The Man Who Won The War


This article was first published by Irish Central on 16/10/2016

By Dermot McEvoy

Michael Collins – ‘The man who won the war’ Arthur Griffins

In 1920, during the height of the War of Independence, Michael Collins wore many hats: TD, Minister for Finance, Commandant-General of the IRA, head of the IRB, IRA Director of Organization, and IRA Director of Intelligence. To say that Collins was a departmental genius is an understatement.

michael_collins_on_bicycleAs the British frantically searched for him and with a £5,000 bounty on his head, Collins, attaché case in hand, casually walked around Dublin dutifully fulfilling commitments to his various portfolios. Intelligence was handled at 3 Crow Street, just a block from Dublin Castle. Up in Harcourt Street at numbers 6 and 76 he did his finance work, in between raids by the British. When the situations got too hot he moved his financial work to 22 Mary Street. He kept other offices at 10 Exchequer Street and 32 Bachelor’s Walk. A lot of his work was also done at Vaughan’s Hotel at 29 Parnell Square (his ‘Joint Number One’) and the Wicklow Hotel at 4 Wicklow Street, just off busy Grafton Street. For a culchie from County Cork, he knew the streets of Dublin just as well as any native Jackeen.

Of all his portfolios the two most important to delivering Ireland her freedom were probably those of Minister for Finance and as Director of Intelligence of the IRA. In order to run a country, you have to have money to finance it.

Collins’s interest in finance goes back to his work in the British postal system in London. The British posts not only conducted the mail, they also were responsible in other areas, such as communications and banking. One of Collins’s unknown mentors in London may have been Vladimir Lenin. Although none of Collins’s biographers mentions it, Collins did go to an economic conference in London in 1915 where Lenin was the featured speaker. We know this because of Joe Good, an Irish Londoner who fought in the Easter Rising and knew Collins very well on both sides of the Irish Sea. In his wonderful memoir of that period, Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary, Good recalls gently baiting the belligerent Big Fellow about his economics knowledge and telling him of his own personal encounter with Comrade Lenin:

I joked that some famous economist had spoken to me. I did not say it was a lecture Lenin had given in London. At least I knew that Lenin could be described as an economist, but that was all I knew on the topic at that time. To my surprise Mick had also been to the same lecture. The Clonakilty lad had certainly got around.

Collins raised money for the infant nation by soliciting a National Loan both at home and in America. It was, however, a thankless task, and Collins soon realized that the collision between money and human greed was not a pretty thing to behold. In a letter to Harry Boland he said:

The enterprise will certainly break my heart if anything ever will. I never imagined there would be so much cowardice, dishonesty, hedging, insincerity, and meanness in the world, as my experience of this work has revealed.

Nevertheless, the National Loan was a huge success, raising £370,000 in Ireland and over $5,000,000 in the United States.

And Collins was quite the promoter also, even producing and directing a film about soliciting money from the Fenian hierarchy. You can see the young Collins—cowlick prominent—comfortably sitting behind a desk at Patrick Pearse’s school, St. Enda’s, in Rathfarnham, greeting prominent members of the movement, including Arthur Griffith, Grace Gifford Plunkett, and Mrs. Margaret Pearse, mother of the Pearse brothers. It’s interesting to note that the paranoid Collins was supremely camera shy — the British apparently had no photos of him — and this film was probably meant more for American consumption than anything else, but it highlights the importance Collins gave to the Loan in that he would compromise his security in order for the Loan to succeed. The film is a fascinating look at the young Collins in action:

The Republican Loan film, 1919

The Loan and Collins’s intelligence network have a connection. By the spring of 1920, the British had sent a magistrate named Alan Bell to examine the books of several Dublin banks where they thought Collins had deposited the Loan money in phony accounts. In one Dame Street bank in the shadow of Dublin Castle, Bell confiscated over £18,000. Bell had been harassing Fenians since the time of the Land League, and Collins decided he had to go. Members of the Squad pulled Bell off a tram on his way to work at Dublin Castle and shot him dead. Suddenly, there were no more bank examiners volunteering to go to Dublin to examine the books. This and the earlier murder of a spy named Jameson caused Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, to put a £5,000 bounty on the head of the man responsible for these deaths. That man, of course, was Michael Collins.

But the portfolio Collins is most famous for is that of Director of Intelligence of the IRA. From 1798, the Irish uprisings had always ended in failure. Collins wondered why. He came to the conclusion that the British always won because of their superior intelligence network, which had skillfully woven spies and informers into every Irish revolutionary movement since the time of Wolfe Tone. Now the big question was, how do you combat this?

ireland_dublin_castle_up_yard.jpgHe decided the best way was to have an intelligence system of his own, that would be superior to anything the British could do. Under his deputy DOI Liam Tobin, he set up an office at 3 Crow Street, a stone’s throw away from Dublin Castle. There he monitored the British and their movements. He knew whenever a British officer or intelligence officer moved in or out of Dublin. He had his own spies in transportation and at the hotels. Crow Street combed the society pages to see who were the British men about town.

With the intelligence operation going full blast, Collins decided in September 1919 to set up his own Active Service Unit (ASU) which came to be known as the Squad or more colourfully as ‘The Twelve Apostles’. Their job was brutal—they would shoot British spies, touts, and informers. Only Collins—and in his absence Richard Mulcahy, chief of staff of the IRA, and Dick McKee, head of the Dublin brigades—could order hits.

It all came to fruition on November 21, 1920 when the Squad executed 14 British Secret Service agents in their beds on what now is called ‘Bloody Sunday’. Twelve months and sixteen days later—with the scales of justice finally favouring the Irish—Collins signed the treaty that made Ireland a nation once again. His Libra dream had come through.

Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at Follow him at Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at

This article was first published by Irish Central on 16/10/2016

One thought on “The Man Who Won The War

  1. A very good article and well researched and the lay out which I enjoyed. A man of and for the people of Ireland who laid his life on the line. He made the big decision knowing full well that at the time it just would not be good enough to his detractors who in themselves could not lay claim to any significent achievements.
    May his memory live on and never be forgotted by thoes who really appreciate his achievements for his country and people.

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