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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - Witnesses

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David Neligan
CURIOUS JOURNEY: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution,
by Kenneth Griffith and Timothy O’Grady,
(Mercier Press, 1998).

Image of Michael Collins

Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief of Irish Free State Army ©

In 1918 the British had emerged victorious from the most terrible war in all their history. They had tremendous forces here in Ireland and they weren’t prepared to give it over to a handful of Sinn Feiners who had no guns, whose armaments were derisory – a .45 revolver here and there, a few old, broken down rifles. ‘Twasn’t worth a farthing. I remember one time later on during the fight, the quartermaster of the Dublin Brigade took up the paper one morning and he saw where some spy or somebody was found riddled with bullets. He was a very serious individual and he said, ‘Christ God, have they gone mad? ‘Riddled with bullets,’ ‘Wouldn’t one bullet have been enough to finish him?’ And he didn’t mean that as a joke. We wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in any kind of open fight with the army the British brought against us. They had fleets of armoured cars, aeroplanes, machine guns and thousands of conscript troops. They had a tank inside the Castle, a 20 ton tank. I saw the tommies turning it around one day and they knocked down a wall which had been there for hundreds of years. I heard an old Dublin apple seller saying when she saw it clanking down the street one day, ‘Begod, Butt Bridge is going for a walk’ We hadn’t a chance against them.

But Collins was a genius at the other game, the underground war. Any kind of uprising we’d ever had before was always betrayed by informers and spies. The Castle always had us by the back of the neck. The British have been authorities in espionage since the time of Cecil and Walsingham. Everyone who made a move against them fell foul of spies. Castle informers sunk us every time we opened our beaks. I saw the files myself inside the Castle. They had their eye on every single Irish organization, even the innocent ones.

Image of soldiers on a tank

British soldiers sit on top of a tank ©

The people who were most active against the IRA were the G-men, the political detectives. And this is where Collins shone. There were only a few of them who were very active. Hoey was one of them, Smyth another. Barton another. Collins warned all of these men that if they didn’t give up their spying activities they would be shot. But they’d all had long service and they thought Collins would be beaten the same as the Fenians had been beaten, the same as everybody else had been beaten. So they kept up their nefarious activities and duly got shot. I was on duty as a uniformed policeman one night in Pearse Street as it is now – Brunswick Street then – and I heard some ratting out in the street. I thought it was someone pulling a stick along the railings, but it was machine gun fire shooting down Detective Hoey. We found him lying dead in the street.

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