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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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BOOK: Blind Arrows
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ELEVEN

Mick Collins
' secret office in Chester Street was little more than a dark cubby at the back of a busy bakery. He sauntered in at precisely 6 o'clock in the evening, dressed in his soft, grey business suit, and doffed his hat with its elegantly dented crown at the giggling girls preparing the dough. He leaned over the counter, dipped his fingers in the flour and ran them through his hair. With the air of a shop manager, he opened one of the disused ovens,
and removed a file of correspondence and a well-oiled Beretta gun. Then he climbed a back staircase to an office so tiny it strained to accommodate his broad shoulders. The room smelled like his other hiding holes, redolent of trains and back streets, bad weather and stale pubs. He sat at the tiny desk and bolted down the steak and kidney pie that one of the girls had
left out for him.

He squinted at the bundle of letters in the dim aura of gaslight. It had been a hard day of negotiation with the members of the shadow government over strategy and finances, and his mind was tired. He began with what he called his ‘lovable letters', the ones from his devoted female followers. In reply, he wrote them hurried notes, sometimes slipping into the envelopes a little love token, a piece of ribbon or a boiled sweet.

He spent more time thinking of his response to the letter he had kept until
last. The woman who had penned the love note deeply stirred his feelings, but he exercised soldierly restraint on his emotions, and flooded his mind with the religious imagery that decorated the stained glass windows of his regular church. In his
careful, civil servant's handwriting, he wrote,
‘Was at two Masses today! One in my usual oratory 8 o'c. The other an official one at Maiden Lane. Even at the official one, I managed to come back and light a candle for you. Second one therefore, today.'

He put down his pen. It had been a hard day for him. His mind moved from the incense-filled church to a more turbulent vision, an image of two mutilated girls lying face-up in the forest,
snowflakes melting in the dark sockets of their eyes. He doubted if anyone had offered the dead volunteers a confession, the Last Rites, or any sign of grace. He was not sure how this appalling apparition had forced itself into his mind but all he could think was God help him if that was how his lover ever met her maker.
He felt a strong need to close his eyes, and place his head in her lap, to have her stroke his hair and nurse his disorderly thoughts back to peace.

For a while, he made do with listening to the soothing sound of the bakery girls brushing the floors below. The place had been spotlessly clean when he entered. It seemed to be their favourite chore while
he was in his office, sweeping back and forth across the stone-flagged floors in an unvarying rhythm, a routine he suspected helped keep their nerves under control.

With a sigh, he turned his attention to his official correspondence. Receipts for weapons he had to sign, gunmen's expenses to be logged and counted, the funding of his secret network of informers in Dublin Castle,
and on the railway lines and ports. Then there were the begging letters to be answered, requests for financial assistance from injured combatants, prisoners' wives, widows with starving children, so many demands flooding in upon one man.

His brows pushed down harder upon his eyes. He remembered Isham's words of warning.
‘Dublin Castle is following the money…'
He rubbed his cheeks until the bones beneath his flesh felt sore. His staff at the Dublin Life Assurance company had given the National Loan
a dizzying financial history. They had created a financial mirror game where left was right and right was left, the money switching constantly from account to account, backwards and forwards, in and out of investments, making it virtually impossible to trace how it was spent, and in whose name. Now the crackpots in the IRA's ruling council wanted all the money to be traced, every penny he handed out accounted for. He shuddered at the book-keeping task that lay ahead of him. He
was not even close to knowing where all the money had gone. There were IRA officers who showed up asking for funds to finance gun-smuggling manoeuvres that were aborted at the last minute. A degree of speculation was sometimes called for if a bomb-making operation was to bear fruit. There were just too many levels of plotting, too many operatives demanding cash for their schemes. Revolutions like the War of Independence succeeded because of daring plans and visionary leadership, not because of the bean-counting obsessions of bank-clerks. It annoyed him deeply that he had to keep the IRA's finances safe from the prying eyes of the British authorities, while at the same time protecting himself from any charges of misspending the money
or manipulating the accounts.

After scribbling down several pages of calculations, he grunted and angrily tore them up. ‘To hell with them, they expect me to have a superhuman memory.'

He decided to write letters to every member of the ruling council
outlining his predicament and an estimation of costs. So immersed was he in his paperwork and the secret financial landscape of the IRA funds that at first he did not notice the unusual silence that had descended on the bakery. His eyes were hard and bright with inner calculations. After a while, he paused, laid down his pen, and listened.

The girls had stopped sweeping the floors, which made him instantly alert. A moment later, he
heard a sharp English voice issuing commands followed by the rumble of hurried boots and a series of soft explosions.

‘Holy God, not another raid,' he cursed. Unfortunately, this time they had trapped him with no escape exit. A cloud of flour from a burst sack billowed up the stairs. He listened to the grunts and coughing fits of the soldiers. They were bayoneting the sacks,
he realised, searching for hidden weapons and ammunition. Who had given them the tip-off? Puffs of flour fluttered through the office doorway. He grabbed his gun and, leaning round the lintel, stole a glance down the stairs. The soldiers were dusted from head to foot, flapping about like moths, burst sacks flailing
around them. He wondered if the flour might blind them long enough to make a daring escape. A voice rapped out more orders and several of the coughing soldiers squirmed their way towards the back stairs. With surprising grace for his large frame, Collins stepped on his table, quickly heaved open the narrow skylight and pulled himself onto the roof.

It was cold and calm upon the moonlit tiles. He inched his way along them, disturbing the roost of a few bedraggled pigeons huddling together for warmth, until he was
well beyond the light cast by the window. He heard a commotion erupt in his office below, and saw a white powdered face press itself against the pane of the skylight, and then another. He leaned into the shadow of a broad chimneystack. The skylight opened, and a soldier's pale and gloating face appeared, eyes rounded with effort, scanning the shadows on the roof. Then out popped his arms, feeling around the tiles for something to grip upon.
With a grunt, he began heaving himself onto the tiles.

From a crouching position, Collins contorted his body, a movement demanded by the need to withdraw his gun. Unfortunately, he lost his balance; his body twisting further, arms whirling, head leaning back.
At the last moment, his flailing hand caught a section of guttering. He gripped it with all his strength. It was enough to help him regain his poise. However, his gun had fallen from his inside pocket, skittering over the slates and falling with a n
auseating clang onto the street below. The force of the impact triggered the firing mechanism, and a bullet ricocheted against the shop-fronts.

‘Gunman on the street!' shouted an officer from below. An army lorry roared into life, and a volley of rifles answered the stray bullet. Something seemed to tug at the soldier's body in the skylight, and he disappeared from view. He heard the thunder of boots retreating down the stairs. He sank to his hunkers, murmuring a prayer of thanks.

After the soldiers had left, he waited motionless on the roof. After a while, it began to snow, the flakes forming a helmet of cold around his bare head, melting down his neck and into his clothes. When about an hour had passed, he slithered back along the roof, his body numb and sloth-like, and eased himself through the attic-window. He changed out of his business clothes, which felt as heavy as a sheet of lead, into sturdier, warmer clothing, a labourer's wool jacket and moleskin trousers. He slipped down the stairs, through the dust-filled bakery, and onto a side street where he had hidden his bicycle under a lump of tarpaulin.

He urged his stiff limbs into action, and cycled through the snow-covered streets, unsteadily at first and then picking up speed, past long, dejected-looking rows of shuttered shops and factories. A stray dog kept him company for several streets, panting to keep up with him, until he swung into Wicklow Street with its view of Dublin Castle rising above the commercial heart of the city. In daylight,
he liked to wander close to the monument to Britain's colonisation of Ireland, so many secret plots and conspiracies converged within its fortified walls. Its limestone and brick towers were always jutting into his consciousness, even in his sleep. He braked and stood his bicycle in the centre of the street. He remained there for several minutes, contemplating the vision before him. The entire castle shimmered in the moonlight, like an oppressive dream of the past. Its odd jumble of building styles and materials dated back to the twelfth century, the crooked battlements interlocked by remnants of the ancient castle walls, the round towers resembling Norman fortifications that had been seized, roped and hauled from medieval Ireland and raised as trophies within the castle's modern walls. They reminded the population that Britain owned the country, past and present, its history and its future.

Pedalling on, Collins hurled his bicycle along the gas-lit streets, until the castle, melted back into the starry night. He grinned to himself. The British were like rabbits hiding in their hole, he thought. As holes went, Dublin Castle was adequately defended, but he knew that out here, in the real city, where his men were plotting in pubs and boarding houses, the entire order of British rule was collapsing like a set of rotten roof beams.
Propelled by his good humour, he sang a few bars from an old rebel song, sprinkling the unmistakeable notes through the abandoned streets.

Soon he was at the outskirts of the city and cycling past the walled estates of landed gentry. Away from the street shadows and the ever-present threat of danger, he was able to think more clearly. He thought of the naïve English reporter who looked and sounded like a spy. Since his departure at Dublin port, Collins had run into several raids, managing to escape by his quick wit and good fortune. An uncomfortable feeling that his luck had changed, and that the British were tightening their net around him, played on his mind as he cycled further south.

After several miles, he hid his cycle in a ditch and made his
way along a tree-lined avenue. The imposing shape of Furry Park mansion, the residence of republican sympathiser Moya Llewelyn Davies rose before him, wide as a military barracks. He ignored the warmth and hospitality the lady-of-the-house would have offered him, and skirted the estate grounds through a plantation of pines.

Eventually he emerged at a
bleak stretch of coastline, a wilderness of marram grass and blowing sand hills. He followed a hidden path through the dunes to a little bay he had chosen especially for its secrecy, hidden from roads and passing traffic.

It was a windless night and the surf that usually roared across the bay had all but disappeared. It was soothing, all this expanse of sea, the slow-paced waves glittering in the moonlight, the distant horizon. He breathed in the salt air, filling his lungs deeply. The most fortunate people on earth were those who could be on their own long after the sun had set, he thought, who could be secretive about their whereabouts, who could let their fears and cravings subside into the silence of the night sky.

It had been weeks since he'd enjoyed such space and fresh air.
A weight lifted from his chest, and for the first time in days, he realised how harassed his life had become. His revolution seemed at times nothing more than constant bureaucratic agitation, monotonous ink on paper, endless accounts and note taking, a series of quarrels and contrived alliances with men who had once been close friends. He had spent too long in the shadows of the insurance office building and grey boarding houses, he realised, dodging the army raids, and the wanted posters, that were now hanging like rags after months of bad weather.

He hopped from rock to rock, invigorated by the thought of the mission ahead. A squad of his men were smuggling ashore a weapons shipment, and something else, a personal consignment, not part of the larger war, not expendable like bullets or guns, a package so important he would have to lock it away in a secret room.

He found a suitable perch on a large rock, and surveyed the beach. A light winked on the other side of the bay. His men had lit a signal fire out of turf and gorse.

‘Who goes there?' shouted a voice.

He replied by whistling a tune. Even his most nonchalant sounds these days were coded. Everything had its hidden meaning. He looked forward to the time when he no longer needed secret communications to get through his day.

He introduced himself by
playfully lobbing a dead crab at the shadowy figures. They were a flying column from the Wicklow Mountains, men used to sleeping rough in derelict cottages, and camping in forests. He had told them to lie low and speak to no one about the unusual task assigned to them. Collins wanted the entire mission wrapped in secrecy.

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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