Ireland’s Wars: Bloody Sunday (1920)

Thing were poised very delicately for the IRA in Dublin in November 1920. GHQ had managed to help orchestrate a nationwide campaign of rebellion against British rule, the Squad had annihilated the DMP’s G Division, and a certain aura of invincibility was clinging to both that unit and to Michael Collins. But the British response was having its effect, with more police and soldiers on the streets than ever before, and with the supposed Cairo Gang of counter-intelligence agents making their presence felt. The result, the events of the 21st November, was a culmination of nearly two years of conflict, and constituted one of the bloodiest days of the revolutionary period.

The British certainly thought they were gaining the upper hand at that time. We’ve heard about Lloyd George’s “murder by the throat” speech, and this feeling was shared by others like Hamar Greenwood, who exulted in a backroom approach for talks from Dail Eireann, and General Macready, who thought that the refusal to capitulate on the Terence McSwiney situation had drastically improved morale. The “Auxies” were a noticeable presence on the streets of Dublin, and the killing of Sean Treacy (and disablement of Dan Breen) was perhaps seen as a bigger blow than it really was. GHQ was convinced that the British were now operating on a “shoot-to-kill” basis, and that high-rankings members of both the IRA, Sinn Fein and the Dail were on the hit-list. The recent temporary arrests of men like Liam Toibin seemed like further confirmation that things were reaching a critical point.

It was for this reason, and the undeniable sense that the British noose was tightening, that Collins decided upon a drastic operation: the coordinated assassination of as much of the British Intelligence apparatus in Dublin as could possibly be done, all to be accomplished on the same day. From the outset it was a risky proposition, as Collins would essentially be putting the entirety of the Squad and GHQ’s Intelligence section into danger. But the potential rewards were great too: the decapitation of Dublin Castle’s key weapon in the capital, and a resounding blow to the British war effort in general.

Collins, in conjunction with key members of GHQ and Dublin Brigade staff, spent weeks planning his move, going over every scrap of information on the British agents, suspected or confirmed, who were under surveillance. Established informants were canvassed at length, and every possible avenue of additional information was followed up, whether it was a neighbour of a suspected agent or an Auxiliary willing to make a few pounds on the side by selling information. In some cases this would lead nowhere, but in others Collins hit pay-dirt. An example of the latter was “Maudie”, a maid employed at an address on Upper Pembroke Street, who notified the IRA of odd behavior from residents. Said residents were sloppy: Maudie was able to hand over their waste-paper baskets to Collins, and documents and photographs of IRA Volunteers were discovered.

The British had made a number of key errors. We have already discussed the myriad failures in terms of agents’ movements at night, the trust they placed in “informants” like Liam Toibin and their carelessness with incriminating documents. But there were other, basic, mistakes made, such as the placing of too many agents in too small of an area, as Collins discovered when he realised a relatively high number of suspected spies were housed in south-central Dublin in and around Baggot Street. The British perhaps thought that such a concentration of agents made them less likely to be targeted, but in truth in made them easier to attack collectively. And many of the agents made new friends – secretly IRA officers – much too easily, or took the places where they were housed for granted: the IRA were soon able to get their members employed in many of the boarding houses or hotels.

Eventually intelligence officers like Frank Thornton and Charlie Dalton, intimately involved in the planning, proposed the assassination of nearly 60 men in 20 different locations, a truly enormous number that was, in hindsight, largely out of the reach of the Dublin IRA. But Collins was happy to think big, and further knew that in order to make as big an impact as possible the timescale of the shootings had to be small. The operation was large enough that Dail approval, through the cabinet then being chaired by Arthur Griffith, was required. Here Collins ran into difficulties with his rapidly familiar nemesis, Cathal Brugha, Minister of Defence, who was unconvinced of the evidence given against some of the 60 names, and a number were subsequently removed from the hit-list. Approval was granted for everyone else.

Collins left the more minute planning of the actual shooting to Dublin Brigade staff, with much of the work falling to the commandant of the 2nd Battalion, Sean Russell. For the better part of a month he coordinated with other commandants, members of the Squad and various intelligence staff in terms of assigning men to each individual building and target, along with supporting Volunteers. Russell may also have chosen the time, day and date: the morning of Sunday 21st November. There were two key reasons for this: it was believed that the British agents were more likely to be caught by surprise in their lodgings on a Sunday morning, and a high-profile gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary was to be played later that day in Croke Park, that it was hoped would convince the authorities that the chance of an attack was reduced, and would also provide large crowds that could disrupt British efforts to find the assassins.

The Squad was not big enough for all of the targets, so numerous Volunteers, many untested in combat, had to be drafted in from the larger brigade, which automatically increased the chance of failure. In order to offset this, one member of the Squad, or a GHQ Intelligence officer, or both, were assigned to the teams, which were supposed to consist of at least eight men each. They would assemble at a pre-agreed point, do a final reconnaissance, and then set their attack into motion from around 9AM. Some would shoot, others would guard doors and watch escape routes. The Intelligence officer would have the additional responsibility of grabbing any sensitive documentation they could find. The attackers would then depart as quickly as they could, on foot, bike or car, in some cases passing guns to waiting members of Cumann na mBan. Safehouses for the aftermath were arranged, and here the planning was meticulous enough to include a commandeered ferry that could be used if the bridges over the Liffey were shut down. Secrecy was all important, and many of those called upon to engage the enemy only knew fully what they were being asked to do days before they were being asked to do it. 

Leading up to the end of that week Russell, McKee, Collins, Mulchay and Brugha all went over the details with the appropriate men, having as much of a job to do in keeping up with the details as they did in stiffening resolve from those unused to such forms of warfare. There were additional complications too, such as when “Maudie” reported that the men she had been watching in her place of employment had moved to new accommodations just before the attacks went ahead. In the end, while there is still some vagueness in how many targets there were and how many men were assigned, it appears as if around 20 houses or hotels had Volunteers due to enter them on Sunday morning, with allegedly 35 men to be killed. It should be noted that, in the absence of some key records, these numbers are not definite, and Collins himself admitted later that members of the Dublin Brigade added names to to the hit-list of their volition that were not identified intelligence officers.

Late on the Saturday night, the IRA suffered a terrible setback. Numerous high-rankings Volunteers were spending the evening in Vaughn’s Hotel, and men like Collins, Mulcahy, Brugha and Rory O’Connor only just got out ahead of a raid led by Jocelyn Hardy, who arrested a former National Volunteer named Conor Clune, who was there meeting a friend who happened to be an IRA member, who escaped. From there Hardy’s men moved to another safehouse in Gloucester Street, where they were able to successfully capture McKee and his vice-brigadier Peadar Clancy. Despite the arrests of these two vital elements of the Dublin Brigade, the wheels were now in motion, and nothing could stop the Sunday operation. If anything, such a success for the British would only have steeled the resolve of men like Collins. Around 9AM the following morning, the attacks went ahead.

At 22 Lower Mount Street Tom Keogh and Jim Slattery led seven others into the house, where a maid was forced at gunpoint to lead them to the rooms containing the targets. The first, an intelligence agent named Henry Angliss, was shot dead after being relieved of his weapons while a fellow intelligence officer using the room hid under the bed. The other target, a Lt Charles Peel, had the wherewithal to bolt his door and then barricade the room, surviving a hail of blind fire. Unfortunately for the IRA, a passing Auxiliary patrol had been alerted by the housekeeper, and they now opened fire on a Volunteer guarding the door, McLean, who was wounded twice before getting inside and returning fire through the letterbox.

The IRA Volunteers made their escapes through various exits, weathering fire from the Auxies and from other British agents based in houses nearby. All but one escaped: the unlucky odd man out was Frank Teeling, wounded in the stomach and found by Auxiliaries while hiding in the back garden. He avoided a summary execution thanks to the intervention of the Auxiliary commander, a General F.P. Crozier. Two Auxies had been killed in the general are also, a Lt Frank Garniss and Cadet Cecil Morris, who had been intercepted by Volunteers on their way to Beggar’s Bush Barracks to seek reinforcements. Brought to a nearby garden on Northumberland Street, they were both shot in the back of the head.

25 Earlsfort Terrace was the home of Captain John Fitzgerald, an RIC member, who had been shot previously in the war while stationed in Clare. A servant led the Volunteers to his room at gunpoint. Fitzgerald went down, shot several times. It has been theorised that Fitzgerald was killed owing to mistaken identity, and that the IRA were actually looking for a British agent named Fitzpatrick.

Captain Paddy Flanagan, an IRA officer with a brutal reputation, commanded the unit that hit 28 Upper Pembroke Street, where 22 men sought the deaths of several suspected British Intelligence agents, including Major Charles Dowling, Lt Robert Jeune, Lt Colonel Hugh Montgomery, Lt Randolph Murray and Captain Leonard Price. Montgomery was the first to be killed, while at the same time a Colonel Wilfred Woodcock was badly wounded. Flanagan then proceeded to the room of Price and Dowling, as indicated by “Maudie”, and killed both. Murray, along with another officer named Captain Brian Keenlyside , were brought from their rooms downstairs where they were both shot, but the inexperienced gunmen botched the job, and both survived. Woodcock and Keenlyside were not intelligence officers, but must have known the men they shared lodgings with were. Captain Jeune was nowhere to be found, having spent the night out on assignment. 

38 Upper Mount Street was the new lodgings of of Lt Peter Ames and George Bennett, the two men “Maudie” had notified the IRA about in terms of their sudden move. A scratch unit commanded by Vinny Byrne attacked the house. Both of the agents were subdued, brought to the same room, placed facing the wall, and shot dead. A dispatch carrier who happened to arrive at the house at the same time was spared. A passing Auxiliary patrol opened fire on the IRA, along with neighbouring agents, but the Volunteers were all able to make good their escape. 

The target at 92 Lower Baggot Street was a Captain William Newberry, a courts martial officer, who lived there with his pregnant wife. There is no concrete evidence he was involved in intelligence work, so it is unclear why he was targeted. Joe Leonard and Bill Stapleton led the IRA unit here. Bursting into the officer’s room, the IRA opened fire as the Captain attempted to flee through a window, killing him. His traumatised wife died delivering a stillborn child a few days later (it should be noted there is some dispute about whether the woman in the room that morning was Newberry’s wife).

At 119 Lower Baggot Street the target was Captain Geoffrey Baggallay, a courts martial officer who had been involved in the prosecution of Volunteers. The IRA team at this house included a Volunteer named Sean Lemass, a future Taoiseach. The attackers bluffed their way inside by claiming they had a message from Dublin Castle for the Captain, who was then shot in bed.

At 117 Morehampton Road there were three targets: Intelligence agent Captain Donald McLean, his brother-in-law, and suspected informant, John Caldow and the landlord of the building Thomas Smith. The IRA unit, whose leadership is unclear, rushed the home, placed the three men next to each other in one room and opened fire, despite the protestations of the landlord’s family. McLean and Smith were killed, but Caldow survived.

At the Gresham Hotel on Sackville Street the targets were retired Captain Patrick McCormack and Lt L.E. Wilde. Patrick Moran commanded the Volunteers who held up the reception area and got a porter to bring them to the men’s rooms at gunpoint. Both men were shot without much fuss, and the IRA withdrew. It’s unclear why they were targeted: there have been claims that McCormack was involved in undercover work, but Collins himself disavowed this later. He also insisted that Wilde was a known agent, but there appears to be no other proof for this.

There were plenty of misses by the IRA and escapes for the British elsewhere. Lt Colonel Thomas Jennings did not stay at the Eastwood Hotel on Leeson Street on Saturday night, and thus avoided the ten Volunteers who arrived looking for him the following morning. Some accounts claim a party entered the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green looking for a target, but that the premature firing of a gun enabled him to escape. At 7 Ranelagh Road the hit team was led by Squad members Joe Dolan and Dan McDonnell, and targeted Special Branch member Lt W. Noble. Noble wasn’t home, but a “female companion” was. Dolan, a somewhat unhinged man, beat the woman (also allegedly marked for death as British agent, but appears to have been spared owing to Noble’s absence) and then started a fire that other Volunteers were obliged to put out, lest the landlord’s family perish. Despite the delay, all made good their escape.

In Harcourt Street, the address of Jocelyn Hardy was infiltrated, but the hated Auxie wasn’t there. Some of the men who were part of the attacking party were arrested at the scene, beaten, but released the next day. At Upper Fitzwilliam Street Major John Crawford was held up with his wife, but was able to convince the gunmen that he was not an Intelligence officer, though he probably was. At the Exchequer Street Hotel, the target couldn’t be found. At Church Road, nobody was home. At 84/85 Lower Baggot Street, the IRA gained entrance but found that the target was not there. An attack on two houses of the North Circular Road was cancelled when it was discovered the target had moved. None of the officers asked for in Harcourt Street’s Standard Hotel were there that morning.

15 people had been killed. How many of them were intelligence agents is disputed, but it was probably at least seven. The others were two Auxiliaries, two courts martial officers, an RIC member and three civilians. The IRA suffered several wounded and captured, but none killed.

What was done was done, now the IRA braced for the reprisal. Memories of Balbriggan, where the deaths of two RIC men had resulted in such destruction, were potent in many minds, and certainly a good number of men expected the worst. Brugha and Mulcahy, sharing a safehouse, kept guns in their hands most of the day, the Gresham’s manager rang Dublin Castle seeking protection and the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor paradoxically ended up getting a protection detail of Auxiliaries. The Castle administration, once the scale of what had occurred became clear, attempted the dual endevour of restraining their own men from reprisals and hunting down those responsible. Cordons were implemented, the city essentially went into lockdown and efforts to find and arrest as many known Volunteers were set in motion. Among those arrested shortly after were Arthur Griffith, who would remain behind bars for the rest of the war, and Eoin Mac Neill.

Part of that effort to track down IRA members and participants in the morning attacks had a combined force of regular military, RIC and Auxiliaries travelling to Croke Park, where a large crowd had gathered for the aforementioned football match. Sean Russell attempted, in vain, to get the match called off and the crowd evacuated, rightly fearful of trouble. The Crown Forces, under a Major Mills, planned to set guards at each of the stadium’s four entrances and search every man as they were ordered out. They believed, not without logic, that the crowd was the perfect opportunity for gunmen to blend in.

What exactly happened next is foggy. It was variously claimed by the British that they were fired upon by IRA members, or that they themselves fired warning shots at IRA “pickets” that fled into the stadium when the military/police approached. Whatever the exact sequence of events, soon members of the Crown Forces were on the field of play and were firing into the crowd, which had panicked and stampeded. As civilians climbed walls to escape, they too were fired upon by men outside the ground. An armoured car is recorded as having fired its machine gun over the heads of the crowd in an effort to restore order, but is not believed to have fired into the crowd itself, or to have driven on to the field.

The firing ceased after a few minutes. By that time seven people had been shot dead, and five more wounded fatally. Two more were trampled in the stampede. Two of the dead were children, and one, Michael Hogan, was a Tipperary footballer playing that day. Several others were wounded. None were members of the IRA. In a subsequent search of the grounds and surrounding houses, a single revolver was found, thrown into a garden by a fleeing spectator. The Crown Forces suffered no casualties.

Still, the bloodletting of the day was not complete. McKee, Clancy and Clune were held with a number of other prisoners at Dublin Castle, while Collins desperately tried to cobble together a plan to rescue them, but there was no time. Transferred to Beggar’s Bush, the three were not seen alive again by any not in British uniform. The official story was that they attempted to overpower their guards and were shot dead in the process. It was claimed by several people who had cause to either transport or be near their bodies when they were released that the three showed signs of being severely beaten and bayoneted, but this is disputed by other witnesses. Certainly, the three had been shot an inordinate amount of times if the official story was to be believed, and while it is not unlikely that McKee and Clancy would have considered an escape attempt, it stretches credibility that, in the pursuit of stopping such an attempt, the Crown Forces really needed to shoot Clune 13 times, as an autopsy later attested.

As early as Monday morning, newspapers began to refer to the 21st as “Ireland’s Bloody Sunday”. 30 people had been killed. In the immediate aftermath, there was disappointment in GHQ over the number of attacks that had either not found their targets or not gone ahead at all. Collins was especially unhappy with the 4th battalion, and soon had its leadership replaced. Some Volunteers were so unhappy with the nature of the operation that they never resumed their roles, and at least some later expressed satisfaction that their intended target was not at home that morning. It was a brutal form of war, but that is what the conflict was in Dublin.

Eventually eight people would be tried for their involvement in the Bloody Sunday attacks. Two, Paddy Moran who was at the Gresham Hotel shooting and another Volunteer named Thomas Whelan, were convicted and hung. In Whelan’s case the evidence was not convincing that he was involved, but he went to the gallows anyway. Another, the captured Frank Keeling, was sentenced to death but was able to escape his prison thanks to some smuggled-in bolt cutters. Others received prison sentences, or were acquitted due to lack of evidence.

In offering an examination of the success, failures and “winners” of Bloody Sunday, one must take the three separate events in turn. The morning attacks did not result in the deaths of all of the targets that Collins wanted, and did not cripple or extinguish the British Intelligence system in Ireland as some subsequently claimed. But the number killed and the coordinated manner in which they had died must be considered a success for the IRA in my opinion. The creeping idea that the British had gained an unbeatable advantage in the Dublin war was destroyed in a stroke, making the attacks an undoubted psychological success; the entire surviving apparatus of British intelligence in Dublin had to be rapidly re-organised and re-housed; British agents were now forced to take additional precautions that hobbled their ability to do their jobs; and the aura of invincibility around the Squad was larger than ever, and essentially made for all time. This is before you also consider the practical effects of the British losing at least six agents and several other assets in the fight against militant Irish nationalism.

For the British, the deaths that morning were equal parts tragic, enraging and humiliating. Their much vaunted efforts to grab “murder by the throat” had been exposed as a façade with the killings of so many men, their covers and locations ferreted out by the powers of “criminality”. Their mistakes in covering up their tracks and knowing who to trust had been highlighted in the most brutal manner possible. Their state funerals were massive, solemn affairs. It was a shockwave to a political leadership that had believed the war was going in their favour at last, and then saw the enemy undertake such a complex and far-reaching operation under the very noses of its highest concentration of intelligence assets. Lloyd George was left stunned, and perhaps for the first time felt pushed to place primacy on a more concerted effort to find a political solution. He and Greenwood privately expressed a sentiment that the carelessness of the dead men made them deserving of their fate, and back-channel communications between London and the Dail now began to take on a more concrete form.

And what sympathy and outrage there was to be had over the deaths of those men was drowned out by what had happened at Croke Park, where twelve innocent civilians were the victims of an out-of-control detachment of the Crown Forces, engaging in what must be considered as a reprisal by any other name. Crozier would later resign when his efforts to discipline the Auxiliaries were stymied, and the “official” story of the British being fired upon before they entered the ground was widely disbelieved when it wasn’t simply ridiculed. Findings of courts of inquiry into the events were suppressed when they proved critical of the Crown Forces, with General Boyd of the Dublin Military District deeming the killings “indiscriminate and unjustifiable”. In the long history of British atrocities in Ireland it might not have been the bloodiest, but it is certainly one of the most memorable.

Members of the IRA, Sinn Fein and the Dail undoubtedly felt the deaths keenly, to the extent that they may have felt the earlier operation too expensive in terms of what came after, but it must be recognised that the Croke Park killings were also a boon to the republican cause in the long run. National and international condemnation was swift and severe, and political outrage from opposition benches was loud. The Crown Forces had gone from exposed in the morning, to uncontrollable in the afternoon.

The deaths of McKee and Clancy was considered by some to be the worst loss suffered by the IRA in the war up to that point, as it necessitated new leadership in the Dublin Brigade. Oscar Traynor, a veteran of the Sackville Street fighting in 1916, now took command, and this was to the unhappiness of Collins, who was never able to establish the same relationship with Traynor as he had had with McKee. In line with Griffith’s arrest, Collins’ influence on the overall movement and the Dail began to be eroded, especially in the face of Brugha’s antipathy and the imminent return of Eamon de Valera. McKee’s influence on provisional units, especially in Cork, would also be keenly missed when the Civil War loomed.

However, their deaths did also contribute to the larger context of the war turning against Britain. Few were willing to completely believe the idea that the men had been killed while trying to escape and the popular perception remained that they had been tortured then summarily executed. Such perceptions would fuel republican propaganda, and again leave the British battered on that score.

For all these reasons, I feel it is impossible not to label the events of Bloody Sunday as anything other than a massive success for Collins, the IRA and the larger republican movement. And, astonishingly, it was only the first of twin blows that fell on the British in the latter part of that month. One week to the day after Bloody Sunday, the largest ambush of the war in terms of men killed would take place in West Cork. Tom Barry was about to cement his place in Irish history.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Bloody Sunday (1920)

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