Tracing familiar ground on Michael Collins’ hit-squad

Tim Pat Coogan’s new book on Michael Collins’ hit-squad during the War of Independence is entitled The Twelve Apostles. In fact, members of the squad never referred to themselves in that way, says Ryle Dwyer

WHILE there is not much new material in Tim Pat Coogan’s latest book, The Twelve Apostles, he does have some interesting insights on his interviews with people involved in the story, and he throws some light on the subsequent troubled careers of some of the members of the Squad.

The book is well-written and, indeed, an easier read than some of his earlier books, especially with its somewhat larger type and generous spacing.

Mr Coogan is undoubtedly “Ireland’s best-known historical writer,” as claimed on the dust jacket. I have long marvelled at his ability to promote his own books. We have crossed swords a few times, because I have been critical of his constant disparaging remarks about Éamon de Valera, who did undoubtedly make some monumental mistakes, but also had real accomplishments that should be recognised.

Before the author wrote his biographies of either Michael Collins or de Valera, I had written a full-length biography of de Valera and two of the three books I have written on the life of Collins. Those effectively constitute a three volume biography.

“There are the makings of one or more full-scale works which would do justice to the man’s obvious talent,” he wrote in a review of one of my books. So I can understand Mr Coogan’s attitude. It seems ironic now, however, that I have covered most of the material in his latest book in two books of my own, The Squad, and Tans, Terror and Troubles.

Just before Christmas in 1998 he wrote a particularly critical review of my Big Fellow, Long Fellow, a joint biography of de Valera and Collins. “I had already established some years ago that de Valera’s ego, formed no doubt in childhood insecurity, was a prime factor in the conduct of the Civil War,” Mr Coogan wrote in his review.

Three different newspaper editors called me and suggested I should respond if possible, because they felt there was an insinuation that I had plagiarised Mr Coogan. He had indeed written what he claimed, but when he wrote it on page 207 of his 1993 biography, he was actually quoting my 1988 biography of de Valera as his source.

[timgcap=Eamon de Valera]EamonnDeValera_large.jpg[/timcap]

He gave me full credit in the text and the notes. Moreover, within a week of the publication of his review, my new book actually sold out. The publisher credited the run on the book to Mr Coogan’s review, thereby verifying the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Members of the Squad did not call themselves “Apostles” and some people will no doubt find the use of the term “Twelve Apostles” as the title of this latest book both unwarranted and offensive. Ironically, the author notes that there were seven members when the Squad was established on a part-time basis, and this was expanded to 11 when it was set up full-time. Nine others were later added, but nobody has ever identified when, if ever, there were exactly 12 members.

Instead of focusing properly on the Squad, Mr Coogan meanders in various directions. A considerable amount of material relates to de Valera, Austin Stack, and also to Kerry, with which the Squad had no involvement. My Tans, Terror and Troubles deals with the events in Kerry, so I am familiar with that part of his story, about which he often gets his extraneous facts seriously twisted.

It is well-known that Stack and Collins did not get on, but it was not always so, as the author would have readers believe. Collins treasured the opinions of Stack for a time, and actually went out of his way to arrange Stack’s escape from Strangeways prison in Manchester in October 1919.

Problems between them only developed after Collins was instrumental in having Stack appointed Deputy Chief of Staff of the IRA. From that day until the Truce in July 1921, Stack never even attended any meeting of the headquarters staff.

Following the Truce, Stack was replaced by Eoin O’Duffy as Deputy Chief of Staff,

much to the annoyance of de Valera. As usual, Mr Coogan seems to go out of his way to attack de Valera. He quotes one author as describing de Valera’s failure to take part in the Treaty negotiations as one of “the most cowardly political acts in history.” Mr Coogan goes on to accuse the Long Fellow of essentially trying to set up a new army in order to undermine Collins a week before the Treaty was signed.

The point at issue at that meeting of November 25, 1921 was not the establishment of a new army; de Valera was attempting to have Stack appointed joint Deputy Chief of Staff, along with Eoin O’Duffy. The headquarters staff flatly rejected Stack, and it was this which provoked de Valera’s hysterics. “Ye may mutiny if ye like,” he screamed, “but Ireland will give me another Army!”

The author goes into considerable detail about events in Kerry “following Kevin Barry’s death.” He states that, in response to Barry’s execution, the IRA in Tralee killed two RIC men in the midst of a wave of retaliations. One was actually a Black and Tan, but both were killed on the eve of Barry’s execution, not after it.

Their deaths provoked a Black and Tan backlash in Tralee that attracted considerable international publicity. The Montreal Gazette did comment on the events in Tralee, but the quotation that Mr Coogan attributes to it, was actually from the Freeman’s Journal in this country.

In the two months after the Free State troops landed in Kerry during the Civil War, the author notes that “thirty-five government soldiers were killed — the same number as the total number of RIC fatalities in the county for the entire Anglo-Irish war.” Of course, this fits neatly with the arguments of those ignorant critics who contend that little happened in Kerry during the War of Independence.

I have never counted the number of RIC killed, but 35 seems a bit high, because there was a good reason for the paucity of killings. Mr Coogan alluded to one reason when he covers the Listowel mutiny in June 1920. The RIC Divisional Commissioner Bryce (not Bruce) Smyth told the local RIC that they should have no compunctions about shooting suspicious-looking people, even people walking with their hands in their pockets.

Tracing familiar ground on Michael Collins’ hit-squad

Constable Jeremiah Mee was so incensed that he resigned on the spot and castigated Smyth, who promptly, ordered Mee’s arrest. But Mee’s colleagues supported him, and Smyth had to back off.

Tadhg Kennedy, the IRA Intelligence Office for Kerry, had worked in Dublin for some months with Michael Collins, before returning to Tralee in October 1920. “Practically all the RIC with few exceptions were on our side,” he noted. The RIC County Inspector, District Inspector, and Crimes Special Sergeant in Tralee were all supplying Kennedy with information. This, and the Listowel mutiny, explains why so few RIC men were targeted in Kerry.

Admittedly these matters really had nothing to do with the members of the Squad — the real subject of the book. The book is an interesting read, but it is about much more than the title suggests.

Ryle Dwyer is the author of The Squad and Tans, Terror and Troubles, published by Mercier Press.

The Twelve Apostles Michael Collins, the Squad and Ireland’s Fight for Freedom - Tim Pat Coogan, Head of Zeus, £18.99


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