Michael Collins on file?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July/August 2011), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 19

Michael Collins on file 1We have an ordinary index card, 6in. by 4in., brown and fragile with age; a rough photograph, cropped from something larger; a description, not very accurate; and a typed legend of remarks, intended, perhaps, to be helpful but of questionable value.
The card was found in an old book, a 1926 edition of Michael Collins and the making of a new Ireland by Piaras Beaslaí, his close political comrade. It was folded in three and tucked into the book, where it had perhaps been used as a bookmark, or placed there for safekeeping. The book came from the library of a Wicklow man, a man without connections to either the republicans fighting for Ireland or to the Crown forces against whom they fought.
It is not too difficult to date the card in that the title refers to Collins as ‘chief of [the] IRA’ and ‘organizer of all ambushes and murders’. We know that the first ambush was the unapproved 21 January 1919 Soloheadbeg attack led by Dan Breen and Seán Tracey in which Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell (both Irish-born Catholics) were shot dead. So it must be from after that date. The phrase ‘all ambushes and murders’ indicates that the card was made quite late in the War of Independence, perhaps late 1920. And then there’s the photograph. It has been cut from a larger, good-quality photographic print rather than from a newspaper, then pinned to a wall and re-photographed. We know the date of the larger photograph: it was one in which Collins was unhappy about being included. It is the photograph taken in April 1919, in the gardens of the Mansion House, of members of the first Dáil Éireann. The photograph was subsequently used, as Collins feared it would be, to identify him in wanted posters, and it duly appeared in the December 1919 issue of the police gazette, Hue and Cry.
There can be little doubt that that famous group photograph was used extensively in intelligence circles to identify the Sinn Féin ringleaders, and probably many of the men in the group had their faces cropped and stuck onto intelligence index cards. Of the four wanted men pictured in that December issue of Hue and Cry, certainly two and possibly three of the photographs used were cropped from the same Dáil Éireann group who posed for posterity in the Mansion House gardens.
So we know that, if genuine, the index card certainly post-dates the taking of the photograph of the first Dáil. We also know that, at least prior to 1919, British Intelligence had no photograph of Collins. Broy, his secret agent in ‘G’ Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, had checked the file held on Collins just before he met him for the first time in 1919 and recalled that the police file contained no photograph of the man. It would have been difficult, in those early years of photography, to take a covert photograph of Collins, or indeed of anyone else, and it was the common practice of intelligence services to crop photographs from whatever source they could—newspapers, wedding photographs, college photographs and so on. Indeed, the practice remains common even today, although the sources of such photographs are much richer. We can be confident that Facebook images are regularly trawled by today’s intelligence services, of all colours, creeds and kind.
The description of Collins that appeared in Hue and Cry was a bit light on detail and got his age wrong (he was then 29, not 26). But it got his height correct at 5ft 11in., whilst the index card gets his age (more or less) correct at ‘about 30’ but incorrectly has his height at 5ft 7in. or 8in. (more of a ‘little fella’ than a ‘big fella’!).
So who might have put this information together? By January 1920 the December issue of Hue and Cry with the photograph and description of Collins would have been circulated to every police barracks in Ireland, and no doubt pinned on notice boards throughout the 32 counties. It is therefore unlikely that the index card is a product of police intelligence services—or, if it is, it is unlikely to have been produced by police intelligence officers after December 1919.
The British intelligence war was widely acknowledged as being disastrous, with Collins and his men and women consistently out-spying His Majesty’s secret services. In the immediate post-war period the British made a detailed analysis of their intelligence failures in Ireland and, in a flurry of activity, papers were published, conferences held, reports commissioned and lectures given in which the failures were fully acknowledged. From that analysis, some of it published in Peter Hart’s British intelligence in Ireland 1920–21, we know that as late as May 1920 the chief of police had an intelligence staff consisting of one officer. Its primary source of information, from the political detectives of ‘G’ branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, had all but dried up, as most of those detectives had been assassinated by Collins. By late 1920 intelligence officers had been appointed to each divisional commissioner of the RIC to coordinate military and police intelligence. The military, now present throughout Ireland in force, together with Auxiliaries, had their own intelligence service with young officers, many of them noted for their zeal in intelligence matters, and it is most likely that this card, if genuine, emanates from a local centre of intelligence rather than from the Castle.
So is it the real thing? In all probability it is. The mis-description of Collins’s height and the somewhat romanticised remarks as to his habits rather support its being genuine, for had it been produced after the events of the time it would have been possible to be much more accurate in such details. This, then, is the real thing and was produced at the very height of the War of Independence, the very height of Collins’s reputation, in the very heat of the intelligence battle. It is how his enemies and pursuers saw him.  HI

John McGuiggan is a barrister at law.

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