Michael Collins’ assassination squad was nicknamed – for reasons of fine Irish irony – The Twelve Apostles. With the help of their fictional 13th member, young Eoin Kavanagh, author Dermot McEvoy paints a gripping you-are-there portrait of revolutionary Ireland in "The 13th Apostle."
The job of rescuing a nation from its fate as an exploited colony was certain to be an epic task, and McEvoy’s expertly paced novel conjures the streets and characters with a historian’s keen eye.
It’s still a matter for wonder that a group of disparate but impassioned rebels took on the might of the British Empire at its height and won. Using tactics that played the British at their own game – especially when it came to intimidation and terror – they actually managed to push them from Irish shores.
McEvoy is acutely conscious of all the competing claims of the chess pieces on the board. Conservative forces jockeyed with socialists for influence; the church also agitated to make its presence felt. In this maelstrom young Eoin finds himself coming of age as the Republic is being born.
What made Collins unique, what made him different to a long line of Irish revolutionaries, was that his plans worked. Although a Cork man by birth, he knew Dublin inside out; he knew its back streets and he knew its people. Crucially, he never let them down.
In an era when the British were still despised and feared he cycled around the city openly, making a laughing stock of their attempts to capture him and inspiring his men with his daring.
A brilliant military strategist and guerilla warfare tactician, he understood that whoever controlled Dublin controlled the nation, so he made doing so his particular prize. In one day his Twelve Apostles assassinated the entire British Secret Service in Dublin in an astonishingly brazen and successful campaign to bring the war to the British establishment’s door.
In McEvoy’s novel young Eoin is there to witness the red-letter days and the new nation that is built on them, staying close to Collins and affording us a window into the tumult of the times.
The Irish Civil War is still being fought in some very real senses, which is why Collins can still seem a more vivid presence than many of the potentates who currently take his place on the Irish national stage. McEvoy knows this and paints a portrait of the man in full, creating one of the most richly detailed character studies of Collins that I have ever read.
It’s the courage and commitment of Collins and his fellow rebels that still startle the reader now. To have banded together in such a small group to take on the most impassive and mighty Empire in modern times often felt pointless and suicidal, but Collins kept faith with his aim and his abilities.
He willed the Irish nation into being with a daring that was as much imaginative as it was actual and McEvoy’s book charts the whole astonishing feat, which at times looks miraculous and at other times seems sordid beyond words.
Because this is an Irish story "The 13th Apostle" is also a family story. McEvoy introduces us to the characters that will make their lives in Collins’ new Republic and in the extended diaspora, where so many of them were forced to emigrate or flee.
Inevitably, there are longstanding tensions between competing ideals for life and politics in the new Ireland, and McEvoy presents some of the most enduring of them.
Moving to New York after Collins is killed, Eoin discovers a seasoned political mentor in the Irish American Mayor Jimmy Walker. First Eoin works to get him elected and then, returning the favor, Walker introduces him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is running for governor of New York in 1928.
In 1932 Eoin is picked for office on the back of FDR’s landslide victory and he becomes the congressman from Manhattan’s 7th Congressional District. It’s a reminder of the trans-Atlantic nature of the Irish struggle and the transformation that was accomplished through Collins victory at home.
There are many books about Collins, but few that understand his challenge and his accomplishments the way McEvoy’s "The 13th Apostle" does. Collins didn’t just change Irish history – he reinvented it and the nation’s trajectory through action and sheer force of mind.