MY absence from the prison was not discovered until roll-call. It came Sunday morning, and the band was mustered to march the troops to church. While the musicians stood at the head of the line the bugle sounded. All instruments, from the flute to the big drum, were dropped and a flight made for arms. The description of what followed my escape was given to me by Pat Magill, who was released after the truce, several months later.
All the amenities and courtesies of Sunday were called off. Commanding officers ordered every prisoner to be handcuffed and put in leg-irons. I was sorry for the privation and suffering that followed my escape, but the lads bore their woes with a happy grin at the colonel’s embarrassment.
The search went on through the huge barracks and its environs, but there was no trail to follow. It would give me much pleasure now to retrace my painful route for that colonel’s enlightenment, because I considered the Ebrington break one of my toughest achievements.
Word was sent out to the military to close all avenues of escape, and make a house search of the Catholic quarters. The poor Papists were getting accustomed to this method of tracing Sinn Fein leaders, and expected a visit once a week. My host kept me advised of the sifting process in the Catholic quarter until the military quit in disgust. Neighboring villages were raided, and all ships leaving port searched, but there was neither hide nor hair of the quarry.
After four days of hiding in the Protestant quarter I decided to get back to my brigade in the Donegal hills. Some of the neighbors might get wind of my presence and tip off the police, who were eager to make the capture. My host located a clerical garment, which fitted with minor alterations. The Roman collar on my pagan neck made me blush a bit, but in the exigency of the moment I would have worn a bishop’s mitre or a rabbinical cap to get out of Derry.
A side-car called for me, and I rode openly through the city in my priestly garb, nodding and bowing to the many people who saluted me along the way. Nearly all die Royal Irish Constabulary are Catholics, and only the seriousness of the affair restrained my desire to laugh at them. These big fellows were in a difficult spot, and many of them died in a bewildered conflict of religious and political loyalty.
An amusing incident occurred at Rossville Street, but the affair gave me a sudden fright. We were stopped by a policeman who saluted and requested that we make a detour as the street was blockaded, and we marked the presence of many uniforms.
“What’s the trouble, my son?” I asked, with a canonical inflection and a benign lift of the eyebrows.
“Sure, they’re looking for that murdering blackguard Hennessey, your reverence. He’s got loose from the barracks at Ebrington, but I think we have him cornered.”
“God bless you, my son; and I hope you find the blackguard! ” I said urbanely.
The driver swung the horse about and hurried down a side street out of the danger zone. When we got out of the range of voices I said to him: “What do you think of a damned fool like that? Here we are, trying to ram freedom down his throat, and he’s a loyal Judas for his piece of silver. There’s two million more of the same frame of mind. Are they worth it?”
“Don’t lost heart, Mac!” chided my host. “Wait until the tide turns, and watch them all jump on the band wagon.”
He was a good prophet. The success of the Republican guerrilla campaign was leading to a general insurrection, and eventually forced the British to consider a truce.
Arriving at my destination, I was warmly received at the Catholic College, still in my clerical garb. Some priests looked amusedly at my disguise, but they were all patriots at heart and shared in the joy of my deliverance from the foe. One courageous soggarth jumped on mm side-car and rode out of Derry with me through two cordons of police and soldiers. They didn’t dare to stop us, for the Catholics in the ranks of the enemy were touchy. Any indignity would be a severe boomerang and we passed through the lines with hands at the salute.
Someone in the Unionist quarter must have suspected the validity of the priest that suddenly appealed in the side-car, for the military were soon hot on the trail after I got through the city. Lorries of soldiers were sent to head me off, but I abandoned my holy clothing and went to Inishowen on the coast of north Donegal for a few weeks. It was there that I learned of the miraculous escape of the informer Kelly. While the roads from Derry to Glenties were watched for weeks, I slipped over the mountains and rejoined my brigade.
An unwelcome armistice was called about the time of my return to duty, and the column spent days in drilling and training. The boys were alert, shrewd fighters, and crack shots with the rifle and revolver. Most of their education came in actual combat, which may have made the study highly effective. I was intensely proud of their exploits, and had brilliant plans for future warfare.
During the lull a messenger came from Dublin and brought a dispatch from Michael Collins. He wrote:
“Come to Dublin at once. Full details on your arrival at Army headquarters.”
Speculating on the meaning of the summons, we guessed that it meant a renewal of the war, with a strong drive on the British posts in Donegal and Ulster. The message stirred up the camp, and my adjutant, Hughie Martin, began to figure out a plan of action on his map. Hughie was a resourceful, courageous fellow who made the war a source of entertainment as well as excitement.
Leaving him in charge of the column, I secreted my Colt under my armpit and set off for Dublin. En route I regained my clerical attire, and travelled to the capital by the longest and safest way round.
The address given was an empty house in Brunswick Sheet, Dublin. I peered into windows, and nothing but barren rooms met my eye. I stared at the address again, and verified it. What was wrong? I decided to knock. The door opened with a startling swiftness. Giving the password, I was admitted. The Army headquarters were in a room in the back of the house. There was a desk, and a few chairs—not a very impressive office for the head of an army3 but then the exigencies of secrecy were more vital than pomp.
Many an agent of His Majesty knew Collins by sight, and was afraid to attempt an arrest. One swaggering officer came down from Ulster to get Collins or shoot it out with him. When the train came in from Belfast the Irish commander met his adversary at the station and greeted him by name. The officer was so taken aback he could only stammer a salutation.
“MacMurty,” said Collins quietly, “you can get the next train back in an hour. I advise you to spend that hour in the buffet. The boys will see that no one disturbs you.” Then MacMurty noticed that four lads in trench coats had suddenly appeared from nowhere. Their right hands were suggestively buried in bulging coat pockets.
“Very well,” said MacMurty. “You knew I was coming?”
“Well, yes, and I always like to greet my visitors.”
Many fantastic yarns have grown up around the legend of Michael Collins, some of them true; but hero worshippers have a penchant for embroidering the exploits of their heroes beyond the realms of truth and fact.
Collins came into the office, shaking his tousled mane, and greeted me with an infectious smile.
“Hello, Mac. Did you have a tough time getting here? Do you know that Scotland Yard and the Castle boys are looking for you?” After some questioning about the campaign in Donegal and my escape from Ebrington, Collins suddenly asked the question: “Could you bring a shipload of arms from Germany in a submarine?”
“No,” I replied. “The idea is absurd from any seaman’s point of view. A submarine would attract more attention than a Cunarder or a Zeppelin. Why advertise what you are doing?”
“Just what I thought. Some of the crowd here suggested the submarine. I am glad to hear you veto the idea. What would you suggest?”
“A boat, of course: one that looks no different than a thousand others.”
Collins’s face reflected approval. I went on to explain a procedure that I would follow. I would go to Germany and purchase the arms, and ship them openly to a neutral country not specified in the embargo on arms, arranging to have dummy consignees. Then, when I got to sea, I would kill some time sailing or steaming, and at a propitious moment break through the blockade of our ports.
“Splendid, Mac! Will you take the job?” said Collins.
“Yes, if you give me a free hand and enough money.”
“Free hand, eh? You report to no one but me, and there’ll be plenty of money to buy the boat, and the ammunition.”
For several hours we discussed passports, finance, and other details. In Germany I was to be assisted by an Irish university professor who was in Berlin. Thirty thousand pounds had been placed at my disposal. He gave me some letters to our agents in Britain, and I left on my errand, buoyed with high hopes.
In England I met Sam Maguire, one of the most sincere fellows in the Irish movement, who was in charge of activities in the lion’s den. I valued his advice and followed many of the suggestions he made. There also I encountered Dunn and O’Sullivan, the two boys who “bumped off” Sir Henry Wilson. We had what we considered indisputable evidence of his connection with the Belfast pogroms and terror tactics. I sat with the boys as they planned the execution of Sir Henry and was grieved later to hear of their capture and hanging. They were quiet fellows, who, given a military errand to perform, did the loathsome deed under orders. Reprisal was the order of the day, and Sir Henry had a lot to answer for in the Catholic quarter of Belfast. He knew he was a marked man, but counted on British luck and a bodyguard to shield him from harm.
Crossing to Paris without incident, I took the train into Germany and looked up my learned confrère. Book-learning and business acumen are evidently not in the same category. My college professor was in the hands of German shysters who took his money and produced no ammunition. Then they came back for more, and sometimes got it. He was an “innocent abroad “; local “con” men almost rifled his pockets. His acquaintances were boasting of their connections—their relatives in high office—their love for Ireland. The smooth words were very welcome, and he collected an assortment of leeches and was in a completely hopeless tangle.
I abandoned all his tactics and washed the slate clean. Then I went to Hamburg to visit an old friend of mine who was a shipping agent and an owner of several small vessels. Stating my case openly I asked his aid, and got it. He helped me find a suitable craft and suggested an arsenal where I could purchase my arms and ammunition without Government red tape or bother from the Allied High Commission, who were trying to make the Germans disarm to the full extent of the Versailles Treaty.
Inside a week I had purchased a ship and a fine collection of machine-guns and rifles and a large amount of ammunition. The ship was a sturdy fishing-craft with a hull to stand the buffeting of heavy seas. Her name was the Anita, and a trim boat she was in the water. The hull had a perforated compartment amidships where the catch was stored and kept fresh. The water swished in and out of the hull as the boat moved along. It was necessary to plug all these holes to make the midship compartment watertight. The work was tedious, but I had no choice. The vessel was equipped with a Swedish Bolinder motor, and was yawl-rigged with a new set of sails and cordage.
Getting the cargo on board without arousing suspicion was somewhat difficult. I had the vessel moved to a spot down the river, clear of the harbor and its environs. Huge motor-lorries brought the cases alongside, and at night we worked like beavers getting everything shipshape. I had collected an excellent crew of German Communists, all eager for an exciting voyage. At last the Anita was stowed.
Two weeks after my arrival in Germany I was ready to sail for Ireland!