Atlas of the Irish Revolution: Michael Collins and the Intelligence War

Irish army personnel in 1923 at the scene of the shooting of Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth.

In this extract from the Atlas of the Irish Revolution, Michael Foy writes that Michael Collins’s intelligence operations had a reputation for omniscience and, though this was not the case, the myth became a political weapon.

AFTER the rebel surrender in Moore Street, Dublin on 29 April 1916, Volunteer Michael Collins vowed, “By Christ, I’ll have my revenge for this”.

By early 1919, as Irish Volunteers director of intelligence, he — in partnership with Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy and Dublin Brigadier Dick McKee — were clandestinely preparing for renewed war with the British. This triumvirate envisaged a Volunteers intelligence organisation attacking British agents — especially the detectives of the Dublin Metropolitan Police ‘G’ Division — in order to provoke the military conflict they regarded as inevitable.

Assisted by ‘G’ Division moles, such as Ned Broy, Jim Kavanagh, James McNamara and David Neligan, Collins first familiarised himself with the British intelligence system (on which he would model his own intelligence organisation), and then began eliminating its most prominent officers. To decapitate ‘G’ Division, Collins established in mid-July 1919 an execution squad of full-time Irish Volunteers gunmen from McKee’s Dublin Brigade.

Located originally in a private house near Amiens Street, the ‘Squad’ eventually settled in Upper Abbey Street, its secret headquarters disguised as Moreland’s cabinet-makers, upholsterers and builders. Here the Squad posed as carpenters, though always carrying concealed weapons under their white aprons. On 30 July 1919 they assassinated their first ‘G’-man, Patrick Smyth. Dublin Castle finally reacted by suppressing Dáil Éireann on 11 September; that same day Collins had the Squad execute ‘G’ Division’s rising star, Daniel Hoey. Soon afterwards Collins went on the run, the Dáil government departments went underground, and the British government suppressed Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. The Viceroy, Lord French, declared: “We are really at war now”.

Collins and Mulcahy now sent the Irish Volunteers on the offensive. On 19 December the Squad unsuccessfully attempted to kill French at Ashtown railway station. Collins also established a Volunteers General Headquarters (GHQ) Intelligence Department, whose offices, disguised as the Irish Products Company, were located at 3 Crow Street, in the capital’s main banking-and-business district, only about 200 yards from Dublin Castle.

Inside, a dozen business-suited, paid, full-time intelligence officers worked under twenty-four-year-old Deputy Director Liam Tobin, a laconic and exceptionally efficient administrator, Assistant Director Tom Cullen, and Deputy Assistant Director Frank Thornton. Coordinating its activities with the Squad, the Intelligence Department monitored British agents and spies, kept records on enemy personnel, liaised with friendly intelligence sources, and deciphered leaked police telegrams. It also identified the living quarters, workplaces, social haunts and modes of transport of enemy personnel, and monitored their telephone, telegraph and postal communications.

Among the sources were policemen, clerks, typists, waiters, hotel porters, bar staff, railway officials and journalists. Collins never visited Crow Street and instead maintained contact through his assistant Joe O’Reilly, who called twice a day to collect reports and correspondence and deliver Collins’ instructions and replies. Compared with many modern intelligence agencies with massive headquarters, many employees and huge budgets, Collins’ organisation was indeed tiny — almost a shoestring operation.

Face of the revolution

A memorial cross to Michael Collins placed at the scene of his death shortly after he was killed in 1922.
A memorial cross to Michael Collins placed at the scene of his death shortly after he was killed in 1922.

By the end of 1919 the Squad had decimated ‘G’ Division. Three of its nineteen detectives were dead, another permanently disabled, four had retired, two had transferred to ordinary crime, and another three had returned to the uniformed branch. For their protection the survivors retreated into Dublin Castle.

An attempt to rejuvenate ‘G’ Division by importing District Inspector Redmond from Belfast failed when the Squad killed him on 21 January 1920 near Dublin Castle. On 29 February 1920 the Squad also assassinated Jack Byrnes, a spy being run from London by Sir Basil Thomson’s Directorate of Intelligence. However, before his demise Byrnes had achieved for the British the vital intelligence breakthrough of identifying Collins as the mastermind behind the Irish Volunteers’ war effort, and making him the face of the revolution. Another British effort to infiltrate Collins’ inner circle foundered in February 1920 when Henry Quinlisk, a former member of Casement’s Irish Brigade, was executed in Cork. Alan Bell, a former British magistrate who began investigating Collins’ many secret bank accounts, was dragged off a Dublin tram by the Squad and shot dead on 26 March 1920. Bell’s assassination was part of an escalating IRA campaign that was to make 1920 the bloodiest year in Ireland since the 1798 Rebellion.

This deteriorating situation compelled Lloyd George to reconstruct his Irish administration in March 1920 with a new Chief Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, and General Officer Commanding General Nevil Macready. Two months later they received a devastating report on the Irish administration by the head of the British civil service, Sir Warren Fisher. Fisher exposed a decrepit regime dominated by a clique of political reactionaries, with the heads of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police hopelessly isolated, living cooped up in the Castle, their forces demoralised and on the defensive. To revitalise the police Macready appointed General Hugh Tudor as chief of police, and Tudor in turn recruited as his director of intelligence Colonel Ormonde Winter, a former artillery-officer colleague.

The new Irish administration was an uneasy balancing act. Whereas Greenwood was a hawk who wanted a military victory over the Irish Volunteers, Fisher had also drafted into Dublin Castle a team of young talented civil servants, such as Under-secretary Sir John Anderson, Lloyd George’s fixer Alfred (‘Andy’) Cope and Mark Sturgis, who envisaged ultimately a negotiated political compromise with Sinn Féin.

Though Macready was a moderate who envisaged the army holding the line while a political compromise was negotiated with Sinn Féin, both Tudor and Winter were a war party intent on reviving RIC morale, rebuilding its intelligence system and grinding down the IRA. They believed only in a political settlement dictated by a victorious British side, and that defeating the IRA was an essential precondition for a durable peace. Tudor declared: “This country is ruled by gunmen and they must be put down.” In microcosm, this new administration of hawks and doves encapsulated the haphazard nature of British policy in Ireland, a constant fluctuation between repression and conciliation that infuriated many British administrators, policemen and soldiers.

During the summer of 1920 Tudor and an utterly fearless and aggressive Winter took the fight to the IRA, initiating a deadly cycle of assassination and instant retaliation in Ireland. After two policemen were killed in Tuam, County Galway on 20 July, colleagues rampaged through the town threatening to shoot inhabitants, smashing windows, hurling grenades and setting fire to businesses. Although every policeman at Tuam was Irish, many of the killings were attributed to the thousands of former British army officers and soldiers who volunteered for police service in Ireland. Some, quickly nicknamed “Black and Tans”, filled the depleted ranks of the RIC while others were drafted into the Auxiliary Division of the RIC (‘Auxies’) that was established on 27 July 1920. From the ashes of ‘G’ Division Winter also started building from scratch a new intelligence apparatus by first recruiting 150 staff.

Even though the well of police intelligence had run dry, Winter and his associates attributed this to the moral deficiencies of an Irish people, of whose history and way of life they knew little. Regarding them as instinctively violent, insatiably greedy, duplicitous and treacherous, a siege mentality was created in Dublin Castle, with Winter declaring that “There were spies everywhere and a very large percentage of the population was ready to act as extra eyes and ears for Sinn Féin and for the IRA even if they were not prepared to fight for them.” Yet neither the British army nor the police ever established a proper counter-intelligence system.

Coercion and conciliation

Irish soldiers in an armoured car marking the Béal na Bláth anniversary in 1924.
Irish soldiers in an armoured car marking the Béal na Bláth anniversary in 1924.

Whatever Winter’s opinions of the Irish, he realised that the British government’s muddled and inconsistent policy seriously discouraged informers because, while the IRA was openly at war, the British government peddled a fiction that it was simply suppressing a crime wave through the due process of law. Even then it always acted tardily and usually in response to IRA actions. The Restoration of Order in Ireland Act came almost a year after the shooting war began, and mass arrests, internment, deportations, courts martial, curfews and executions were implemented piecemeal and only as the military situation deteriorated. Furthermore, the British government oscillated constantly between coercion and conciliation, first resisting and then capitulating to hunger strikes, refusing to speak to terrorists and then putting out peace feelers and conducting secret negotiations.

This vacillation only confused and demoralised the army and police, and military intelligence became increasingly exasperated by a policy of “stroke and slap”. Furthermore, a dual system of army and police intelligence bedevilled the British war effort to the end, preventing unified control at the top and spawning inter-service rivalry.

Determined to turn the tide of the intelligence war, Winter imported English agents who would exert pressure on the Volunteers GHQ and the Dublin Brigade. Having become obsessed with capturing his rival spy chief, he wanted them, metaphorically, to bring him the head of Michael Collins. The quality of these hurriedly trained agents, however, varied enormously, and none was worse than Frank Digby Hardy, a spectacularly corrupt and incompetent common criminal who attempted to worm his way into Collins’ inner circle. Hardy was quickly rumbled, though, unlike Byrnes and Quinlisk, Collins spared his life; Hardy was more useful instead as a tool in the propaganda war, with newspaper headlines heaping scorn and ridicule on a British intelligence system that would employ such an incorrigible rogue, a system that a ‘G’ Division detective had once described as “the most efficient in the world”.

However, a sustained British military build-up and the burgeoning presence of the Auxiliaries and their intelligence agents threatened to turn the tide of war in the capital; by the autumn of 1920 both the Volunteers GHQ and McKee’s Dublin Brigade were on the defensive. Between July and November 1920 McKee’s lacklustre leadership meant the Dublin IRA failed to mount one attack on the Auxiliaries or kill a single British soldier. Even the Squad settled for pinpricks, such as hijacking a large consignment on its way to Beggar’s Bush Barracks.

But Collins eluded Winter’s efforts to capture him. Despite being the most wanted man in Ireland, Collins, circulated easily among his favourite haunts and Irish government and Volunteers offices, indicative of the collapse of the British intelligence system and the fear or sympathy of Dublin policemen.

‘Murder by the throat’

Emboldened, Lloyd George boasted on 9 November 1920 that he had “murder by the throat” in Ireland. In response Collins decided to eliminate enemy intelligence agents in one massive swoop, a gamble that required absolute secrecy, meticulous planning and ruthless execution.

Volunteers GHQ intelligence spent six weeks compiling dossiers on the new British spies in Dublin before recommending the assassination of nearly sixty British intelligence officers at twenty locations. Collins decided on a single strike on a single day, one that he delegated to McKee’s Dublin Brigade, where the detailed planning was undertaken by Seán Russell, commandant of the 2nd Battalion. Russell mobilised the Squad and over a hundred Volunteers. Since British agents — many living undercover in Georgian residences near St Stephen’s Green — were predominantly nocturnal creatures, Russell decided to strike on a Sunday morning, when people slept late and assassination units were most likely to surprise armed and experienced enemy officers.

Collins was disappointed at the tally of executions on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 21 November 1920. Some targets were unexpectedly absent, but other planned actions failed due to the incompetence or lack of enthusiasm of Volunteers. Furthermore, not all of the fifteen British dead and four wounded were intelligence agents, and many agents had escaped or were now on their guard, making a repetition of Bloody Sunday impossible. Even so, the event was a remarkable achievement by Collins and sent a seismic shock wave through the British political system, shaking public faith in the government’s Irish policy and forcing Lloyd George to reassess his goals in Ireland. Soon, peace feelers went out to Sinn Féin, making Bloody Sunday the tipping point of the war.

In the short term, however, there was a heightened struggle in Dublin, where constant British searches and dragnets threatened to flush out the Squad. Volunteers GHQ intelligence officers also felt the heat. But the Dublin Brigade could not retaliate effectively since many officers were under arrest and most of its 1,500 Volunteers were in hiding. The brigade was also flat broke. Collins also considered retaliating against the upper reaches of the British political establishment. The assassination of Lloyd George was mooted in the IRA though never sanctioned, while Collins rejected the idea of bombing crowds leaving London theatres.

Despite Bloody Sunday, British intelligence remained optimistic. Using captured IRA papers, the British army rapidly interned over 500 suspects, and by the Truce of July 1921 4,000 men had been incarcerated. At the end of December 1920 Winter took over the Special Branch and became director of intelligence for the Crown forces, but still the British intelligence system remained dysfunctional. Many Special Branch officers resented being subsumed into a larger police organisation, and Macready’s GHQ intelligence section was left untouched, leaving intact an inherently inefficient dual military/police system. Chief Secretary Greenwood was not worried because he thought the war would soon be over, but the need for unified control at Dublin Castle was undeniable. However, the administrative-machine’s innate conservatism smothered reform.

By the end of 1920 Collins’ ‘G’ Division sources had also become wasting assets, especially after Broy was arrested on 17 February 1921. Furthermore, British raiding forced many Volunteers to go on the run following the capture of eight Dáil and Volunteers GHQ offices, the Dublin Brigade’s main weapons workshop, and the Republican Police headquarters. By 1921 the British had also identified nearly every Dublin Brigade officer, many of whom they arrested, imprisoned or interned. By the first week of May 1921, besides those in prison, nineteen IRA brigade commanders, fifty-three brigade staff officers, seventy-seven battalion commanders, 182 battalion staff officers, 1,407 company officers and 1,596 other ranks were interned.

During the early part of 1921 the Dublin struggle intensified, and on 25 May 1921 the Dublin Brigade attacked the Custom House, “the administrative heart of the British Civil Service machine”. Its four floors contained numerous offices belonging to the Local Government Board and Inland Revenue and over 100 staff. However, Auxiliary parties were in the area and in the ensuing gun battle the IRA suffered severe losses, with five Volunteers dead and eighty captured. Most of the Squad was also apprehended. Although a setback for the IRA, the Custom House operation was, on a smaller scale, as significant as the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, a military catastrophe for the US that drained its commitment to an apparently endless war. Just as Tet was quickly followed by the Paris peace negotiations, so the Custom House attack was a prelude to the Truce of 11 July 1921.

Exceeding its limited resources

Michael Collins lying in hospital after being shot dead at Béal na Bláth.
Michael Collins lying in hospital after being shot dead at Béal na Bláth.

Throughout the War of Independence Collins was acutely aware of the struggle’s unequal nature, with the gap between the resources of the British and Irish so wide that a military victory by the Irish Volunteers was unattainable, and the best that could be hoped for was achieving a dignified British withdrawal. This, Collins believed, could be realised by crippling the British intelligence system and compensating, in large part, for the IRA’s military inferiority. Decimating ‘G’ Division eliminated the best ‘G’-men, along with their knowledge, expertise and contacts (forcing Winter to start all over again in 1920), and frightening off informers also stemmed the flow of information to the enemy. Furthermore, the fear inspired by the Squad permeated every branch of the Irish administration, right up to the highest levels in Dublin Castle. The abnormal insecurity in which Collins enveloped the British elite in Ireland, the psychological pressures they suffered, and the transparent nonsense of any British claims about restoring normality undoubtedly contributed to the Truce.

As was the case with ‘G’ Division itself (which Collins emulated and finally superseded), his organisation far exceeded its limited resources in its power and impact on the enemy. However, he never penetrated the higher echelons of the British political, military and police system in Ireland. IRA agents like Broy and Neligan were junior figures in the bureaucratic hierarchy, whose main value lay in their access to confidential documents and information about colleagues and superiors. As far as we know, Collins never recruited a single important member of the Irish administration – political, military or police. His intelligence system was most useful on the tactical, rather than the strategic, level. Frequently, it enabled him to put the British on the defensive or outwit them either by frustrating their planned operations and raids or facilitating daring Irish operations, such as Bloody Sunday or the attack on the Custom House.

While in purely military power and resources the British were infinitely superior in the intelligence field, the position for most of the war was substantially reversed, significantly neutralising Britain’s military advantages. That was not in itself a decisive factor in the armed conflict. Indeed, by the time of the Truce of July 1921, the IRA was effectively beaten in Dublin, while in Cork the situation had reached stalemate. But the political and propaganda impact of events like Bloody Sunday in particular, and that of Collins’ intelligence system in general, had proved enormous. The myth of the omniscience of Collins’ intelligence system far outstripped the reality, but the myth itself became Collins’ most powerful political weapon.

The death of Michael Collins: How it happened

Atlas of the Irish Revolution: Michael Collins and the Intelligence War

While an ambush was in place earlier that day, it had just been stood down in the belief that the convoy would not arrive. What Collins’ convoy encountered at Béal na Bláth was a small group of anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) Volunteers sent to clear the road after the ambush party had left the site.

When the lookout saw the approaching convoy, he fired warning shots. The clearing party then opened fire on the convoy, partly to protect the main ambush party en route to Long’s public house. After the initial engagement, a number of the Volunteers ran south along the track. On hearing the warning shots, Collins chose to stop and fight, going against the advice of Emmet Dalton; had they driven on they would have been forced to stop anyway due to the convoy ahead having halted, but Collins would have been less exposed.

The anti-Treaty Volunteers continued to move along the track towards Collins, but were pinned down by machine gunfire from the armoured car. The machine gun then jammed, which provided the anti-Treaty force with an opportunity to escape, using the approach to Long’s Lane.

Collins moved to the back of the armoured car and then further south to get a better firing position, and stood in the middle of the road, presumably believing the attackers were making their escape up the laneway.

The IRA, knowing how exposed they were, covered the retreat, and it was this action that resulted in the killing of Collins. Smyth, the outrider, having made his way down the full length of the ambush site to attend Collins, was shot in the neck.

[Sources: All relevant published and available unpublished sources were consulted in the preparation of this map, combined with a survey of the site and utilisation of the OSI. Most of the key sources are listed and assessed in D. Lenihan, ‘The Death of Michael Collins: who pulled the trigger?’, Feb. 2014]

  • Atlas of the Irish Revolution, edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo is published by Cork University Press, available from all good bookshops and online, price €59.00.

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