An Intelligence Card from the Irish War of Independence

Is this index card taken from a British Intelligence file during the War of Independence? Is it the real thing? We have an ordinary index card, 6 inches by 4 inches, brown and fragile with age, a rough photograph, cropped from something larger, a description, not very accurate, and the typed legend of remarks, intended perhaps to be helpful, but of questionable value.

The card was found in an old book, a 1926 edition of Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland by Piaras Béaslaí, his close political comrade. It was folded in three and tucked into the book, where it had perhaps been used as a bookmark, or placed there for safekeeping. The book came from the library of a Wicklow man, a man without connections to either the republicans fighting for Ireland or to the crown forces against whom they fought.

It is not too difficult to date the card in that the title refers to Collins as being head of the IRA and responsible for “all ambushes and murders.” We know that the first ambush was the unapproved 21 January 1919 attack, led by Dan Breen and Sean Tracey in which constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell (both Irish-born Catholics) were shot dead. So it must be after that date. The phrase ‘All the ambushes and murders’ indicates that the card was made quite late in the War of Independence; perhaps late 1920. Then there’s the photograph –– it has been cut from a larger good quality photographic print, rather than from a newspaper, then it was pinned to a wall and re-photographed. We happen to know the date of the larger photograph.

It is not too difficult to identify the larger photograph from which it was cropped, as it was one that Collins was unhappy about being included in. It is the photograph taken in April 1919, in the gardens of the Mansion House, of members of the first Dáil Éireann. The photograph was subsequently used, as Collins’ feared it would be, to identify him in wanted posters and it duly appeared in the December 1919 issue of the Police Gazette, the ‘Hue and Cry.’

There can be little doubt that famous group photograph was used extensively in intelligence circles to identify the Sinn Féin ringleaders and probably many of the men in the group had their faces cropped and stuck onto intelligence index cards. Of the four wanted men pictured in that December issue of ‘Hue and Cry’, two for certain and possibly three of the photographs used in the publication were cropped from the same Dáil Éireann group who posed in the Mansion House gardens.

So we know for sure, that if genuine, the index card post dates the taking of the photograph of the first Dáil.

We know too that at least prior to 1919, that British Intelligence had no photograph of Collins. Ned Broy, his secret agent in ‘G’ Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police had checked the file held on Collins just before he met him for the first time in 1919 and recalled that the police file contained no photograph of the man. It would have been difficult, in those early years of photography to take a covert photograph of Collins, or indeed of anyone else, and it was the common practice of intelligence services to crop photographs from whatever source they could, newspapers, wedding photographs, college photographs and so on. Indeed the practice remains common even today, although the sources of such photographs are much richer. We can be confident Facebook images are regularly trawled by today’s intelligence services, of all colours creeds and kind.

The description of Collins that appeared in the ‘Hue and Cry’ was a bit light on detail and got his age wrong, at 26. However, it did get his height correct at 5’ 11” whilst the index card, gets his age correct at 30, but incorrectly, has his height at 5’ 7 or 8”. More of a ‘Little Fella’ than a ‘Big Fella’.
So who might have put this together?

By January 1920 the December issue of Hue and Cry with the photograph and description of Collins would have been circulated to every Police Barracks in Ireland and no doubt pinned on notice boards throughout the 32 counties. It is therefore unlikely that the index card is a product of police intelligence services. Or if it is then it is unlikely to have been produced by police intelligence officers after December 1919.

The British intelligence war was widely acknowledged as being disastrous with Collins and his men and women consistently out spying His Majesties Secret Intelligence services. In the immediate post war period the British made a detailed analysis of their intelligence failures in Ireland and in a flurry of activity, papers were published, conferences held, reports commissioned and lectures given in which the failures were fully acknowledged. From that analysis, some of it published in Peter Hart’s British Intelligence in Ireland 1920-21, we know that as late as May 1920 the Chief of Police had an Intelligence staff consisting of one officer. Its primary source of information, from the political detectives of ‘G’ branch of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, had all but dried up as most of those detectives had been assassinated by Collins. By late 1920 Intelligence officers had been appointed to each Divisional Commissioner of the R.I.C. to co-ordinate military and police intelligence. The military, now present throughout Ireland in force, together with auxiliaries, had their own intelligence service with young military officers many of them noted for their zeal in intelligence matters and it is most likely this card, if genuine, emanates from a local centre of intelligence rather than from the castle.

So is it the real thing? In all probability it is. The miss-description of Collins height and the somewhat romanticised remarks as to his habits rather support it being genuine, for had it been produced after the events of the time then it would have been possible to be much more correct and accurate in such details. This then is the real thing and was produced at the very height of the War of Independence, the very height of Collin’s reputation, in the very heat of the intelligence battle. It is how his enemies and pursuers saw him.

The Index card was sold at auction for about €6000.

Source | History Ireland | John McGuiggan

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