Michael Collins and his squad were waging war against British police.
HENRY Timothy Quinlisk’s letter offering to betray Michael Collins, which is up for auction in April, has been the subject of much hype, distorting the historical implications of the document.
It was absurd of the auctioneer to suggest on television that Quinlisk went to Cork to collect a £10,000 reward for betraying Collins, as there was no such reward on offer. Moreover, the contents of the letter have been known for decades.
Piaras Béaslaí published a full facsimile photograph of the one-page letter opposite page 400 in his 1926 biography of Collins. It was not Quinlisk’s letter of Nov 11, 1919, that sealed his fate but what he did in the following months.
Quinlisk was born in Wexford in 1895 and grew up there before the family moved to Waterford, where he was living when he joined the Royal Irish Regiment in 1911. Captured by the Germans in Oct 1914, he was the first prisoner recruited to join Roger Casement’s Irish Brigade in Germany on Dec 6, 1914. When he returned to Ireland after the war, Quinlisk was readily accepted in Sinn Féin circles. As a result of his association with the Irish Brigade, however, he was denied back pay for the period of his imprisonment in Germany. Collins therefore helped him fin-ancially, but he wanted more cash.
“I have decided to tell all I know of that organisation and my information would be of use to the authorities,” Quinlisk wrote to the undersecretary at Dublin Castle.
He was brought to G Division headquarters of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) to make a statement. Ned Broy provided Collins with a copy of this statement, but Quinlisk took the precaution of telling Collins that he had gone to DMP merely to get a passport so he could emigrate to the US.
He said the police put pressure on him to inform on Collins, offering money and promising to make arrangements for him to receive his wartime back pay. Quinlisk told Collins he was merely pretending to go along with police.
Collins subsequently watched the DMP raid 44 Mountjoy St, where he frequently stayed. Thereafter, he kept well away from Quinlisk, who was told that Dublin had become so hot for the Big Fellow that he had moved to Cork.
Collins’ Squad tried to use Quinlisk as bait to get at Detective Supt Owen Brien, whom they had been trying to kill for some time, but Brien rarely moved outside the walls of Dublin Castle.
Seán Ó Muirthile was assigned to keep Quinlisk busy, while one of the squad telephoned the Castle to say Quinlisk had vital information and would meet Brien at a specific time at the Evening Mail building, just outside the Castle.
Brien turned up but something spooked him before the squad could get a shot at him, and he darted back into the cover of Dublin Castle.
Collins learned afterwards that Brien suspected he was being set up by Quinlisk, who explained that he had been detained all night by Ó Muirthile.
“You’re in the soup,” Collins told Ó Muirthile with a laugh.
Quinlisk should have had the good sense to quit at that point, but he persisted in trying to meet Collins. He was told Collins would meet him at Mrs Wren’s Hotel in Cork City.
Liam Archer, the Big Fellow’s spy in the telegraph headquarters in Dublin, intercepted a lengthy telegram from the inspector general of the RIC to the county inspector in Cork.
“Tonight at midnight surround Wren’s Hotel, Winthrop St, Cork,” the coded message read. “Collins and others will be there. Expect shooting as he is a dangerous man and heavily armed.”
The telegram added that Collins should be taken dead or alive. That was what sealed Quinlisk’s fate, not the letter offering his services.
“That fucker has signed his death warrant,” Collins told Archer.
Even after the raid on Wren’s Hotel turned up nothing, Quinlisk persisted. A member of the Cork No 1 Brigade of the IRA met Quinlisk in Cork on the night of Feb 18, 1920, promising to take him to Collins.
They took Quinlisk out to Ballyphehane and put 11 bullets in him — six to the head and five to the body.
“The medical evidence was that they could not have been self-inflicted,” the Cork Examiner concluded.
*Ryle Dwyer is author of The Squad, published by Mercier Press.