The ‘Playboy’ Rebel With a Taste for ‘Extreme Action’

All this week, the Volokh Conspiracy is kindly allowing me to run excerpts from my newly released book, Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Modern Day. Today’s section concerns Michael Collins, the strategist who was the driving force behind Irish success in winning independence from Britain in 1922:

Twenty-nine years old in 1919, Collins was already a veteran revolutionary who had spent time in a prison camp in Wales after taking part in the Easter Rising. He had grown up in county Cork, the youngest of eight children born to a prosperous if elderly farmer who died when Collins was still a boy.

He was influenced not only by the traditional heroes of the Irish independence struggle, the “Bold Fenian Men,” but also by De Wet and the other Boers who had given the British a black eye. (Years later he wrote to De Wet to thank him for having been his “earliest inspiration.”) He was convinced, he later recalled, that “Irish Independence would never be attained by constitutional means,” and that “when you’re up against a bully you’ve got to kick him in the guts.”

To do just that, he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1909 and then into the Irish Volunteers in 1914 while living in London, where he worked first for the British civil service and then for two financial firms.

“Mick” was tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, square-jawed, with “a mind quick as lightning,” boundless energy, and undeniable charisma—“hearty, boisterous, or quiet by turn,” in the words of an IRA officer. He was fond of whiskey, cigarettes, swearing, and female company. A woman who knew him thought he was a “real playboy”—an Irish Garibaldi, if you will, but without the Italian’s air of sanctimony.

Collins’s friends described him as “full of fun” and a keen practical joker, but he also had a foul temper and a domineering temperament. He could be “harsh and sneering” with those who did not meet his high standards.

It was in a British internment camp, later dubbed by a British intelligence officer “the nursery of the I.R.A.,” that he first showed the gift for leadership that led fellow inmates to dub him “the Big Fellow.” After his release in December 1916, having served six months, he assumed a leadership role in all three major nationalist organizations—the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and Sinn Féin—an unusual hat trick that put him at the center of the action.

Half accountant, half swashbuckler, Collins was capable of doing meticulous paperwork while also taking enormous personal risks. Throughout the war he seldom left Dublin (population: 230,000), even though he had a heavy price on his head. He worked from various homes and storefronts and frequently changed where he slept. He routinely put in seventeen- or eighteen–hour workdays before repairing to a pub or hotel to blow off steam. Sometimes he would pop up at an IRA safehouse without warning to swap a few jokes and ask, “Well, lads, how are ye getting on?” His visits bucked up morale among his men, who, one of them recalled, “loved and honored him.”

He traveled without bodyguards or a disguise, cycling through the streets on an “ancient bicycle whose chain,” one of his men wrote, “rattled like a mediaeval ghost’s.” He was stopped multiple times, but in his neat gray suit, which made him look like a stockbroker not a revolutionary, he always managed to bluff his way through—or else to threaten the police so convincingly that they did not feel like risking their lives to capture him.

On more than one occasion he escaped out of a building through a skylight or a back door while British troops were rushing in through the front. One of his chief pursuers wrote that “he combined the characteristics of a Robin Hood with those of an elusive Pimpernel.”

Part of the secret of Collins’s success was his penchant for secrecy. He said, “Never let one side of your mind know what the other is doing.” His best-kept secret was all the agents he cultivated inside the British administration. No fewer than four members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police’s detective bureau, G Division, secretly reported to “the Big Fellow.” So did at least a dozen uniformed constables.

Other spies, working as secretaries in Dublin Castle or clerks in the post office, passed along important British correspondence and ciphers. In April 1919 one of his moles even gave him a midnight tour of G’s headquarters, where he was able to spend five hours reading their most sensitive files. He then sent his men to warn the “G-men” to stop harassing the IRA—or else.

Those who ignored the warnings were targeted for “extermination” by Collins’s personal hit team, known originally as the “Twelve Apostles” (it began with a dozen members) and then, when it grew, as “the Squad.”

While most IRA men were part-time volunteers, the Squad consisted of full-time, paid gunmen. Armed with powerful Webley .455-caliber revolvers, at least six Squad members were always on standby at their headquarters, first a house, then a cabinetmaking shop. They would play cards or tinker with lumber to pass the time while awaiting the call for “extreme action.”