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Michael Collins and the Eight Hundred Year Occupation

Michael Collins and the Eight Hundred Year Occupation

By: Bill Buppert

“Realists appealed to Collins. There would be no more glorious protests in arms, he decided. He built a cadre of realists around him, first in the IRB, then at Volunteer headquarters, where he took over Pearse’s old post as Director of Organization before becoming Director of Intelligence, finally in Dáil Eireann, as the underground government’s very effective Minister for Finance. Collins was a doer. Essentially a well-informed opportunist with very few scruples, his entire ideology could be stated in five words: ‘The Irish should govern themselves.’” 

-         Sean Cronin, “Irish Nationalism: A History of its Roots and Ideology”

“The characteristics which mark Collins out as a remarkably successful Director of Intelligence during the War of Independence include his evident appreciation of the importance of the collection and assessment of information as primary elements of intelligence operations which should precede action; his partial penetration of his adversary’s own intelligence system; the efficiency and ruthlessness with which action based on good intelligence was taken; and his success in preserving the security and efficiency of his own organization both in Dublin and in Britain despite the pressures it operated under because of the constant threat of raids, arrests and the capture of documents.”

 -         Eunan O’Halpin, “Collins and Intelligence: 1919-1923 From Brotherhood to Bureaucracy” (in the anthology Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State)

 Introduction

Michael Collins was a tough young Irish operative during the seminal years of Eire’s final divorce from the United Kingdom at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This paper will attempt to discover if Collins was the culminating point that brought Number Ten Downing Street to the negotiation table, stared down Winston Churchill and came home with the solution for Irish independence from the British Crown.

Ireland was invaded and occupied the British crown in 1169 and suffered a brutal occupation punctuated by indigenous risings, rebellions and pockets of resistance. Sinn Féin emerged in 1905 to formalize a political vehicle to liberate the Irish from the British occupation.  These sophisticated rebel organizations started to emerge in the in the 19th and 20th century, culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising which led to the mismatch and overreach that would be the undoing of English rule over the Irish.

Michael Collins would emerge as the premier guerrilla leader during the crucial struggle between 1916 and 1922.  He embodied the early germination of the non-state soldier as a twentieth century variation on the age-old warrior in history and fought in Ireland under a variety of covers and positions within the political hierarchy of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  Collins would fight for the next four years culminating on Bloody Sunday on 21 November 1920.

 The Rising in 1916

During the Easter week of 24-30 April 1916, the IRB fielded the Irish Volunteers and smaller elements of Irish nationalists rose in armed rebellion in Dublin against the British crown.  The violence was a tremendous shock to the authorities in London and they reacted with enormous disproportionate use of military and constabulary forces to quell the rebellion.   “The British Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. The Volunteers and ICA recorded 64 killed in action, but otherwise Irish casualties were not divided into rebels and civilians.” [1] Executions and reprisals followed and Collins started to rise in the ranks to prominence in the aftermath of the Fort Sumter of the twentieth century Irish revolution against the Crown and eventually a bloody civil war that would pit Irishman against Irishman.

An increased colonial imperial presence started to expand its reach on the southern island that was the heart of the rebellion.  England was on a war footing in her third year of fighting in the First World War and troop movements and weapons availability were quite abundant for the forces deployed.  The British had to invest in a counterinsurgency campaign and still had upper tier members of the military high command with bitter memories of the COIN difficulties in the two Boer conflicts fought less than a generation before.

The Rebellion in Earnest

The IRB and the other militant organizations started to realize that the war would have to be one of the classic insurgent and conducted in “suit and tie” as it were, assuming aliases and slipping through the mass base undetected.  Collins would for three years hide in plain sight in Dublin and its environs posing as a businessman named “John Grace”.  Great Britain would respond with one of the most slipshod and misinformed counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns in recent history with a number of missteps that would eventually cost them the conflict and the island of Eire would eventually float out of the Dominion orbit. Some suppose that if that had not occurred during wartime, that the COIN may have had an even chance of success but the “modus operandi and outlook…had been shaped during wartime for the intelligence apparatus which required intelligence officers to cut corners, dispense with vetting procedures and cold pitch informers.” [2] The British also severely underestimated the IRB/IRA counterintelligence operations being conducted against them.

Once the British introduced the Blacks and Tans, a paramilitary police unit in concert with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the atrocities started to even gain attention in England and some Members of Parliament warned that the harsh treatment would lead to a deepening resistance and compel the populace to close ranks with the rebellion.  Contrary to the popular media, the massacre at Croke Park in 1920 where 13 civilians died was at the hands of the RIC and some auxiliaries. Nonetheless, a critical mass of English brutality was having a measured effect on the Irish mood that the IRA took full advantage of and Collins hatched a plan to assassinate members of the intelligence organization known as the Cairo Gang headquartered in the Castle.

 Bloody Sunday

The propaganda war on both sides was quite effective although one can say the Irish rebellion had an advantage between a sympathetic USA and British public becoming exhausted with the expense and the apparent atrocities starting to percolate for the unintended conflict that Great Britain had been escalating since 1919.  Even Churchill grew weary in 1920: “What was the alternative? It was to plunge one small corner of the empire into an iron repression, which could not be carried out without an admixture of murder and counter-murder…. Only national self-preservation could have excused such a policy, and no reasonable man could allege that self-preservation was involved.”  One can bookend this speech with one of the greatest speeches Churchill even made on 8 July 1920 concerning the British military massacres of Indians at Amristar on 13 April 1919 (also known as the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre) and his condemnation of British military excesses in the Raj, one cannot help but think he was conflating some of that brutality with what was transpiring in Ireland during the war.[3] Churchill’s reputation as one of the finest speakers in the English-speaking world gave him a platform which enthralled millions in the British public whether broadcast or read transcripted in the daily newspapers.  The daily mauling of Irish civilians by British occupation forces may have started to gain more traction.

On 19 June, 1920 the commanding officer of the RIC in Listowel informed his ranks:

“Now, men, Sinn Fein have had all the sport up to the present, and we are going to have the sport now. The police are not in sufficient strength to do anything to hold their barracks. This is not enough for as long as we remain on the defensive, so long will Sinn Fein have the whip hand. We must take the offensive and beat Sinn Fein at its own tactics…If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there"the more the merrier. Should the order (“Hands Up”) not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.” [4]

The perfect storm was emerging that would lead to the operation that would change the course of the conflict and eventually draw the British to the negotiating table to parley for a conditional settlement and peace that may free the Irish from English dominion.

Collins would strike the match that would put the British in the hazard.  His “Squad” was comprised of volunteer gunmen and supporting elements that would target the Cairo Gang at Dublin Castle who were a key component of the intelligence complex the English had deployed into Ireland to quell the rebellion.  The popular media has greatly exaggerated the importance of the Cairo Gang in the vast network of intelligence assets the Crown had deployed but the propaganda impact coupled with what would happen within hours of the assassination would force the British government to find a solution the IRB and indigenous Irishmen would agree to.

“Shortly after eight in the morning, [Collins’ men] converged on eight different addresses in Dublin.  Nineteen soldiers, one or two of them probably not agents, were roused from their sleep and shot.” [5]

Of these, thirteen were killed and six wounded according to official reports. When Collins would hear the news, he would say: “Good God. We’re finished now. It’s all up.” [6] This was not the blow the popular media makes it out it to be ands tends to be exaggerated.  This was a propaganda blow but had a relatively minor operational impact from an intelligence perspective.

“In hindsight, Collins’ operation, although executed with imprecision was a shock to British intelligence but quite limited in scope.  The IRA succeeded in eliminating only a small fraction of the legion of British intelligence operatives, although there is no question that a few of those assassinated were among the more experienced and aggressive operators. At the end of the day IRA gunmen killed seven confirmed intelligence officers, two legal officers, one informer, and two Auxiliary temporary cadets, while wounding four more suspected spies.” [7] Collins blow would nonetheless have far-reaching effects that would happen just that afternoon.

The day was not over as the bloody-minded British Blacks and Tans and some associated constabulary possibly seeking revenge opened fire at the football pitch in Croke Park that afternoon by killing 12 civilians and maiming hundreds of other players and spectators in what would become the Croke Park massacre that would even upset the British government at the ferocity and brutality of the attack after the stinging rebuke Churchill had spoke against mere months before in the Parliament during General Dyer’s trial for the Indian massacre.

Conclusion

A mere two years later in December 1921, the Irish would get their independence after almost eight hundred years as a mostly unwilling vassal of the United Kingdom.  This would spark a vicious civil war between two competing factions that would be long and bloody.  Collins would be assassinated himself in his personage as the military commander of free Ireland by a rival Republican faction in August 1922.

Collins was an able commander and essentially one of the first successful non-state soldiers of the twentieth century although T.E. Lawrence may tangentially take the laurel for being a state soldier commanding an entire army of non-state soldiers in WWI during the British fight against Turkey in the Middle East.  One must entertain the counterfactual that had Collins not struck such a blow and reaped the unintended windfall of English brutality and callous disregard for human life at Croke Park that same afternoon if the Commonwealth may have remained intact.

“… [G]iven time, strength and public support, the British forces could have reduced rebel operations to negligible proportions. Nevertheless, these quintessential conditions were missing. While the IRA survived, political pressure on the British government increased and though the balance was tantalizingly fine, the IRAS held out longer than the government’s nerve.  That was what mattered.” [8]

Collins survived and went toe to toe.

Collins was at the right time and right place to take full advantage of English missteps and capitalize on the unintended profit from Churchill damning the military brutality by Raj forces in India resulting in thousands of civilian deaths and maiming.  Many forces were starting to coalesce to include the post-WWI exhaustion of Britain, British financial woes and the consolidation of Irish guerrilla forces under a capable and effective leadership. The combination of ruthless efficiency, political stellar alignments and the sheer exhaustion of the British public with the conflict most likely tipped the balance for Collins and his confreres.

A single day in which both the protagonists swung at each other may very well have set the conditions for Irish freedom.

Bibliography

[1] Foy, Michael, and Brian Barton. The Easter Rising. Chicago: The History Press, 2011.

[2] Hittle, J.B.E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure. Washington DC: Potomac, 2011.

[3] Herman, Arthur. Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. New York: Bantam, 2009.

[4] Wilson, A.N. After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World. New York: Farar, 2005.

[5] Coogan, Tim Pat. Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland. Boulder: Roberts Rhinehart, 1992.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hittle, J.B.E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure. Washington DC: Potomac, 2011.

[8] Doherty, Gabriel, ed. Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State. Dublin: Mercier, 1998.

 Works Consulted

Barry, Tom. Guerilla Days in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 1995.

Cronin, Sean. Irish Nationalism: A History of Its Roots and Ideology. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Dwyer, T. The Squad: and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins. Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 2005.

Foy, Michael. Michael Collins’s Intelligence War: The Struggle Between the British and the IRA 1919-1921. Charleston: The History Press, 2006.

Gleeson, James. Bloody Sunday: How Michael Collins’s Agents Assassinated Britain’s Secret Service in Dublin on November 21, 1920. Guilford: Lyons Press, 2004.

Hart, Peter. The I.R.A. at War 1916-1923. New York: Oxford USA, 2005.

Schneider, James. Guerrilla Leader: T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. New York: Bantam, 2011.

 Bill Buppert is the Publisher of the website ZeroGov.Com, which is dedicated to the total abolition of slavery and the state. 

 
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