two months he might otherwise have expected.
In mid-July, a group of the IRA men met at 35 North Great George’s St. Dick McKee and Mick McDonnell took charge of the meeting.
“They picked out a number of us and took us to an inner room,” Jim Slattery recalled. “McKee addressed those of us who had been selected and asked us if we had any objection to shooting enemy agents. The greater number of Volunteers objected for one reason or another.
“I said I was prepared to obey orders,” Slattery added. Among the others to agree that night were Tom Keogh, Tom Kilcoyne, and Joe Leonard.
“We were merely told that we were to be given special duties,” according to Slattery.
McDonnell then told them to kill Smyth, who was living in Millmount Avenue in north Dublin. A native of Dromard, Co Longford, Smyth — who was in his early 50s — was one of the police who had helped the British to identify the leaders of the Easter Rebellion.
“McDonnell instructed me to go to Drumcondra Bridge and take with me Tom Keogh, Tom Ennis and Mick Kennedy, who knew Smyth by sight,” Slattery noted.
Smyth usually went home by tram, alighting at Botanic Avenue, and then walking across the Drumcondra Bridge.
“We were to wait at the bridge and shoot Smyth when the opportunity offered,” he explained. They waited for about five nights.
When he came along they did not strike, because Kennedy were not sure it was Smyth. They expected Smyth to turn into Millmount Avenue where he lived, but he passed the entrance and walked to Milburn Avenue, which was adjacent to his home.
It was too late to act before his would-be assassins realised what had happened. Fearing that Smyth’s suspicions had been roused, they did not come back for about a week, until the night of July 30, 1919.
Armed with .38 revolvers, they expected Smyth to fall once shot.
“But after we hit him he ran,” Slattery noted. “The four of us fired at him. Keogh and myself ran after him right to his own door and I think he fell at the door, but he got into the house.”
Smyth told colleagues: “When I got off the tram at the end of my own avenue, I saw four or five men against the dead wall, and a bicycle resting against the curb stone.
He usually carried a revolver but did not have it on him that night, so he was unable to put up a fight. Even though one bullet hit his right leg, he managed to run to his home.
“They pursued me to within 15 yards of my own door, and kept firing at me all the time. In all about 10 or 12 shots were fired at me,” he said.
“I called for assistance but no one came to me except my own son.”
Smyth’s teenage son, Thomas, was nearby and witnessed the attack. His father was hit by four bullets — the most serious of which entered his back, passed through a lung, and lodged in his chest, just above his heart.
“We had made a right mess of the job,” McDonnell complained. Smyth was actually mortally wounded, but he survived for five weeks before succumbing to his wounds.
“I can assure you, I was more worried until Smyth died than Mick was,” Slattery said. “We never used .38 guns again; we used .45 guns after that lesson.”
Smyth died on the afternoon of September 8, 1919. The British administration at Dublin Castle overreacted and played directly into the hands of Michael Collins. He would henceforth have little difficulty in outmanoeuvring Sinn Féin moderates, and thus undermining the checks de Valera had placed on the militants.
Back in mid-May 1919, Ian Macpherson, the chief secretary for Ireland, had tried to ban Sinn Féin, the IRA, Gaelic League, and Cumann na mBan.
“It means open war with all its horrible consequences,” he told Bonar Law and Edward Carson, the two staunchest unionist ministers.
They thought this would be a mistake. “To proclaim Sinn Féin means putting an end to the whole political life of southern Ireland and that could not be effectively done,” Law warned.
In the circumstances, Macpherson had to back off. Following Smyth’s death, however, Dublin Castle implemented those drastic measures the chief secretary predicted would amount to “open war” about four months earlier.
THE Dublin Castle regime was “almost woodenly stupid and quite devoid of imagination”, the head of the British civil service, Warren Fisher, later concluded. He was appalled by the folly of banning Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan.
“Imagine the result on public opinion in Great Britain of a similar act by the executive towards a political party, or the women’s suffrage movement,” Fisher exclaimed.
The DMP raided Sinn Féin headquarters at 6 Harcourt St on September 12, 1919. Michael Collins was in the building when the police arrived at 10.30am, backed up by two army lorries with British soldiers.
“We had no warning of this raid at all,” Eiblín Lawless, one of the young women secretaries recalled. “Collins was upstairs in our room.”
JJ “Ginger” O’Connell had come in to talk to Collins and left door open as he left the room. “I was getting up to shut it when I saw a policeman standing on guard outside,” Lawless said. “I shut the door and told Mick it looked like a raid.
“I think only Mick was armed,” she continued.
The police began a systematic search from the ground floor up. By the time they reached the office, “we had disposed of everything and they found nothing of any importance”, Lawless explained.
“They searched the men but not us. There was no means of escape,” she noted.
The military was guarding the front and back of the building, and the police had locked the front door and were not letting anyone in or out.
“We are caught like rats in a trap and there is no escape,” Collins said. He sat at his desk, quite calm and collected. Detective Inspector Neil McFeely came into the room and went round searching the different desks.
“Mick sat very casually on his desk with one leg swinging and told him in no measured terms what sort of work he was engaged on. He was scathing in his remarks,” she added.
McFeely had recently been promoted to inspector in charge of political duty. “He was about the least efficient officer that could be allocated to such work,” according to Ned Broy, who was Collins’s man within the DMP.
Ordered to raid No 6 Harcourt St, the inspector was told to arrest the likes of the Sinn Féin national secretary, Paudeen O’Keeffe, but nobody suggested Collins, because they would not have thought he might be at the party headquarters.
McFeely did not know Collins, and apparently assumed he unlikely to be of much importance, working upstairs with a group of women.
Broy had advised Collins that McFeely had been a staunch home ruler and would be very uneasy if told that his activities against Sinn Féin were “sowing up disgrace for himself, his family and descendants for years to come”.
Thus, when the detective inspector tried to question him, Collins responded with a torrent of abuse.
“A nice job you’re got, spying on your countrymen,” Collins snapped. “What sort of a legacy will you leave to your family, looking for blood money? Could you not find some honest work to do?
“The inspector was writhing under the attack,” according to Lawless. After the police searched the top floor, Collins managed to slip upstairs. “It was Mick’s coolness that saved him,” Lawless concluded.
Other police came into the office later but did not question any of the women. “It was only by almost a miracle I was not landed,” Collins wrote next day.
“The particular detective who came into the room where I was did not know me. There is going to be serious trouble,” McFeely told a colleague afterwards, if they were all as extreme as the young clerk he met at Sinn Féin headquarters. “There is plenty of trouble coming.”
Detective Constable Daniel Hoey, a native of King’s County (now Offaly), would have recognised Collins if he had got the chance to see him, but he would not get another chance.
“They very nearly got the man we want to guard,” McDonnell told Jim Slattery that evening. It was therefore “very urgent” that they kill Hoey as soon as possible, “because he was the leading spirit in the raiders”.
Hoey would be going off duty at about ten o’clock, so Tom Ennis, McDonnell, and Slattery walked to vicinity of the DMP detective division headquarters on Townsend St. They saw Hoey crossing from College St, and they shot him.
He was dead on arrival at Mercer’s Hospital. He was the Squad’s second victim.
Ryle Dwyer is author of The Squad: and the intelligence operations of Michael Collins, published in paperback by Mercier Press.