Ireland’s Wars: The Dublin Intelligence War In 1920

When we last mentioned the intelligence war in Dublin, it was in the context of the killing of Frank Brooke in July of 1920, then the latest assassination of Michael Collins’ Squad. But the killings and shootings were continuing apace before and since then, as well as the larger conflict between the GHQ intelligence apparatus and their increasingly larger British counter-parts. In this entry I wanted to give as brief a summary as I can of how things had come to stand in the capital as we entered the fateful month of November, and how things came to the point of a sudden and dramatic escalation.

Collins remained the centre-piece of everything, a magnetic figure who attracted loyalty as easily as he attracted myth-making (and women, if some reports are to be believed). He had organised the best intelligence system in Irish history, and now pulled the strings with an seeming effortlessness that belied the incredible danger that he and his comrades were subject to every day. His system of informers, sympathisers and agents has become legendary in its completeness, as has his own activities, engendering contacts, meetings suppliers of information and analysing the provided data in order to plan and execute assassinations and other spycraft actions. His grasp of details, whether it was about a potential informant in the civil service or the finer points of the military situation in West Cork, were noted by many. His friendliness, charm, and ability to become close to IRA figures all over the country all added to his profile (though it should be noted that not everyone fell under the spell). He was also acutely aware of the larger dimension, and fostered positive relationships with many journalists, to the extent that he practically wrote the headlines for them.

For the British, Collins remained the ultimate target, but any time they got relatively close the opportunity for his capture slipped through the fingers, with the man bluffing his way through checkpoints and submitting to searches with a casualness that stunned observers. Tom Barry, on a visit to GHQ, was gobsmacked when he and Collins ran into a force of Auxiliaries, which Collins managed to blag his way past by acting inebriated. It has also been theorised by some that RIC personnel were reluctant to apprehend Collins, as they knew doing so may well have led to their own death. “The Big Fella” was able to continue his work all throughout the the war, famously cycling through Dublin in daylight, his only disguise being a pedestrian business suit. But he was not as reckless as he seemed, or as reliant on luck as some thought: he was also noted for consistently having an escape plan, whether it was rooftop access, hidden compartments in GHQ buildings and electric warning systems that could be activated by reception staff.

Collins had been able to form a very thorough network of insiders and moles, throughout many different prats of the Dublin Castle administration. One of them, perhaps the most important, was “Lt. G” who was based in the British Intelligence centre on Parkgate Street, who provided such a steady stream of important information that those not in the know assumed they must be a high-ranking officer. In fact, Lt. G was Lily Menin, a typist with nationalist leanings who had been introduced to Collins in 1918, and used her unassuming position to funnel reams of high quality information to GHQ.

There were others, many others. Somewhat famous names like DMP members Eamon Broy and David Neligan were all in sensitive positions but were able and willing to pass key information to contacts in the IRA, either out of genuine nationalist sentiment, dissatisfaction with the job they were in, or because of fear. Tip-offs on raids, the addresses of British agents, information on just how much the authorities knew (and how much they didn’t know) about the IRA operation, all of these things came into the realm of Collins’ knowledge.

Of course, Collins was just the head of a beast that included numerous pivotal figures, from Richard Mulcahy (whose plans to poison British troops with typhoid were a famous capture by British agents) to Liam Toibin, and on down to triggermen like Vinny Byrne, who were at the business end of operations that Collins approved. The Squad had been able to create an aura of invincibility an almost omniscience in its activities up to the Spring of 1920, but which time they had carried out a larger number of targeted assassinations. Through the summer and autumn the Squad had been kept busy, both in terms of their intelligence work and in their roles in the larger Dublin Brigade, with their operations included the aforementioned killing of Frank Brooke.

Among the many operations that the Squad was involved in during this time, one to focus on was the killing of RIC Sergeant Daniel Roche and the attempted killing of a Constable Fitzmaurice. Both men were part of the Tipperary RIC, and were brought to Dublin in the aftermath of the death of Sean Treacy, for the purpose of identifying another body that had been found, that Dublin Castle hoped would turn out to be Dan Breen. It wasn’t, of course, instead being the body of a Volunteer named Matt Furlong, who had been killed in an accidental explosion. The two men were accompanied in their work by David Neligan, who was shocked when, while waiting for the two men outside of the Ormond Hotel on the quays, four members of the Squad arrived.

Realising that an assassination was about to take place, Neligan briefly attempted to ward the would-be shooters off, but relented when he saw the police approaching. Neligan made his excuses with the two and left the scene. However, accounts left by members of the Squad present that day claim that Neligan played a more active role in the operation, having tipped Liam Toibin off about the police’s presence in the city, and later giving a positive ID to the shooters before the firing started. Whatever Neligan’s involvement Roche was shot dead by a hail of fire then and there but Fitzmaurice survived, wounded, but able to escape down side-streets. It really should have been the end for Neligan, whom Fitzmaurice identified as having been speaking to the gunmen ahead of the attack, but amazingly Collins’ man was able to talk his way out of the situation.

But there were many misses as well, days when targets were able to slip away before triggers could be pulled, or where they were able to survive being hit, like the extraordinary story of DMP Sergeant Richard Revell, who was hit seven times by members of the Squad in an ambush attempt, but lived to tell the tale. Others, like RIC Inspector-General Albert Roberts saw their vehicles plastered with gun-shots, but by twist of fate or the inaccuracy of the attackers, managed to get away without being hit. Other times Collins refused to back suggested plans to gun down targets in sensitive areas, like with one suggestion that an RIC officer should be shot by a Squad member who planned to sit next to him at a Church service.

Yet, despite these failures, the Sqaud’s membership, ever increasing between the actual gunmen and the others consigned to intelligence and scouting work, maintained a rigid discipline and a high level of morale. And despite near misses, it could not be denied that they had gotten better at their jobs than ever before, especially in terms of preparation and observation, even if the tedious reality of patrolling Dublin’s streets for targets and getting an idea of their habits and movements is less well-remembered than the actual shooting.

On the other side men like Ormonde Winter were key new appointments in the British war effort from an intelligence standpoint, but they suffered as much as anyone, or more, with the divide between a conciliation and coercion approach being advocated by different parts of the military and political leadership (more than one intelligence officer saw themselves as merely killing time before Sinn Fein were engaged in talks). The twin approaches of “stroke and slap” as one officer called it, exasperated intelligence figures and played into the IRA’s hands, as many Volunteers became oddly used to a cycle of being arrested, being released due to a lack of evidence, and then being arrested again.

Winter would gain a ferocious, and at times exaggerated, reputation as a hound-dog of an intelligence officer who brooked little in the way of acknowledging moral quandaries in his work. He toured widely, did what he could to resuscitate the dying morale of the RIC and DMP and established good relationships with other intelligence services. But there was only so much that he could do in that time and place, having to essentially cobble together a new intelligence service from scrap, right down to the hiring and training of clerical workers. Winter did not help himself with an obsessive attitude towards the loyalty of his subordinates and a refusal to delegate key tasks. 

Among the intelligence operations carried in his tenure were semi-successful efforts to shutdown the publication of pro-republican news-sheets; vicious subterfuges where defective ammunition was left lying around in places where it was bound to wind up in the hands of the IRA, who sometimes used it with fatal consequences; manufacturing evidence of IRA figures’ cooperation with authorities in an effort to discredit threats; the arrests of some prominent IRA members; and, of course, their own killings, such as unfortunate man named Lynch, mistaken for Liam Lynch, who was killed by the RIC in a Dublin hotel in September.

The danger posed by the IRA in Dublin meant that much of the intelligence apparatus of the British side were forced to re-locate inside the walls of Dublin Castle. Many of them, in fear of their lives, would never leave while the war continued, a testament to how awe-struck people were of the Squad. When British military or governmental figures went out in public, they now went armed, with higher-ranking figures rarely going anywhere without a full escort, up to and including armoured cars. Such realities only made the British position more untenable: the legitimate government of the land should not have needed such precaution. Worse perhaps were the duelling intelligence services of the military and the civil branches, that never had unified command or purpose: as is inevitable in such situations, inter-service cooperation was sketchy at best. Key figures hesitated on a forced unification, believing that a civil-led political solution to the conflict could be imminent.

All the while the British side were attempting to infiltrate the IRA and the Dail, to find information and informers as they had done in previous conflicts. But this time, in this war, they were finding harder. The extraordinary story of Frank Digby Hardy serves to prove the point. An Englishman and career criminal with a number of spells in prison for fraud, theft and forgery before 1920, Hardy saw a sentence in Maryborough Prison on a fraud charge reduced when he volunteered to serve with British Intelligence. After rudimentary training in London he was in Dublin by the summer of 1920, where he attempted to use his charm and con-man attributes to gain access to republican circles, with an end goal of discovering the location of Collins. It was a failing effort, when a letter exposing Hardy fell into Collins’ hands thanks to a sympathetic postal worker. After this, Hardy made contact with Sinn Fein members, up to and including Arthur Griffith, claiming that he wished to become a double-agent for the Irish cause.

So clumsy were his activities – members of the Squad were able to find incriminating documents after only a cursory search of his hotel room – that it was decided that Hardy was more use to the cause alive than dead, as his exposure could prove quite humiliating for the British. An audacious sting operation was arranged where Griffith invited Hardy to a meeting of key IRA members, who were actually journalists playing a part. At the meeting Hardy happily divulged his status as a British spy and his desire to help the IRA assassinate his boss Basil Thompson, the overall Director of Intelligence for the British Home Office, as well as aid in procuring arms. He asked for a some information to engender trust with his superiors like, say, the general whereabouts of one Michael Collins that he, of course, would only report to his superiors too late.

At that point Griffith revealed all he knew about Hardy’s criminal past, destroyed his cover story, and advised him to be on a boat out of Ireland that evening. This he did, living out the rest of his life in obscurity. No harm done to the Irish cause, but plenty to the British when the following morning’s headlines were read, with the press gleefully writing up Hardy’s idiocy and exposure. Dublin Castle and British Intelligence were sorely mortified, having chosen to employ a known con-man on such a seemingly vital mission.

Not all of the intelligence operations of the Dublin administration would be so comical. The more obvious part of military intelligence occupied itself with raids and the searching of garages, warehouses and sheds across the city. The raids were often carried out by “Auxies” who were becoming a more and more common presence on the streets of Dublin, and with the same brutal reputation as their rural counterparts. “F” Company was especially hated, thanks largely to one of their officers, Captain Jocelyn Hardy. A one-legged veteran of the Western Front and German POW camps – nicknamed “Hoppy Hardy” by some – his rage became legendary, as were his brutal interrogations in cells beneath Dublin Castle, where suspects were beaten severely and often the subject of mock executions. The Dublin Brigade was rarely able to have much of an impact on such enemies, owing to the limitations and dangers of guerrilla warfare in an urban setting, as outlined previously. Though, saying that, the inability of the Dublin Brigade to contribute more to the war did lead to some negativity towards both it and its commander Dick McKee, who was often busier as the IRA Director of Training and producer of An t-Oglac.

The intelligence of where to hit had to come from somewhere. British efforts to combat the IRA in the capital hinged around the so-called “Cairo Gang”, a sobriquet that may have come from some of its members having served together in Egypt during the First World War, or more likely their preference for the Cafe Cairo on Dublin’s Grafton Street. The name was not widely used at the time – the “special gang” may have been more prevalent – but serves as a useful catch-all term for this particular group of British intelligence personnel. The closest official name would be the “Dublin District Special Branch”, or “D Branch”. These men were a collection of active-duty and ex-officers formed as a unit early in 1920, after which they received some training in counter-intelligence work from the British Special Branch and M15.

Deployed to Ireland, the original intention may have been to split the men throughout Ireland to aid in the overall war effort, but in the end they all were stationed in Dublin under the aegis of the Dublin District Division of General Gerald Boyd, and with their direct commander being a Lt Colonel Walter Wilson, a former English rugby international. Initially with a cover of being Royal Engineers, they soon switched into civilian-centric cover roles of tradesmen, farmers, journalists, etc. With these jobs they attempted to gain information from various nationalist circles, whether it was official meetings of entities like the Gaelic League, or drinking with republicans in pubs. They observed, they followed, they cajoled. They were looking for anything that could be useful: general information on IRA personnel and leadership; the location of arms dumps; planned operations; the whereabouts of safe houses; and the state of enemy morale. At times they took a more active part in proceedings, such as with the gunfight on the Upper Drumcondra Road.

The “Gang” were put up in a series of boarding houses and hotels across Dublin as they performed their work. In this they erred from the outset, as landlords and hotel staff noted them coming and going at odd hours, heedless of curfews, something that clearly marked them out as working with the authorities in some capacity. It did not take long for such information to come to the attention of GHQ. But there were a shocking number of other breaches too, like the information provided by Lily Menin, who passed along names and addresses of British agents to Collins as they came across her desk. Similarly, men like Liam Toibin and Fank Thornton were meeting with presumed D Branch men under the guise of being informers. By such means Collins was able to make a list of men attached to the so-called Cairo Gang, and they were soon being kept under constant surveillance.

This intelligence war created an aura of fear throughout Dublin, whose civilian population grew ever more afraid that their actions and utterances were being monitored by one side or the other, and that saying the wrong thing could lead to a bullet, just as much as loitering for too long near a suspicious location could be a death sentence. It also led to fantastical tails about men like Collins, treated almost like magicians who were alleged to travel Ireland hidden in a packing case, or walk by Crown Forces disguised as a priest.

Such beliefs masked how precarious the situation was in Dublin where, by November, the pressure of additional men was having its effect, just as it was in the rest of the country. The activities of the “Gang” led to Collins and his intelligence apparatus becoming convinced that a larger scale targeting of key figures in the IRA and in the Dail was about to come to fruition, and that these targets were marked for execution, not for arrest. The events of how Collins and his men attempted to forestall this were to become the most famous of the war.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Dublin Intelligence War In 1920

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Bloody Sunday (1920) | Never Felt Better

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