Michael Collins is frequently cited as the originator of modern urban terrorism. The British characterised his Squad as ‘the murder gang’ and had they knowingly captured members of of the Squad they would almost certainly have executed them.
Irish history is full of revolutionaries and failed rebellions, of informers giving information to the English, and spies infiltrating Irish organisations. Michael Collins recognised the importance of the intelligence network and so in 1919 he formulated a plan to blind the eyes of Dublin Castle by ensuring that the police force were as terrorised and demoralised as possible.
In the early 1950’s The Bureau of Military History interviewed many volunteers and IRA participants, including many of the Squad. There interviews were conducted with the assurance that their stories would not be published in their lifetimes. This is the first book to make use of these interviews for this period, and so contains first-hand accounts of the killings carried out by the Squad.
As such the book doesn’t really spend a great deal of time analysing the actions, it is more concerned with reports. This is not to say that everything is simply reported, there are occasional opinions from the author. However it does allow the stories of the individuals concerned to be told without moralising. The killings by the Squad are told in their own words, and the violence and bloody nature of their actions is never covered up.
Dwyer doesn’t offer much interpretation of the individuals involved, not until the epilogue when he questions whether Collins would ever have adapted to civilian life. Perhaps an unfair question, given that it was Collins after all who signed the Treaty, as opposed to De Valera and others who opposed it, resulting in the Civil War. Yet, because he was responsible for much of the action during the War of Independence, and given the fact that he often acted without authority from the Dáil it is a justified question. Merely one that cannot be answered. Especially considering that Collins was such a secretive individual that it is hard to clearly identify his reasons and objectives for his actions.
The Squad is well-written and covers considerable ground. From the actions of the IRA to opinions of the infamous Gerland Brice Ferguson Smyth, and his instructions to British forces;
If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets or are suspicious looking, shoot the down. You may make mistakes occasionally, and innocent people may be shot, but that cannot be helped. No policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man
There is also an element of the surreal aspects of the conflict. A war was being conducted, with terrible actions taken by both sides, yet in the middle of it all, normal life went on.
“sitting outside were a lady and gentleman, civil servants, having tea : I [Vinny Byrne] requested them to leave, stating that was going to set fire to the office.”
“Oh, you can’t do that!! the man replied.
“I showed him my gun, and told him I was serious”