One of the problems of figuring out exactly what happened during the Irish War of Independence is that there is incomplete, or worse, contradictory information. Many of the important participants died in action; some, like Robert Brennan and Michael Noyk, wrote long and detailed reports which explored the characters and the events.
Others, like Charlie Dalton, Dan Breen, Batt O’Connor and Dave Neligan wrote riveting books about this exciting and terrifying time. Still others, like Michael Collins' intelligence chief Liam Tobin, wrote only a few pages and didn’t utter one word about their most important tasks.
Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounds the IRA Active Service Unit (ASU) known as the Squad and more colorfully as Michael Collins’ Twelve Apostles. The purpose of this ASU was to use information supplied by Tobin’s intelligence agents to target British secret service agents—and then eliminate them quickly and viciously.
One of the mysteries surrounding the Squad was: who was the leader? Most historians pin this label on Mick McDonnell. Later it is passed on to Paddy O’Daly [AKA, Paddy Daly]. But the transfer of power has always been hidden in the fog of guerrilla warfare.
To find some clarity to the history of the Squad I went through the often-contradictory witness statements of McDonnell and O’Daly at the Bureau of Military History website. I also consulted the witness statement of the Squad’s most colorful member, Vinny Byrne. Here’s what I learned.
Mick McDonnell takes command of the Squad
Colonel Michael McDonnell’s witness statement is succinct to say the least. Only seven pages long, it is dated March 31, 1949 and sent from Los Gatos, California. McDonnell fought in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory in Bishop Street in 1916 under John MacBride. At the surrender, he advised MacBride to get away, but the man Yeats called a “vainglorious lout,” replied, “Oh Mac! I wouldn’t leave the boys.”
He was imprisoned in Frongoch in Wales with the rest of the rebels and it was probably there that he met Collins—and Paddy O’Daly. Upon his return to Dublin he insinuates that it might have been his brainchild to create the Squad.
“From an early stage,” he wrote, “I advocated the execution of those who were responsible for the identity of the men executed in 1916 and who were at the same time watching us. This was at first turned down by Dick McKee [commandant of the Dublin IRA Brigades] who felt that the people would not stand for this action at this time, but subsequently this was done.”
McDonnell goes on to say, “Although the Active Service Unit known to us as the ‘Squad’ was formed on May Day 1919, it did not become a full-time unit until early 1920.”
He adds that he “took over the Squad early in 1919.” This seems to contradict most opinions on when the Squad was founded. In his excellent history, "The Squad: And the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins," T. Ryle Dwyer says that the first meeting to set up the Squad was in July 1919 in North George's Street.
Detective Sergeant Smyth is gunned down
McDonnell goes on to tell of the genesis of the Apostles: “Dick McKee with the sanction of Michael Collins approached me although I was not O/C [Officer-in-Command] of the 2nd Battalion and asked me to select four men to carry out a special job which was the shooting of eight Detectives who were prominent in Easter Week and still watching us.
"The first of these men to be executed was Detective Sergeant Smith [AKA Smyth] of the ‘G’ Division [the political intelligence wing of the Dublin Metropolitan Police].”
The shooting of Smyth—which McDonnell admits the Squad “had made a right mess of…”—caused the Squad to change their modus operandi. Smith was shot with .38s as he ran away. He spent five weeks in the hospital before expiring. This caused Collins to change plans—from now on only heavier .45s would be used and head-shots would become mandatory.
It was around this time that teams were introduced. One team would be the shooters and the backup team would make sure that the shooters got away and were not interfered with by police or civilians.
Vinny Byrne was recruited for the Squad by McDonnell himself. Here’s how Byrne described his conscription: “'Would you shoot a man, Byrne?' I replied: 'It’s according to who he was.' He said: 'What about Johnnie Barton?' 'Oh,' I said: 'I wouldn't mind'—as he had raided my house. So Mick said: 'That settles it. You may have a chance.'”
Byrne goes on to say, “The squad commanded by Mick McDonnell at that time was not a paid squad. I cannot say under whose instructions or authority it operated. All I know is that I got my instructions from Mick McDonnell.”
Byrne also added: “When this squad was formed, it came directly under the control of the Director of Intelligence [Collins] or his deputy [Tobin], and under no other authority. It was commanded by Mick McDonnell.”
One thing is for sure—Vinny Byrne, one of the first members of the Squad, thought Mick McDonnell was the leader.
Meet the notorious Paddy O’Daly
Paddy O’Daly had an impeccable Fenian resume. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1907 at the age of 18. According to his witness statement, he was intimate with all the gigantic nationalistic names of the time: Bulmer Hobson, Seán MacDiarmada, the Pearse Brothers, Seán Heuston, Seán O’Casey, Arthur Griffith, Thomas MacDonagh, Tom Clarke, and James Connolly.
He began Easter Monday with Connolly and Clarke at Liberty Hall. He adds a little intrigue to that morning in that he mentions that Tom Clarke had his arm in a sling and O’Daly had to help him on with his tunic. From Liberty Hall O’Daly went directly to the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park where he rendered British ammunition useless.
He spent the rest of the week fighting at the Four Courts where he was wounded in his right arm. After spending a month in hospital, he was arrested and sent to the Frongoch prison camp in Wales where he met Collins and McDonnell. All of this information is contained in his first witness statement, which runs only eleven pages long.
Who’s in charge here?
O’Daly’s second witness statement—in which he refers to himself as “Major General P. Daly”—runs 83 pages and in great detail covers all the important events of the period. The one thing that strikes the reader is how territorial O’Daly is—he’s always in charge and not afraid to let you know it.
O’Daly gives some very interesting details on the formation of the Squad—which directly contradict Mick McDonnell’s recollections. “Dick McKee,” O’Daly wrote, “told Joe Leonard and myself to report to 46 Parnell Square—the meeting place of the Keating Branch of the Gaelic League—on 19th September, 1919… We met Michael Collins and Dick Mulcahy [Chief-of-Staff of the IRA] at the meeting and they told us that it was proposed to form a Squad. This Squad would take orders directly from Michael Collins, and, in the absence of Collins, the orders would be given to through either Dick McKee or Dick Mulcahy.
"We were told that we were not to discuss our movements or actions with Volunteer officers or with anybody else. Collins told us that we were being formed to deal with spies and informers and that he had authority from the Government to have this matter carried out.
"He gave us a short talk, the gist of which was that any of us who had read Irish history would know that no organization in the past had an intelligence system through which spies and informers could be dealt with, but that now the position was going to be rectified by the formation of an Intelligence Branch, an Active Service Unit or whatever else it is called… Michael Collins only picked four of us for the Squad that night—Joe Leonard, Seán Doyle, Ben Barrett and myself in charge.
"He told the others that he had special work to do, but he told the four of us that we were to leave our employment and that we would be compensated for loss of work… Michael Collins emphasized to us that under no circumstances whatever were we to take it on ourselves to shoot anybody, even if we knew he was a spy, unless no had to do it in self-defense 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 how many of them were our friends.”
No fan of McDonnell
In an extraordinary statement, O’Daly declares, “Mick McDonnell was one of the best men in Dublin but he had one fault. He was always butting in, and on account of that he often did damage because he was too eager. He was not a member of the Squad.”
Not only does O’Daly put McDonnell down, but he says he was not a member of the Squad, which is directly contradicted by Vinny Bryne’s statement which lists a timeline of the Squad from beginning to end. According to Byrne, here’s the make-up of the Squad:
“Squad Personnel. First Part-time squad: Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jimmy Slattery, Paddy Daly, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Vincent Byrne. First fulltime paid: Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jimmy Slattery, Paddy Daly, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Vincent Byrne, Sean Doyle, Paddy Griffin, Eddie Byrne, Mick Reilly, Jimmy Conroy.”
Tim Pat Coogan in his recent history, "The Twelve Apostles: Michael Collins, the Squad and Ireland’s Fight for Freedom," says, “Byrne’s statement [on the original make-up of the Squad] can be regarded as being both authoritative and comprehensive.”
Both O’Daly and McDonnell were obviously both members of the Squad, so O’Daly’s denial of McDonnell is not only baffling, but a prevarication of the highest order.
Or is there another explanation?
Michael Collins has a big secret
So why do McDonnell and O’Daly contradict each other so much on the origins and make-up of the Squad? If you recall, Vinny Byrne was recruited to shoot one Detective Sergeant Johnny Barton by McDonnell. The shooting of Barton revealed Collins’ big secret.
Collins discovered that the affable Barton had decided to do political work and decided he had to go. He sent the Squad to do the job. In fact, he sent two Squads to do the job. One Squad comprised of McDonnell, his half-brother Tom Keogh, Vinny Byrne and Jim Slattery. The other Squad was made up of O’Daly, Joe Leonard and Ben Barrett. As they tracked Barton up and down Grafton Street and finally on his way to the DMP Police Station in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, the two Squads converged on Barrett and shot him dead. Neither Squad knew that another Squad had been sent by Collins to do the same job.
“The fact that there were two elements of the Squad,” wrote Dwyer in The Squad, “which did not even know of each other’s existence was a measure of how Collins operated. He had an obligation to protect the identity of his spies and agents, with the result that he was very secretive. ‘Never let one side of your mind know what the other is doing,’ was a favorite saying of Collins.
Later some people were dogmatic in stating that only a certain number of police worked for Collins, but nobody will ever know the true extent of the co-operation, because that knowledge went with Collins to his grave. Certain handlers knew of the people that they were dealing with, but Collins would only have told them of others on a need-to-know basis. If he had done otherwise, the identities of his agents would inevitably have leaded out to the enemy.”
Tracking Lord French and Alan Bell
Mick McDonnell seemed to be in charge of the failed assassination attempt on Lord French, the Lord Lieutenant/Viceroy of Ireland, in December 1919. But it appears that both McDonnell and O’Daly thought they were in charge of that operation.
“The final attack took place on 19th December,” wrote O’Daly, “when Lord French was returning from Boyle, and there were only thirteen in the attacking party. Michael Collins gave me instructions to take command and to bring with me the members of my Squad, as well as Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Vincent Byrne and the four Tipperary men.”
O’Daly’s statement that “Collins gave me instructions to take command,” is directly contradicted by McDonnell in his witness statement: “I was in charge of that ambush.” He goes on to state that “I gave the signal for the cart to be brought out and I put Paddy Daly and four others inside the hedge with hand-grenades.”
McDonnell is backed up in this claim by Vinny Byrne: “I am of opinion that it was Mick McDonnell who was in charge of the Ashtown operation, for the reason that it was I who brought him the information about the arrival of Lord French, in the first place, and, from the time he received that information.
"Until the actual operation took place, he seemed to be the man who was giving all the orders. During this operation, there were two squads of men working. The one of which I was a member operated under Mick McDonnell and the other party of men operated under Paddy Daly.”
It is obvious that Collins was still operating with two Squads and that both leaders of the separate entities were in the dark. It seems that after the attempt on Lord French, Collins merged the two Squads into one. Dwyer in "The Squad" says, “It was around this time that the two elements of the Squad were joined into one whole time unit. There is no specific date for when the amalgamation took place, but Vinny Byrne put it at early March 1920…”
McDonnell is still active in late March 1920 in the shooting of Alan Bell who was after Collins’ National Loan money. McDonnell gives a vivid description of this event: “After the formation of the full-time ‘Squad’ took place early 1920 we executed many important British agents, including Allen [sic] Bell, a notorious R.M. [Royal Magistrate] who was brought to Dublin Castle to investigate financial transactions in the Banks believed to be associated with the Dáil Loan, etc
"His work was considered to be a menace to our cause and H.Q. considered it essential that he be executed. The ‘Squad’ tracked him down and one morning, boarding an incoming Dalkey tram in small numbers, confronted him, took him off the tram at Sandymount Avenue and shot him at the corner of Simmonscourt Road. No further attempt was made to continue his investigations by anybody else.”
Why did Mick McDonnell bow out?
After the Bell shooting we do not hear much about Mick McDonnell anymore. What happened? There has been speculation that he suffered a nervous breakdown because of the strain and that somehow, he ended up in California just as the heavy work of the Squad was beginning.
Coogan in his "The Twelve Apostles" comes up with some very interesting scenarios about McDonnell: “Another casualty of the raid was Mick McDonnell who, at the time of the Squad’s attempt on Lord French’s life—and greatly to the alarm of his comrades, was having a relationship with a policeman’s daughter. The shock of Savage’s death, combined with McDonnell’s marital problems, brought on a temporary nervous breakdown.
"Tom Keogh’s [McDonnell’s half-brother] method of dealing with this potential security risk was to take his gun and, accompanied by Vinnie Byrne, go to the Phoenix Park, a favored spot for lovers, in an unsuccessful search for ‘this Jezebel’ whom he would certainly have shot if he found her. Collins solved the problem by having McDonnell safely spirited away to the United States.”
Coogan concludes, “The former Squad leader Mick McDonnell prospered in California. He had a son, whom he named Michael Collins, and who served in the United States Air Force. McDonnell became the respected general factotum of the prominent McEnery family headed by John P. McEnery, Superintendent of the United States Mint in San Francisco.”
Paddy O’Daly’s terrible legacy
With the disappearance of McDonnell, O’Daly seems to be firmly in charge of the Squad. He played a major part in every major shooting of the Squad up to the time of the burning of the Custom House in May 1921. But the Custom House operation, the brainchild of Eamon de Valera and strongly opposed by Collins, killed the Squad when over 100 IRA men were arrested. The Squad, as originally conceived by Collins, was no more.
With the advent of the Civil War in the summer of 1922 the name of Paddy O’Daly is blackened. Both Dwyer, and especially Coogan, recall the work that O’Daly and his Free State soldiers did in the southwest during the Civil War.
“Major General Paddy O’Daly,” wrote Dwyer, “was in charge of the Free State’s soldiers in Kerry who committed the worst atrocities of the Civil War, and he presided over the subsequent army inquiry, which was a proverbial whitewash.”
Acting more like Nazi SS-Einsatzgruppen storm troopers than representatives of the new Free State Army, Daly and former Collins Spy-in-the-Castle RIC Detective Dave Neligan, according to Coogan, “reacted with fury to events in the southwest. Daly said later of his Kerry sojourn.
‘No one told me to bring any kid gloves, so I didn’t bring any.’ It was due to his lack of kid gloves, then, that he introduced a new policy against the remnant of the Anti-Treaty faction: he authorized the use of Republican prisoners to clear allegedly mined roads because it was ‘the only alternative left us to prevent the wholesale slaughter of our men.’ ”
Coogan is referring to the Knocknagoshel Slaughter where eight Anti-Treaty prisoners were blown-up while clearing road mines planted by their comrades. “In the days and weeks following these events at Knocknagoshel,” Coogan wrote, “mass round-ups or suspected Republicans were commonplace. Torture was the order of the day as Daly and Neligan sought information on their opponents.”
It is interesting to note that O’Daly, in his witness statement, never mentions his work in the Civil War. He ends his statement at the time of the Truce in July 1921.
Rudderless without Collins
So why did men like O’Daly, more than equal to their task of confronting the highly-trained British Secret Service, lose their discipline and fall apart without the leadership of Collins?
“Most of those closest to Collins,” wrote Dwyer, “were unable to make the adjustment to civilian authority. They were virtually leaderless without him. They tried to live up to his ideals, but as the Big Fellow was such a secretive individual, nobody was ever quite sure where he really stood.”
But with all the great faults of McDonnell and O’Daly, it should be remembered that in the moment of Ireland’s greatest crisis, between 1919 and 1921, the leaders of Michael Collins Apostles did their job.
People often ask “Do the ends justify the means?”
I answer this question with three facts: 1) for 700 years the British occupied Ireland; 2) on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, the Squad assassinated 14 extremely dangerous agents of the British Secret Service; 3) one year and 16 days later, Ireland became a nation once again.
After 700 years of British occupation, Michael Collins—with the help of his Squad and its two highly flawed leaders, Mick McDonnell and Paddy O’Daly—had solved Ireland’s quest for nationhood.
* 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 at www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.