Michael Collins’ “Squad”: “No man shot without full proof of his guilt”

 

Photo of "The Squad" ca 1920

                                Members of “The Squad” ca. 1920

Discussions about the history of Ireland tend to be fraught with political debate.  Sometimes with moral debate; sometimes with politics masquerading as moral debate.  While killings before 1922 by the British Empire in Ireland are rarely questioned, any corresponding blows struck by Irish forces seem to awaken an agonized conscience, from quite unexpected quarters.  “The Squad” is one of the hottest topics of this kind: Michael Collins’ elite unit for executing secretive “spies and informers” of a violent foreign occupation force.

Along with Liam Tobin and Tom Cullen, Frank Thornton was the third in Collins’ innermost team of associates at GHQ.  While the shooters themselves may have understood the reasons for any particular “job” in only a general sense, Thornton avers that each order had to be confirmed by a Joint meeting of the Dáil Cabinet.

The following excerpt from his 60-page Witness Statement (No. 0615), Bureau of Military History, bids fair to allay any ambiguity about how the Squad’s targets were chosen: .

“The British at this time, realising that the terrorism of the Black an’Tans’ burning and looting was not going to succeed unless they could actually put their finger on our Headquarters Staff and eliminate us in that way. With that end in view they aimed to set up a full time Secret Service outside of the army, working on proper continental Lines with a Central Headquarters and other houses forming minor centres scattered all throughout the city in which they operated…

“I had the honour to be in charge of that particular job of compiling all that information and got the very unenvious job of presenting my full report to a Joint meeting of the Dáll Cabinet and Army Council, at which meeting I had to prove that each and every man on my list was an accredited Secret Serviceman of the British Government. This, as everybody can realise, was not an easy task, but proves one thing: that is, that our Government and our Army were not going to allow any man to be shot without the fullest possible proof being produced of his guilt. Our men have been referred to as the “murder gang” from time to time by our enemy, but I can assure you that whether in the Brigades throughout the country or here in Dublin, no man was ever shot during the Tan War except in an open fight and a fair fight, unless he had first received the benefit of a full court-martial. Very often as you know it was not possible to have the man present at his own court martial, but what I mean to convey is that the proof had to be absolutely a full 100% watertight before any action could be taken.”

You can read more of Thornton’s fascinating inside story of Michael Collins’ GHQ operations throughout the War of Independence here:
Frank Thornton’s Witness Statement in full – Bureau of Military History

photo of Frank Thornton ca 1922

        Frank Thornton ca 1922

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson   
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The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? by S M Sigerson - Cover Image

 

Michael Collins and “Lawrence of Arabia”

photos of Michael Collins and T E Lawrence

Michael Collins and T E Lawrence (courtesy of @GeneralMichael4)

The great international conferences which led up to the Treaty of Versailles, were attended by many petitioners from “small nations”; including an Irish republican contingent. They lobbied vigorously for Ireland’s right to independence; particularly asking the American President Wilson to put pressure on London.

T E Lawrence also attended. His auto-biographical book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” concerning his experiences in the Arab Revolt, was later the basis for the award-winning feature film “Lawrence of Arabia”. He and Collins met, and their friendly acquaintance posed interesting possibilities for the British Empire.
(The following is an excerpt from “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?” goo.gl/a0tgOr
):

Not entirely unlike Collins, Lawrence was also a legendary leader of indigenous insurgents. He also had accomplished amazing things, at a remarkably young age. He had been Britain’s man in the Middle East. And he was not happy.

Lawrence had been commissioned to organize disgruntled Arabs, with promises of civil rights and national independence. In a long and bloody campaign, he had led men to their deaths on the strength of those promises, and on his word. Then the Crown pulled the rug out from under him. They had no intention of abiding by engagements made to a lot of restless natives. The promised united Arab Middle East, never materialized. Instead, this populous, culturally and politically strategic region was divided into the problematic fragments, which have cost the world so much in constant turmoil, ever since.

Lawrence had been used, and he took exception to it. In a public presentation at Buckingham Palace, he mounted the royal dais to, figuratively speaking, fling his decorations back at the king. The gesture was quite shocking at the time. He resigned his commission and went into early retirement, turning his back on the army.

Lawrence was also, on one side of his family, partly Irish. For some time, Collins had been trying to persuade him to help the Irish cause. Imagine the implications! Here were two of the most able military strategists in Europe. Each of them individually had proved his capacity to organize an army, from the ground up, fit to overthrow the world’s top guns. Collins had already bested every British general they could throw at him. Lawrence in Arabia and Collins in Ireland!? By God, they’d have the Empire encircled! This was an alliance to mar imperialists’ rest.

Due to Collins’ untimely end, the world will never know what they might have acheived together. T P Coogan, although often dismissive of “conspiracy theorists” refered to Lawrence’ own death as “mysterious,” to an extent which “generated controversy.”

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The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

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by S M Sigerson

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COVER IMAGE The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence

T E Lawrence’ book
“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”
www.goodreads.com/book/show/57936.Seven_Pillars_of_Wisdom

1949: The Republic of Ireland as we know it becomes official

April 1949 Irish independence headlines

 

18 April 1949, Ireland took the step into a new era: ending the “Irish Free State” as a Dominion within the British Commonwealth (the semi-independence compromise which had ended the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921 (aka War of Independence / Tan War). Dublin’s new international status went far to vindicate Michael Collins’ position on the controversial 1921 Treaty.

In 1922, just as Ireland rightly revelled in its astounding military and political victory over British occupation, Eamonn DeValera had led the shattering of Ireland’s fledgling independent legislature. He had called on his faction within the Dail to follow him in leaving the new Dublin establishment en masse.

Their issue? They declared that it was traitrous for Irish nationalists to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, as a stepping stone toward complete self-determination.

That disastrous split earned DeValera the notorious tag “architect of the Civil War”: that horrific debacle which transformed Ireland’s brilliant triumph into tragedy, slaughtering many of the War of Independence’ greatest leaders and activists. It profoundly undermined the young nation’s unity, integrity, and social justice; leaving “Ireland broken for generations.”

1949 Dublin celebrates Republic of Ireland declaration

Yet 1949 at last saw the formal, complete withdrawal from the British Empire of Irish soil (excepting the six counties of Northern Ireland.)  Interestingly enough, no single political party of the time can claim credit. It was Dublin’s very first Inter-Party Government, headed by John A. Costello, which acheived that bold stroke on the pages of history.

This largely proved the validity of Michael Collins’ arguments, that the 1921 Treaty be used as a stepping stone in the on-going struggle for complete national independence.

Meanwhile that firebrand of freedom, Mr DeValera, although having dominated the Dublin establishment for the preceding 16 years (1932-1948,) had not brought Ireland one millimeter closer either to breaking ties with England; nor to ending the partition of Northern Ireland; (another of the key points over which he had incited the Civil War.)

Soon after the 1949 declaration, DeValera discreetly retreated from Irish soil; to embark on a worldwide tour lecturing about partition. (Perhaps not unlike his previous retreat from Ireland for the duration of the War of Independence; also for an extended speaking tour overseas.)

And how is it that in 1922, Mr DeValera had just happened to be at the very same obscure, back-country crossroads, within hours of Michael Collins’ being shot down there?

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“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
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by S M Sigerson
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Michael Collins, He For She: his early support for women’s rights

 

 

photo of Maryann O'Brien Collins and family co 1900

Michael’s mother Maryann O’Brien Collins, a married sister, and his grandmother Johanna McCarthy O’Brien co 1900

Among the great volume of commentary on Michael Collins, of all shades and quality, his intimate personal relationships, especially with women, have been a favorite focus for the lamentable number whose appetite for lurid gossip exceeds meticulous adherence to facts.

In honor of International Women’s Day, this excellent overview of Collins’ close connections with strong women and the women’s movement of his time is by P Prowler.

The product of a household headed by a hard-working single mother (after his aged father’s death when Michael was no more than seven,) Collins needed no lectures on women’s leadership potential.  His own highly competent, nurturing mother managed the family farm, labourers, construction crews; while doing much to encourage and support seven of her children in pursuing successful careers away from the farm. All while earning praise as “a hostess in ten thousand.”  Four sisters, much older than he, all doted on “The Big Fella,” as they affectionately dubbed the baby of the family,

The formative role of these many strong, competent, loving women in his childhood and youth produced a man who deeply respected women and thrived on female company of all ages. It also sometimes manifested in sensitive, nurturing care toward those he was responsible for. His qualifications of this kind were exemplified in his appointment as aide-de-camp to 1916 Rising organizer Joseph Plunkett, whose chronic health problems were a challenge to his presence at The Rising’s headquarters in the General Post Office.

It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that we have a woman to thank for the role Collins subsequently played in national events. Following the Rising, it was Thomas Clarke’s widow, Kathleen Daly Clarke, who singled out Michael to head up a re-organizition of the Irish Volunteers, for another go.  A good call, as it proved; for during Collins’ tenure at the helm (and at no other time, before or since,) Ireland won its greatest victories to date against the British Empire’s unwelcome colonial occupation.

photo of Kathleen ClarkeCollins’ lifetime exactly coincided with a period of aggressive, mass agitation for women’s rights. The female suffrage movement was in Ireland often closely linked with the campaign for Irish independence. Many proponents belonged to both “camps”. Full enfranchisement for women became enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation, the legal founding document of the Republic of Ireland. It was the modern world’s first national declaration to do so. This was the political climate in which Collins grew up and prospered. Yet he remained one of the few great men of the time who did not omit to use gender-inclusive language in his speeches, and to explicitly acknowledge women’s contributions and concerns on a regular basis therein.

All of this belies the far-fetched “Mick the misogynist” quip which has been occasionally offered, (along with every vice and virtue that could be image of poster Irish Women's Franchise Leagueattributed to him.)

Collins’ predecessor in the independence movement, Charles Stuart Parnell, was defeated by a sexual scandal. Collins’ detractors have occasionally attempted to raise similar issues. Reported to have sown some wild oats during his teen career in London (albeit while living under the roof of an older sister,) no scandal concerning his sexual life has ever been substantiated.

His intimate connections appear to have been no less healthy, vigorous, and well-conducted than other aspects of his life: his relations with women affectionate and normal, providing no evidence either of inexperience, excess or aberration.

At the same time, he may be said to have been never without female companionship. He carried on dating and epistolary relationships with a number of women such as Susan Kileen and “Dilly” Dicker, who also worked with him in positions of great trust during the struggle for independence. Their correspondence shows that they remained on friendly terms until the end of his life.

In 1921-22, he became engaged to Kitty Kiernan,[36] and made plans for a normal family life after the war. Of their voluminous correspondence, more than 241 letters survive. They provide an important record, not only of their intimacy, but of his daily life.

Detailing his exhausting schedule, during the concurrent national crisis, their letters chronicle the challenges the couple faced in getting quality time together, under the circumstances. In so doing, they prove it quite doubtful that he could have simultaneously devoted much attention to any additional liaison. Allegations of affair(s) with English society women at this same time are unsubstantiated, and fraught with suspicious political connotations. Those concerning Hazel Lavery originate chiefly with that lady herself, and are unsupported by comparable evidence.

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“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? by S M Sigerson - Cover Imageby S M Sigerson

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Also see:
“Michael Collins and the Women Who Spied For Ireland”

Cover image for book "Michael Collins and the women who spied for Ireland"

 

 

 

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157333.Michael_Collins_and_the_Women_Who_Spied_for_Ireland

“Michael Collins and the Women in His Life”

Book cover image: "Michael Collins and the women in his life"

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157335.Michael_Collins_and_the_Women_in_His_Life

The Assassination of Michael Collins: Which ones lied?

photo of Cork Flying Column

Cork Flying Column

There are a number of reasons why Michael Collins’ death continues to be viewed by many as suspicious and unsolved. The most obvious is the eye-witness testimony: no two witnesses’ statements are alike. Each and every one contradicts the others.

Having enjoyed the honor to be both quoted, and flagrantly misquoted, in a recent work on the topic, the author of the book “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?” offers the following excerpts of what it actually says:

“Well, here you have a fair collection of statements from eyewitnesses, each contradicting the other on vital and significant points, and none of which can be accepted as a completely reliable version.”     – John M Feehan

Some observations we can make with confidence at this point:

1) Not all these inconsistencies can be attributed to the lapse of time, differences of photo of gathering at Beal na mBlath day after death of Collinsperspective, or even carelessness. That is to say:

2) They cannot all be telling the truth, Which is to say:

3) Some of them were lying.

These answers, as answers often do, raise questions:

photo of John Mcpeak 4) Which one(s) lied?

5) Why did they lie?

6) Did some have more reason to lie than others?

7) If two mutually negating points are both corroborated by more than one witness, how can we tell which is correct? (i.e. The convoy came under machine gun fire; the convoy did not come under machine gun fire.)

8) Can we decipher the answers to these questions from the information before us?

photo of Emmet Dalton

Emmet Dalton

If we compare all the testimony’s various contradictions and corroborations, in light of the possible interests and pressures at work in each case, we may separate out some chaff: Which witnesses have adhered only to facts which

were within their own knowledge? Which ones report events which happened when they were not present? Does the statement demonstrate that they were “coached” as to what to say? Did some deponents have reason to lie? Did some others have less reason? Do they stray so far from verifiable facts as to invalidate their testimony altogether?

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The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? by S M Sigerson - Cover Image
by S M Sigerson

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Private John McPeak – the armoured car gunner

photo of Private John McPeak

Private John McPeak

Private Jock McPeak was the machine-gun operator in the armored car; which followed immediately behind Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins’ touring car, during the fatal ambush at Béal na mBláth. A British soldier himself right up until the Truce, he has been the subject of considerable speculation, for his central position at the much-disputed Vickers machine gun; as well as for extraordinary turncoat adventures and criminal convictions, in the wake of Collins’ death.  Following excerpts from the book “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?” offer a nutshell of McPeak’s enigmatic story:

As the gunner who operated the Vickers machine gun in the turret of the armoured car, McPeak, his conduct, and the performance of that gun, are most central to events at Béal na mBláth. Upon close scrutiny, his actions and words cast conspicuous doubt upon his veracity and character; including the key question of whether McPeak’s gun worked fine, or malfunctioned.

McPeak was one of those most directly responsible for the protection of the C-in-C’s invaluable life, and physically nearest to him at the moment of his suspicious death. He was reportedly the object of acute suspicion among fellow Free State soldiers; suspicion which seemed justified soon after by his desertion and theft of the armoured car.

In view of all the mysterious factors connected with him, hardly any other conclusion would be reasonable but that, if Collins met his fate through the agency of traitors in his own bodyguard, then McPeak was either involved, or had some knowledge of what happened. If so, his account published in 1971 might be expected to contain inaccuracies, calculated to conceal something he knew. (That is, he would be one who may have lied, had more reason to lie than others, etc.)

There are a number of wild rumours about McPeak, ostensibly coming from former Free State soldiers. These include reports that he was accused, interrogated, beaten, and charged with Michael Collins’ murder (but that charges were dropped for lack of evidence.) Others said that, in his cups, McPeak boasted that he had killed Collins. Another witness claims that McPeak admitted the C-in-C fell “accidentally” to “friendly fire”.

The truth is the strangest tale of all: three months after the ambush, the Irish Civil War still raging, McPeak deserted the Free State Army, and joined the anti-Treaty side. In doing so, he just happened to drive away, not with just any armoured car, but that one in particular, which took such an important part in the ambush where Collins died.

A number of plausible explanations were offered for this extraordinary theft of army property. But none of them are nearly so likely, as that his absconding with that great hulking piece of evidence had to do with that single most important event connected with it, and with him: the C-in-C’s untimely demise.

Could an examination of the armoured car and its machine gun turret have cast doubt on someone’s version of what happened?

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The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
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by S M Sigerson

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Oliver St John Gogarty: Witness Statement #700 – Bureau of Military History

portrait of Oliver St John Gogarty (image courtesy of prabook.com)

Oliver St John Gogarty (image courtesy of prabook.com)

Dr Oliver St John Gogarty cut an enigmatic figure in Ireland’s early 20th century renaissance; turning up in the background of great works (such as James Joyce’ “Ulysses”) and great deeds (in the War of Independence.) A medical doctor, he counted W B Yeats among his patients.  After meeting Arthur Griffith, he became a founding member of Sinn Fein. A poet of the Irish literary revival, he also served as a Senator in Dublin’s early Senate; and was still writing and publishing in the 1950s.

His comments on the death of Michael Collins (included below) are particularly interesting to historians, not only as Collins’s personal friend and physician.  It was Gogarty’s melancholy duty to prepare Collins’ remains for burial.  Witnesses recount his penetrating remarks, as he pointed out to Collins’ family and friends the young General’s fatal wounds, before the lying-in-state.  Although reputed to have performed an autopsy as well, no report by him as medical examiner seems to have survived.  (One of many startling mysteries concerning records of the Commander-in-Chief’s untimely loss.)

Gogarty’s own views on this topic have been difficult to pin down; until the recent release of the Bureau of Military History’s files on the War of Independence and Civil War.  His Witness Statement (below) is the only official documentation of his assessment of Collins’ end.  It must carry considerable weight; especially in view of its having been made in strictest confidence, as not to be released in his lifetime.

(The text below constitutes Doctor Gogarty’s Witness Statement in its entirety.  Note the Bureau’s notation of his “Identity”.)

Identity: Close associate of Michael Collins

Subject: Placing of his home at Michael Collins’ disposal as a hiding place

June 19th, 1952

When the Black and Tans behaved in such an excited and unsoldierly way by endangering my daughter’s life when she was playing in St Stephen’s Green, I resolved to give all the help in my power to the Resistance movement headed by Michael Collins. His confidante, Batt O’Connor was a patient of mine. To him I gave whatever gold I could come by for his reserve which was in a metal box cemented into a wall at Donnybrook where Batt O’Connor was building at the time. I also gave him a latch key of my house, 15 Ely Place and prepared that apparently impassible cul de sac so that Collins, if hard pressed, could use my garden and appear in St Stephen’s Green. There was a passage between the Board of Works and the Church Representative Body house that, through a wicket, gave on to the Green. In order to facilitate the scaling of the wall I had some cases of petrol placed against it under a large ash tree in the garden. These preparations were passed on by Batt O’Connor to Michael Collins and his thanks conveyed.

Collins was an infrequent caller at my house. Emmet Dalton handed me back the latch key which he took from the blood-stained tunic of General Collins, who was murdered by the instigator of the Civil War.

You are at liberty to make whatever use of this you may find good.
Believe me to remain
With every good wish for you and the work
Yours sincerely,
Oliver St J Gogarty (signature)”

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“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

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by S M Sigerson
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