Michael Collins’s ‘killer’ met him twice before Beal na Blath ambush

Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill

Shane Phelan Public Affairs Editor

THE man believed to have fired the shot which fatally wounded Michael Collins had met the revolutionary leader at least twice before his death, newly discovered military intelligence files reveal.

Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill also said he was only in Beal na Blath by chance when Collins’ convoy was ambushed in August 1922.

Irish nationalist politician, soldier and Sinn Fein leader Michael Collins (1890 - 1922) in London for the treaty negotiations between representatives of Sinn Fein and the British government which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

Michael Collins in Clonakilty

Scanned from the NPA/Independent archives. Michael Collins

The documents somehow survived an order by the Government in 1932 that specified files relating to 1922 and 1923, the period of the Civil War, be destroyed by burning in case their contents led to reprisals.

They have now been added to an online military records archive, which is set to boost interest in the approaching centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent War of Independence and Civil War.

Researchers have combed tens of thousands of long forgotten files to compile the archive which sheds fresh light on Ireland’s struggle for independence.

The material released through the Defence Forces is the second tranche of documents to be published from Military Services Pensions Archive.

Under laws enacted between 1924 and 1949, people who were involved in military service or intelligence work between 1916 and 1923 were able to claim a pension from the State, while dependants of deceased fighters could also claim benefits.

But to prove they deserved a pension they often had to give incredibly detailed accounts of their actions and provide corroborative evidence from other witnesses.

The result of the latest batch of research, carried out at the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, is a veritable treasure trove of historical information, containing 1,158 individual pension records, 77 administration files and around 173,000 scanned images of documents, photographs and letters.

The archive is searchable online at www.militaryarchives.ie and contains interactive maps showing areas where fighting occurred in 1916.

Born in 1888 in Timoleague, Co Cork, O’Neill was one of five brothers who were all active during the War of Independence and the Civil War.

He had served as a mounted constable in the RIC and fought as a marksman for the British Army in France during the World War I before being discharged after he was shot in the arm.

After returning home he joined the IRA and was considered a prized intelligence asset as he had free access to the RIC Depot, Dublin Castle and various British Army clubs.

During this period he said he was introduced to Collins in 1920 and was given a number of handlers close to Collins to pass information to.

He said he met Collins on a second occasion in 1921 after being given a message to pass to him in connection with negotiations in London.

But when the Civil War broke out he took the anti-Treaty side and returned to Co Cork.

Although he did not say he had killed Collins, O’Neill detailed being present in Beal na Blath in a sworn statement after he applied for a military pension in 1934. He had been returning from an IRA divisional meeting when he heard a Free State convoy was in the area.

“We accidentally ran into the Ballinablath (sic) thing,” he said. “We took up a position there, and held it until late in the evening.”

Military intelligence files described O’Neill as 5ft 8ins tall, of stout build, and weighing around 16 stone. He carried a light bamboo cane when walking. “A very downcast appearance, hardly ever smiles, never looks a person in the face when speaking,” a report by ‘Agent 145’ noted in 1924.

It said he frequented the “mountainy districts” of Templederry, Kilcommon, Rearcross in Co Tipperary and Doon in Co Limerick after the Civil War and never remained in the same house two nights in a row.

Another file written by an army intelligence officer in December 1924 described O’Neill as “a first class shot and a strict disciplinarian”.

A separate memo the same month described him as “undoubtedly a dangerous man”.

One those who supplied O’Neill with a reference when he sought the pension was Frank Thornton, an ally of Collins and a pro-Treaty fighter.

Eunan O’Halpin, professor of contemporary Irish history at Trinity College, said this and other files demonstrated that the “cliche of Civil War bitterness” was often overstated.

“Here was a Collins man pushing the boat out to someone not only from the other side but who actually killed his hero,” said Prof O’Halpin.

O’Neill was eventually awarded military and RIC pensions worth £135-a-year.

In later life he became a peace commissioner in Nenagh, Co Tipperary and also acted as a director of elections for Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail in the county before dying in 1950.