Over the years something that has really annoyed me is the big mix up of all these very important sections of the IRA during the War of Independence and Civil War. Historians, Authors, Journalists and Documentary-Makers all seem to make the same mistakes. Sometimes it is from laziness or ignorance; other times it is from referencing books which created those mistakes (“if it’s in a book it has to be true”). Other times it’s pure malice against these men or a feeling there is a wrong to be made right for whatever reason.
I will explain the units, their structure, their purpose and mention some personnel. I will also be going into the Civil War – very important as the origin for a lot of the confusion.
Let’s start with the most famous unit, the Squad – sometimes called GHQ Squad, GHQ Intelligence Squad or GHQ Special Guard. It was formed in 1919 (possibly September officially, they did their first assassination in July). The Squad was the brain child of Michael Collins and Dick McKee. It was set up as an assassination unit – nothing more, nothing less. The men picked by Mick McDonnell were asked “Are you willing to shoot enemy agents?” It was that simple. The command structure meant the Squad operated from early days in two groups, one under Mick McDonnell, the other under Paddy O’Daly. McDonnell and O’Daly took their orders directly from McKee or Collins at the beginning. Mick McDonnell was sent to America for health reasons and Jim Slattery seems to have filled his position. When Paddy O’Daly was in Ballykinlar internment camp Tom Kehoe slipped into his position, so the Squad again operated under two groups. When O’Daly was released he took command of the Squad as overall Captain, with the two groups still operating.
Assassination being their main objective, the first was DMP Detective Sergeant Patrick ‘The Dog’ Smyth. It is well known the job was a total mess: they riddled him with small calibre .32 and .38 bullets and he kept running; it took him a few weeks to die, in which time he could have identified his assassins. From then on they used .45 calibre weapons which did a lot more damage. Later the Squad took to using the Mauser C96, firing a 7.63 mm bullet and the highest velocity round available at the time. It could pierce a steel vest often worn by G-Men during the War of Independence. Normally an assassination was carried out by a large number of men, between 6 and 8. Only 2 would be shooters, the rest would work as a cover party. The Squad used a builder’s yard in Abbey Street that was sign-painted George Moreland and Co by Bill Stapleton as their HQ; and their main arms dump was in a stable in North Great Charles Street.
The Squad started off with around eight men. That was later increased to 12 with the temporary addition of the Tipperary men in Dublin on the run – Dan Breen, Sean Tracey, John Joe Hogan and Seamus Robinson. Then new members were added to fill out the ranks. With Eugene Igoe and his threat to the IRA in Dublin, Michael Collins increased the number of the Squad to twenty one on 2 May 1921. By this time the Squad had become more than an assassination unit, it was a special operations unit to be entrusted with any job.
GHQ Intelligence Office
Also known as the Intelligence Department or GHQ Intelligence Squad, GHQ Intelligence was set up to identify and pick out targets for the Squad to shoot. They were based in an office in 3 Crow Street, off Dame Street and opposite Dublin Castle. Full days they spent there going through social columns looking for any information on British agents, Policemen, Black and Tans etc, building up profiles of their movements in order to make their elimination easier. The officer in charge of the Intelligence Department was Liam Tobin, with Tom Cullen second in command and Frank Thornton as third in command of the unit. On a lot of assassinations an Intelligence Officer would be present to point out the target. At this point I should explain another difference between the Squad and the Intelligence department: the men who made up Intelligence were all officers, while most men in the Squad were not officers, that unit being made up of all ranks.
Now the confusing part! Both groups I have seen called GHQ Intelligence Squad, but to really make things confusing, GHQ Intelligence Officers carried out assassinations! Some like Joe Dolan did quite a few! Sometimes with Squad men acting as a cover party! Other times Michael Collins would approach Liam Tobin who was in charge of the Intelligence department and order a hit direct with him. In turn he would get the Squad to carry out the operation, or else use one of his own men like Joe Dolan or Frank Thornton or another Intelligence Officer. The easy way to separate the two groups is while the full strength of the Squad took part in the burning of the Custom House NO members of the Intelligence Department took part in the Burning. There was at least one Intelligence Officer, from the 2nd Battalion there, but not in that capacity on the day.
The Dublin Brigade ASU
Otherwise known as the Active Service Unit. The ASU was formed around Christmas 1920 with its headquarters / dump in Strand Street. It was the brain child of Oscar Traynor whose idea was a standing unit of fifty men. They would be full-time IRA operatives who had to give up their jobs and would be paid four pounds ten shillings a week. The officer in charge of the unit was Captain Paddy Flanagan with Frank Flood (replaced by his brother Tom Flood, after Frank’s capture) as First Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant Johnny Dunne (not to be mixed up with his namesake the Quartermaster from 3rd Battalion). They were formed into four Companies each made up of twelve men and were numbered to correspond with the Battalion area they worked in. The simplest way to explain their areas:
- 1st Battalion area – west of O’Connell Street, north of the Liffey;
- 2nd Battalion area – east of O’Connell Street, also on the north side;
- 3rd Battalion area – south inner city and suburbs; and
- 4th Battalion area – south west outer city and suburbs.
For example, here is a map of 3rd Battalion’s territory (from Military Archives). It’s hard to read but shows the four boundary corners as Parliament Street (northwest) and Ringsend (northeast) on the river Liffey; Dartry (southwest) inland and Nutley Lane/Merrion (southeast) at the sea on the city/county border. An interesting note on it is that Companies had areas too, but operations were not confined to those areas.
The ASU was an ambush unit and carried them out on British forces at every opportunity. Despatch riders were relieved of their messages and motorcycles; staff cars, army trucks and Auxy patrols were also targets. The ASU favoured grenades and revolvers and used them to great effect, but suffered severe losses, the worst being the Clonturk ambush in which No 1 Company was almost wiped out by the British.
The ASU & Squad at the Custom House
According to Joe Leonard, the Custom House burning was undertaken with one hundred and seventy men doing the actual burning and protection cordon etc. The full strength of the Squad and ASU took part. The ASU lost at least half its men at the Custom House. I can confirm nineteen captured and one, Mick Stephenson, wounded. According to Pádraig O’Connor the full strength of the ASU was eleven men in early June 1921; that could be taken to mean some of the ASU men gave fake names when captured? We will only really know the truth when their military pension files come online.
After the Custom House losses, the need to keep up attacks on the British was never more important. The British had no idea that they had captured 50% or so of the full-time fighting men of the Dublin Brigade. The solution was to merge the ASU with the Squad and form a new unit called The Guard. Paddy Flanagan was stood down as O/C because Michael Collins was not happy with his performance and there were also signs of discontent from his men. The new unit had a strength of 68, including some men serving prison terms but kept on their old unit’s roll. It was split into two Companies. Paddy O’Daly was O/C with Joe Leonard formerly of the Squad & Pádraig O’Connor as Lieutenants of the new unit each in charge of a Company, with Leonard’s operating on the north side of Dublin and O’Connor’s on the south side. New men were recruited into the unit from the Dublin Brigade to make up for some of those captured at the Custom House (As stated above, the men from the Squad and ASU arrested there were entered on the roll of the new unit). The Guard operated on the same lines as the old ASU – police and army trucks and patrols were attacked daily. When the Thomson machine guns arrived in Ireland it was the Guard who used them to attack troop trains at Drumcondra and Ballyfermot.
The Dublin Guard
To hold the Guard together after the Truce, a camp was set up outside Brittas, south Co Dublin. The camp was run on military lines with Paddy O’Daly in command. The men were later moved to the old Workhouse in Celbridge, Co Kildare. They all seemed to have signed up for the new National Army, which would have been known as pro-Treaty IRA. They increased their numbers as ex-ASU and Squad men were released from prison and went out to Celbridge to join the new unit. The men travelled into Dublin and got fitted out at Capel Street in tailor-made dark green uniforms. This was the unit that famously took over Beggar’s Bush Barracks, the first handover from the British.
The Dublin Guard are often called an elite unit, like the Squad, ASU and Intelligence department. They began that way, but only till they moved to Beggar’s Bush. After that all IRA men who wished to join the army in Dublin automatically joined the Dublin Guard if they enlisted in that barracks. Other barracks housed the 1st and 2nd Eastern Battalions, so if the men enlisted there they joined the Battalions that occupied whichever barracks they joined in.
Military Intelligence and CID Oriel House
We have seen above that the ex-Squad and ASU men ended up in the Dublin Guard. A common mistake made over the years by republicans is to say the Squad ended up being the murder gang in Oriel House. The funny thing is very few of the Squad had connections with Oriel House – only Paddy ‘Specky’ Griffin‘s name has been associated with the place in its early days.
Military Intelligence was formed in early 1922 and the pre-Truce IRA Intelligence department seem to have gone one-and-all into that new Army unit. They were based in Wellington Barracks and their overall commander was Liam Tobin, Army Director of Intelligence. Charlie Dalton was commanding officer and Joe Dolan, Frank Thornton and others served under him.
CID (Criminal Investigation Dept) Oriel House was formed as a separate unit, with Captain Pat Moynihan in charge. It was made up of ex-IRA men including some who transferred from the Army to CID and the old Irish Republican Police (IRP). A senior officer was Captain Peter Ennis (brother of Tom), formerly Intelligence Officer, 2nd Batt and then IRP. CID seems to have operated as a regular police force and also a political one who used methods well known to any reader of Irish Civil War history. It’s widely known that torture was used in Oriel House and men were murdered by members of the CID. Oriel House also housed the Protection Corps and the Citizens’ Defence Force. The Protection Corps, formed from ex-IRA men, acted as bodyguards to Free State politicians and guarded government buildings and other key facilities. The Citizens’ Defence Force was similar to the Protection Corps; they were formed under Henry Harrison an ex-British Soldier who seems to have drifted towards Sinn Féin during the War of Independence. Their ranks were made up of former British soldiers whom Harrison picked with a couple of ex-IRA men. They engaged the anti-Treaty IRA with foot patrols and took part in bodyguard duties and protection of banks and buildings which were seen to be in danger.
The anti-Treaty IRA (Executive) Dublin ASU
A completely different outfit, politically and membership-wise, from the original War of Independence ASU (Called Old ASU from here on). Out of the 50 or so members of the Old ASU only 5 or 6 fought with the Executive IRA anti-Treaty side. However, a couple of their members had deserted the (pro-Treaty) National Army; while another left them to go pro-Treaty! Confused? I sure am.
This Active Service Unit was made up of four sections, on the same geographical city & county lines as the Old ASU. Any information I have found about members suggests none were from the Old ASU and does not identify a commanding officer. Probably the most well-known member of the Executive ASU was Bobby Bonfield. He was ‘picked up’ on Leeson Street, Dublin late in the Civil War by W. T. Cosgrave’s bodyguards and, after being ‘questioned’, he was shot dead & his body dumped at Red Cow in south west Co Dublin.
The IRAO, The Irish Republican Army Organisation
The IRAO was a secret organisation formed in the closing days of the Civil War. The head of the organisation was Liam Tobin and Charlie Dalton was his second in command! They formed originally as an organisation loyal to the new Free State. But they increasingly felt that Collins’ vision of a stepping stone to a united Ireland and a Republic was being forgotten about (they were not wrong there, as I think we can all agree). The IRAO was made up of pre-Truce IRA men, with lots of ex-Squad and Intelligence Department operatives from the War of Independence.
Having researched the IRAO there are no real surprises in who was involved: Squad men like Vinny Byrne, Sean O’Connell, Johnny Wilson, Sam Robinson, Jim Slattery and Frank Bolster. Ex-Intelligence men such as Charlie Byrne, Frank Thornton, Joe Dolan and Frank Saurin. In brief their main agenda was, as stated above, Collins’ vision not being fulfilled. Compounding that was the influence of the IRB in the National Army and, last but not least, huge dissatisfaction over ex-British Army officers getting key positions while ex-IRA men were overlooked or demobbed. As has been well documented the IRAO had several meetings with the government. The whole thing came to a head in early March 1924 when hundreds of Army officers were demobilised. At the same time Joe McGrath then minister for Industry and Commerce – had his house searched by the Army; and the search had been ordered by a cabinet colleague, Defence Minister Richard Mulcahy. The government issued an amnesty to the IRAO and there was talk of members being reinstated in the Army.
However, Mulcahy then ordered a large Army raid on Devlin’s Hotel in Parnell Street, Dublin where armed IRAO officers were meeting. Again without consulting the government – and after it had issued an amnesty. After a “siege”, the officers were arrested by GHQ troops but were soon released as the amnesty was still in force! Mulcahy was forced to resign his position; and Army GHQ Council, which was overseeing the demobilisation (and had acted on Mulcahy’s orders in the IRAO arrests) was disbanded and sacked. Joe McGrath quit his post as well. Most of the IRAO resigned late in March 1924 and were given pensions. Their resignations were back-dated before their arrests to avoid the need to court-martial them. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.
Could the IRAO have overthrown the Government? Well maybe, if the generals in the group had been totally serious about that and had acted quickly; and if the men under their command did not know what was actually going on. Somehow I think O’Higgins, Cosgrave and Mulcahy would have been more worried about getting shot themselves; it would have been much easier for the IRAO to have made their point in the way Collins had taught them – with a bullet.
Summing up this post.
Most IRA or Army soldiers did not know who was in which of these units and indeed would not have been even aware of the existence or role of some of them. Witness Statements taken 30 years later cannot be taken as gospel. Memory is a funny thing and the only way to read the statements is to compare two or three about the same event and look for the common facts. When a few of them correspond we can agree we have accurate versions of events. Military Pension interview notes taken at or nearer after the time are gold dust – memory was fresher; there had to be referees agreeing with claims; and the facts add up better.
Over the years I have heard the Squad being blamed for every war crime during the Civil War. As I have tried to show above, the Squad seemed to be in the regular National Army, serving as staff officers in most cases. There is very little proof of the Squad being involved with atrocities during the Civil War, with a very few but notorious exceptions.
At Carrigaphooca after the landmine exploded, a prisoner was shot and dumped in the crater left by the mine which had shredded 8 National Army men – four ex-Squad members were there. At Ballyseedy Ned Breslin was present; and Paddy O’Daly was O/C of Kerry Command in whose area that took place. Both ex-Squad men. The Dublin killings don’t seem to have any links to the Squad and appear to have been the work of CID or Military Intelligence.
Even the author John Dorney, no friend of the Squad, had to admit in his recent book ‘The Civil War in Dublin‘ that Jim Slattery protected anti-Treaty prisoners. However, he also says that Bill Stapleton, Jim Conroy & Sean O’Connell were listed as members of a Free State ‘Murder Gang’ named by anti-Treaty IRA Intelligence. But, if there was any truth in Stapleton’s involvement why would Todd Andrews (a leading Dublin anti-Treaty man) employ him later in such a high position in Bord Na Móna or indeed afterwards in CIE Hotels? For me, that leaves the allegations against the others in doubt too.
Paddy O’Daly was, however, also involved in the later Kenmare incident and we will look into that in a future bio of him.
I have no wish to whitewash any of the bad things done in the Civil War. I just hope I have given a more accurate account of the various units described above and some of the men who served in them.