Military history

35.

SHINNERS AND PEELERS

The Irish War of Independence, 1919–1921

THEY SPENT FIVE days, five endless days, at the ambush site amid the shamrock-green fields. An informant had told them that a load of gelignite (an explosive more powerful than dynamite) was going to be conveyed to the Soloheadbeg Quarry in southern Ireland on January 16, 1919. They wanted the gelignite for themselves, but even more they wanted to make a statement—“not merely to capture the gelignite but also to shoot down the escort.” So wrote Dan Breen, one of the nine masked marauders lying in wait in county Tipperary. A twenty-four-year-old railway lineman with, to quote a “wanted” poster, a “sulky bulldog appearance,” he had been raised “only a stone’s throw from the quarry” and “knew every inch of the ground.”

Like most of his countrymen, he came from a poor farming family that “barely existed above the hair-line of poverty.” “Potatoes and milk were our staple diet,” he recalled. “On special occasion we had a meal of salted pork but the luxury of fresh meat was altogether beyond our reach.” He had been forced to leave school at fourteen and had taken a job on the railroad. He also took on a covert role as one of two thousand members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society better known as the Fenians, which had been fighting British rule since 1858. With the aid of Irish-American sympathizers, the Fenians had assassinated the chief secretary of Ireland and his undersecretary in Dublin’s Phoenix Park (1882) and inadvertently killed twelve Londoners while trying to blast one of their members out of prison (1867). Those isolated acts of terrorism had been as ineffectual as the anarchist attacks of the same period. The British occupation of Ireland, already more than seven hundred years old, remained unshaken.78

In the early twentieth century, new republican groups sprang up: in 1902 a political party called Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”), followed in 1913 by a military force called the Irish Volunteers that would become the Irish Republican Army. To the British, all of the republicans were dubbed “Shinners” (Sinn Féin is pronounced shin fane).

On Monday, April 24, 1916, during Easter week, fifteen hundred Shinners tried to seize power in Dublin by brute force. A similar effort by the Bolsheviks in Russia in November 1917 would face little opposition and lead to the overthrow of an already shaky provisional government during the “ten days that shook the world.” British rule was not so easily shaken. Within five days the Shinners had been routed out of their stronghold in the ornate General Post Office by British troops (many of them Irishmen) backed by artillery. More than four hundred people were killed. Subsequently sixteen leaders of the Easter Rising were executed, creating fresh martyrs for the independence movement. There was no shortage of other grievances for the republicans to exploit going back to the Middle Ages.

“Sickened to death by British duplicity, cant and humbug . . . I decided to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood,” Dan Breen later wrote. Subsequently he also joined the Irish Volunteers and became quartermaster of the South Tipperary Brigade. His neighborhood pal Sean Treacy, who by 1918 had served two terms in British jails, was its vice commandant. From 1913 to 1919, they drilled as best they could, trying to learn how to become soldiers from British military manuals, including C. E. Callwell’s Small Wars. Their armaments were negligible—“a .45 revolver here and there, a few old, broken-down rifles,” recalled one republican. “ ’Twasn’t worth a farthing.” All the while they were frustrated by “the local Sinn Feiners, many of whom were not in favor of any stronger weapons than resolutions.” So in January 1919, Breen, Treacy, and a few other Volunteers decided to take matters into their own hands. Without any authorization from above, they set out to fire the shots that would “begin another phase in the long fight for the freedom of our country.”

On January 21, after five days of waiting, their scout finally dashed toward their hiding hole shouting, “They’re coming, they’re coming!” Two workers were guiding a horse-drawn cart loaded with a hundred pounds of gelignite. Accompanying them were two constables in the dark green uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary, rifles slung over their shoulders. Both were local men, Irish Catholics like Breen and Treacy, one of them a widower with four children. The republicans viewed the “Peelers” (slang for policemen) as instruments of political repression—“deserters, spies and hirelings,” in Breen’s sneering words—but most of their work was apolitical crime fighting. These two constables, James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, were well liked by the locals and known to their attackers.

“Nearer and nearer they came,” Breen wrote. “In the clear air we heard the sound of the horse’s hooves and the rumbling of a heavy cart. Our nerves were highly strung.” Breen said that after the ambushers shouted “Hands up!” the constables “raised their rifles” and made clear they “would die rather than surrender.” Relatives of the two constables later claimed that they were not given a chance to surrender—an interpretation that Breen did nothing to dispel when years later he said, “You’ve got to kill and can’t leave anyone alive afterward.” The two constables were shot down in a hail of gunfire. Their killers then rode off with the explosives. Breen was only sorry there had not been more policemen escorting the gelignite. “If there had to be dead Peelers at all, six would have created a better impression than a mere two.”79

That very day, a hundred miles to the north, the first Irish parliament, the Dáil Eireann, convened in a very different setting. It met in Mansion House, the stately residence of the lord mayor of Dublin, in the Round Room “with the statues standing in niches about the walls; the deep-cushioned chairs and sofas, gathered in a pleasant informal cluster in the center, deep sofas into which the deputies sank and from which, with the greatest difficulty, they rose to speak.” All of the representatives were members of Sinn Féin who had been elected to the British Parliament in December but had refused to take their seats in Westminster. It was an important occasion even if only twenty-six of seventy-six legislators attended. The leader of the republican movement, Eamon de Valera, was imprisoned in England. Another leading republican, Michael Collins, was away preparing the plot that would bust de Valera out of captivity (employing, believe it or not, a duplicate key secreted in a cake). The proceedings were halting and sometimes comical because the English-speaking parliamentarians insisted on using a language—Gaelic—that some of them barely knew.

For all that, the Dáil which met on January 21, 1919, reached some momentous decisions. Its members issued a declaration of independence and an appeal to the “Free Nations of the World” then meeting at the Paris Peace Conference to recognize “Ireland’s national status” and end “seven centuries of foreign oppression.” They also named a government with de Valera as president and Collins as home minister (soon to be finance minister). It would take nineteen months before that government won international recognition, but its proclamation, however symbolic, was an important step in lending political legitimacy to the Irish War of Independence, whose first shots had been fired by a fateful coincidence in Tipperary that very day.80

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS report on the Soloheadbeg shooting proclaimed, “New Era of Terrorism Begun!”81 But Irish terrorism was nothing new. That Britain could not suppress this outbreak as easily as it had suppressed all others in the past was due in no small part to the genius of one man: Michael Collins. His title—minister of finance—did not hint at his real importance. Although he worked assiduously and successfully to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for the revolution via a bond drive, his more important titles were director of intelligence of the Irish Republican Army and president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Even that did not convey his full significance. He was, in the words of an IRA officer, “virtually Commander-in-Chief in fact, if not in name.”

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.”

By the spring of 1920, twelve Dublin policemen who were, in the words of a Squad member, “making themselves frightfully obnoxious” had been shot, eight of them fatally. The dead included the head of G Division. A similar fate awaited the few, inept spies whom the British tried to infiltrate into the IRA’s ranks. Collins justified these assassinations by saying, “We had no jails and we therefore had to kill all spies, informers, and double-crossers.”82

After it became clear that the “G-men” had been “decimated,”83 the British brought in their own intelligence specialists—a group of retired army officers known as the “hush-hush men” who often operated undercover. Collins decided to wipe them out at a stroke. “I found out these fellows . . . were going to put a lot of us on the spot,” he later explained, “so I got in first.” The operation, slated for Sunday morning, November 21, 1920, was assigned to the IRA’s Dublin Brigade working closely with the Squad. The night before, Dick McKee, the brigade commander, was snatched in a British raid along with his deputy. But Collins, displaying nerves of steel, decided to proceed anyway—just as the Nihilists had proceeded with their plot against Alexander II despite the capture of their leaders.

Dozens of gunmen, including the future prime minister Sean Lémass, assembled at their assigned rendezvous points in Dublin shortly before 9 a.m. on November 21, a “calm, fine, grey winter’s day.” They were to hit twenty targets at eight hotels and rooming houses, with some of the men reserved as a covering force in case of trouble.

At 9 a.m. the Squad member Vincent Byrne led one contingent of ten operatives to a house at 28 Upper Mount Street where two British officers—Lieutenant Bennett and Lieutenant Ames—were staying. The door was opened by a “servant girl,” who told them where the officers’ bedrooms were located and how to get in by a back door. Byrne and another gunman dashed into one bedroom and ordered the officer they had caught to put up his hands. He asked what was going to happen to him. Byrne replied, “Ah nothing,” then ordered him to march to another bedroom where the other officer was being held. Byrne later recounted, “He was standing up in the bed, facing the wall. I ordered mine to do likewise. When the two of them were together, I said to myself: ‘The Lord have mercy on your souls!’ I then opened fire with my Peter [a nickname for the Mauser C96 pistol]. They both fell dead.” As Byrne left the house he passed the servant girl. She was crying.

In all, fourteen men were killed that morning, five wounded. Most were shot, like the two lieutenants at Upper Mount Street, after surrendering, some in front of their “terrified and hysterical” wives or girlfriends. Not all of them were intelligence operatives. Some were regular officers. The victims also included two police officers who stumbled across one of the assassination squads. “It has been a day of black murder,” a British official wrote in his diary that night.

The reaction was immediate and violent. That afternoon a Gaelic football match was scheduled at Dublin’s Croke Park. A substantial force of “Auxies” and “Black and Tans” showed up to “surround the ground” and search the crowd. The Auxiliary Division was made up of fifteen hundred former British army officers who had been recruited as a counterterrorism unit to complement the Royal Irish Constabulary. The “Black and Tans” were seven thousand British recruits sent to fill the constabulary’s depleted ranks, the supply of Irish recruits having dried up. Because of a shortage of uniforms, many wore a mixture of the constabulary’s dark-green, almost black, apparel and the army’s khaki—hence their nickname, which they shared with a pack of hunting dogs. Both Auxies and Tans became notorious for their brutality, and never more so than on this Sunday afternoon when they opened fire on the crowd at Croke Park, killing twelve civilians and wounding sixty. The police claimed they had been shot at first, although even one Auxiliary officer conceded, “I did not see any need for any firing.” The IRA believed it was simply revenge for that morning’s assassinations.

Similar controversy shrouded the deaths of the Dublin Brigade commander Dick McKee, his deputy Peadar Clancy, and a man who had been captured with them. That Sunday the three detainees were killed by Auxies at Dublin Castle. The British claimed they had been trying to escape; the IRA believed, as a Squad member put it, that they had been “shot in cold blood . . . contrary to all the laws of God and man.”84

ALL THE FACTS of “Bloody Sunday” will never be known for certain, but its impact was clear. Like the Tet Offensive in 1968, it established as hollow official claims of progress (Prime Minister David Lloyd George had boasted just twelve days earlier of having “murder by the throat”)85 and encouraged the government to look for a negotiated solution. The war would continue for eight more months until the proclamation of a truce in July 1921, but increasingly the British forces were like a blinded fighter flailing and failing to hit a more nimble and elusive adversary.

For security’s sake, many officials and officers had to move into Dublin Castle, where, wrote the army commander, Sir Nevil Macready, they were “reduced to a state of nerves that it was pitiable to behold.” Something similar happened in the countryside where smaller constabulary outposts were closed and the police were “concentrated and immobilized” in large, fortified barracks. “Before Bloody Sunday,” recalled a soldier stationed in Dublin, “we had occasionally gone into the town for an evening meal,” but now “we had to give up doing so.” An Auxie wrote that he felt “hunted” (“a horrible feeling”) every time he left Dublin Castle. Even General Macready never ventured out without an automatic pistol, safety catch off, handy in his pocket or, when driving, in his lap. Instilling fear into the authorities—which meant that they were cut off from the populace and liable to lash out in counterproductive ways that would cost them further support—must be a key objective for any insurgent group; the IRA had managed to achieve that goal by 1920.86

Bill Munro, an Auxiliary in county Cork, a “hotbed of rebellion,”87 later recalled the difficulty of operating with inadequate intelligence against the IRA’s Flying Columns—full-time guerrilla fighters who operated in 35-man units. The Auxies would set off in their Crossley trucks or Rolls-Royce armored cars to chase down rumors of “an ambush being prepared at such and such a place,” only to find that either the rumors were false or that by the time they arrived the IRA men “had melted away as they were warned long before we could get near.” In some cases they stumbled upon recently vacated meeting sites, but “we had not the knowledge of the country off the road, as had our opponents, and it was impossible to follow up the participants in these meetings.”88

Even the roads were hazardous: the IRA planted mines, destroyed bridges, and dug trenches to impede army movements. Ambushes were a regular occurrence, and often they were skillfully executed. For instance, on June 17, 1921, near the town of Banteer in county Cork, an IRA column used mines to blow up three of four vehicles in an Auxiliary convoy, and then opened “a heavy and concentrated fire” on the men inside “from a position of great natural strength.” “These mines,” wrote the British convoy commander, who was practically blown out of his vehicle, “were timed and fired with the utmost precision.”89

In frustration, following IRA “outrages,” British troops or police would rampage through towns, burning homes and businesses, shattering shop windows, beating and killing. “Towns showed jagged stumps of broken teeth where fire had spread,” wrote an IRA officer; “raiding parties smashed property and looted.”90 This clumsy retaliation, an attempt at “out-terrorizing the terrorists,”91 only engendered greater support for the IRA among a population that had been largely apathetic at the start of the struggle. A British intelligence estimate concluded that “from the beginning of 1921 . . . the bulk of the population was in a state of open rebellion or was in sympathy with such a rebellion.”92 In many areas the Shinners even ran a shadow government, complete with its own police force and courts, that was more effective in dispensing justice than the crown. In effect, even before the formal end of British rule, the IRA had already managed to reverse more than seven centuries of English “ascendancy.”93

THE BRITISH DEPLOYED 50,000 troops and 14,000 constables to fight 5,000 active Volunteers. It was not enough. British generals estimated that pacifying this nation of fewer than three million people would have required dispatching tens of thousands more personnel, possibly hundreds of thousands more, for an extended period.94 That was more than a country “tired to death of war” could bear.95

The Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, was willing to place several counties under martial law, thereby allowing the trial of suspects in military courts.96 He was even willing to turn a blind eye to Black and Tan rampages and the forcible interrogation and occasional killing of suspects “while trying to escape.” “This kind of thing,” Lloyd George said, referring to the IRA’s attacks on police officers, “can only be met by reprisals.”97 But there were sharp limits on how far he was willing to go. As a onetime critic of Kitchener’s policies in the Boer War, he was not willing to bomb Irish villages, execute captured terrorists en masse, or round up tens of thousands of civilians in concentration camps. He was not, in short, willing to treat Ireland as the British treated Iraq, where in 1920 a much larger revolt was ruthlessly suppressed at a cost of almost 9,000 lives.98 Or like India, where in 1919 British troops killed more than 370 unarmed demonstrators in Amritsar.

Political limitations imposed in London frustrated many soldiers who griped, in the words of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff and a rabid Unionist, that “the Sinn Feins” are “at war with our men whilst our men are at peace with the Sinn Feins.”99 “If this country was Mesopotamia or Egypt,” General Macready, the British army commander in Ireland, wrote back wistfully, “I should have the greatest pleasure in the world in putting on the most extreme type of Martial Law, and have done with the thing, once and for all.”100

But Lloyd George and other cabinet members knew that what War Minister Winston Churchill described as “iron repression”—a policy of “murder and counter-murder, terror and counter-terror”101—would not be accepted by the British public. Having just waged a war to liberate Belgium, the British were not willing to fight indefinitely to subjugate the small state next door—not when its people had expressed their preference for independence. Even Churchill, while defending “the integrity of the British Empire,” denouncing the IRA’s “murder conspiracy,” and refusing to condemn Black and Tan rampages, nevertheless ruled out “the kind of methods the Prussians adopted in Belgium”—or, one is tempted to add, that the British themselves sometimes adopted in Asia and Africa.102

The one part of Ireland that the British government was determined to defend was the northern counties, where there was a substantial Protestant population. This was one of the sticking points of negotiations that began after a truce took effect on July 11, 1921. Eventually an Irish negotiating team that included Michael Collins took the best deal it could get. Under a treaty signed on December 6, 1921, the twenty-six southern counties would become the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire like Canada, while the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom. Bad as the exclusion of Northern Ireland was, to many republicans even more galling was a provision that Dáil members would have to swear to be “faithful to H.M. King George V.” A narrow majority of the Dáil endorsed the treaty, but half the IRA would not recognize the result and took up arms.

As commander of the Free State Army, Collins led the fight against his former comrades in spite of his own “anguish.”103 He was killed in an ambush by the antitreaty IRA on August 22, 1922, while he was motoring with a small security detail through his native county Cork. The Big Fellow, who had eluded so many British manhunts, was not yet thirty-two when he fell at the hands of his own countrymen and former mates. Just a few weeks before, he had turned down his fiancée’s entreaties to be more careful: “I can’t help it and if I were to do anything else it wouldn’t be me,” he wrote her, “and I really couldn’t stand it.”104 When they heard of his death, a thousand antitreaty republicans in a Free State prison spontaneously kneeled to recite the rosary in tribute to a man who had been their leader before he became their enemy.105

Notwithstanding Collins’s demise, the civil war ended in May 1923 with a resounding victory for the protreaty forces. They won because they had greater resources, including weapons provided by the British, because public opinion was on their side (in the 1923 elections only 27.4 percent of the voters supported antitreaty candidates)106—and because they were willing to be harsher than the British had been. As one historian notes, “Altogether, in just over six months the new Free State Government executed seventy-seven Republicans by shooting, more than three times the number executed by the British Government in the two and a half years of the ‘Anglo-Irish war.’ ”107 This confirms the lesson of the Vendée: namely, that a homegrown regime with popular sentiment on its side can afford to be harsher in dealing with insurgents than a foreign military force trying to stay where it is not wanted—especially if that force answers to an elected government that is sensitive to the vagaries of both global and local public opinion.

To this day Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, despite decades of terrorism by IRA die-hards. The more recent IRA campaign failed in no small part because the British in later years regained the intelligence edge they had lost in 1919–21, when, in the depths of despair, a senior British intelligence officer had lamented that “no Englishman can fully grasp the psychology of the Irish rebel character.”108 It was a different story in the 1980s. In those days, when the Provisional IRA tried to launch a Tet-style offensive employing weaponry supplied by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, high-ranking informants tipped off the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch. “The British knew the IRA was coming,” wrote Irish journalist Ed Moloney, “and they were ready.”109

This disparity in outcomes between the IRA war of the 1920s and the one in the 1970s–1990s serves to underscore the overriding value in any insurgency of acquiring good intelligence, for both insurgents and counterinsurgents. It is even more important than in conventional conflicts, where sheer firepower can be employed to destroy large enemy formations even if the details of their movements and capabilities remain unknown. In a war against an “invisible army,” by contrast, accurate intelligence is needed to bring the enemy into the open—something that the British did not possess in the Irish War of Independence, any more than the federal army had in its post–Civil War conflict against the Ku Klux Klan, but that the police forces of various countries gradually acquired in their struggle against the anarchists.

EVEN IF THE “Tan War” did not secure independence for the entire island, it was a remarkable achievement—the first successful revolt by a British colony since the American War of Independence. The cost: 4,000 killed or wounded, including 950 British soldiers and police.110 As always happens, noted one Black and Tan, “the real sufferer in this fratricidal war was the non-combatant,” civilians being targeted by both sides.111

There was hardly a single battle in the conventional sense. Broadly speaking, IRA operations in the countryside were in the guerrilla mode, targeting police barracks and police patrols, while in the cities they operated more as terrorists, killing off-duty policemen or civil servants. The terrorist orientation was especially strong on the British mainland, where the IRA carried out a handful of operations. The most spectacular were the burning of seventeen Liverpool warehouses in November 1920 and the assassination in June 1922, long after a peace treaty had been signed, of Sir Henry Wilson, who had just stepped down as chief of the Imperial General Staff. Other terrorist operations—such as the attempted assassination in December 1919 of the British viceroy, Lord French—failed. Michael Collins entertained even more ambitious plans such as truck bombing the House of Commons, kidnapping its members, and shooting members of the cabinet but never tried to implement them.112 This was a wise decision given how badly attacks on the British mainland by a future generation of IRA terrorists would backfire. In 1979 the Provisional IRA murdered Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, and five years later attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the entire British cabinet by bombing the hotel where they were staying in Brighton. Those actions only redoubled Thatcher’s determination to defeat the IRA. Michael Collins had been astute enough to avoid such excesses. His reasonableness and restraint were his strengths. Unlike most other terrorist or guerrilla leaders, he knew when to stop fighting even if he had not yet achieved all of his aims.

His experience shows that the most successful terrorist campaigns are waged for causes, usually nationalist, which have widespread acceptance among the population and are supported by political parties and regular or irregular military forces—just as the most successful guerrillas are supported by conventional military forces. By contrast a small number of terrorists acting on their own to implement a radical agenda has scant chance of success—as demonstrated not only by the anarchists but also by many subsequent terrorists such as the Red Army Faction and the Weathermen.

Terrorists do better, moreover, if they fight a democratic nation with a free press whose coverage will help to magnify their attacks while restraining the official response. There is not much terrorism in totalitarian states, because the secret police can ruthlessly snuff it out. The British government, on the other hand, could not even censor the press absent a declaration of war, which was lacking in Ireland. “We had a very bad Press,” complained one Auxie—a problem he blamed, naturally, not on his colleagues’ misconduct but on “floods of flabby sentimentalism by the Liberal Press.” But even the normally nationalistic Times of London was harshly critical of “lynch law,” writing in 1920 that “an Army already perilously undisciplined, and a police force avowedly beyond control have defiled, by heinous acts, the reputation of England.”

Like many subsequent counterinsurgents, British soldiers in Ireland were “rankled most deeply” by their government’s “disinclination or inability” to counter what they saw as distorted reporting that exaggerated their misdeeds while minimizing those of the enemy. General Macready raged against the “blackguard Press” and at the “perfectly futile” way that “Press Propaganda” was run by the “frocks” at Dublin Castle, the seat of British administration. His protests made no difference. Losing the “battle of the narrative” made it impossible for the British forces to prevail against a paltry number of combatants.113

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