The Twelve Apostles of Michael Collins
Dublin ablaze during the riots of the Irish War of Independence aka Anglo-Irish War, 1920. From Story of Twenty Five Years, published 1935. Source: (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The years after World War I marked a bloody time for the history of Ireland. After winning a landslide election to Parliament in December 1918, the Sinn Féin party chose not to sit in Westminster. Rather, it established its own Irish Parliament and declared itself independent from the United Kingdom on January 21, 1919.
What followed was the Irish War of Independence also called the Anglo-Irish War or the Black and Tan War. It was a guerilla conflict fought in the streets. It was highly personal – and highly violent.
One of the Irish leaders was Michael Collins, a politician who was also the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in September 1919. Collins had witnessed the suppression of Irish nationalists during the 1916 Easter Rising and was determined not to wage open war with the British Army.
Collins was indeed a wanted man and hid in Dublin. The British government offered £10,000 for Collins, dead or alive. But tempting as the reward was, none would take it, and those that were tempted found themselves dead at the hands of the IRA with a calling card that read: “Convicted Spy Executed by Order of the IRA,"
The British were ramping up efforts to suppress the rebellion. The British government introduced new military units to supplement the police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) with Black and Tans, nicknamed because of their mismatched uniforms and the Auxiliary Division or “Auxies.” Both were infamous for their brutality against Irish citizens in reprisal for IRA actions. Also, there were British secret service units.
Of particular concern to Michael Collins was the eighteen-man “Cairo Gang.” They were called this because of shared Middle Eastern service or because some of them frequented the Cairo Café in Dublin. The Cairo Gang had covertly entered Dublin in 1920 and expanded from spying activities to assassinations. Their plan was apparently to kill prominent members of Sinn Féin and make it seem like a factional dispute among the IRA. Collins needed to get them first.
Michael Collins’s spy network was efficient and allowed him to track and identify the gang’s leaders: Colonel Peter Aimes (sometimes Ames) and Major George Bennett. Soon enough Collins acquired a list of other members of the gang as well as other suspected agents. Collins’s original list had fifty names, but this was cut to 35 due to insufficient evidence. With time of the essence, he and his close confederates, called the “Inner Circle” plotted a hit that could change the outcome of their insurgency.
To plot the assassinations, Collins employed the “Squad.” This was a group of assassins that was unofficially formed in July 1919 with eight men, became sanctioned on September 19, 1919, and then was expanded in January 1920 by another four. Aside from being called the Squad, these dozen assassins were also known as the “Twelve Apostles,” but to British authorities they were criminals. These men, mostly in their early 20’s were tradesmen, clerks, and other workers who were devoted to the cause of Irish independence. They were paid £4.10 per week. The only people who could order an actual assassination was Michael Collins or when he wasn’t present the IRA Chief of Staff or the Commandant of the Dublin IRA brigades.
The Squad had no illusions about what they did. One “Apostle,” Vincent Byrne said, “We never thought we’d win or lose. We just wanted to have a go. We’d go out in pairs, walk up to the target and do it, then split. You wouldn’t be nervous while you’d be waiting to plug him, but you’d imagine everyone was looking into your face. On a typical job, we’d use about eight, including the back-up. Nobody got in our way. One of us would knock him over with the first shot, and the other would finish him off with a shot to the head.”
Despite Byrne’s descriptions, assassinations were meticulously planned. Targets were surveilled sometimes for weeks prior to execution so that Squad members fully understood their targets’ strengths and weaknesses. One squad member, Joe Dolan recalled, “We knew he had a bullet-proof waistcoat, so we shot him in the head.”
In reaction to the assassinations, the British banned Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliament. This helped bolster public support for the Irish rebels.
The evening before the strike against the Cairo Gang, the Squad gathered at Tara Hall in Dublin. More men were assigned to the operation to augment their strength. They were divided into teams and given addresses of where to find their targets – about 20 different men suspected of being in or working for the British Secret Service.
The hits all took place at 9:00 am on Sunday, November 21, 1920. The Squad entered a target’s home or apartment and conducted the execution. Sometimes it went smoothly – such was the case of the assassination of Aimes and Bennett who were killed simultaneously. Sometimes it did not – a target sometimes was not home, and at least one escaped. In total the Squad shot nineteen men resulting in fourteen immediate deaths and a fifteenth being mortally wounded. A good many were indeed British secret service agents, but some were soldiers in the wrong place at the wrong time and there were also two civilians.
Collins had no qualms about the murders: “My own intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens… If I had another motive, it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile… There is no crime in detecting and destroying in war-time, the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.”
That afternoon the British organized an unauthorized reprisal. At Croke Park, a Gaelic football game was underway with a crowd of about 5,000. At 3:25 pm a number of RIC, Black and Tans, and Auxiliaries arrived on the scene. There are various reports as to what happened, but by most accounts, the authorities opened fire into the crowd resulting in twelve deaths, which included one player. Two more people were trampled to death by the fleeing crowd.
November 21, 1920, would be known as one of several Bloody Sundays in Irish history. In the aftermath, the violence helped the IRA militarily by disrupting the British intelligence network as well as further turning public opinion against the British, especially due to the incident at Croke Park.
Assassinations and counter-assassinations would continue until a truce was called on July 11, 1921. Much of the reasons for the peace, was because of the escalating spiral of violence and the criticisms of the British against its own troops. The Anglo-Irish Treaty which formally ended the war created the Irish Free State as a Dominion of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Not all in Ireland agreed with the treaty which resulted in a civil war and the assassination of Michael Collins in 1922. But the Free State was the predecessor of the independent Republic of Ireland of today.
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