Michael Collins’ Extraordinary Intelligence Office, on Crow Street, was the deadliest address in Dublin – Frank Thornton’s witness statement says it all
Today the most famous address on Crow Street in Dublin’s Temple Bar district is the F.X. Buckley Steakhouse at #2 Crow Street. It has the best steak in Dublin, on a par with the Palm Steakhouse on 2nd Avenue in New York City.
Right next door at #3 is a building, obviously refurbished, that once housed the men who led to the destruction of the British in Ireland. In this office, intelligence agents of Michael Collins brilliantly outsmarted the highly-touted British Secret Service. There, they collected material that would eliminate many British agents and would lead to Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, when Collins’ Squad, in the form of his Twelve Apostles, swiped out 14 highly dangerous British Secret Service agents. Exactly, one year and 16 days later, Ireland was a nation once again.
Crow Street is basically a one block alley running north off Dame Street. Three blocks to the east is the prominent façade of Trinity College; two blocks west is the side gate of Dublin Castle. It’s most famous residence in 1901 [see the Shields family 1901 Irish census statement here] was probably a 13-year-old named William Shields. He would go on as an adult to become a civil servant. He later moonlighted at the Abbey Theatre under the pseudonym Barry Fitzgerald—the first Irish citizen to win an Oscar for his performance as crusty old Father Fitzgibbons in Going My Way. In that household was also his brother Arthur, eight years younger. He went on to become a staple at the Abbey and later became one of the leading character actors in Hollywood. He is best remembered for playing opposite his brother as the gentle Protestant minister, the Reverend Mr. Playfair, in The Quiet Man. [See more on the Shields Brothers here]. In 1916 Arthur would retrieve his rifle from under the stage of the Abbey Theatre and join Pearse and Connolly in the GPO. After the uprising, he would spend time in Frongoch internment camp in Wales with a certain rebel named Michael Collins.
Frank Thornton’s Story
On the ground floor of #3 Crow Street was J.F. Fowler Printers, obviously, to the British, a legitimate business. But they weren’t. They were a front.
This area of Dublin, around Dame Street, with its crooked, winding streets, was a favorite of Collins. He worked on Dame Street, drank at the Stag’s Head pub right off it, and had offices on Exchequer Street and St. Andrew’s Street. One of his favorite daily haunts was the Wicklow Hotel, next to Weir Jewelers on the corner of Wicklow and Grafton Street. This busy area of Dublin was his comfort zone.
As Director of Intelligence, Collins set up an elaborate intelligence system. Liam Tobin was his Deputy Director, backed up by Tom Cullen and Frank Thornton. Tobin wrote a very short witness statement that only entailed the events of 1916. He never wrote about his intelligence gathering job. Cullen died shortly after the War of Independence and did not leave a statement.
Collins did briefly address his intelligence operation in Michael Collins Own Story by Hayden Talbot, which was supposed to be his autobiography, but he died before it could be finished. In this book Collins wrote that “…the two most urgent problems with which we were faced at that time—[were] beating the English Secret Service until it was powerless, and cleaning our own house until the last traitor Irishman had been identified and fittingly dealt with.”
Collins went on to write that “Now the time had come to turn our attention to the most important part of our job—the smashing of the English Secret Service. My final goal was not to be reached merely by beating it out of existence—I wanted to replace it with a better and Irish Secret Service. The way to do this was obvious, and it fell naturally into two main parts—making it unhealthy for Irishmen to betray their fellows, and making it deadly for Englishmen to exploit them. It took several months to accomplish the first job—actually the most important part—and hardly more than a month to disrupt the moral of the English Secret Service, to a point at which its efficiency ceased to be the proud thing that it always had been.”
Collins set up Crow Street in the summer of 1919. Around the same time, he also organized his famous Squad. The intelligence office would find British spies and the Squad would eliminate them. Basically, the Squad was useless without Crow Street. Thornton chronicles how Crow Street operated in his Witness Statement dated November 26, 1951 [read the full statement here].
Michael Collins: “The One Bright Star”
Not surprisingly, Thornton starts off his statement with a paean to Michael Collins. It goes on for pages and shows how devoted Thornton was to Collins. It also gives some hints to how Collins operated as these excerpts reveal:
“I was very happy about this transfer to Intelligence as I liked Michael Collins,” wrote Thornton. “I was a great admirer of him. I recognized at an early stage, even as far back as my first contact with him in Liverpool that he was a dynamic type of individual…Later on, working with him on organization, I had a very quiet admiration for him which developed as the years went on.
“Michael Collins was a man with a determination to make a complete success of everything he put his hands to. He had a marvelous memory, and as I saw repeatedly happen in later years, he would deal with men from all parts of the country at night in our headquarters in Devlin’s [Public House] of Parnell Square…He was full of the exuberance of life and full of vitality. He had no time for half measures and expected from those who were serving under him the same amount of enthusiasm and constructive energy that he himself was putting into the job.
“Michael Collins took a lively interest in the private affairs of each and every individual with whom he came in contact and was always ready to lend a helping hand to assist them to meet their private responsibilities. During the height of the War he travelled from post to post and office on his old Raleigh bicycle and, as often as not did not leave Devlin’s in Parnell Square until just on curfew. I think it is only right to say here, in view of the many and varied accounts given by various writers, who claim to have known Collins and his activities, that he never carried a gun during these journeys, neither was he accompanied by a bodyguard…
“Mick Collins was the ideal soldier to lead men during a revolution such as we were going through and, I think all and sundry, whether they subsequently fought against him in the Civil War or not, who had close contact with him, must admit that he was the one bright star that all the fighting men looked to for guidance and advice during those great days, particularly during 1920 and 1921…”
Thornton in the thick of It
Thornton was involved in many of the major events in the War of Independence: the shooting of bank examiner Alan Bell who was after Collins’ National Loan; the unmasking of the master British spy “Jameson”; being with Seán Treacy the day he was killed and saving the wounded Dan Breen from the British. He also was a major factor in tracking the murderous Cairo Gang that culminated in their destruction on Bloody Sunday.
Thornton reveals several of the methods behind the intelligence bureau: “Intelligence was divided into two branches. First of all, the ordinary Intelligence of the movement of British Forces to and from areas, the arrivals, departures, etc., and secondly, the activities of British Agents, whether they were S.S. [Secret Service] men, Military Intelligence Officers, Auxiliary Intelligence Officers or Black and Tan Intelligence Officers.”
Although Collins had many agents working for him in British intelligence, such as Ned Broy and Dave Neligan, he also employed paid touts. Thornton says there was a special way they kept an eye on these spies to ensure their loyalty: “One of the means adopted and, as far as possible, carried out, was to always secure two such people in the particular Unit or Office that they were operating in, and the first job that each of these agents would get was to submit a complete report on the other. In that way whilst working for us for pay we had them continually watching each other, although they were unaware of the fact that they were doing so.”
Collins also had civilian workers stationed in Dublin Castle. One such woman mentioned by Thornton was Lily Mernin. Mernin, in her own statement [Read it here: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0441.pdf], told how she smuggled out reports to Crow Street in her clothes. She was also expert in sliding an extra carbon-copy into her typewriter and then delivering it to Collins. Her reports dealt with British military movements throughout the country and she was also responsible for keeping Crow Street up to date on the movements of Secret Service agents arriving in the city. She also stated how Collins—with perfect misinformation and misdirection—protected her identity: “Michael Collins always referred to me as the ‘little gentleman.’ ”
By early 1920 Collins’ plan of intimidation—and selective execution—had rendered the “G” Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) impotent. The British reaction was to send secret agents like Alan Bell to Dublin to find Collins’ National Loan money and other agents to find Collins himself. This escalation of the war would also include the British introducing the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans into Ireland during the rest of 1920.
One of the most dangerous British agents was a man named, of all things, Jameson. He was so industrious that on his first day in Dublin he actually got to meet Collins, promising him a shipment of desperately needed handguns. It would be his undoing, as he reported to his superior that Collins was wearing a mustache, which was immediately relayed to DMP intelligence officers—several of whom worked as double-agents for Collins. His demise was so spectacular that Winston Churchill became enraged and put a £5,000 bounty on the head of Michael Collins.
Frank Thornton minutely remembers how Jameson was tricked by intelligence agents into revealing his treacherous intentions:
“Tom Cullen had forcibly expressed his dislike of the man from the beginning, and possibly this had reactions on myself. In any case there were none of us impressed. It was decided to start laying traps for him. He fell into the first trap laid. He arrived with Liam Tobin outside New Ireland Assurance Society’s building at 56 Bachelor’s Walk. These premises were situated over Kapp & Petersons at the corner of Bachelor’s Walk and O’Connell Street, the New Ireland Assurance Society occupying the second floor. Jameson handed over a portmanteau full of Webley revolvers to me in the hall of Kapp & Petersons, which he stated he had smuggled into the country. His story was that he got them in through Communistic channels…
“I immediately walked straight through the hall and down the steps into Kapp & Peterson’s basement, and Tobin took Jameson away. When the coast was clear, I handed the portmanteau of revolvers over to Tom Cullen who was waiting at 32 Bachelor’s Walk which was Quartermaster General’s stores. Before all these things happened, we had contacted Jim McNamara of the Detective Division, who was working for us, to keep his ears open for any unusual occurrence on that day, particularly if he heard of any raids to try and give us the information in advance. About mid-day I got a message from McNamara telling me that the New Ireland Assurance Society’s premises at Bachelor’s Walk would be raided at about 3 o’clock. I naturally had a good look around the premises to make sure that no papers or any documents or guns or any description were left around.
“I joined Tobin and Cullen at McBirney’s on the far side of the river at 3 o’clock to await developments. On the stroke of 3 o’clock a large force of military and police arrived and surrounded the building. They immediately went down into the basement and ransacked it upside down but naturally didn’t find any revolvers…However, the raid was abortive, and they went away, but at about 1 o’clock the following morning they arrived back again and they smashed in the door, and, with picks and shovels, proceeded to dig up the basement looking for secret passages...
“Suffice to say that following other incidents which happened it was finally decided that Jameson was a spy and as such would have to be shot. He met Paddy Daly and Joe by appointment; making sure that no accomplice was shadowing the party. He was brought out by tram to meet Mick Collins at Ballymun Road. Naturally Collins wasn’t there but Jameson was told that he was going to be shot. He violently protested to the very last that we were shooting one of the best friends that Ireland ever had. I think it is sufficient to say that Sir Basil Thompson clinched the matter when he described Jameson (alias Byrne) as one of the best and cleverest Secret Service men that they ever had. I think that this can be found in Sir Basil Thompson’s memoirs.”
Drinking with the Cairo Gang
To describe the incredible danger that was Dublin in 1920 as Bloody Sunday approached Thornton has a story about drinking with the members of the Cairo Gang at a joint in Adam Court, which is just off the corner of Nassau and Grafton Streets. This narrow alley is still there today, and the premises discussed by Thornton houses the nightclub Lillie’s Bordello [http://lilliesbordello.ie/]. I have visited the Bordello and it still contains an ambiance of intrigue and danger.
The Cairo Gang were a group of British Secret Service agents sent to Dublin to apprehend Collins. They received their sobriquet because 1) many of them were Secret Service agents recalled from the Middle East; and 2) they gathered at the Cairo Café at the top of Grafton Street near St. Stephen’s Green. They were armed and extremely dangerous. Thornton’s story tells the incredible courage faced by the men at #3 Crow Street as they tried to infiltrate and cadge intelligence information from them.
“At that time,” Thornton wrote, “most of the British Secret Service Agents, and British Intelligence Offices and Auxiliary Intelligence Officers met at a place which was well known in Dublin as Kidds Buffet—Kidds Back it was known—in Grafton Street, and presently Jammets Back. [Jammets for years was one of the prominent restaurants of Dublin.] Now here is where a lot of our information was picked up, and again it had to be picked up by taking a very big risk.
“Tom Cullen, Frank Saurin and myself were deputed to act with our two Secret Service friends who then frequented Kidds Buffet with the Secret Service. We were introduced in the ordinary way as touts and eventually became great friends of men like Major Bennett, Colonel Aimes and a number of other prominent Secret Service Officers. Naturally Collins and all his staff and the whole activities of the organization were discussed there daily.
“On one day, one of these officers, turned suddenly to Tom Cullen and said, ‘Surely you fellows know these men—Liam Tobin, Tom Cullen and Frank Thornton, these are Collins’ three officers and if you can get these fellows we would locate Collins himself.’ Needless to remark, if the ground opened and swallowed us: we could not have been more surprised, and for the moment we felt that we had walked into a trap, but that wasn’t so at all. It was a genuine query to the three Irishmen, whom they believed should know all about the particular fellows they mentioned. The fact remains that although they knew of the existence of the three of us and they knew of the existence of Collins, they actually had no photograph of any of us, and had a very poor description of either Collins or the three of us.”
Major Bennett and Colonel Aimes, British Secret Service, were executed by the legendary Vinny Byrne of Collins’ Squad at 38 Upper Mount Street on the morning of Bloody Sunday.
Thornton goes on to write: “The British Secret service was wiped out on the 21st November 1920. That morning was one of the most critical ones in the history of our Movement. Men were asked to do something on that day which was outside the ordinary scope of the soldier, but realizing their duty to their country and always being ready to obey orders, all jobs were executed. In some instances the LR.A. parties were actually surprised and running fights took place with superior forces of auxiliaries along the streets, but in the words of the Enemy Press and of the Enemy Officers who witnessed it, ‘no greater deeds of heroism were ever seen than those which took place on the streets around Mount Street and Pembroke Street, in these open running fights’ where our men in actual fact defeated an overwhelming and superior force and then safely got away with their wounded. What happened that day (recorded in history as Bloody Sunday) is well known to everybody.”
The fearless—foolhardy?—Michael Collins
Thornton has a couple of hair-raising stories about Collins that are truly terrifying. One concerns how Collins, unarmed, used public houses around Dublin for his meetings despite the threat of being apprehended by the British. Here is an encounter that happened to Kirwan’s pub in Parnell Street at the height of the War of Independence.
“I turned to the right and walked into Kirwan’s by the front entrance,” wrote Thornton, “and walked down towards the rear of the shop to find that Collins had left the snug and was standing at the counter in one of the partitions and I stood in the next, we both called for drinks, but didn’t recognize one another. The Auxiliaries had come into the snug where we had left Sergeant McCarthy [who worked for Collins] and had proceeded to search him. He produced his identity and his gun. On finding out that he was one of their own they ordered a drink for McCarthy and gave him a lecture on the danger of carrying a gun in Dublin, telling him that some of these ‘Shinners’ would come along and probably disarm him if he wasn’t careful, or if they found out that he was an R.I.C. man in civvies, they might shoot him as a spy. This was all rather amusing to McCarthy and ourselves as McCarthy was still working for us. However, after having a few drinks with McCarthy they proceeded out of the shop, casually searched Collins for a gun, searched myself and others. All this time, behind the bar was an I.R.A. man who had a .45 fully loaded and was ready to use it in the event of any attempt being made to take Collins away. They passed out of the shop and we carried on the business that originally brought us there.”
Collins would do just about anything to add intelligence agents inside the British establishment and this made him take some extraordinarily dangerous steps.
“Another man who succeeded, in getting himself into the British Secret Service was an ex-British Officer who had retained his old associations with officers of the British Army who were still in Ireland, a Dublin born man of a very good family. His name is Beaumont (a brother of Seán Beaumont). This man knew very little about the National Movement and was heard boasting in public on at least half a dozen occasions that he was going on out to earn £20,000 reward for the capture of Michael Collins. In actual fact he meant it and I believe if at that time he had an opportunity of handing over Collins he probably might here done so. However, Collins heard the story and knowing this man’s brother very well, who happened to be a good Irish Irelander, he arranged with the brother to have the Ex-Officer brother at a certain rendezvous. Tom Cullen and I were present at the interview and after a long discussion, Collins of course revealed himself and said, ‘I am the fellow that is worth £20 ,000.’ So impressed was this man with his interview with Collins that he subsequently came and offered his services to us. Now in all these matters one has to take a chance, and Collins again showed his good judgment by taking a chance with this man, resulting in the man’s application to his friends in the British Army being not alone seriously considered, but he was actually accepted into the Secret Service.”
Running into Prime Minister Lloyd George—literally
Not all the stories in Thornton’s statement are terrifying. In fact, he has two that are clearly hilarious.
One involved the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. After the British commenced a campaign of murder against prominent Sinn Féin politicians like Tomás Mac Curtain, Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, it was decided to see if similar action could be brought against members of Lloyd George’s cabinet. Thornton doesn’t state it, but this might have been Minister for Defence Cathal Brugha’s plan to try and assassinate prominent MPs in London. Collins was vehemently against this plan, but several of his agents were sent to London to see if this plan would be feasible. In London, Thornton literally ran into Lloyd George:
“One day when Seán Flood and I were going out to Acton on a routine check-up on the Underground Metropolitan Railway, we ran into Westminster Station to find the lift gates just closing. Seán Flood turned round to me and said, ‘I’ll race you to the bottom down the runway.’ It was a long winding passage with about three bends on it. Seán raced off in front and disappeared around the second last bend about a few feet in front of me. I heard a terrific crash and on coming around the corner I fell over two men on the ground, one of whom was Seán Flood.
“We picked ourselves up and both assisted in helping to his feet the man whom Seán Flood had knocked down. To our amazement two other men who were with him ordered us to put our hands up. We more or less ignored them and started to brush down the man and apologize to him when to our amazement we discovered that the man we had knocked down was Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of England.
“The first act of Lloyd George was to tell his two guards to put their guns away, which they reluctant to do, pointing out that from our speech we were evidently Irishmen. Lloyd George’s answer to this was, ‘Well, Irishmen or no Irishmen, if they were out to shoot me I was shot long ago.’ Little he knew the people he was dealing with on that particular occasion, but after a few muttered apologies on our part we went on our way towards the station, but I can tell you that we did not go to Acton. We got a train in the opposite direction and got out at the next station and made sure that we weren’t being followed.”
Was that woman Michael Collins?
The British frustration in failing to apprehend Collins led them to offer some extraordinary alibis for their incompetence. One excuse was that Collins often escaped dressed as a woman!
Collins himself, in Michael Collins Own Story, denied this: “…[L]et me refute the rumor that I resorted to disguises. I never did. I carried convincing papers, it is true, that established my identity as another man—and more than once was held up and searched by Black and Tans. But disguise was unnecessary and foolish.”
Frank Thornton thought he knew where the apocryphal story of Collins dressing up as a woman came from. Collins, the Dáil’s Minister for Finance, had one of his offices at 22 Mary Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. Thornton learned of a raid by the British and warned Collins off. Thornton describes what happened next: “It appears that when they [the British] came in they just counted each member of the staff and rushed through the different offices, and then proceeded to interrogate each member of the staff individually. The officer in charge of the raid stated, ‘I distinctly remember meeting a lady in the inner office when we first entered. Where is she now?’ The other members of the staff didn’t give him any information but started to smile, and after a while somebody suggested in an undertone, ‘That must be Mick Collins who escaped disguised as a lady.’ In actual fact, what happened was this: The lady in question was [Collins’ secretary] Alice Lyons and, being a very cool individual, she calmly walked over to the hat rack, took off her hat and coat, put them on her and quietly walked out past the British before they realized what was happening. The British to this day I believe think that Mick Collins really escaped from that building that day disguised as a woman.”
And that’s why they called Collins “The Big Fellow”—not The Big Lassie!
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of Michael Collins and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, both now available in paperback, Kindle and Audio from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.