Saturday 20 January 2018

Mission Apostle: Collins and his band of assassins

History: The Twelve Apostles, Tim Pat Coogan, Head of Zeus, hdbk, 352 pages, €22.99

Michael Collins and Kevin O'Higgins at Arthur Griffith's
Michael Collins and Kevin O'Higgins at Arthur Griffith's
The Twelve Apostles by Tim Pat Coogan

Damian Corless

Tim Pat Coogan's new book puts some factual flesh on the myth of the Twelve Apostles, the inner circle of men hand-picked by Michael Collins who culled British intelligence on Bloody Sunday.

The palpitating dramatic heart of Neil Jordan's 1996 biopic Michael Collins is the chilling whisper-to-a-scream sequence where the Corkman's band of hand-picked assassins 'take out' 11 unsuspecting victims, shattering the eerie quiet of a misty Sunday morning.

The shocking cull took place on November 21, 1920, during the War of Independence. The 11 were the cream of the British army's intelligence corps in Dublin. Innocent bystanders died as collateral damage. The killers were The Squad, a band of assassins chosen for their cool-heads, whole hearts and ability to follow a cunning plan to the letter. The Squad's inner circle became known as the Twelve Apostles. That afternoon, the forces of law and order fired into the crowd at Croke Park killing 14 and wounding 60. By the close of Bloody Sunday, 31 people lay dead.

In The Twelve Apostles, Tim Pat Coogan sets Bloody Sunday in its political and historical context, putting factual flesh on some myths and tearing strips off others. It's a compelling work, exploring how terror and even torture midwifed the birth of this nation. And yet this tale of murder and mayhem is also a labour of love. While the author's hero worship of his central character Collins is neither blind nor boundless, it is never far from view.

At the outset, he declares Collins "one of the most extraordinary men ever to have been born in Ireland", asserting that the Big Fella's "remarkable qualities as a man, a citizen, a commander and strategist" now "gleam more brightly" in the light of distance. He allows that: "Collins was a difficult man. He let off steam by wild bouts of furniture-smashing and wrestling matches. He was given to practical jokes that were not all that funny. He had a volcanic temper and he could be bullying." Remove the name Collins, and this could be a Greek God, fearsome and noble, if prone to human foibles.

Among those foibles were a sense of invincibility and even vainglory. In legend, Ireland's most-wanted man would saunter up to enemy roadblocks and have a friendly chat with the soldiers on duty, confident that the lone photo they had of him was outdated and fuzzy beyond recognition. The trouble with this yarn is that there was a propaganda film doing the rounds, commissioned by Collins himself, which clearly identified the bike-riding Scarlet Pimpernel.

"I am inclined to think that his immunity was due to the fact that he had members of the police force so terrorised that when they did see him, they kept quiet," he writes. He argues that the same terror allowed the Apostles to move about with relative impunity.

Collins formally established his squad in September 1919, as the first (exclusively Sinn Féin) Dáil Éireann was outlawed. Most of the recruits were in their early twenties. Arms and ammunition were always in short supply, and the notorious Dan Breen later recalled: "The lady prostitutes used to pinch the guns at night and leave them for us at Shanahan's public house; there was no such thing as payment for these or for any information they gave us."

At times, however, these precious resources were squandered in a red mist. In addition to giving his men precise training in how to kill with cool efficiency, the master strategist handed them a set of ground rules forbidding freelance violence and threats. But sometimes bloodlust just took over. Coogan "categorically" states that: "The Apostles did not always conform to a doctrine of minimum force. Some of them developed a penchant for emptying the entire contents of their revolvers into their victims' bodies."

No sooner had partial independence been granted, than Sinn Féin split almost down the middle over the Treaty. Collins took many of his Apostles with him to the Pro-Treaty side that would eventually win the Civil War and form the first Free State government. Coogan notes that the stand-out factor in the Pro-Treaty war effort was "the sheer ruthless efficiency of the methods employed (in which) some of the former Apostles played a distinctly inglorious part". After Collins was killed early in the Civil War, practically his entire squad joined a Pro-Treaty dirty-ops group called Oriel House, led by Joe McGrath. Collins and McGrath had met working for the accountancy firm Craig Gardiner, and over the years of conflict, McGrath became sorcerer's apprentice to the slightly older man, learning the dark arts well from his master.

When the Civil War ended in 1923, the hit squad was disbanded and the records detailing its horrendous activities were destroyed by WT Cosgrave's Free State government. From brutally suppressing union activity on the Ardnacrusha Shannon Scheme, McGrath went on to co-found the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes in 1930. Employing many ex-members of Collins' Squad as heavies, McGrath turned the Sweeps into the world's biggest smuggling network, tormenting the British and US governments by warping their police, postal and customs services with bribery and corruption on a massive scale. Coogan goes inexplicably lightly on McGrath, content to describe a man who bribed and bullied his way to the top as a "successful businessman".

But there was an earlier nexus between Collins's murder squads and big business, in the form of the Big Farmer and by far Ireland's main industry, the export of cattle and dairy. In July 1922, a month before Collins's death, his colleague Kevin O'Higgins called for "more executions" to rid the land of Anti-Treatyites.

"Part of O'Higgins' motivation was not mere ruthlessness, but the fact that ... some of these Irregulars were supporting land agitation," notes Coogan.

"With cattle prices low and rents going unpaid, cattle-rustling and land seizure were becoming part of the ungoing unrest." Fearful of trade disruption, the cabinet set up a special rural unit within Oriel House: "The Special Infantry Corps was a ruthlessly efficient body, and it succeeded in curbing this unrest on the land."

Written with pace and clarity, this is an important work that shows how desperate measures taken in desperate times don't easily go away, you know.

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