Ireland’s Wars: Early 1921 In Dublin

The events of Bloody Sunday might be the most famous of the War of Independence in Dublin, but they were neither a decisive nor final blow. The British intelligence communities and the larger Crown Forces had been badly shaken by the losses they had incurred that day, and by the propaganda nightmare that took place in Croke Park. But they were far from defeated and, in the aftermath, the war in Dublin would see yet more escalation, more attacks and more dead on both sides.

In the final weeks of 1920, Michael Collins enjoyed what might be described as the apogee of his power and influence, essentially heading the government in the absence of Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith, running the military (as much as GHQ ran the military) with Richard Mulcahy, and maintaining control of the IRA’s intelligence apparatus in the capital. But it was not to last. De Valera’s return from the United States produced almost immediate divisions, as his view of what the war should look like dove-tailed sharply with what Collins saw as the reality. It was around the time of that return that the growing enmity between Collins and Cathal Brugha, his nominal superior as the Minister of Defence, really began to take off, souring political relations as Brugha tried to lessen Collins influence and control.

And on the military side of things, aside from de Valera’s still present desire to “regularise” the way it was being fought, Collins found his ability to operate in Dublin hampered by the new O/C of the brigade there, Oscar Traynor, with whom he was unable to establish a productive working relationship. Traynor, a hard-line republican, veteran of the Easter Rising and Welsh internment camps who had risen to vice commandant of the Dublin Brigade before the death of Dick McKee, simply wasn’t as charmed by Collins as so many others, and his lack of co-operation with GHQ and Collins’ own forces caused problems in the final six months of the conflict.

Traynor had a big task on his hand. After Bloody Sunday many officers were under arrest (4’000 Volunteers would be interned before the end of the war, and a quarter of those were from Dublin) or in hiding, if not dead, and the Brigade was suffering a cash flow crisis. Traynor wanted the Brigade to become more active, and not be as reliant on the Squad in terms of engagement with the enemy, but the usual problems remained with such a course: the unavailability of suitable Volunteers, the difficulty of setting up an ambush in an urban environment, and escape from the same, the fact that Crown Forces reinforcements were sometimes literally around the corner and the sheer amount of Crown Forces in the city. Still, Traynor pressed, and on the 14th December the first attack in a new offensive was launched, with a raid on  a party of Auxiliaries collecting mail from Ballsbridge post office. No-one was killed in what amounted to a very brief firefight, though a car was stolen by the IRA. It was a start though.

Wanting to do more of the same, Traynor now established his own full-time active service unit, with sections in each of the battalion areas, with the express aim of building up to daily attacks on Crown Forces in the capital. Its first operation was a limited engagement with a lorry-load of Auxiliaries on Bachelors Walk on the 21st January, where bombs were thrown and small-arms fire exchanged, but only to the effect of one slightly wounded on each side. From there, things escalated bit-by-bit. Even by the standards of the War of Independence, most of the actions of the Dublin ASU’s were very small-in-scale, done with handguns and home-made grenades.

Men would take shots at police patrols and military vehicles and then meld into crowds or side-streets to avoid detection. The areas around military barracks were frequent sites of such operations, to the extent that Aungier and Camden Street, near the Portobello barracks, got the nickname “Dardanelles“. It was way things had to be: there was no possibility of cutting roads or fleeing into inaccessible hills in the streets of Dublin. While this ASU would never reach the point of relentless attacks on the police and military as Traynor wanted, it was a more pro-active part of the fight in Dublin going forward. Its attacks can be viewed as pin-pricks in terms of their tangible gains and in the casualties inflicted, but the growing regularity of them did surely affect the morale of Crown Forces.

As is often the case in guerrilla warfare, there was escalation on both sides. The IRA would throw grenades into passing lorries; the Crown Forces put up netting to deflect them. The IRA started adding hooks to their explosives so they would catch in the netting; the lorry patrols began carrying Volunteer prisoners in their vehicles, and advertised the fact. The IRA made great propaganda use of Crown Forces using human shields; the Crown Forces introduced more armoured cars. On and on it went, and would keep going until the end of the war.

There are a number of actions carried out by the Dublin ASU in the early months of 1921 that deserve some consideration. On the 21st January, a group of eight Volunteers attempted to set-up an ambush of an RIC vehicle expected to travel down Dorset Street Lower and over the Royal Canal. When the vehicle in question got through the position – it is claimed it arrived earlier than expected – the IRA commander, a Lt Frank Flood, decided to move north to Drumcondra bridge to try another ambush. This was foolhardy, as the IRA had opened fire on the first target, and so their position was known. The Auxiliaries were informed, and a substantial force closed in on the IRA unit, who were forced to defend themselves from behind the walls of a nearby primary school. Under too much pressure, they attempted to flee. One was killed and five captured, including Flood. Four of them would be subsequently hanged, with one given a reprieve for his young age (it seemed the British had quietly learned a lesson from the Kevin Barry affair). The operation showcases clearly the difficulty that the IRA in Dublin had with setting up ambushes and escaping when they went wrong.

A week later it was the turn of the 4th battalion’s ASU, on the south side of the city. Nearly 30 of them set-up a gauntlet of positions running down Terenure Road North and Harold’s Cross, an area frequented by enemy patrols. Though the IRA were a bit scattered and short ammunition, they did eventually enact an ambush of a military lorry that had been parked up at a nearby police station. The attack was carried out by Volunteers ensconced in buildings with small-arms, and by men carrying just grenades on the street. The lorry was attacked from three different positions as it drove down the road, and the men inside fired back with gusto. It was reported afterwards that several of the military were wounded, but none killed. The IRA took no casualties. It was a quick affair, and an excellent example of how the manic seconds of an ambush in an urban setting could easily result in no fatalities to either side.

On the 5th February the IRA demonstrated their capacity to learn in an ambush outside Rathmines Church. The man in charge set-up his men in decent positions, with a good split of those with arms and those with grenades, to attack from multiple angles. Bicycle scouts were also utilised to good effect. When the target – a lorry of British regulars – came by, it was first stunned by several grenades, then fired upon from different directions. Again, there were no fatalities in the short, sharp engagement, just some wounded on either side, but it was a more professionally carried out operation than the one on Terenure road.

One of the most notable of the attacks of this period in Dublin occurred on the night of the 14th March. The Brutish received reports that a company of the IRA was providing security for a meeting of high-ranking republicans in a Catholic Club on Great Brunswick Street. Whether that was true or not is up in the air, as the IRA Captain insisted he and his force were just patrolling the area, looking for targets. He, a Captain Peadar O’Mara, claims they found one in some DMP officials, but they came off the worst in a brief exchange of fire, with one Volunteer wounded. It didn’t really matter, as the IRA aim was to get more targets into the area, and in this they certainly succeeded. Two tenders of Auxies with an armoured car, arrived soon after, and walked right into an ambush. Despite the initial advantage for the IRA, the machine gun of the armoured car was able to give the Crown Forces significant support, and the fight turned into a bit of a running retreat for the IRA through the club, with grenades used to slow the vehicles. In that fight, five of the Auxiliaries were wounded, two fatally, while three of the IRA were killed, one wounded and two captured. In a grim replication of the Mrs Lindsay affair, an RIC DI was held for the ransom of their release, and killed when one of the captured IRA was hung. The other was reprieved by the truce. It was a messy engagement where the IRA took casualties they could ill afford, and demonstrated the often fatal complexities of urban warfare.

The intelligence side of things also ramped up. British Army and police search operations kept men from the Squad and associated support units on their toes, with many holed up in appalling safe houses for large periods of time, and others getting away with very lucky escapes. But they were still active. We have talked about the killing of DI Philip O’Sullivan towards the end of 1920, and there followed the assassination of William Doran in late January. A porter in the Wicklow Hotel which Collins attended frequently, he was fingered as an informer and shot dead on the doorstep of his workplace.

Only a few days later the Squad added a former RIC man, John Ryan, to their list of successful hits. Ryan was accused of being the man responsible for giving away the position of McKee and Peader Clancy on the night they were arrested, and was shot dead in a pub in broad daylight by a large party of Squad members. Later that month members of the Squad burst into the Ormonde Hotel restaurant and shot dead three RIC officers based in Dublin Castle: the men were the unfortunate victims of the administrations lack of largess, as they had been told there was no space for them to use the Castle mess, so had gotten into a routine of eating at the Ormonde. In a guerrilla war of this type, routine was frequently a self-imposed death sentence, In March Captain Cecil Lees, an intelligence officer, had the misfortune of being identified by patrons of a cinema he attended with his fiancee. Said patrons were Squad members, who tailed Lees, found out where he lived, and shot him dead the following morning.

Even while the British increased the number of personnel in Ireland and in Dublin, they floundered with a lack of direction from the political leadership, where high-ranking figures disagreed sharply on how well the war was going, and a hopelessly divided intelligence apparatus that was crying out for a singular figure to be placed in overall charge. The head of the civilian government, Hamar Greenwood, insisted that there was no need to rush towards a settlement owing to the scales tipping in Britain’s favour, but also barely ever left his official residence owing to security precautions. The military and civilian branches of the administration still operated separate intelligence agencies, and efforts to coordinate their operations, or to merge separate entities together, were not successful. Ormonde Winter was still nominal Director of Intelligence for all Crown Forces, but was making enemies in the halls of power fast, not helped by farcical instances where his men raided nunneries and monasteries accused of sheltering Collins.  Efforts to foster contacts among the civilian population largely proved fruitless, as too many were either openly hostile to the British, or convinced they would pay for such acts with their lives.

This explains Winter’s over-reliance on raiding as a means of sourcing intelligence, with over 6’000 of them carried out in Dublin by the war’s end. Sometimes they found valuable information from careless Volunteers, often they found nothing. One thing they did do regardless was generate an immense heap of bureaucratic paperwork, and it is likely that the signal was often lost in the noise as a result. At times they could be dicey affairs for both sides: Emmet Dalton, a former British officer turned Volunteer, bluffed his way past one along with Traynor and others by pretending he was a British spy on a secret mission. Those captured were often the subject of brutal interrogations. But it was all largely for naught. Numerous IRA and Dail offices, workshops and HQ’s were discovered and captured in 1921, many high-rankings officials and officers were arrested, released and re-arrested, but the Republic always found a way to keep going. Winter’s office proved a stressful and tightly-wound place, and several of his staff are recorded as taking their own lives during the war.

A more outwardly successful act of Winter’s was the creation of a counter-intelligence unit meant to match the Squad stroke for stroke. Led by RIC member Eugene Igoe, this “Intelligence Squad”, better known to history as the “Igoe Gang” were plain-clothes police tasked with scouring Dublin for the IRA leadership, and dealing with them in a manner similar to that of the Squad. They quickly gained a fearsome reputation, playing fast-and-loose with the rules of law and allegedly carrying out extra-judicial murders. Try as they might, Collins and GHQ were unable to get a fix on the Igoe Gang as they had with their Cairo equivalents, and there were a number of close shaves for both sides. In one memorable incident in 1921, Igoe nearly sprung a trap for the Squad by secretly holding members of it hostage in broad daylight on Grafton Street after they had been caught tailing him: other members of the Squad nearby, like Vinny Byrne, realised what had happened and quietly left the scene (of the two held up, one escaped and the other was shot, but non-fatally, and survived the war in captivity). On other occasions the Squad got word of intended travel routes of the Gang down the quays, but when they waited in ambush they could only watch ineffectually as their enemies drove down the opposite side of the river.

The Squad was staring to suffer at the time, with a clear dispute over who exactly was leading it. Many of its rank-and-file disliked its nominal commander Paddy Daly, and acted as if the unit was more of an informal grouping than a fully hierarchical one. Some of its members, dealing with the pressures of what they were doing anyway they could, were turning to alcohol more than was acceptable, and ill-discipline became a serious problem in 1921. Collins also found himself squeezed of useful sources of information from within the British establishment. Some, like Joe Kavanagh, died of natural causes, others, like Ned Broy, were found out and arrested, though they avoided paying the ultimate price before the end of the war.

Though neither side was seemingly close to a decisive breakthrough, things were coming to a head in Dublin. The next time we return to the capital it will be for one of the most spectacular, and ill-conceived, operations of the war, when de Valera would finally get his way in terms of the debate over guerrilla warfare. But before then, we move to back to Cork. There, in the later stages of March, one of the biggest engagements of the war in terms of land area and forces engaged would take place, and Tom Barry would be right at the heart of it.

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

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Early 1921 In Dublin

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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