Winston Churchill is thought of as an icon of democracy - especially by those who know nothing of Churchill’s personal history. But would he be remembered as such without Irish rebel Michael Collins?
World War I was not very kind to Churchill. In May of 1915, the Lusitania was sunk under his watch when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. Earlier that same year he came up with his great Ottoman Empire adventure in Gallipoli where he found that “Johnny Turkey” was more than a match for the British and their Australian and French allies. Churchill’s campaign in the Dardanelles was an utter disaster that nearly collapsed Prime Minister Asquith’s government and would lead Churchill himself out of office and to the trenches in France.
By 1919 Churchill’s career was in dry dock, although he was back in Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government as secretary of state for war. His problem this time was not the Turks, but he had another Dardanelle’s problem. In Dublin, under the direction of Michael Collins, guerrilla warfare was turning deadly.
In South Dublin there is one long thoroughfare—the streets named Camden, Wexford, Aungier, and Georges—one has to pass if you’re coming from the Portobello Barracks in Rathmines and heading to Dublin Castle. Every day, convoys of British troops passed this way. The second battalion of the IRA took umbrage and started tossing hand grenades into the lorries.
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The British put chicken wire over their trucks so the grenades would bounce back to their originators, but a fish hook solved that problem and the carnage continued. Soon the British found that the only way to gain safe passage was to seat a well-known citizen as a hostage.
The locals began to call this long thoroughfare the “Dardanelles.” The children soon retrieved a song from the Great War—some say written by Seán O’Casey—called “The Grand Ould Dame Britannia”:
What’s the news the newsboy yells?
What the news the paper tells?
A British retreat from the Dardanelles,
Says the Grand Ould Dame Britannia
By late 1919 Michael Collins, as director of intelligence of the IRA, identified the main reason why Irish rebels had always failed—the superior British intelligence agencies, fueled by informers. He decided to attack the problem at its origin—the “G” Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
This was the section that dealt with “political” dissidents, i.e., the IRA. Collins warned, then threatened, these intelligence coppers to get out and if they didn’t he would permanently remove them. To do this he established his personal assassination squad, which could only shoot on the orders of Collins and his two deputies, Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief of staff, and Dick McKee, commandant of the Dublin IRA brigades. Soon this Squad was calling themselves the “Twelve Apostles.”
In early 1920 Churchill decided that the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force of the country, needed reinforcements. Churchill introduced the Auxiliaries, often known as the “Auxies.” Later a second group of temporary constables for the RIC was introduced. They were soon nicknamed the “Black and Tans” because of their rag-tag uniforms. Together, the Auxies and the Tans would terrorize the Irish people for nearly two years.
Collins continued the systematic removal of eager G-men and by the spring of 1920, he had a bigger problem on his hands that would soon bring him to the personal attention of Secretary Churchill.
Collins was the first Minister for Finance for the new country. Under this portfolio he was charged with raising a National Loan to feed the financial needs of the infant nation. Money was raised and hidden in banks in America and Ireland. The British had prohibited the Loan and were now in search of the money.
They sent a man by the name of Alan Bell to Dublin to find the dough. Bell, a man in his sixties, had been playing with Fenians from the time of Parnell’s Land League. After he confiscated £18,000 in Loan funds, Collins decided he had to go.
On the morning of March 26, 1920, he was pulled off a tram on his way to work at Dublin Castle by the Squad and shot dead. Mission Accomplished—no more bank examiners were volunteering for Dublin duty.
This blatant act immediately caught the eye of Churchill and shocked him. “Really getting very serious,” he wrote to his wife Clementine. “What a diabolical streak [the Irish] have in their character! I expect it is that treacherous, assassinating, conspiring trait which has done them in in bygone ages of history and prevented them from being a great responsible nation with stability and prosperity. It is shocking that we have not been able to bring the murderers to justice.”
Churchill soon put a £5,000—sometimes embellished to £10,000—on the man responsible for Bell’s death. The man responsible for Bell’s death was Michael Collins—and a legend was born.
On the morning of November 21, 1920, Collins’s Squad struck the ultimate blow when they assassinated fourteen British secret service agents on “Bloody Sunday.” For all intents and purposes, the war was over, but murder would rule on both sides until July 1921 when a Truce, with the help of King George V, was called.
By October, against his own wishes, Collins found himself leading the Irish delegation—along with Arthur Griffith—at the treaty talks in 10 Downing Street because de Valera refused to go himself, although he was the president of the Irish parliament. Churchill sat opposite Collins and stared. But Churchill admired courage and over the weeks came to admire the Dublin Pimpernel, a man of action, just the kind of man Churchill saw in himself.
Churchill’s first instinct was always to be bellicose. Now his wife, Clementine, tried to temper that instinct which had always gotten Churchill into trouble. “Do my darling,” she wrote him, “use your influence now for some sort of moderation or at any rate justice in Ireland. Put yourself in the place of the Irish. If you were ever leader you would not be cowed by severity & certainly not by reprisals which fall like the rain from Heaven upon the Just & upon the Unjust. It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you inclined to take for granted that the rough iron-fisted ‘hunnish’ way will prevail.”
Apparently, Clementine’s “Hun” reference had an effect. One night in late November with the negotiations stalemated Churchill invited Collins, Arthur Griffith, Lloyd George and Lord Birkinhead back to his townhouse for drinks. Griffith went upstairs with the prime minister while Collins, Churchill and Birkinhead remained on the ground floor.
And they started to drink. Cognac. Collins, always with a sweet tooth, wanted his spiked with curaçao. And they drank more. Soon the conversation turned ugly. The question of the loyalty oath to the king piqued Collins’s inner-Fenian. He suddenly turned on Churchill in such a threatening manner that Churchill, years later, wrote that “He was in his most difficult mood, full of reproaches and defiances, and it was very easy for everyone to lose his temper.”
“You put a £5,000 bounty on my head,” Collins bellowed at Churchill. Birkinhead was sure blows were about to be struck. But Churchill quietly took Collins by the hand and brought him to the other end of the room. There, on the wall, was a wanted poster from the Boer War for one Winston Spencer Churchill—for £25!
“At least I put a good amount on your head!” said Churchill.
Collins laughed and the tension was broken. From that day onward Churchill was part of the solution in Ireland, not the problem. Churchill, now secretary of state for the colonies, worked hand-in-hand with Collins and Griffith to birth the new Irish Free State. After the deaths of Griffith and Collins he continued to help the new state. It was a sign of growth and maturity on Churchill’s part that he could go from warmonger to peacemaker.
Upon Collins’s death, Churchill wrote: “He was an Irish patriot, true and fearless... When in future times the Irish Free State is not only prosperous and happy but an active and annealing force... regard will be paid by widening circles to his life and to his death...Successor to a sinister inheritance, reared among fierce conditions and moving through ferocious times, he supplied those qualities of action and personality without which the foundations of Irish nationhood would not have been re-established.” For the rest of his life, Churchill always referred to Collins as “General Collins”—high praise indeed.
After the firm establishment of the Irish Free State, Churchill would continue to hold office until the Depression. Then, he found himself in the political wilderness. But, unlike Lloyd George, he would not find himself tripping to Berchtesgaden to prostrate himself before Adolf Hitler in admiration. Perhaps he had learned something from Michael Collins—never bend the knee to the tyrant.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising." This passage is taken from his book “Irish Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ireland.” This chapter is entitled “Can’t tell the rebels without a scorecard?”
* Originally published in 2016.