Over the last number of entries we have explored the events of the War of Independence throughout the early months of 1920, as the steady escalation of violence continued. We have largely shied away from the capital in favour of events elsewhere, but in this entry we will reverse that course, to look at how “the Squad”, which had come into existence as a hands-on unit of GHQ in its war against the DMP in 1919, along with other elements of the Dublin-based IRA as a whole, continued its activities, before its later existence in 1920 would make it a defining part of the larger conflict.
We have already noted some of the Squad’s earliest jobs of that year. District Inspector William Redmond, moved from Belfast to Dublin in January with the express mission of hunting down Michael Collins and his assassination team, was killed on Harcourt Street shortly after his arrival in the capital, identified all too easily by GHQ’s intelligence wing. In line with the neutralisation of the DMP’s “G” Division in 1919, a few more members of the DMP would be killed in the first four months of 1920.
The Squad were just the last rung in what was becoming an ever more sophisticated ladder of espionage and counter-espionage, where targets of importance, hostile to the Republic and of worth to the enemy, were identified, scouted and then executed. Collins’ intelligence network was growing and growing, and no one in the Crown Forces, whether they were the few remaining G Division detectives or spies working for British military intelligence, could be said to be safe. Even while the military presence in the capital increased, so did GHQ’s operations.
The Squad’s next target was a British soldier going by the name of Fergus Bryan Molloy. Molloy worked as a clerk under Colonel Hill Dillon, then an Assistant Intelligence Chief in Dublin Castle. Despite his English accent, Molloy professed to be a patriotic Irishman, who wanted to use his connections inside Dublin Castle to aid the cause. He drank with Liam Tobin and made contact with Batt O’Connor, a man often employed to be a driver for Michael Collins. Among other things, Molloy offered to get Tobin and others inside Dublin Castle so they could steal valuable files, and also suggested he was in a position to find arms for the movement.
Tobin, and others, were rightly suspicious, and did not take Molloy upon his offer. When they attempted to get Molloy to assist in an assassination of Dillon, the Colonel promptly moved out of his home and into more secure lodgings. This essentially sealed Molloy’s fate, though pro-republican leaks from inside Dublin Castle had pretty much already done so. Molloy, real name Frederick McNulty, was a spy attempting to work his way into an undercover role within the IRA, and his fate was the same shared by others found out between 1919 and 1921. He was shot several times by three members of the Squad on the evening of the 24th March on South William Street, dying a short time later. Despite the attack taking place in broad daylight, the perpetrators were able to make a clean getaway. McNulty’s death showcased the IRA’s growing skill at counter-espionage, and the actual killing showed how dangerous the Squad was, striking quickly and melting away without witness.
The Squad also branched out from purely police or military targets. Alan Bell was a resident magistrate, former member of the DMP, and a current member of the secret service, tasked in 1920 with an investigation into the whereabouts of the actual money being raised by the Dail Loan. It was a job the 70-year-old was well suited too, having undertaken similar work decades previously with the Land League as his target. Bell’s purview allowed him to investigate the inner dealings of banks, and to summon their representatives to appear before a commission. In the first few months of this investigation he had much success, discovering and confiscating tens of thousands of pounds worth of Loan money: his activities also made him a thorn in the side of the Dail and the IRA.
Worried about Bell’s success, and perhaps encouraged by other claims about Bell’s life – that, variously, he had been involved in efforts to forge letters in Charles Stewart Parnell’s name to discredit the man, or had tried to use spies disguised as priests to get information out of republican prisoners – the Squad was given their orders. On he 16th March, Bell was pulled from a tram in Dun Laoghaire while on his way to work in Dublin Castle. Though he himself was armed, he did not have the time or opportunity to react, and was shot several times in the head. There were numerous arrests in the aftermath, but no one of real prominence. For the IRA, it was another clear signal that they had the ability and the means to strike at every facet of the Dublin Castle operations, and a warning for anyone in Bell’s position who thought ht could operate with impunity.
Still, British intelligence continued to try and worm their way into the IRA structure as they had to other militant nationalist groups in the past. In this period a British trade unionist by the name of Jack Jameson integrated his way into the same rooms as the IRA, by way of his apparent socialist credentials and promises to help Collins and the IRA obtain arms and funding. Jameson even got as far as meeting Collins, who was interested in what he had to offer, but others were suspicious.
In reality, Jameson was John Charles Byrnes, a member of the military intelligence set-up whose ties to trade unions were part of previous investigations into communist organisations. IRA staff instituted what we might call a “blue dye” job, wherein false information was given to Byrnes to see what would happen, in this case the location of some sensitive files: when the home was raided a short time later, Byrnes was a dead man walking. When he requested another meeting with Collins – perhaps something that could possibly have led to an arrest, if his cover was still believed – it was members of the Squad who met him, ostensibly to act as an escort, on April 2nd. Getting off a Dublin tram near Glasnevin, on this occasion Byrnes was spared long enough to inform him about what was about to happen, before he was shot in the chest and head. Byrnes either protested his innocence or expressed admiration for the King, depending on who you believe. One of the shooters was Paddy Daly, who briefly fled the country in the aftermath. It was another counter-espionage success.
“Briefly” means briefly: within two weeks Daly was back in Dublin, and back performing jobs for Collins and the Squad. The next target was Harry Kells, a DMP detective recently promoted to (or just temporarily working with, depending on the source) the crippled G Division who was, as far as Collins and GHQ were concerned, engaged in trying to identify republicans imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison in the aftermath of Alan Bell’s death: he himself was firmly identified doing so by the IRA’s Peader Clancy, then imprisoned. The next day – the 14th April, the same day the hunger strikers were released – was Kells’ last. He was intercepted by Daly and a few others- one of them was Hugo MacNeill, nephew of Eoin, who was not a member of the Squad – as he left his Camden Street home that morning and shot in the chest, living long enough to die in a nearby hospital. This killing demonstrates the speed with which the Squad was now able to act, as well as the still somewhat ad-hoc nature of how they operated.
Less than a week later, the Squad struck again. The target was another recent DMP transfer to the increasingly ailing G Division, a constable named Laurence Dalton. Dalton was due to be one of the main prosecution witnesses in a case against J.J Walsh, an Easter Rising veteran and a member of the First Dail. Dalton had been one of the policemen who had raided Walsh’s home and arrested him, but now his dedication proved his end. On the 20th April, while he was engaged in observations of republican movements near the Broadstone rail terminus, he was shot several times by members of the Squad, dying later in hospital.
There were other, national, events and assassinations that Collins was involved with throughout this time. On the 18th February, a British Army veteran named Timothy A. Quinlisk was shot dead in Cork City. Owing to the amount of damage the body took during this attack, it was not until three days later that Quinlisk was identified. He had previously been a member of Roger Casement’s ill-fated “Irish Legion“, but in the time since had swung back to more loyalist sympathies. He had applied to become an undercover agent for Dublin Castle, but was quickly found out after attempting to make contact with IRA officers in Cork. In another blue dye operation, false information linked to the location of Michael Collins when he was to visit Cork was leaked to Quinlisk; a subsequent raid on British mail discovered the same information being leaked to Dublin Castle. Marked for death, Quinlisk was dispatched shortly afterwards. His death was not at the hands of the Squad, but Collins was involved in the identification of Quinlisk as a spy, showing how, even far away in Dublin, Collins’ intelligence service could be wide-reaching.
All the while, the larger Dublin Brigade of the IRA, and the units further out in County Dublin, also engaged in their own activities, such as the ambush of a British military convoy around Merrion Square towards the end of January, the death of a Constable John Walsh in mid-February after an impromptu shoot-out with a DMP patrol and killing of a DMP Sergeant, Patrick Finnerty, in mid-April during a Sinn Fein rally in Balbriggan. The capital continued to be a dangerous place to be in police or military uniform and despite the best efforts of Dublin Castle to round-up and detain as much of the IRA’s structure as they could, by the time the summer of 1920 arrived they still appeared to be losing the war in Dublin.
But now we turn attention back to the war elsewhere, and return to Cork, to examine the next barracks attack of note, in a county that seemed increasingly dangerous to be in if you were a member of the Crown Forces.