Collins comments in his introduction that none of the "endless books and films" about Northern Ireland "had touched the heart of the true horror". Collins' autobiography of a deeply disillusioned IRA volunteer contains a variety of dimensions that capture a lot of that horror. This book is a mix of terrorist action, pettiness and incompetence, some good sociological insights and critical analyses, together with a pretty frank and honest inner psychological narrative.
It starts with a very readable account of Collins' family and upbringing and then the factors that lead to his joining the IRA. These are interesting, because, besides his arrest together with his father and brother at the age of 18, and the brutal treatment received at the hands of the British army, we find the crucial influence of the small but (at universities) ubiquitous and ever-pernicious Revolutionary Communists. Absurd as it may seem, an Irishman from republican border territory is led towards the IRA by a middle-class English member of the revolutionary communists, and Collins' account of the brainwashing effect of repeated marches and meetings is most interesting. We then get a fascinating in-depth and detailed story of his ambivalent thoughts and feelings towards, and accumulating disillusionment with the republican movement. This account includes detailed descriptions of IRA operations and also a diverse array of IRA volunteers. Collins' roles within the IRA included planning, intelligence, recruiting and de-briefing and he doesn't hold back on any of the details. His story shows an IRA devoid of glamour, peopled by a range of characters whose psychology and personalities Collins manages to bring alive. He is deeply conscious of the suffering in which he played a key role and there is none of the mechanical 'people get killed in war' type of cop-out in his description of death. Such incidents range from the anguished reaction of a UDR man's wife and child as they witness his death, to the IRA man who incinerates himself in a fire-bomb attack and, abandoned by his colleagues, runs three miles home, naked and charred. (He dies of his injuries several weeks later.) The latter part of the book contains a graphic account of Collins' interrogation by police, including the psychological dimension, and his subsequent collaboration with the state. Although he eventually retracts, there are some fascinating glimpses into a rather quirky social grouping which crosses sectarian divides - the supergrass community! This is thus a wide-ranging book which gives innumerable insights into the world which Collins inhabited.