The official birthday of the United States of America is July 4, 1776, the date on the Declaration of Independence.
The Republic of Ireland, because of its troubled colonial status, does not have an official birthday.
Some say it should be December 6, 1921 when Michael Collins signed the Treaty with Britain establishing the Irish Free State, predecessor to the Republic. Others think June 16, 1922 would be ideal because that was the date the Irish people voted to approve the Treaty.
I would argue for another date—November 21, 1920. It’s called Bloody Sunday in the annals of Irish history and it was the day that Michael Collins’ Squad, The Twelve Apostles, shot 14 British Secret Service agents dead in their beds. All were spies and all paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the Crown.
Why is this important? Because for the previous 700 years the British had terrorized the Irish into servitude, but afterwards, within a matter of 12 months and 16 days, Ireland was a nation once again. Do the math—it’s obvious in this case that the ends did indeed justify the means.
The legend of the Twelve Apostles has spread, especially in the last 50 years. The RTE/BBC series on the history of Ireland brought out several members of the Squad, most notably Vinny Byrne, to tell their tales. The many biographies on Michael Collins also closely examined the Squad and we saw the Squad in full action in the Liam Neeson biographic flick, Michael Collins.
The best book on the Twelve Apostles to date has been T. Ryle Dwyer’s The Squad. It is a comprehensive look at the Squad in action, going into great detail about events and characters.
However, for someone just getting into modern Irish revolutionary history I would recommend Tim Pat Coogan’s new book, The Twelve Apostles. Unlike Dwyer’s tome, this is a more colloquial history of Collins’ Squad, how it came about, how it acted, and how it disintegrated after Collins’ death.
Collins Creates the Apostles
This book is as much about Collins as it is about the Squad. As Coogan points out: “One man’s freedom fighter is, after all, another man’s terrorist—and nobody in modern Irish history encapsulates this slogan more fully than Collins, who can well be described as both a freedom fighter and a terrorist.”
For 700 years, the Irish had been battling the British—and losing. Collins decided—after Eamon de Valera had thankfully left for America—that if things were going to change a radical solution had to be found.
Collins intelligence operation, under Deputy Director of Intelligence Liam Tobin, was up and running at #3 Crow Street and they were compiling information on spies and touts. Thus, in September 1919 he established the Squad to carry out the elimination of said spies and informers.
The Squad was an Active Service Unit (ASU) of the IRA and reported directly to Collins. Only Collins—and in his absence Dick McKee, Commandant of the Dublin Battalions and Richard Mulcahy, Chief-of State of the IRA—could order hits.
According to Paddy Daly, an original member of the Squad and later its second leader, Collins had “…a short talk, the gist of which was that any of us who had read Irish history would know that no organisation in the past had an intelligence system through which spies and informers could be dealt with, [and] that now the position was going to be rectified by the formation of an intelligence branch and Active Service Unit or whatever else it is called.”
Daly went on to say that “…Collins emphasized that ‘under no circumstances whatever were we to take it on ourselves to shoot anybody, even if we knew he was a spy, unless we had to do it in self-defence while on Active Service. He also told us to remember that all members of G Division and the police were not our enemies, and that indiscriminate shooting might result in the death of friends. We discovered afterwards that many of them were our friends.’ ”
Collins knew the danger his Apostles were facing and was dedicated to them. They, in turn, loved him. According to its most famous shooter, Vinny Byrne, Collins went out of his way to stay close to his shooters. “Collins was a marvel,” said Vinny. “If he hadn’t done the work he did, we would still be under Britain. Informers and drink would have taken care of us, but our movement was temperate. Collins would meet us from time to time and say, you’re doing great work, lads. There was no formality about him. I remember after the Irish government was set up, I was on guard duty at Government Buildings, and he was Commander-in-Chief. He saw me and came over to me and put his arm around me and said, How are you going on, Vinny?
“The morale effect of his visits was wonderful. He would come in and say: ‘Well, lads, how are ye getting on?’ and pass a joke or two with the rest of us. He was loved and honoured by each and every one of us and his death was felt very keenly by the Squad. I am proud to say that Mick stood by us in our hard times, and that every single-member of the Squad stood by him in his hard times, without exceptions.”
The Apostles Get to Work
The first victim of the Squad was a detective named Patrick Smith, nicknamed “The Dog.” His shooting was a learning experience. He was shot with .38s in the back as he ran away. It took him three weeks to die. Collins was incensed. They immediately went from .38s to .45s and decided that head shots would be necessary to achieve success. Eventually the Squad worked in teams where one group would be the shooters and another team would make sure that the shooters were not interfered with and got away.
It was a messy war, but the people were protectors, especially in Dublin City. Per Coogan, “…two of the top intelligence leaders in the IRA, Florence O’Donoghue in Cork and Frank Thornton in Dublin, indicated that the people were indeed now solidly behind such militant policies. They acted as the fighting men’s eyes and ears, shielding them from their enemies and making it possible for the guerrillas to continue to fight.”
In the spring of 1920 Collins assassinated two spies and it caught the attention of Winston Churchill. The elimination of “Jameson,” who had gotten close enough to Collins to report back to Dublin Castle that he was wearing a mustache, and Alan Bell, a bank examiner after the National Loan money, shocked Churchill and made him rush both the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans into Ireland. And Coogan cuts Churchill, citadel of freedom to many, no slack on his part in the rape of Ireland during 1920: “Winston Churchill was largely responsible for the creation of both the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans,,,”
Coogan also points out that future British generals, Bernard Montgomery and Arthur Percival, also got their training in the Irish quagmire of 1920. He quotes from Montgomery’s memoir: “My own view is that to win a war of this sort you must be ruthless.” The Tans and Auxies obviously got their marching orders from the top. It is also interesting to note that Percival, whose men burnt Collins’ childhood home in Woodfield to the ground, went on to become a laughing stock in World War II, surrendering Singapore to an underwhelming force of Japanese troops in 1942. He was lucky enough to survive and witness the surrender of the Japanese on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945.
“Murder by the Throat”
Coogan makes some very good points on the events that immediately preceded Bloody Sunday. October was a bloody month for the IRA. Seán Treacy, the legendary Tipperary rebel, was shot dead in Talbot Street on October 14, 1920. Dan Breen in the same period was badly shot up and was hid in the Mater Hospital by the nuns and nurses. On October 25th, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, starved himself to death after a 73-day hunger strike.
Perhaps the last straw for Collins was the hanging of Kevin Barry, a young IRA man caught up in an IRA operation that went awry, in Mountjoy Prison on November 1st, All Saints Day. Collins was looking for ways to break out Barry, but Coogan reveals that plans were squashed by his sister Eileen and mother who believed that there was a chance of a reprieve. They were wrong.
“The Barry execution affected Michael Collins deeply,” writes Coogan. “Observers have left accounts of their leader throwing down his pen from time to time and groaning ‘poor Barry.’ As though to compound the effect of his execution, moreover, the British made the mistake of selecting the feast of All Saints (1 November) for the hanging: the British official Mark Sturgis remarked in his diary that it was ‘rather a pity no one noticed it’s All Saints Day.’ ”
To add insult to injury British Prime Minister David Lloyd George augustly boasted in London on November 9th that he now had “Murder by the throat” in Ireland. Collins would soon show Lloyd George exactly who had who by the throat.
On the morning of Sunday, November 21, 1920 at exactly 9 a.m. the Apostles, supplemented with men chosen from the Dublin Brigade—including future Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Seán Lemass—swooped in on members of the notorious Cairo Gang and others, leaving 14 of them dead.
“What did Bloody Sunday achieve?” asks Coogan. “As anyone who has had experience of terrorist events can testify, one of the most demoralizing events of underground warfare is the receipt of a message from the other side saying: ‘We know where you live.’ Bloody Sunday made it unmistakably clear to the hosts of British agents in Dublin that they could never feel safe, by day or night, in the streets or in the ostensible peace of their own lodgings.”
De Valera Returns
At Christmas time 1920, after a 19-month hiatus in America, Eamon de Valera returned to Dublin. Coogan tells the tale of Dev’s arrival in his book: “De Valera was now preoccupied with two different forms of maneuvering: one against the British, and the other against Collins. Indeed, practically his first remarks on arriving in Ireland indicted the tone that was to dominate: Collins had arranged that de Valera was to be met in Dublin by Tom Cullen and spirited to a safe house. De Valera asked Cullen how things were going—and Cullen replied, with more enthusiasm than diplomacy, that things were going great: sure, the Big Fellow was leading them and things were going splendidly. To which de Valera replied: ‘Big Fellow! We’ll see who’s the Big Fellow’—and angrily struck the dockside rail with his fist.”
Although Coogan has written biographies of both Collins and de Valera there is no doubt that he is a Collins man and has a low opinion of Dev. He takes shots at de Valera whenever he can, noting that during the Easter Rising Dev’s leadership had not been sterling (“…Éamon de Valera, who had commanded, not very efficiently, a battalion at Boland’s Mill…”) and questioning what he had achieved while spending a year-and-a-half in America, enjoying the hospitality of some of America’s finest hotels. He also points out de Valera’s duplicitous relationship to Collins’ National Loan: “In addition, while de Valera was given great credit in Ireland for having raised some five million dollars in a bond to fund the struggle for Irish freedom, what was not widely understood was that he had left some sixty percent of this money lying in American banks—and that most of this would in the future be channeled towards the establishment of the de Valera-controlled Irish Press newspaper.”
De Valera thought he had the solution to his Collins problem—send him to America! Collins’ response is classic Collins: “the long hoor won’t get rid of me that easily.” Thus, one of the great political sobriquets was christened.
De Valera knew nothing of guerrilla warfare and for some reason, thought one big battle a month would be grand. Collins held off de Valera and Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defence and a Collins foe, as long as he could, but finally Dev got his way and the Custom House in Dublin was burned in May 1921. “Collins had good reason to be unhappy,” writes Coogan, “de Valera’s Custom House catastrophe could be said to have marked the end of the Twelve Apostles as an elite unit.”
The burning of the Custom House turned out to be one of the great failure/successes of the War of Independence. Over 100 men were arrested and the Squad as it was fashioned by Collins was no more. The IRA in Dublin was on its last legs. However, the British, in one of the great miscalculations of all time, thought the IRA was still strong and the fight could go on indefinitely. Thus, a truce was brought about in July of 1921.
The Apostles Disgracefully Disintegrate
Although de Valera didn’t want Collins with him when he went to London in the summer of 1921 to calculate what the Irish could expect from the British, by the fall Dev wanted no part of negotiating the Treaty. Coogan lays out why: “Quite clearly—and quite frankly—there was not a snowball’s chance in hell of the Irish producing a thirty-two-county Republic within such a framework…But de Valera found a way out of facing the truth of the situation; he resolved that he would not go back to London again to face the music—and he decided that instead he would send Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Collins knew immediately he was being presented with one of the larger poisoned chalices in the history of Anglo-Irish relations…”
It is as we shift into the Civil War and the death of Collins that we see the sad and disgraceful disintegration of the Apostles. It is quite apparent that Collins instilled a strong discipline in his Apostles and the men who worked in intelligence in Crow Street. With Collins’ death and the bitterness that followed, all discipline disappeared. Almost every member of the Squad was pro-Treaty and they went to work for the Free State in the army and police. The Squad moved into Oriel House on Westland Row and many of its members—like Liam Tobin, Charlie Dalton, Paddy Daly and Dave Neligan—took to torture against the anti-Treaty forces. Daly, brutally commanding the army in Kerry, literally took no prisoners. And Neligan told Coogan that the “Tobin bunch” were responsible for the horrific death of Noel Lemass, brother of the future Taoiseach, after the end of the Civil War. Apparently, the idealism and discipline Collins instilled in his Apostles, died with Collins at Béal na Bláth on that cold August day in 1922.
The Twelve Apostles is an important book that breaks down the history of the Squad to its basics, while explaining the complicated relationship between Collins and de Valera. A worthy contribution to the historical literature of the period.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Our Lady of Greenwich Village, now available in paperback from Skyhorse Publishing. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook atfacebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy/