In the first of a two-part series based on his forthcoming book, ‘Michael Collins and the Civil War’, Ryle Dwyer gives a deep insight into why the Big Fellow is often depicted as an architect of modern urban terrorism and how his attempt to secure southern unity spiralled into an orgy of murder and mayhem.
AFTER the Anglo-Irish Treaty was accepted by Dáil Éireann, Michael Collins and his team of ministers for the new provisional government went to Dublin Castle on Jan 16, 1922. Officially, they were there to receive their commissions from the lord lieutenant.
Inside the castle the heads of the various departments met their new political bosses in the under-secretary’s room. Collins formally handed the resolution approving the treaty to the lord lieutenant, who delivered a short address. Collins did not deliver a formal reply. Instead, he bounded from the castle into his taxi and returned to the Mansion House, where heissued a statement.
“All public servants would be retained in the offices for the present, and would continue to carry out their functions, unless otherwise directed,” he announced.
Although he had been commissioned as chairman of the provisional government by the representative of the British king, Collins made no mention of this, but put his own particular spin on the proceedings.
“Members of Rialtas Sealadacht na hÉireann received the surrender of Dublin Castle at 1.45pm today,” he announced. “It is now in the hands of the Irish nation.”
Thereafter, even the historians would refer to what happened that day as “the surrender of Dublin Castle”.
The British actually retained Dublin Castle for many months more. A garrison of the royal corps of engineers remained there until August, when the whole place was handed over without any fanfare, just days before Collins was killed.
In Jan 1922, the partition issue began to figure more prominently as a political issue. This was ironic because it had been very much in the background throughout the 26 counties ever since the previous August when president Éamon de Valera warned members of the Dáil that they would have to accept a form of partition.
“The minority in Ulster had a right to have their sentiments considered to the utmost limit,” de Valera told a private session of the Dáil on Aug 22, 1921. If the republic was recognised he would be in favour of giving each county power to vote itself out of the republic if it so wished.
He wanted counties Fermanagh and Tyrone — which had Catholic nationalist majorities — to have the right to opt out of Northern Ireland. Attempting to force the majority in the rest of Northern Ireland into a united Ireland would, he warned, be the same mistake that the British had made with the Irish people as a whole.
The 1921 Treaty applied to the 32 counties of Ireland, even though the northern unionists were not even consulted. A provision was included, however, giving the North the right to withdraw from the united Ireland within a month of the ratification of treaty. In that event, however, a boundary commission would be set up to redraw the border “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may compatible with economic and geographic conditions”.
The treaty had the potential of being even more favourable than the county- option advocated by de Valera the previous August, because in addition to Fermanagh and Tyrone, the boundary commission could also transfer other contiguous areas such as the city of Derry, and the southern portions of Armagh and Down.
Shorn of so much territory, Collins argued that the remainder of Northern Ireland would become an unviable economic entity. Hence, he contended, the treaty contained the means to end partition, and this probably explains why the partition issue was essentially ignored during the treaty debate.
In his quest for nationalist support of the treaty, Collins was undoubtedly assisted by the shrieks of indignation from Northern loyalists, who felt grossly betrayed by the British. They objected to the agreement even more indignantly than de Valera and his followers. “We protest against the declared intention of your government to place Northern Ireland automatically in the Irish Free State,” James Craig, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, wrote to Lloyd George. “It is true that Ulster is given the right to contract out, but she can only do so after automatic inclusion in the Irish Free State.”
The boundary commission would likely transfer Fermanagh and Tyrone to the Irish Free State, Lloyd George told the House of Commons.
“There is no doubt, certainly since the act of 1920, that the majority of the people of the two counties prefer being with their Southern neighbours to being in the Northern parliament,” he said. “What does that mean? If Ulster is to remain a separate community, you can only by means of coercion keep them there, and although I am against the coercion of Ulster, I do not believe in Ulster coercing other units.”
Shortly after his appointment as chairman of the provisional government, Collins met with Craig in London. They apparently got on well. For three hours they discussed various issues affecting the future of the island.
They decided to try to settle the boundary issue by mutual agreement. Convinced that large areas of Northern Ireland would be handed to the Free State, Collins hoped that Craig could be persuaded to come to an all-Irish agreement with safeguards to protect the interests of Northern Protestants.
They agreed to a further meeting in Ireland to discuss the release of prisoners. Collins was particularly concerned about the fate of three prisoners sentence to hang on Feb 9 for their part in the killing of two special constables in Derry Jail during an escape attempt on Dec 2, 1921.
The Big Fellow was also concerned about the imprisonment of 10 “Monaghan footballers”, who had been arrested in Dromore on the way to a football game in Derry on Jan 14, 1922. Dan Hogan — a brother of Mick Hogan, the Tipperary footballer killed on the field in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday — was commandant of the 5th Northern Division of the IRA. He and the nine other “Monaghan footballers” were caught with documents betraying their real intent, which was to spring three men under sentence of death in Derry Jail.
Eoin O’Duffy — who became chief of staff of the IRA in Jan 1922, following the appointment of Richard Mulcahy as minister for defence — was determined to save the men. He proposed taking 100 unionists hostage to stop the two executions.
The British initiated the practice of hostage taking. Back in May 1920 when they changed their administration at Dublin Castle, Field Marshall Henry Wilson, the chief of imperial general staff, wanted the cabinet to authorise the British forces “to collect the names of Sinn Féiners by districts; proclaim them on church doors all over the country; and whenever a policeman is murdered, pick five by lot and shoot them”.
One could hardly imagine anything more likely to provoke the ire of Irish people than defiling their churches in such a barbarous manner.
“After a person is caught he should pay the penalty within a week. Look at the tribunals which the Russian government have devised,” Winston Churchill, the minister for war proclaimed.
“You should get three or four judges whose scope should be universal and they should move quickly over the country and do summary justice.
“Why not make life intolerable in a particular area?”
It was ironic that he, of all people, should have privately advocated emulating the Bolshevik system, against which he railed in his public speeches during the coming decades.
WHEN the Black and Tans behaved like Bolsheviks, Field Marshall Wilson was horrified — not at their behaviour but at the failure of the British cabinet to take responsibility for the actions of the troops, who were essentially allowed to take indiscriminate reprisals.
“This must lead to chaos and ruin,” Wilson warned prime minister Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party.
“These reprisals were carried out without anybody being responsible; men were murdered, houses burnt, villages wrecked (such as Balbriggan, Ennistymon, Trim, etc),” Wilson insisted. “If these men ought to be murdered, then the government ought to murder them.”
“Lloyd George danced at all this,” Wilson noted. The prime minister “said no government could possibly take this responsibility”.
Churchill, who was not renowned for his political sagacity or sound military judgement at this stage of his career, tended to side with Wilson. “The government must shoulder the responsibility for reprisals,” he wrote.
He agreed with the field marshall’s reprehensible scheme to engage in reprisals by roster.
“You have been right all along,” Churchill told Wilson on Oct 13, 1920.
The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries initiated the practice of picking up people in the streets and taking them on their lories as hostages. This was done with the full knowledge of the British cabinet. General Nevil Macready, the commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, reported to the cabinet, for instance, that a raid on the office of IRA chief of staff Richard Mulcahy netted firm evidence that the practice of taking hostages had been fruitful.
“It is of interest to know from some of the documents captured in Mulcahy’s office,” Macready informed the cabinet on Feb 8, 1921, that a “battalion commander reported he had found some difficulty in overcoming the objections of his men to fire on lorries carrying hostages”.
A year later, therefore, the IRA were essentially emulating the British tactics in trying to protect the three men under sentence of death of Derry.
“I have arranged for the kidnapping of 100 prominent Orangemen in counties Fermanagh and Tyrone,” O’Duffy wrote to Collins on Jan 30, 1922.
Collins had actually come to the fore within the republican movement as part of a four-man delegation sent to London to try to interview the American president Woodrow Wilson on his way to the Paris peace talks in Dec 1918. When Wilson refused to meet them, Collins advocated kidnapping the American president in order to make him listen.
Maybe the Big Fellow was just letting off steam, but at that stage of his career, most of his colleagues feared that he was too extreme. That was why they selected Richard Mulcahy over him as chief of staff of the volunteers in Mar 1918.
The 100 kidnappings advocated by Eoin O’Duffy were delayed for a week while Collins was in London for talks with the British government. Collins not only went along with O’Duffy’s kidnapping plans, but added a crazy touch of his own by sending two members of his old squad — Joe Dolan and Charlie Byrne — to England to murder the hangman John Ellis and his assistant William Willis.
Dolan went to the Rochdale home of Ellis, who had hanged Roger Casement.
“I walked up to the door alone and knocked at the door, which was opened by Mrs Ellis,” Dolan recalled. She said her husband was not there. “I did not believe her at the time. I forced my way into the house and looked around. There was no one there and I had to accept her assurance that he had left already for Ireland.”
Willis had also probably left, but Charlie Byrne’s car broke down on the way to his home. The mission was therefore aborted.
O’Duffy sent IRA units across the border on Feb 7. They met more resistance than expected but still seized 43 Unionists and brought them back across the border as hostages to stop the three executions in Derry.
The British government had actually commuted the three death sentences some hour earlier, but word had not reached the IRA men before they went into action.
Although the IRA managed to kidnap less than half of their targets, the operation generated enormous panic among the unionists, many of whom went into hiding. Capt Charles Craig, a brother of the prime minister of Northern Ireland, suggested next day in the House of Commons in London that as many as 200 hostages had been taken.
* This article is based on Ryle Dwyer’s research for his forthcoming book, Michael Collins and the Civil War to be published by Mercier Press this month.
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