The popular remembrance of the Irish War of Independence is wrapped up tight around the conflict that was waged on the streets of Dublin, perceived as a cloak and dagger fight between two competing intelligence services, more akin to a film noir story than a military contest. Assassinations, raids in the dead of night, infiltration of secure archives, double-agents, the war in Dublin had them all, but the truth of what occurred in the capital between 1919 and 1921 is a bit more complex than the shadow war Neil Jordan depicted in 1996. But one thing is certainly true, and that is that the Dublin theatre revolved around Michael Collins.
When the war broke out, Collins was already fulfilling several roles. He was TD for Cork South, Minister of Home Affairs (soon to be moved to Finance), and would also been appointed to be the Director of Organisation for the Volunteers, not to mention his assumption of the IRB’s Presidency in the summer of 1919. But it was as the Volunteer Director of Intelligence, a position he was appointed to in mid-1919 (though it was merely a formal title for a job he had been doing for a while), that Collins would find his greatest use for the cause.
As was recognised, the intelligence war was a vital component to any effort to unseat British power in Ireland. The history of Irish rebellions against British rule, especially from 1798 onwards, was one dominated by the thorny issue of “informers”, and the administrations ability to infiltrate various nationalist organisations at will. Collins and others were determined to reverse this trend, embarking on a counter-intelligence struggle from the early days of the war, one that had two broad aims: to disrupt, neutralise and otherwise eliminate the British government’s intelligence service, and to acquire information themselves to the point that it would be of practical use when planning their own operations. In this, Collins and his confederates would practically be starting from scratch. The Volunteers of 1916 had no real intelligence service, but the IRA would be fighting a very different type of war, one that required trained, experienced intelligence officers who could analyse and interpret information, and people “in the field” who would gather that intelligence often at great personal risk to themselves.
Collins was faced with an enormous task but, as has already been outlined, he had a tremendous skill in creating networks, with friends in many places and fingers in a great many pies. More than one account of the period claims Collins seemed to be good at everything, or at least he was able to create such an aura. He was personable, energetic, endowed with an excellent memory and, by most accounts, was very charismatic. These were all vital traits for a chief spy, and it didn’t take long for Collins to put them to good use. He was also the correct blend of daring and cautious, openly walking around Dublin and often meeting contacts in public places, hiding in plain sight, but also never visiting certain IRA safehouses or offices, often using his assistant/bodyguard Joe O’Reilly, a 1916 and Frongach veteran, as an intermediary. He built a loyal, competent team of men around him, not least his deputy, Liam Tobin, while also having productive relationships with Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy and Dick McKee, now the head of Dublin Brigade.
GHQ’s intelligence section worked out of an office in Crow Street, only a short distance from Dublin Castle. There, they coordinated surveillance of British intelligence operatives, deciphered intercepted telegrams and dealt with an ever increasing list of operatives, contacts and informers, that came from all walks of life: typists, railway workers, hotel porters, journalists, anyone who was willing, or could be coerced, into giving useful information on the Dublin IRA’s opposite numbers. But the most useful contacts were those already enmeshed in the British administration, now proving sympathetic to the cause of republicanism.
In the early days of the war, the Dublin IRA’s chief enemy was the Dublin Metropolitan Police, or more specifically that body’s “G Division”, also known as the Special Branch. These was a plainclothes section of the police force, concerned with detective work, often of a political bent: one of its main tasks was to report on and infiltrate bodies like the IRB. It comprised less than twenty detectives and was based primarily in Dublin Castle. In 1919, it was the most direct threat to the organisation that Collins was trying to build, with its detectives in position to directly identify numerous IRA members, and being some of the most public representation of the state the IRA was ever more dedicated to fighting. Many of its leading figures were men hated by Irish republicans, for their role in identifying Volunteer leaders in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.
But not all of its staff were loyal to the British. One of the most important sources of information for the IRA in the War of Independence was DMP clerk Eamon “Ned” Broy, assigned to the G Division. Growing sympathetic to the Irish nationalist thinking after 1916, and to the IRA later, Broy made contact with republican operatives, and later maintained a direct relationship with Collins: through Broy, Collins gained invaluable knowledge of G Division’s membership, methods of operating, and its files, even gaining personal access to DMP headquarters in Dublin. With such a mole on the inside, the opportunities for action quickly became manifest
McKee has already assigned men to follow G Division detectives, and the impetus for what came next may have come from him, though others maintain the original inception was from Collins. Either way it was proposed, and approved by GHQ, that a “special duty” unit be created whose task would be direct counter-intelligence: in plainer words, the assassination of G Division detectives, and anyone else engaged in intelligence work for the British. This was the genesis of what was later dubbed “the Squad”.
The Squad is a shadowy entity. The exact date of its founding, the extent of its duties, and even the identity of its members, is still a matter of debate, at least in regards who exactly should be considered part of the assassin portion, and if supporting staff should also be considered in the same breath. Initially, it was a small band of carefully selected young men from the Dublin Brigade that McKee brought together: the first dozen are sometimes dubbed “the Twelve Apostles”. They included among their number 19 year old Vincent “Vinny” Byrne, last mentioned here escaping from the Jacob’s garrison in 1916. They were to be a full-time unit, that would maintain the facade of being tradesmen, with many based in daytime hours at a carpentry business.
Many balked at the reality of what they were being asked to do, which was far from the regular operations of 1916, or even the operations being carried out by IRA units across the country. While assassination was to be considered a last resort – G Division staff were sent written warnings to stop their activities before being targeted – it was the purpose of “the Squad”. This was to be close-quarter, intimate killing, often to be done in broad daylight, in an environment packed with civilians.The selected assassins would scope out their target, determine the best time and place to attack and strike without hesitation, in civilian clothes, before disappearing into side streets and crowds.
The first assassination, sanctioned by GHQ, was carried out on the 30th July 1919. The target was a detective sergeant named Patrick Smyth, nicknamed “the Dog”. He was a disliked man, whose prosecutions and testimony in trials had greatly angered many in the Dublin Brigade. Smyth himself noted that he was being observed by mysterious persons in the days leading up to the attack. He was shot several times not far from his family home in Drumcondra, after stepping off a tram: the five man team of assassins almost bungled the job through lack of experience with the .38 revolvers they were given. Smyth would die in hospital a few weeks later: like the Soloheadbeg and Knocklong attacks, they shooting was widely condemned.
The Squad and their commanders paid such criticism no mind, more concerned with getting the assassinations done better: the amount of men employed on such “jobs” was reduced to two, and they were given .45 guns to do them. The next hit took place on 12 September, with the target being Detective Daniel Hoey, who was well known for his part in raids on IRA offices and safehouses. He was shot dead while returning to DMP headquarters from a dairy shop. This assassination was both an attack on the DMP, but also served as a response to the recent proscription of Sinn Fein and Dail Eireann (more in a later entry). The Squad was made an official unit a week later.
On October 19th, the Squad struck for a third time, targeting Detective Michael Downing. Caught entirely by surprise, he was shot in Dublin’s High Street. He survived long enough to reach a hospital and received a blood transfusion from a DMP colleague: such a procedure was highly unusual at the time, but proved insufficient to save him.
The fourth fatality inflicted on the DMP in 1919 was Detective John Barton, targeted on November 29th on Brunswick Street, again not far from a DMP station. It is claimed that Barton was the man who identified Sean Mac Diarmada among the prisoners of the Easter Rising. For this, and his allegedly gloating attitude towards the same and other prisoners, he was a hated man. This assassination is notable for the involvement of Sean Treacy, of the Mid Tipperary Brigade, who had been hiding in Dublin: Collins found ample use for his already lengthy experience on such matters. Treacy is described as firing the shots that killed Barton, inflicted at range so close the detective had scorch marks on his clothes. Unlike many others, Barton was armed when he was attacked, and managed to fire off one ineffectual shot before collapsing.
By the end of 1919 G Division has been essentially destroyed. Most of its detectives were either dead, wounded in other incidents or suitably warned off pursuing their duties to any kind of effective level. The real death knell was the assassination of District Inspector William Redmond on January 21st 1920, shot in the head on Harcourt Street. Redmond had just been moved from Belfast with the express mission of finding Collins and fighting back against the IRA activities: Collins had, through contacts in the Ulster-based RIC, obtained a picture of him, quickly passed to the Squad. Now, days, after his arrival, Redmond was dead. Two more G Division detectives would be killed in 1920, but the damage was already done by that time.
Such a turnaround is indicative of how efficient the IRA in Dublin was becoming. G Division had been shown up as outdated, vulnerable and weak, its detectives easily accounted for, and unable to adapt properly to the new reality. At the same time, Collins and the IRA looked ever more dangerous and capable. Escalation was inevitable: the killings obligated figures as high as John French to acknowledge a war was now being fought, and as such military intelligence would now have to take precedence. That escalation will be the focus of many further entries to come.
It is only fair to take the time to note that the war in Dublin was not limited to the actions of the Squad. In other ways the Dublin based Volunteers were starting to make a contribution to the national struggle. The first four battalions, based around the city, would at some points comprise over a thousand fighting men, and would engage in many of the same activities as their more rural brethren, in terms of hold-ups, ambushes and general interference with the British administration. They maintained numerous offices, arms dumps and safehouses that were often the target of British raids, but were never shut down completely. Dublin’s Fifth Battalion was dedicated to engineering and signals: run by the Volunteer Director of Engineering Rory O’Connor, it helped to create and maintain a bomb-making production line that provided explosives for many units across the country, and issued training courses for the same.
Outside of the capital however, it was a different story. There was only so much that GHQ and Collins could do for IRA units based in west Cork or Longford where individual battalions were often responsible for their own intelligence work. GHQ staff would help where they could, like with the aforementioned training courses, but to a large degree the war in Dublin and the war in the provinces were often viewed as entirely separate affairs.
One unifying aspect of both the urban and rural experience was the state they, in whatever way they wished to acknowledge it, were fighting to protect. The Irish Republic was more than just flying columns, Squad hitmen or the TD’s of the Dail. In the next entry, I will take a condensed look at the Irish revolutionary state in being, and how its existence and expansion was proving a key element to the overall military struggle.