It has been a while since we touched on the War of Independence experience of the men credited with beginning the military campaign. As previously stated, in the aftermath of events like the Soloheadbeg Ambush and the Rescue at Knocklong, men like Dan Breen and Sean Treacy had spent significant amounts of time in Dublin, where they were able to lay low from the police searching for them down the country, and also aid in the activities of the Dublin IRA, in events like the botched Ashtown Ambush. But they also did not stay in Dublin all the time, departing back to their home areas in Tipperary to have a continuing impact on the war there, such as with the Oola Ambush later in 1920.
When that was finished they would return to what must have been thought as safe harbour in Dublin. But the situation had changed somewhat in the capital, at least from the period earlier in the year when the Castle administration’s efforts to thwart Michael Collins and his Squad had been left in ribbons by the practical destruction of the RIC’s “G” Division. New people, military people like Ormonde Winter, were in charge of espionage and counter-espionage now. The new “Combined Intelligence Service” would not be so easily taken care of as the RIC’s political policing division had been, and Winter had spent his time in office thus far co-ordinating with the intelligence chiefs of civil, police and military branches, as well as importing many agents himself. On once occasion when Breen and Treacy returned to Dublin, they were identified by some of these agents, aided by RIC men brought to the capital from Tipperary. From that time, they were under a degree of surveillance.
On the night of the 11th of October, Breen and Treacy attended the cinema with some female friends, who posited that the two men were being followed. Both appear to have ignored this warning, and went back to their designated safehouse after the night’s entertainments, a house named “Fernside”, located near the corner of Home Farm and Upper Drumcondra Road on the city’s north side. Unbeknownst to the two men, the safehouse had already been compromised, thanks to British surveillance of the pair.
In the early hours of the following morning, Fernside was the subject of a raid, made up of a combined force of DMP and military personnel. This force was briefly detained by the house’s actual owner, Professor Carolan of the nearby St Patrick’s College, before they forced their way in. Breen and Treacy, who made a habit of sleeping fully clothed and with guns at hand, were, naturally, not inclined to go quietly. They first left their room and opened fire on those forcing their way into the house, an unexpected act that caused an unplanned retreat on the part of the Crown Forces. The IRA men then returned to their room and smashed through their windows to escape out the back, with Breen possibly landing in a rear glasshouse in the process.
Breen then opened fire with his pistol at the British forces he could see over fences, who returned this fire. Breen was hit, but not badly enough that he could not keep moving. Both he and Treacy made it out of the garden, with Breen scaling the wall of St Patrick’s, before finding sympathisers in a nearby street who hid him and arranged for medical attention. Breen was smuggled into the nearby Mater hospital under a fake name, and cared for by nuns in a private part of the facility. Such secrecy was badly needed, as the British launched a huge search operation for the two. Both were guarded by men of the Dublin Brigade, and both evaded further detection, for the time being.
Three people were killed as a result of the shootout. Carolan was hit at some point in the raid and died of his wound a short while later, insisting before he passed that he was deliberately shot by the raiders. Two British military officers were also wounded fatally, a Captain Alfred White of Queen Mary’s Regiment and George Smyth of the Royal Field Artillery. Smyth was the brother of Gerald Smyth, the officer who had caused the Listowel Mutiny before his subsequent assassination, and was a member of what was officially dubbed the “Dublin District Special Branch”, much better known as the “Cairo Gang”, a group of intelligence agents in Ireland with the specific task of neutralising high-value IRA leadership targets, whose story will be told here another day.
It took a few days to sort out all of the arrangements regards the deceased officers between inquests and the like, and it was not until the 14th of October that it was possible to return their bodies to Britain for burial. The Dublin administration, perhaps inspired by republican ability to do the same, planned a funeral procession to take place that would go through the centre of Dublin. Michael Collins saw opportunity in such an act, reasoning that numerous high-ranking officers and officials, such as Hamar Greenwood and the especially disliked Hugh Tudor, would attend such an event, and thus be out in the open. An operation was thus planned, with a group of men, including Sean Treacy, to assemble at a shop – Republican Outfitters, owned by the Boland family – in Talbot Street ahead of time.
However, on the day of the procession Collins learned that the high-value targets he was expecting had thought better of it, or been warned off, and would not be in attendance. There was little point in attempting an attack on others, so Collins called the operation off. Sean Treacy turned up to the Outfitters late, after the other IRA men had left. Again, unbeknownst to Treacy, the shop was to be the subject of an imminent raid and now a ring closed in around the shop.
When Treacy moved to leave, he was confronted by an armed plain-clothes agent named Arthur Price, with military vehicles coming down Talbot Street from the direction of Sackville Street. Treacy pulled his own pistol and opened fire, before trying to flee on his bicycle (other accounts claim he went for the bike first, and fell trying to mount it in a hurry, before pulling his gun). Either a burst of machine gun or rifle fire cut him down. Several others were killed in the same moments, although the circumstances were confused: Price may have been shot by Treacy in the process of trying to disarm him or by friendly fire, while two civilians were also hit and killed in the firing, a local tobacco shop-owner named John Currigan and a 15-year-old courier named Carroll. A DMP man was also hit in the arm, losing it but surviving. The Outfitters was wrecked in the aftermath. Winter attended the operation from a distance, and was reportedly distraught at the casualties that it entailed: a rude awakening to the kind of war he had been brought to Ireland to fight.
Unfortunately for the British, an apprentice photographer happened to be near the scene, and took a widely circulated image of Treacy’s dead body surrounded by British soldiers. The image aided in a certain degree of republican martyr-making, that Treacy had died heroically in a gallant last stand surrounded by foes. Treacy’s funeral, held in his native Tipperary, was a huge affair, that included a volley of shots fired over the grave, despite the attentions of local police. A few popular ballads about him, like Tipperary So Far Away, became widely popular after his death.
That was not the end of Dublin shootings that month either. The Squad would carry out revenge killings only a few days after, an event I will come to in time, and the ex-soldier identified as leading the British to Fernside was assassinated later. On the 16th 63-year-old Peter O’Carroll, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was shot dead in Manor Street home. Owing to his age O’Carroll was not a very active part of the struggle, but it is generally accepted that he was involved in procuring arms for the IRA, and two of his sons were serving with the Dublin Brigade. O’Carroll was shot in the dead of night when answering his door to what his wife assumed was another in a series of raids that had occurred in their home. The culprits were never firmly identified, but seems likely to have been members of the Auxiliaries, with Collins pointing the finger in particular at a hated figure of that unit, a Major Jocelyn Hardy, whose name will come up again in this series before the War of Independence is over.
These shootings are just part of the vortex of violence that was engulfing the capital in the later months of 1920, that would culminate in the war’s bloodiest day in November. But for now we must move back to the south of the country, to the war in Cork. There, we must finally introduce one of the most famous, or infamous if you prefer, figures of the conflict, a young World War One veteran about to take his place in the leading of a flying column.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.