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Collins's 'killer' met him twice prior to Beal na Blath ambush

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Micheal Collins

Micheal Collins

A copy of the Police Gazette from 1920 listing Michael Collins and other revolutionary leaders as wanted men.

A copy of the Police Gazette from 1920 listing Michael Collins and other revolutionary leaders as wanted men.

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Micheal Collins

THE man believed to have fired the shot that 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.

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.

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 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 whom he could pass information.

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.

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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 of 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 "cliché 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.

Comment: Time to let us see Garda historical records, Page 29


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