The Plot (2022)

Backstory: The Intelligence War Rebuilt (1920-1921)

By the end of 1919, at the beginning of what we know as the Irish War of Independence, the police intelligence service in Dublin and across Ireland had practically broken down. The centre of British power in Dublin Castle could no longer rely on the effectiveness of the DMP (Dublin Metropolitan Police) in the capital or the established Royal Irish Constabulary in rural towns to supply their intel requirements. Locals were warned against cooperating or speaking to RIC officers. Many officers were threatened, many were attacked - leading to substantial resignations from the force. The consequence of this was the removal of RIC authority in many outlying areas – barracks were abandoned and left empty, the hand of British authority was removed from rural areas, allowing the IRA to assert more and more control. From the British side it was realised that change was needed. Brigadier-General J.E.S Brind and Colonel S.Hill-Dillon, formerly of MI5, were set the task of reorganizing the Intelligence or ‘I’ staff at the Castle. An officer was appointed to deal with records of each divisional area and to ensure that an enlarged registry and card index was built with information on IRA personnel. This marked the beginning of the Irish Republican Army List – a list which sought to identify and eradicate active members of the Irish volunteer movement and those within the hierarchy of this and associated movements.


According to British Intelligence reports, both the military and the police agreed that their most important sources of information were captured documents and formulation of a scheme to obtain information through correspondence and surveillance. Agents were despatched by Sir Basil Thompson – the director of intelligence at the Home Office – who was expanding his activities across Britain and Ireland after working on intelligence operations during WW1. Intelligence officers were expected to recruit informers as well as infiltrate organizations as undercover agents. In some cases, these officers were attached to uniformed volunteer units, often in disguise and with an alternative identity. These young men were blended into Irish society in civil service jobs, in steamship companies, as railway porters, bartenders or shopkeepers; they were posing as journalists or farmers and also as members of the Republican movement itself. Plainclothes agents mixed with Dublin citizens and crowds. When IRA members were arrested, they were arrested too. Improvised secret service activities such as surveillance, observational duties, indirect interviews, collating and collecting localised information were agents’ responsibilities. As was the handling of, and liaising with, potential informers. Contacts with Company Intelligence handlers had to be done in a covert way – on both sides – to ensure maximum protection of the intelligence works. 

Up to early 1920, undercover operations had been conducted, in a more improvised way, by small groups of officers or individuals against the IRA. But in March 1920, undercover operations were taken under army control and  formalised within a ‘Special Branch’ remit of the District Command in Dublin. This was done with the assistance of MI5 and London Metropolitian Police CID. New instruction schools were formed in Hounslow, close to London, where recruits were briefed, trained and sent to Dublin. New levels of espionage, subversion and covert training were almost a follow-through from first World War intelligence systems introduced as part of Britain’s response to potential threats from revolutionary movements and from fear of German infiltration or invasion. Recruits were made up of mostly retired army officers, who would operate in plain clothes, assimilate into Dublin society, live in a handful of lodgings in the South Inner city and act as observers, intelligence gatherers and seek out specific targets within the Republican movement. Captain R.D. Jeune, one of the first wave of undercover intelligence agents, described how at first the men would pose as Royal Engineer officers, get to know the town as thoroughly as possible and then assigned to “tail shinners” in an attempt to collect as much information as possible and root-out the leaders of republican movements.

The arrival of Colonel Ormonde Winter as chief of Intelligence in May 1920 and a new wave of special intelligence agents, furthered the underground war on both sides. Winter - or codename “O” - was innovative, obsessed with cloak and dagger methods and operations which established networks of undercover agents – both local, throughout Ireland, as well as recruited - from England.  Methods of acquiring information by means of subterfuge, observation, interrogation and infiltration. With the introduction of Winter, a more unified intelligence system was established between the RIC, the army and the Special Branch. Upon his arrival, a number of operations were put in motion in an attempt to produce fast results.

Towards the end of 1920 a Raid Bureau was organised, with the objective of dealing with captured documents taken from numerous searches. Quantities of documents were seized in raids on official and adhoc Sinn Fein offices and houses which disclosed the names or many IRA brigade and battallion commanders as well as intelligence files on the identities and movements of British Agents. In his report in British Intelligence in Ireland, Winter recounted: “In Collins’ offices have been found large numbers of Intelligence Reports, descriptions of individuals, details and numbers of Military and Police garrisons, lists of hotel waiters and night porters, and plans and sketches of Police Barracks, whilst the corruption of the telephone service is demonstrated by the communications that have been passed between British officials, codes and copies of the Police cipher wires have also been frequently discovered.” Reports had been found relating to Railway employees, ex-constables, postal officials, hotel staff, maids, servants and many others concerned in what Winter called the “Duties of Espionage.” 

Through the initial successes of these raids there was, in Winter’s opinion, a snowball effect. Captured documents led to fresh searches and arrests and the means of obtaining more intimate knowledge of IRA operations, plans, resources and intelligence files.  From August 1920 to July 1921 over 6’000 raids and searches were carried out in the Dublin District alone. Further information gathering such as the censorship of letters and periodical raids on mails and postal dispatches were commonplace. Infiltrators or “moutons” were placed directly into prison cells of detention with rebel prisoners. Experiments were made in transmitting intelligence by agents on secret inks, though found unsatisfactory. Winter also set up an address at Scotland House where anonymous letters could be sent, by would-be informers, regarding rebel activities and movements. Letters were, according to Winter, received in large numbers. But the proliferation of bogus letters received meant that this strategy only led to no satisfactory results, seldom if ever leading to the source of agitation. Through these methods, however, Winters intelligence organization was able to build up a very accurate picture of their enemy and the habits of main players in the IRA. Through the establishment of the Photographic Section of the Intelligence bureau, prisoners who were arrested were photographed and duly tabulated. It enabled convicted prisoners at the end of their sentence to be easily rearrested should they recommence activities. Moreover, these photographs could be duplicated and circulated to the police and military. This and other considerable information about the organization of the IRA was collected, collated and filed in the castle. The framework of the order of battle was built up and the methods to find specific individuals of threat were put into place. From 21st November 1920 to the 21st February 1921, a period of three months, 1,745 arrests were effected. From December 1920 to June 1921, 310 revolvers, 34 rifles, 20 shotguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition plus a large quantity of bombs, explosives, detonators and equipment were captured in the Dublin Area alone. 

‘Spies, Everywhere’

The British lamented that there were spies everywhere in Ireland. Of course this is true. Michael Collins – head of IRA Intelligence - built up an extensive network of casual informants inside the castle and outside. Winter commented that everyone from waiters, tramway conductors, bus drivers were “willing agents” ready to act as the eyes and ears for Sinn Fein and the IRA. The most important informants were in the postal, telegraph, telephone and railway services. Official Communications were intercepted and passed through Republican channels. On a number of occasions, volunteers captured Dublin Castles mail bags, with the connivance of local postal officials. Numerous RIC officers, some with the Crime Special Branch, secretly worked with the IRA.

Collins had also moles in the DMP and inside Dublin Castle itself. Ned Broy, Jim McNamara, Joe Kavanagh and David Nelligan provided information to Collins from inside the heart of the Castle and Dublin Met HQ. These men both provided streams of reliable information from within the heart of the British security system as well as pointing out officials, agents or spies for IRA assassination. It was Broy who copied key documents from G Division files and provided the tip-off for the infamous ‘German Plot’ arrests of 1918 and in April 1919 he helped to smuggle Collins into the G-Division document room at Great Brunswick (now Pearse Street) police station, where he was to scrutinize official files on the Republican organization, including photographs, descriptions of movements, addresses and contacts. Documents, notes and files attained on this night were kept in sacks inside the flat of Miss Eileen McGrane on Dawson Street. When they were discovered by a raiding party on 3rd December 1920, it became clear that Broy was involved. He was consequently arrested and a key component of Collins undercover operation was lost.

Many other Agents were scattered through the British administration in Dublin – including Lily Mernin, a typist in the British Command HQ, Nancy O’Brien – a cousin of Collins who each passed coded messages information from the castle into the hands of the Irish Intelligence. Women known to be supporters of Sinn Fein or involved in undercover activities always ran the risk of rough treatment by British-directed units, who subjected them to insults, indignities and had their hair forcibly cut. Mernin was a crucial spy for Collins. It was she who had outed the spy Fergus Brian Molloy, who was handled by Colonel Hill-Dillon, for whom Mernin worked.  As a trusted secretary and typist for the British, her role of typing letters for key figures in military intelligence meant that she played a key role in helping to formulate Irish intelligence. She was given keys to an unoccupied house on Clonliffe Road where she would type out copies, notes and memos that crossed her desk. These would be picked up at a later date by a dispatch rider who brought them to Intelligence HQ. 

David Nelligans account of his life as a double agent in Dublin Castle is a fascinating insight into the struggles, the violence, the subterfuge of everyday life in the early 1920s. In his book ‘The Spy in The Castle’, written in 1968, Nelligan gives a vivid account of the precarious position he was placed in during the height of the intelligence war. Nelligan joined the police force at 18, following a customary path of many young Irish men. With a foundation of good education courtesy of his Limerick parents – both school teachers – he began his career in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Nelligan soon graduated to a role in the G-Division - living and working at close quarters with those who were trying to pinch Collins, uncover his network and curtail the activities of the Irish volunteers. After a decision to resign this role in May 1920, due to personal reasons, he was urged to do a u-turn after a meeting with Collins. Nelligan would now work both sides - in the centre of the British security operations in Dublin and as a key player in helping Collins to form a detailed intelligence operation against the men inside the Castle. Nelligans role in the G -Divisions political branch put him into direct contact with secret police and undercover agents brought from London. This unique role offered Collins a trusted informer and source of crucial information from inside the castle walls. 

'The Squad'

The IRA used intelligence information discovered in ‘G’ Division files, by Collins, to further their offensive. In late 1919 Michael Collins – Director of Intelligence - created a group of hit men referred to as ‘The Squad’, tasked with the assassinations of targeted British Intelligence operatives and agents living in Dublin. The Squad, at times nicknamed the Twelve Apostles, came directly under the control of Collins as Director of Intelligence or his deputy Liam Tobin and under no other authority. They were constantly on standby, available to be called to operation at a moments notice and assigned to ongoing intelligence gathering on suspected targets. The Squad acted as full-time paid assassins, initially commanded by the de facto leader of the group Mick McDonnell. The original core group of twelve mainly working-class men consisted of Tom Keogh, Jimmy Slattery, Paddy Daly, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Vincent Byrne, Sean Doyle, Paddy Griffin, Eddie Byrne, Mick Reilly and Jimmy Conroy. After some time, the Squad was strengthened by the further members and supported by a network of munitions volunteers, brigade members and flying columns. Units chose an unassuming location in Dublin city centre as its nerve centre of operations – No 3 Crow Street, which was only a few hundred yards from the castle gates off Dame Street. One of the incredible features of the Intelligence war is the reality of how narrow the topography of streets are in which this conflict played out - rival undercover players on each side cross paths on a regular basis.

With the introduction of guerrilla tactics to the streets of Dublin, Collins brought the campaign to a new level. Knowing that a conventional war against the crown forces could not be won, he employed The Squad to operate on a shoot to kill policy against key targets at the heart of British Intelligence. Information and orders were supplied directly from the hierarchy of the Intelligence unit of the IRA and from Collins himself. The Squads role was to watch and reveal targets, then to await orders to assassinate. The overall intention of eliminating targets was to paralyse the British machine by striking at individuals within the intelligence network. This included informers and spies which helped the British to accumulate knowledge about Republican activities.

The Squad first took aim at the ‘G-Men’ of the DMP – five were killed or wounded in 1919 and 1920. The first target was detective Sergeant Patrick ‘The Dog’ Smyth, who was known for his anti-Sinn Fein prejudices and responsible for raids on the premises of the Gaelic Press printers, scrutinizing prisoners in Richmond Barracks after 1916 and later was present at a raid in 44 Parnell Square – a Republican HQ - where it was feared that he may have identified the elusive Collins himself. Mick Kennedy, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery formed the neucleus of the Squad. They waited patiently at Drumcondra Bridge for several days and nights, finally shooting Smyth as he alighted from a tram on 30th July. Smyth died six weeks later, from wounds received, at his home 51 Millmount Avenue. The Squad next set their sights on Detective-Officer Daniel Hoey, of the ‘G’-division at the DMP. The murder of Hoey occurred just before 10 o’clock on the night of 12 September on Townsend Street - just 50 paces from the entrance to the detective office on Great Brunswick Street. Hoey was in charge of a raid on Sinn Fein offices at 6 Harcourt Street. McDonnell, Slattery and Tom Ennis carried out the order. On the 29th of November 1919 Detective John Barton was shot dead on College Street, near the Crampton Monument, on the orders of Michael Collins. Though he had only recently transferred to G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police Barton had a network of touts and claimed to have found an arms dump belonging to the IRA. Information about Bartons activities were reported to Collins by David Nelligan – one of the undercover IRA agents working inside the Castle.

The Squad did not shoot random policemen, all targets were researched and assassinations carefully orchestrated. The Squad received direct instruction from the GHQ Intelligence Department and from Michael Collins as Director of Intelligence or ‘D1’, Liam Tobin, Tom Cullen and Frank Thornton who were Assistants and Deputies working under Collins. The Department was based at 3 Crow Street, in Temple Bar. Though Collins reportedly never used this office, preffering to meet with Tobin and Cullen at Jim Kirwans pub, Vaughans Hotel and at Liam Devlins bar (68) – all in or around Parnell Square. Each had location had its own code name – Devlins was ‘Joint No. 2’ for example. According to Charles Dalton, Collins preferred  too use houses on Mespil Road, Mary Street and Harcourt Terrace – which were “ordinary dwelling houses” with a secret cupboard on the landing where Collins could take refuge if a raid occurred and where he concealed his papers. Many of the G-Men listed for assassination were agents who were deemed to be getting too close to Collins.

Many were tracked, watched and monitored and observed by members of the Squad and the inner circle of the Intelligence organisation at HQ. The Shooting of District Inspector William Redmond (Jan 1920) followed a period of observation by Tom Cullen – Assistant director of intelligence – who booked a hotel at Harcourt Street so he could keep an eye on his fellow guest Redmond, who had been sent from Belfast to take over the organization of intelligence in Dublin. Information about Redmond also came first from inside the Castle, from Detective James McNamara who was working secretly with IRA intelligence. The detective was shot in the dark lane of Montague Street by the Squad after attending a meeting at Dublin Castle on January 21st. According to Joe Leonard, Redmond had a ‘knight of shining armour concealed beneath his coat’ – referring to the fact that the inspector wore a bulletproof jacket.

The IRA from the start, however, had alot of success in uncovering and eliminating the agents despatched by Thompson. One such agent was John Charles Byrnes, who went under the alias John Jameson – a secret serviceman, highly regarded as an undercover agent of the A2 branch of the British military. Byrnes had first won the confidence of IRA leaders in London, then Dublin, through his skills of deception. He had gained the trust of the inner circles of the IRA, to the point that he secured an audience with Michael Collins himself. Byrnes was shot by Collins’ Squad on 2nd March 1920, near Albert College in Glasnevin, after being unearthed as a spy by a leak from Dublin Castle. This execution of an outed spy was part of the new phase of an IRA campaign which intended to destroy the British intelligence system through targeting individuals who posed a threat. Earlier in January 1920, Detective Inspector Forbes Redmond was killed by the what became known as the Collins “Squad” while walking back to his hotel in Harcourt Street. His movements became known to would-be assassins because his confidential clerk Jim McNamara was also a secret DMP for Collins. On 26h March 1920 Alan Bell -an inspector for the RIC and a member of the intelligence committee, also believed to be John Charles Byrnes’ handler - was shot upon dismounting a tram in Ballsbridge. Bell had been investigating the finances of Sinn Fein and was a threat to the funding of the IRA campaign. In April Henry Kells who was promoted to Detective Constable and assigned to the ‘G’ Division, was shot in Campden Street. According to one story he was involved in an identification parade at Mountjoy Gaol in Dublin, investigating the recent murder of Bell, when he was recognised by volunteer Peadar Clancy. This assassination was followed by Constable Laurance Dalton of ‘G’ Division – also suspected of identifying IRA men. Dalton was shot in Broadstone, Phibsboro by members of the Squad.  These men were strategic targets for assassination, aimed at dismantling the heart of the intelligence systems in Dublin castle. In effect these killings set the tone for the escalation of violence which lay ahead in the summer of 1920 and the atrocities of what has come to be known as 'Bloody Sunday'.