Ironically, Michael Collins spent almost a third of his short life working in England. He lived there with his sister, and they both worked for the British Civil Service. Intrigued by the movie by the same name, I decided to read this biography.
The influence of Michael's sister was crucial. As a youngster he had thought of becoming an engineer, but Hannah steered him to groups of Irish "patriots" who celebrated the traditional ethnic roots. London, at the time, was a maelstrom of multi-diversity mixing. Most immigrants were easily assimilated, abandoning their roots away from the traditional influences of family and community. Hannah repeatedly [pushed him back to the Irish roots and a celebration of the Irish heritage. This is not to diminish the influence of his mother, a very strong woman with an easy tolerance of religious differences and this was to provide the grounding for Michael's abhorrence of the sectarianism that threatened Irish nationalist solidarity. Collins was a tireless and energetic worker and a genius at soliciting support from the unlikeliest of people. He was constantly at it. "Even in a pub, if a friend bought a round of drinks, Michael would pocket the change for the National Aid Fund punctiliously issuing a receipt for the cash he had purloined." He had a way of blending into the background. Despite the fact that the authorities often wanted him he continued to walk to work for years using the same route. He was dressed meticulously and perhaps this made him more invisible. When leaving the office he would pretend to blow his nose preventing anyone from watching from seeing his complete face. Still, it was a remarkable achievement. Collins turned down the job of being Cathal Brugha's deputy. Brugha was the archetype terrorist proposing once to machinegun Parliament.
Cooler heads prevailed however. Collins, instead, reorganized the military end of the rebels and combined the posts of Adjutant- General with Director of Organization and Director of Intelligence. These integrated roles gave him enormous power. He evolved the tactics of guerilla war that were without precedent during the summer of 1918. The volunteers were tightly knit into "cells" with strict codes of conduct and discipline. Each fought on its own territory, and soon, following an ignorant and stupid campaign of repression by the British authorities, the people of southern Ireland began to turn to them for protection. Even the Catholic priesthood acknowledged the shift in power. Some of the antics indulged in by the Irish rebels under Collins seem straight out of a dime novel. In one attempted jail break de Valera, who was incarcerated in Lincoln Gaol, managed to borrow a key from the priest who was saying mass, and made an impression in candle wax. He then brazenly sent a picture of the key and the lock on a Christmas card showing a man holding a large key outside the front door saying "Xmas 1917 can't get in". The other side showed a huge lock with the inscription, "Xmas 1918 can't get out." There followed a message addressed to Collins' nom de guerre, Field, in de Valera's handwriting explaining that the picture of the key and lock were exact drawings and requesting that a copy be made and sent to him in a cake! This was done only the copied key proved defective so a second was made and smuggled in in another cake –one wonders what in the world the British jailers were doing during all this cake baking. It finally took four different cakes and keys to get one to work. The night of the escape approached and de Valera was able to open the cell and block doors with the key only to find himself blocked by a second gate. Collins was waiting outside with a key for that gate, but he jammed the key in the lock and broke it. By an extraordinary stroke of good luck, de Valera managed to push out the broken key from the inside and open the door. The escape was not discovered until two hours later. As they had taken a prearranged for taxi, they were well on their way into hiding. It's almost comic. British ineptitude was not reserved for their jails.
Nancy O'Brien, Michael's cousin, was hired by Sir James MacMahon to be his confidential clerk. This gave her access to all sorts of top secret messages. Even Michael could not believe the British would hire a close relative of the most wanted man in all of Ireland. "In the name of Jasus, how did these people ever get an empire?" he wondered. By 1920 Michael held the dual roles of Minister of Finance and Director of Intelligence. His attention to detail was extraordinary. He managed a huge National Loan campaign to collect donations from people. None of the activities could be overt and even advertising had to be done on the sly. The money that was contributed often had to be converted to gold and then hidden in assorted places, even behind the walls of houses. Detailed records had to be kept. His intelligence network was comprehensive and widespread. Spies were recruited through persuasion, coercion, or subtle intimidation. An agent of his discovered one highly placed clerk whose children were being kept from her by her ex-mother-in-law. Michael arranged for them to be kidnapped and placed in a secure home where the mother could visit them presumably in return for access to secret files. He intimidated the police by an active campaign of violence. He created the Squad, a group of paid assassins most of the Volunteers were just that who targeted and killed policemen or anyone deemed to be a hindrance to the Irish Republican cause. Often they were warned first to lay off; killed when they did not.
The British continued to wallow in foolish mistakes. Prime Minister Lloyd George tried to suppress the rebellion the way they had the Boers. He hired thousands of unemployed W. W. I unemployed veterans to form a special police force, mercenaries really, to supplement, or supplant, the regular Irish police brigades who had been so infiltrated and intimidated by the Sein Fein supporters as to be useless. Called the Black and Tans, these undisciplined troops ganged up around the countryside pillaging and killing with such abandon and ruthlessness that many who had been neutral or even loyalists were driven into the camp of the Irish rebels. The British administration became desperate, even discussing the use of poison gas at one point. Concentration camps were even built. The violence did cause a split in the rebel ranks with de Valera, returned from a trip to America to raise money and guns who wanted larger pitched battles, and Collins who argued for guerilla tactics. He preferred the ambush, an irony considering how he was to die not long after. Collins' downfall was his unwilling participation in the treaty negotiations of 1922 that were subsequently disapproved by de Valera and the extreme Republican wing of the Dail. Even though it became clear that most of their constituents approved of the treaty that granted Ireland a provisional government and was considered a reasonable compromise by Collins, the result was a bloody civil war. Collins was shot in an almost farcical ambush in which no one else was injured and he was struck by a parting shot.
McKay believes that if Collins had lived he might have been able to prevent much of the animosity between north and south. De Valera became president and was responsible for many stupid decisions that ultimately hurt Ireland in the eyes of the world community. Had the United States studied the Troubles and learned some lessons, we might have been less eager to enter Vietnam. The enemy was faceless, blended in with the crowd, had huge popular support sometimes coerced, but support nevertheless. The Volunteer army rarely numbered more than 3,000 yet the British forces numbering more than 60,000 could not make headway against them.