Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Michael Collins and the Organisation of Irish Intelligence, 1917-21

It is believed that up to half the Cairo Gang may have escaped assassination, but 'Bloody Sunday' (as it became known afterwards) was overall a huge success for Collins' intelligence network. Spies and their wives flocked to Dublin Castle in despair, and Collins' intelligence team were able to jot down the names of those they didn't already recognise. Bloody Sunday had a crippling effect on British intelligence in Ireland. One of Collins' agents wrote-

&ldquoThe effect was paralysing. It can be said that the enemy never recovered from the blow.”

Collins himself wrote-

&ldquoMy own intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens… If I had another motive, it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile… There is no crime in detecting and destroying in war-time, the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.”

A week after Bloody Sunday, seventeen Auxiliaries were killed in an ambush by the IRA in Kilmichael, Co. Cork. That same day, partly through Collins' organising, the British-based IRA fire-bombed more than a dozen warehouses in the Liverpool docks area, causing millions of pounds worth of damage. The British government, whether it would admit it publicly or not, knew that the IRA were far from surrendering.

Towards a Truce

&ldquoThe tenacity of the IRA is extraordinary. Where was Michael Collins during the Great War? He would have been worth a dozen brass hats.”

British civil servant Tom Jones writing to Bonar Law

On December 20th, Eamon de Valera returned from America. De Valera argued that it would be better to change from hit and run guerilla tactics to having a series of battles with the British, mainly for propaganda purposes. This resulted in the burning of the Customs House on May 25th 1921. It was a publicity success worldwide but resulted in many of the best IRA men in Dublin at the time being captured. As the summer reached its peak, Collins had been preparing to assassinate around sixty fresh agents sent in from Britain, as well as groups of soldiers who were based in Dublin. Half an hour before this operation was due to begin, it was called off. Lloyd George had sent word that he wanted peace.

Britain had been facing growing worldwide pressure, especially from America, to negotiate a settlement. The Anglo-Irish Truce came into effect on July 11th 1921. As the peace talks were going on in London, and the guns were silent across the country, things were still going on in the murky underground war. The IRA were all coming out into the open, including intelligence officers, and the British Secret Service were noting their appearance and their various whereabouts. Collins ruefully admitted-

&ldquoOnce a truce is agreed, and we come out into the open, it is extermination for us if the truce should fail… We shall be like rabbits coming out from their holes.”

This didn't stop him continuing to run his intelligence office as the truce was maintained. A truce it had in no small part brought about.


Several things forced the truce of July 1921, of which Collins' intelligence network is only one. But it is arguably the most important one. One of the key reason that the War of Independence of 1919-1921 actually achieved a tangible result (the Anglo-Irish Treaty), unlike scores of previous rebellions, was intelligence.

British spies and informers were wiped out by the Irish. People were now afraid to be seen supporting or passing information to the British administration. Spies were routinely shot. British intelligence lines were intercepted and used against them. The State became effectively paralysed by Collins' network. This is acknowledged by British historians, none more so than Lawrence James in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. As he looks at the reasons behind the British agreeing to a truce in July 1921, he notes-

&ldquoThe British army had still not overcome many of its operational problems, not least the lack of a competent intelligence-gathering service. In fact, by early June, the two sides were facing deadlock.”


1)Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland by Piaras Beaslai (published 1926)

2)The Big Fellow: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution by Frank O'Connor (published 1937)

3)Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan (published 1991)

4)The Man Who Won The War by T. Ryle Dwyer (published 1990)

5)Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State edited by Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (published 1998)

6)Michael Collins: The Lost Leader by Margery Forester (published 1971)

7)Michael Collins: A Life by James Mackay (published 1996)

8)In His Own Words: Michael Collins edited by Francis Costello (published 1997)

9)The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James (published 1994)