The British Gunner and the Irish Civil War

Nora Connolly

Michael Collins

Copyright drick

The BBC Radio 4`s investigative history series (Document) has unearthed evidence concerning a sensitive period in Anglo-Irish relations, the programme focuses on a primary source written by a British soldier, Percy Creek which undermines the nationalist foundations underpinning the establishment of the Irish state and potentially damages the heroic status of Michael Collins.

On the 6 December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and ratified in Dail Eireann January 1922. This granted dominion status or partial sovereignty to the twenty-six counties, amongst other things the British held various sea-ports in the South and significantly the island was partitioned with the North remaining within the United Kingdom.

As the broadcast explains the Anglo-Irish Agreement led to a split in the Irish Republican movement, into pro and anti-Treaty camps. In April 1922 anti-Treaty forces took control of Dublin`s Four-Courts, while a general election was underway in the South, resulting in the pro-Treaty forces gaining power. Those supporting the agreement included Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Arthur Griffiths and on the anti-Treaty side De Valera and Rory O`Connor. A political split eventually led to armed insurrection and Civil War, a bitter struggle the first shot fired on the 28 June 1922, when the Provisional Government led by Collins attacked the Four-Courts – then under the control of Rory O`Connor – attempting a re-run of the 1916 Easter Uprising – he was executed in December 1922.

Mike Thomson began his excellent programme at the Imperial War Archives London. Where he met William Sheehan who has uncovered the memoires written by   Lieutenant Percy Creek, ‘One Man`s Story`, it appears that Michael Collins not only received resources from his former adversary but that British soldiers also participated in the attack in 1922 on the Four-Courts. Creek based in Fermanagh marched to Dublin (records suggest that his unit was where he said it was) in a clandestine operation. Creek states that he and another gunner fired the first shots in the Irish Civil War, heavy mortar shells directly hitting the Four-Courts in Dublin, “two rounds only”.

The broadcast explains that it was the murder of an incredibly high ranking military official, Henry Wilson that acted as a catalyst for British military intervention. On the 22rd June 1922 Sir Henry Wilson an Anglo-Irishman was assassinated by Republicans, a murder that shocked the British government and establishment. As Keith Jeffrey explains Wilson was Chief of Imperial General Staff up to 1922 and at the close of the First World War head of the British Army. We are told that the British Cabinet viewed the men who assassinated Wilson to be akin to those occupying the Four-Courts in Dublin. The broadcast informs us a letter was drafted by Lloyd George on the day of Wilson’s assassination highlighting the need to resolve the occupation of the Four-Courts, this missive was sent to Collins. Once this seed was planted, it is argued that the British government applied pressure on Collins and his government to deal with the men in the Four-Courts, ultimately providing the resources to carry out the long range heavy bombing although there was no mention of British troops in this letter.

There are significant discrepancies in the narrative outlined by Percy Creek. The broadcast identified most of these – we are told that General Macready denied British military personnel involvement according to the General, Collins refused the offer of such assistance. While Creek`s testimony has an authentic ring to it he makes glaring errors. Firstly, he appears to be wrong about the time of year that the Four-Courts was bombed and secondly describes the republican dissidents in the Four-Courts as `Black and Tans` a bizarre error.

There is another issue that was unfortunately not explored in the broadcast, concerning the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson. According to Ireland`s most celebrated historian, RF Foster, Collins was likely to have been responsible for Wilson`s assassination and that Collins colluded with the `Irregular IRA` in the assassination. Foster points out that the IRA had split into `Irregulars` (those occupying the Four-Courts) and the `Old IRA` which became the Free State Army. Both sections of the IRA while in opposition to each other were preoccupied with the North of Ireland. Given this, is it feasible that Collins could have supported military action in the North against the British under the guise of protecting the nationalist community, while receiving British military resources and personnel to combat the `Irregular IRA` in the South?

Wilson (murdered in London) was behind the establishment of the so called `Cairo Gang` an intelligence network which would have brought him to Collins attention. Henry Wilson was not only a Unionist MP but also as Foster explains a Security Advisor to the Northern Ireland government. If Collins was behind this cold blooded murder then the British response would have been obvious. Collins was pragmatic and ruthless but he was also highly intelligent.  As William Sheehan explained during the broadcast after the assassination of Wilson the British Government feared Ireland was about to descend into anarchy, ultimately leaving the British to resolve potential chaos. Hence the offer of military assistance but as Sheehan explains such help came with conditions attached. Only British personnel had the training to operate the Howitzers and sixty-pound guns. And Sheehan makes a telling observation when providing further documentation which proves “that the Provisional Government is willing to employ British Gunners and utilise sixty-pound guns.” This officially validates the claims Percy Creek made and the logic of Sheehan`s analysis is impossible to dismiss.

It is a pity that this excellent programme did not examine Michael Collins Machiavellian approach to events. If he had been behind the murder of Henry Wilson and involved in attacks in the North, then surely he was encouraging anarchy not halting it? And if this is true, it makes the alleged arrangement with the British all the more bizarre.

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