At 5.35pm on January 4, 1919, a coded telegram was sent to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) county inspector for West Cork Riding. (Cork was then divided in two for police purposes – West Cork and East Cork, the latter also including the city.)
Presumably from RIC headquarters, perhaps the Crime Special Branch, it referred to an earlier dispatch to the county inspector’s office at Bandon.
“Instructions with reference to proposed arrest of Ml. Collins at Clonakilty tomorrow have been posted to you today.”
The receipt of those cipher wire instructions was confirmed by a reply received the next morning from the West Cork county inspector.
It was only a matter of weeks since west Cork native Michael Collins had been elected by the people of the South Cork constituency for the Westminster general election, called after the recent ending of the Great War in November 1918. Like so many other of the Sinn Féin candidates around Ireland, Collins was duly elected, having campaigned on a manifesto to establish an Irish parliament and “to assert the independence of my native country.”
Collins is seen in this British Pathé film, canvassing for electoral support nearly four years later, in 1922. Unlike in 1918, when he was elected unopposed for Cork South, he was one of a number of candidates in the so-called Pact Election that followed the Dáil’s January 1922 ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
As a released internee following the 1916 Rising, and having evaded arrest following the so-called German Plot alleged by British authorities earlier in 1918, Collins was high on the priority list for detention.
He would remain so throughout the years that followed, known as he was to be leading the Dáil Éireann efforts to finance the counter-state the circumscribed parliament and government were increasingly successful at establishing. He would later, of course, become synonymous in Dublin Castle and elsewhere with the intelligence-gathering and campaign of violence against Crown Forces that was undertaken by the Irish Republican Army.
During 1919, he would manage to attend many public and private meetings of Dáil Éireann – the first of which would take place just over a fortnight after the arrangements for his arrest in his native west Cork were issued. Like most of the Sinn Féin candidates elected, however, Collins was not present at the first Dáil meeting in Dublin’s Mansion House on January 21, 1919. (The Dáil was eventually proscribed by the British government in September 1919, as violence against Crown Forces spread, apparently under the influence of the renegade gatherings.) Collins continued to evade arrest and would continue to do so for the remainder of his short life.
In late March 1919, the administrative division of the RIC was again in touch with colleagues in west Cork, this time seeking “a description of Michael Collins MP, who is said to be a native of Clonakilty.” He was wanted at that stage for an offence of illegal drilling in the Skibbereen district, and for failing to appear for trial at the court assizes in Derry earlier in the month, where he faced a charge of ‘inciting to raid for arms’ in Co Longford a year earlier.
The reply issued from the RIC district inspector’s office in Clonakilty as follows, and was received in Dublin Castle on April 2, the day on which its subject was approved by Dáil Éireann as Finance Secretary:
“I beg to state the description of Michael Collins MP is as follows, viz – Clean shaven youthful appearance and dresses well. Generally wears trilby hat and fawn over-coat. Dark brown eyes, regular nose, fresh complexion. Medium active male., oval face, dark hair, 5ft 11 inches high and 30 years of age.”
The description would be used in the bench warrant that issued for his arrest a couple of weeks later, and variations on it can be found in various outlines of the evasive Collins which were circulated by authorities in the next two-and-a-half years before he would appear in London as a negotiator on behalf of Dáil Éireann.
It was also on the business of the Dáil, and particularly the meticulous arrangements for the Dáil Éireann Loan, that Collins had a particular focus in 1919. This was not just in his role as Teachta Dála (TD, equivalent of Member of Parliament except TDs refused to sit in Westminster), but also as the minister in charge of the loan, through bonds to be sold in a mostly door-to-door sales pitch. (£250,000 was to be raised in Ireland, with more funds being raised overseas.)
Collins issuing Dáil Loan bonds: among those apparently signing up are Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith, and members of the important Dáil Éireann publicity department: Erskine Childers (I believe), followed by Desmond Fitzgerald and, later, Robert Brennan. They were instrumental in circulating news of what was happening in Ireland to foreign governments and press, through the Irish Bulletin from July 1919 onward.
On August 18, 1919, the Irish Independent reported his presence at a meeting in Dunmanway, where he was said to have addressed his constituents. Telling the 30 delegates he would prefer 250,000 subscriptions of £1 each to 25,000 of £10, or that any 20 together could each pay in a shilling a week and purchase one bond certificate a week, the meeting reportedly yielded £400 for the national loan.
But the apparent truth of the matter was reported by the RIC Inspector General’s office to the Under Secretary for Ireland a few days later, inquiries having been made locally. ‘There is not a particle of truth in attached cutting from the Irish Independent apparently. Michael Collins has been on the run for months past. Gerald O’Sullivan and J.B O’Driscoll were in Cork gaol on the date in question. Such newspaper reports are calculated to do harm.’
The two gentlemen referred to had been named in the newspaper as having sent telegrams investing £50 each in the loan. But according to the Head Constable in Dunmanway, Bernard Reilly, they could not have sent such correspondence, unless with special permission from the governor of Cork jail. He further reported that a Miss Browne of Union Hall, reported to have chaired the Dunmanway meeting, had not been seen the previous Friday, August 15, ‘the date on which presumably the meeting or alleged meeting was held.’
‘It is the opinion of the police here that the report contained in attached cutting was sent by Denis O’Connell of Skibbereen who is employed on the staff of the Southern Star, Skibbereen, in order to procure subscriptions for the “Dáil Éireann Loan” by showing that the matter was receiving the sympathy and support of the people of Dunmanway,’ wrote Head Constable Reilly on August 19. Early the same morning, the District Inspector Henry Connor from Clonakilty had Collins’s brother John’s home at Woodfield, Clonakilty searched, with no sign found of Michael Collins, or of any Dáil Loan documents.
But a week later, James Wilbond in the County Inspector’s office in Bandon wrote to Connor, seeking more details about Miss Browne, and details of John Collins’s tendency to attend meetings at a distance from Clonakilty, or whether he held any official position in the local Sinn Fein organisation. John Collins had been reported seen in Dumanway with the Southern Star’s man O’Connell on August 15 in Head Constable Reilly’s earlier report, and RIC headquarters were not satisfied with the outcome of local inquiries, seeking certainty as to whether or not the reported meeting had taken place. The fresh queries were prompted by further press reports, in which Collins was said to have referred during the Sinn Féin executive meeting in Dublin on August 21 to being at a meeting in Dunmanway the previous Sunday, ‘stating that “£400 was subscribed although there were only 25 persons present.” He does not say he was present but suggests that he was.’
Despite all the intelligence files, descriptions and attempts to trace Collins by the police, it seems their main intelligence on his movements at this time was derived from the press, including Collins’s own statements – whether they were true or otherwise. The confusion also highlights the key intelligence role of the local police on the ground, a role that would be significantly thwarted in a year’s time, as Irish Volunteers violence against RIC stations and personnel from early 1920 saw small rural stations like those dotted around the west Cork countryside abandoned for the shelter and security of larger barracks in towns like Bandon, Clonakilty, Dunmanway and Macroom. As constables moved out of the communities, greater freeedom of movement, free from the watchful eyes of the local police, was allowed the Irish Volunteers as they eventually came under the control of Dáil Éireann as the Irish Republican Army.
RIC Crime Special Branch file on Michael Collins, Sinn Fein and Republican suspect files, Colonial Office 904/196/65 (held on microfilm in Special Collections, Boole Library, University College Cork)
T Ryle Dwyer, The Squad: The intelligence operations of Michael Collins (Cork: Mercier, 2005)
Irish Independent, August 18, 1919