“Michael Collins stirred from the coping stone against which he had lain hidden, clambered up the sloping slates, went down the stairs, and, looking neither right nor left, cycled away—his dark hair waving in the wind.” -Desmond Ryan
Collins was released from gaol in December of 1916 and felt anxious to get home. He traveled to County Cork, but found little left to keep him there. His grandmother had passed away and his friends did not share his zeal for involvement in the Republican cause. It seemed only natural for him to return to Dublin and throw himself in headfirst. The cause surely had a place for him. He was offered an accounting position in the National Aid Association, an organization designed to provide help to the families of those who died in the Easter Rising and to assist Volunteers in supporting themselves. Collins was a natural at this. He had developed impeccable business and finance skills in his youth and he was fair-handed in managing the money that came in and the notes that went out. As it has been said, not even one shilling was unaccounted for when Michael was in charge, which is quite remarkable considering he often conducted business from his bicycle. Also at this time, Collins's influence in the IRB was growing and this gave him the opportunity to intercept relevant information. In addition to these jobs, Collins worked to revitalize Sinn Féin, though he and its founder, Arthur Griffith, did not always see eye to eye on matters of policy. DeValera had been chosen as Sinn Féin's candidate to run against a Parliamentary party opponent and Collins managed to successfully bolster the support for DeValera to be elected in a landslide. Interestingly enough, Collins did possess prior experience with campaign work. A.T.Q. Stewart offers the details on Collins's earlier campaign strategies:
"When another by-election occurred in South Longford in April, Collins enthusiastically proposed as a candidate a local man, Joseph McGuinness, who was serving a sentence in Lewes jail. The idea met with considerable opposition… On his (Eamon DeValera’s) instructions, McGuinness refused to allow his name to go forward. Collins ignored de Valera and went ahead anyway, adopting the ingenious slogan, ‘Put him in to get him out.’ He went to Granard in County Longford and threw himself heart and soul into the campaign which, as de Valera had predicted, was closely fought. On the first count Patrick McKenna, the Irish Parliamentary Party candidate, was elected by a narrow margin, but ‘a bundle of uncounted votes was then discovered’ and McGuinness was declared the winner by thirty-seven votes. Many years afterwards the respectable chairman of an Irish building society explained to Collins’s biographer, Tim Pat Coogan, how the bundle (of uncounted votes) was discovered. ‘I jumped up on the platform, put a .45 to the head of the returning officer, clicked back the hammer, and told him to think again.’"
All was not well. Thomas Ashe, the president of the IRB, and two others were accused of delivering inflammatory speeches. As punishment, they were sent to Mountjoy Gaol and treated as common criminals. They argued that they should be treated instead as political prisoners because they were arrested on political grounds. (Such factors would arise again during Bobby Sands' imprisonment in the 1970s & 80s.) To get the point across, this group and about 40 other prisoners went on a hunger strike which only lasted six days. It was at this time that the inmates were forcibly fed, but Ashe did not survive: he died four days later. The details of his death are ghastly:
"Among the close friends Collins made at this time was Thomas Ashe who was, after de Valera, the most senior of the 1916 rebel officers to have survived, and who had been elected head of the IRB. In August 1917 Ashe was arrested and charged with making a seditious speech at Ballinalee in County Longford. Collins, who had shared the platform with him at the meeting, visited him in the Curragh detention center, and attended his court martial two weeks later. At this stage Collins treated the prosecution as a huge joke, telling Ashe’s sister it was rather like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial By Jury… By now there were about forty prisoners in Mountjoy jail convicted under the DORA (Defense of the Realm Act) legislation, and they began to organize themselves to demand special status as political prisoners. When they broke prison rules they were punished by having their boots and bedding removed, and they then went on hunger-strike. The authorities’ response was forcible feeding, so inexpertly administered that on 25 September Ashe suddenly collapsed. He was taken to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital where he died a few hours later… Sinn Féin had been given a propaganda weapon that they were able to use to enormous effect throughout the world, and particularly in the United States. Collins, in Volunteer uniform, delivered the graveside address, and afterwards was observed weeping bitterly" (A.T.Q. Stewart).
"In defiance of government regulations, the Volunteers were armed and in uniform when they escorted 30,000 or 40,000 mourners, including Catholic priests and trade unionists, to [Ashe's] graveside at Glasnevin cemetery. There was no oration. Three volleys were fired and the Volunteer commander, a big fellow with the insignia of a vice-commandant, gave a brief valediction in Irish and English. ‘Nothing additional remains to be said,’ he declared. ‘The volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian.’ The speaker, so forthright and simple, utterly different in manner from the poetic and mystical Pearse, had been an aide de camp to Joseph Plunkett in the GPO, suffered imprisonment afterwards and campaigned for Count Plunkett at North Roscommon. He was Michael Collins" (Peter & Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland).
Though Michael continued to work at financing the National Aid, he was concerned with the lack of weaponry plaguing the movement. Plus, as a student of Irish history, Collins realized that rebellions in the past had failed largely because of a fundamental lack of secrecy and the skillful use of informants by the British. The underpinnings of an uprising would already be doomed to crumble if plans of a revolt were mentioned too loudly—British spies were never far away and it was the G division of the Dublin Castle which housed the news. In 1918, Collins met Ned Broy, a veritable double agent who was disillusioned with his job as a G-man. He offered to supply Michael with the confidential information he received. Broy had proposed to help the rebels during the Easter Rising but naturally, they were wary of a "helpful" G-man. Michael realized what an amazing opportunity this was and seized it. (In fact, Collins would later work with two other G-men employed in the Castle itself.) Another of Collins’ potent allies was his cousin, Nancy O'Brien. She worked as a telegraph operator and was able to copy messages for Collins to give him an extra edge. Collins's powerful information network definitely served him well:
"He would obtain information from a wide variety of people. For instance, he had constructed a network of people among the railway men, who carried messages to him from the country and back again from him to the different brigades. Another group worked in the Post Office intercepting letters... Collins had a knack of picking up miscellaneous sources of information which he could use to complete the mosaic... It was typical of Collins that he would use a place as innocuous as a public library to coordinate his various sources of information" (Ulick O'Connor).
Collins had a great friend in Joe O'Reilly also. O'Reilly was a young man recruited by Collins for the National Aid Association and quickly became a close, beloved friend. He was an assistant willing to do anything Michael asked of him, including putting up with temper tantrums and verbal outbursts.
Michael Collins had to be one of the hardest working men in Ireland at this time, sometimes devoting only three or four hours a night to sleep. Aside from earlier duties he maintained, he would ride around Dublin on his bicycle delivering messages personally. Collins was employing the strategy Chesterton wrote about in The Man Who Was Thursday—he knew the British would expect him to be in hiding and thus staying out in the open was the smartest thing to do.
"It seems to be an iron law with policemen both in Collins' time and ours, that terrorists are not expected to wear pin-striped suits and clean collars and ties" (Coogan).
"On the desk in front of him, neat heaps of reports and bundles of papers were ranged round the typewriter—these and a glance at the maps on the walls, and Mick knew every man hostile, friendly or useful to him and the theatres and fortunes of the Little War. Sometimes Mick worked twelve, fifteen, even eighteen hours a day, going on till he dropped. A lion for work. Barely two or three years ago this young man was unknown. Unknown to the readers of his escapes. Unknown to those who were thrilled by a sudden legend sweeping from the Dublin gossips and the British Secret Service to fill the columns of the world’s press. But the London-Irish had known the son of the Clonakilty farmer listening to the Hyde Park orators with intent ear and twinkling eye, shocking staid enthusiasts among the exiles with his whirlwind manner and expletives, an alert and dashing figure on the hurling or football field, orating in the political clubs or hanging over the galleries of the London theatres" (Ryan, Desmond).
"One day during my (Tom Barry) stay he (Collins) left our lodgings to meet his Intelligence Assistants at his office at 9 a.m. He attended a Cabinet meeting at 11 a.m. After lunch he was back at Intelligence at 1:30 p.m., then in Conference with the Propaganda Department for an hour whence he traveled to meet some seamen who were smuggling in a small quantity of small-arms. From there he traveled to another office to meet a number of people from the country who had large amounts of money for the Dail Loan which Collins had successfully launched. He reached us at Vaughan's Hotel at 6:30 p.m. and after swallowing his tea, went upstairs to his private room to meet separately officers from five different country units. I was present with him during those interviews, which continued until 10 p.m., when Collins seemed to be as fresh as when he breakfasted in the morning" (Barry).
Collins has been labeled a snappy, debonair dresser and his presence as a clean-cut businessman probably saved his neck on countless occasions. During his interview for The South Bank Show, historian John Regan noted that Collins's "contemporaries recalled of him that he was always immaculately dressed― dapper rather than ostentatious. And he effected the appearance of a businessman and that in essence was exactly what Collins was by the time he returned to Ireland: a young businessman."
Another factor was Collins's own personality.
"Part of his immunity to arrest seemed to stem from his audacity... On [one] occasion, Collins and Detective Eamonn (Ned) Broy, his 'Castle spy,' were stopped by the military at Baggot Street Bridge. 'I was terrified,' Broy recalled... 'Collins had his socks full of papers, with names on them and military codes. If he was caught, I was caught with them too... Believe it or not if the impudent fellow didn't go straight up to the officer in charge of the search party and start to chat to him. The officer fell a victim to Mick's charm, who soon had him roaring laughing. The other soldiers, seeing Mick chatting to their commanding officer, assumed he was a friend and we were let through without examination. I was sweating but it didn't seem to take a feather out of Mick. He was chuckling all the way... to his office'" (Ulick O'Connor).
Tom Barry, a friend to Collins and part of the IRA's Flying Column Unit in West Cork, recalled a time when Collins's incredible skill at wriggling out of dangerous situations made him particularly nervous. Tom, Michael and several others were driving when halted by a group of Auxiliaries (British officers sent to help Black and Tan soldiers). It seemed that the jig was up for all of them but Collins had another idea:
"Collins had time to say, 'Act drunk' before we were ordered off the car to be minutely searched. I was next to Collins and he put up such a fine act, joking and blasting in turn, that he had the whole search party of terrorists in good-humour in a short time. Collins and the others appeared to be quite unperturbed, but I, being searched for the first time and never having seen Auxiliaries before, except to fire at them, felt anything but happy."
Barry recalled another story revealing of Collins's personality when an officer from a fairly unsuccessful unit approached him wanting more supplies:
"To one of the officers from a particularly inefficient Unit who asked for arms, Mick, with a scowl on his face, his hands deep in his pockets, his right foot pawing the ground, shot back, 'What the Hell does a lot of lousers like you want arms for? You have rifles and revolvers galore but you have never yet used them. A single bousey (defined by Barry as a "disreputable person") like X (a Black and Tan) is walking around your area alone for six months terrorising and shooting people and ye are afraid to tackle him. Get to Hell out of this and do not come back until ye have done some fighting.' Collins continued to swear as the officer hurriedly left the room."
"The main leadership problem facing Collins during the War of Independence was that while he did influence and direct others to accomplish the mission, he had not got the level of military command to do so. It was rather his charismatic nature and his reputation for decisiveness that led people to seek him out for assistance and advice" (Peter Young, "Michael Collins: A Military Leader" Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State).
"He was quite ruthless, and to a disturbing degree a law unto himself. He was both boisterous and abrasive. He made enemies but he also inspired immense loyalty. He recruited remarkable collaboration from within opposing ranks, but there is no evidence that the British, from whom he had several narrow escapes, did not want to capture him. He more than anyone succeeded in disrupting their nerve centre. In May 1922 Lloyd George told Collins that if he had been caught he would have been shot. One aspect of IRA discipline may be mentioned. Michael Collins was absolutely opposed to punishment beatings or floggings ‘for any offence, under any circumstances, even as a reprisal,’ writing on 3 July 1921: ‘It has a more degrading effect upon the person or the authority administering it than the person to whom it is administered.’ Joseph Connolly, Fianna Fáil Minister in the 1930s, wrote in his memoirs: ‘I am, by nature, little disposed to anything in the way of hero worship, but I have always been convinced that during the fateful years from 1919 to 1921 the one man, who more than any other carried the Herculean load of Ireland’s fight, was Collins. It would scarcely be necessary to say so, but for the evens that followed the Treaty and which to many obscured the real qualities and genius that made Collins what he was'" ( Martin Mansergh, "'The Freedom to Achieve Freedom?' The Political Ideas of Collins and De Valera" Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State).
After World War I ended, Britain turned its focus to the difficulties of controlling Ireland. Under the Defense of the Realm Act, it became illegal for Volunteers to carry arms, and Irish language classes, dancing, and games were banned. Even so, Collins was unwilling to let his men go out unarmed. It was partly this attitude that helped make Collins the most wanted man on the island. He was formally arrested in 1918 after delivering a stirring speech in Granard, but Collins's ability to talk his way out of situations, coupled with the Castle's lack of high quality photos of him, preserved his freedom to go about as he pleased. Michael now commanded a price of £10,000 should he be found dead or alive.*
"The British made ludicrously high estimates of the numbers of their enemy; [Field Marshal] French reckoned that the IRA consisted of 100,000 men and his chief secretary 200,000, whereas the true figure was nearer 15,000 and, according to Collins, not more than 3,000 of those were trained and active gunmen. Then on 21 January, the first anniversary of the setting up of the Dáil, an IRA group run by Collins and called The Squad killed an assistant commissioner of the Dublin police as he went from his office in the castle to his hotel. The Castle authorities offered £10,000 for evidence leading to the conviction of the killers and a further £10,000 for Collins, dead or alive" (Peter & Fiona Somerset Fry).
Meanwhile, the British had prepared a list of key Sinn Féin members to gather up. Raids and captures in the month of May were planned for those living in Dublin. Collins's infiltrators knew this information of course and passed it along to him accordingly. Not all of his cohorts believed this news and stayed home only to be arrested with the hopes of generating a public outcry.
"During the night of 17 May (1918) de Valera, Griffith and almost the entire leadership of Sinn Fein, all those thought most likely to organize resistance to conscription, were arrested on the flimsy pretext of a German plot; Irish Americans had never ceased their exchange of messages with the Germans, and a member of Casement’s Irish brigade had been picked up in April after landing from a submarine, ostensibly to find out if there was any prospect of another Irish rising. Michael Collins had purposely kept out of the way, but the rest of the leadership, though warned, preferred imprisonment, with its political advantages, to going on the run" (Fry).
Collins went off to England to break DeValera out of gaol after the raids and several accounts vary on this matter. It has been written that Harry Boland was the mastermind behind DeValera's escape while many other sources credit the bust to Collins. The general story is that DeValera acted as an altar attendant in the gaol's chapel and made a convenient wax copy of the main key using a hot candle after one of the services. He mailed the wax model to Collins and Collins made several copies. He made it to the gaol, tried his copies, and ended up getting a piece of one stuck in the keyhole (as depicted in Michael Collins). DeValera had a spare copy and made it out. In any event, Eamon absconded and Collins was elected Minister for Finance and was additionally named Director of Organization and Director of Intelligence for the Irish Volunteers.
"The Dáil had its second meeting on 1 April and chose Eamonn (sic) de Valera, recently sprung from Lincoln gaol, as its president. The following day he nominated Griffith, who had just been released from prison, as minister for home affairs, Collins as finance minister, Count Plunkett as minister for foreign affairs, Cathal Brugha, a tough and heroic fighter who had been badly wounded during Easter Week, as minister for defence and Robert Barton, a landowner educated in England, as minister for agriculture" (Peter & Fiona Somerset Fry).
Shortly thereafter, DeValera went to America to petition the President for his support in the Irish resistance against Britain and to raise a sense of global awareness about the problems. Over a six-month span of time, more than 18,000 would be arrested but Collins would evade spies again and again. He even (also as depicted in the film) rifled through the Castle files to uncover just how much the British knew. As he would discover, the British knew plenty. It was April of 1919 when Collins was brought in very carefully by Ned Broy to examine the files at Dublin Metropolitan Police Station, a headquarters for information storage. Author A. T. Q. Stewart gives the details of the suspenseful night:
"At one point a window in the office was broken by a drunken soldier outside, and if the police had come to inspect the damage Collins would probably have been discovered. When he read, near the beginning of his file, that he came from a 'brainy' family in Cork, he burst out laughing, to Broy's alarm."
The Castle was able to operate because of the tips given to its workers by paid informants. The solution, Michael reasoned, was to eliminate the link—no prying detectives meant no information for the British.
"In the IRB, Collins combined in himself the roles of Clarke and MacDermott; they had recruited others to do the work; Collins did it all himself. The Chief of Staff of the Volunteers, Richard Mulcahy, was an IRB man, as were almost all the GHQ staff. But they were essentially Collins’s men. Collins was the brain of the nationalist resistance. When country guerrillas needed arms and advice they went to Collins. He built an effective intelligence system, infiltrated Dublin Castle and eliminated its agents. For a century and a quarter, Dublin Castle had subverted all Irish rebel movements. Collins subverted Dublin Castle" (Sean Cronin).
Collins was able to make an indelible impression on Castle employees by killing anyone he perceived as a threat. Though this will certainly seem like senseless violence to some, it is important to see the big picture. Michael was always vexed about ordering the death of a person and would send out warnings to the person giving him an ultimatum to stop or be stopped forcibly. But, when push came to shove and it was kill or be killed, Collins was merciless. Also from an interview featured on The South Bank Show, Tim Pat Coogan commented on this topic:
“He hated waste and he thought, ‘Just keep the killing to the minimum. Shoot the detectives, spare the ordinary people.’ There is evidence that he did that, but once somebody had to be killed, he was ruthless. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I mean the people who went out to kill the officer or the spy were more frightened of coming back to Collins with him un-shot than they were of what they had to do in risking their lives.”
As one can well imagine, Collins was not a man to be trifled with.
* There has been some dispute as to whether such a high price was ever put upon Collins' head by the British. This is, perhaps, part of a desire for such matters to remain cloaked in secrecy because £10,000 is still a good sum of money. Winston Churchill was later to reminisce about an occasion when he met with Arthur Griffith, Lloyd George, and Collins at his home. He recounted that Lloyd George and Griffith left the room to talk alone, leaving Churchill and Collins together. Churchill said Collins was "in his most difficult mood, full of reproaches and defiances, and it was very easy for everyone to lose his temper." Collins pointed out that the British had relentlessly hunted him, putting a price on his head. Churchill took his reward notice from the Boer War off the wall offering £25 for him dead or alive. It has been said that Churchill later recanted this tale, alleging that the British government did not offer a reward for Collins' capture. Again, researchers are plagued by the conflicting authority regarding Collins' reward note.