A night on the files – Michael Collins’s undercover intelligence mission of April 1919

  A carved stone head at what is now Pearse Street Garda station, formerly the Great Brunswick Street DMP barracks. Photograph: Frank Miller

A carved stone head at what is now Pearse Street Garda station, formerly the Great Brunswick Street DMP barracks. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

As depicted in the film Michael Collins, the chief protagonist cycles into Dublin Castle, up the short steep hill at City Hall and through the arched gateway, heightening (in more ways than one) the sense of risk our hero faced in entering the belly of the beast.

The real-life scene, which happened 100 years ago this week, was less dramatic, and a bit nearer sea-level, down at what is now Pearse Street Garda station, a stone’s throw from The Irish Times.

Mind you, speaking of stones, the original episode did feature a thrilling detail that a screenplay writer might hesitate to add. No sooner had Ned Broy, a sympathetic colonel of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, shown Collins in through the front door, and pointed out the back one (on Townsend Street) in case he needed to leave in a hurry, than a stone came crashing through a window.

It had been thrown by a drunken British soldier, who was promptly arrested and taken next door to the main police station. Only after that rude interruption was Collins led to the secret room where the files assembled by the DMP’s plain-clothes unit – the “G-Men” – were kept.

If it lacked the menace of the Castle, the then Great Brunswick Street Police Barracks was intimidating enough in its own right. Built only a few years earlier, it remains one of the last examples of the forbidding Scottish Baronial style of architecture which, like Gothic, had enjoyed a revival in the 19th century, but by the 20th was reserved mainly for follies.

The nearest thing its granite exterior has to a light touch is one of Dublin’s less-noticed collections of sculpture, a mini Mount Rushmore of four policemen’s heads, split up into two pairs. 

On what is now the main entrance, the flanking heads have the rounded helmets worn by regular policemen of the period. On the other door, where Collins must have entered, they have the peaked caps of officers. Only their ubiquitous moustaches unite the ranks.

At planning stage, the building’s prominent location had been unpopular with local residents, including those in Trinity College. It was argued that, in general, police stations should be more discreetly placed. There were fears that this one would lower the tone, and property values, of the district.

That and the bitter legacy of the 1913 Lockout meant that the new building opened without fanfare in December 1915. But even during the Troubles to come, the regular DMP, an unarmed force, would not be much in the frontline.  In April 1919, it was the accumulated intelligence about republicans that Collins was interested in studying, and for more than just their details.

As Broy explained afterwards: “He wanted to try to gauge the mentality behind the records, then to use the police secret organisation as a model, with suitable improvements and modifications, for Volunteer requirements.”

The rendezvous, set for midnight on April 7th , is recorded in John Bowman’s centenary anthology Ireland – The Autobiography (2016).  Collins was to identify himself as “Field”, and in a phonecall to double-check that he was on night duty, ask for Broy as “Long”.

After the latter started work at 10pm, and even before the stone-throwing, a series of complications threatened to thwart the plan. The last of them required getting rid of a Sgt Kerr, who slept in the building and was hanging around Broy’s office until finally persuaded to go to bed, at 11.50pm. Then, in Broy’s words: “At twelve o’clock, Mick rang up, saying, ‘Field here. Is that Long?’ I said: ‘Yes. Bring a candle.’”

The candle was needed because the small, secret files room – “built into the wall” of a larger office – had no electric lighting. But in the event, Collins didn’t bring one: he thought it was a joke. So Broy had to equip him and his companion with candles and matches. Then he left them to it, while he dealt with yet another interruption – a knock at the door that turned out to be the arresting constable from earlier seeking an estimate for the value of the window.

Collins burned his candle at both ends. By Broy’s reckoning, he was there until “about 5am”, a long night’s research that would have far-reaching consequences.

These did not include a subsequent administrative change Broy had already foreseen, given the frequency with which Dublin Castle was by then ringing up for details about named suspects. It was obvious, he thought, that the intelligence library would be relocated sooner or later: “As a matter of fact, not long afterwards, the books were taken to the Castle”.

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