Ireland’s Wars: The Rathgar Road Shootout

The IRA was not in a good position going into the Autumn of 1940. The S-Plan had stuttered to an uninspiring conclusion. The Christmas Raid had left the organisation with more problems than benefits. Its leading light had died onboard a U-Boat, and the potential connections between it and Nazi Germany had been less than fruitful. It was led by ineffective men, and being opposed by an Irish government whose emergency powers gave it a great deal of leeway in terms of raids, arrests and prosecution possibilities. In August of 1940, a fatal incident would occur that would shine a glaring spotlight on all these problems: elements of the aftermath would uncover the possibility of sabotage from the highest levels.

The period leading up the central event of today’s entry had been marked by several other incidents that demonstrated the tension of the situation, in terms of the state’s efforts to bring the IRA to heel. In late 1939 a large number of IRA Volunteers interned in Arbour Hill prison, among them some of the men to be discussed below, went on a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment. The support of opposition parties in the Dail, the solicitation of former comrades like Liam Tobin and the reality that many of those engaged in the strike were veterans of the Irish revolutionary period all combined to convince de Valera’s government to release many of the men without condition before the end of the year. The move might have been taken with the view that the IRA was of little real threat to the state, and that their cause would only be aided by the creation of republican martyrs of the style of Terence McSwiney. But it was certainly held up as a victory for the republican movement. Only a little while later, in January of 1940, Tomás Óg Mac Curtain, the son of the Tomas Mac Curtain who had been assassinated during the War of Independence, shot and killed a member of a Garda unit that had been attempting to arrest him for IRA membership (he was, in fact, a member of the IRA Executive). Initially sentenced to death for the act, a groundswell of public support for Mac Curtain, not to mention his republican credentials, convinced the government to commute the sentence, and in the end Mac Curtain would only serve seven years in prison. The two incidents give an indication of the tightrope that the state felt it had to walk when it came to the IRA, which was undoubtedly viewed as a hostile force, but which many in government had complicated feelings on from a previous era.

On the night of the 16th August 1940, a meeting of IRA Volunteers took place in a home on the Rathgar Road, on the south side of Dublin City. Present were three men: Thomas Hunt, a 21-year-old IRA member of little notoriety; Thomas Harte, a veteran of the recent campaign in Britain who had been deported back to Ireland, and was then working as an organiser for IRA HQ; and most importantly Paddy McGrath, the IRA Director of Training, and a veteran of every part of the Irish revolutionary period. McGrath had strayed away from the IRA after the end of the Civil War, even applying for and accepting a state pension, but Sean Russell had convinced him to return over the previous few years. Arrested for his membership of the IRA in late 1939, McGrath had been one of the leaders of the Arbour Hill hunger strike, and had easily slipped back into his senior IRA role after being released. Just what the purpose of the meeting was is unclear, but given what occurred that night is not especially important.

However they found out about the meeting – to be discussed below – a group of five Garda initiated a raid of the house that evening. According to the evidence given at the subsequent trial, three men went to the front, and two to the rear. After the door was answered, two of the detectives – Richard Hyland and Patrick McKeown, both Civil War veterans, albeit for different sides – forced their way inside, after a delay in subduing the man who had opened the door. As they advanced into the hallway, occupants of the house opened fire. Hyland, the lead man, was hit seven times though he was able to get a shot off himself before falling. McKeown was less badly off in terms of wounds received, but still sustained a shot to the stomach: both men would expire at the scene. The man at the door, Michael Brady, was hit in the spine, but survived.

The occupants, including McGrath, made a break for it out the front door, with McGrath allegedly carrying a Thompson submachine gun. The two Garda who had been at the rear of the house moved to the front at the sound of gunfire, and gave chase to the running Volunteers, who may have turned and given some fire in their direction. The Garda fired too, and appeared to have hit at least one of the Volunteers: when McGrath and Harte were cornered and arrested in a nearby laneway, Harte was noticeably limping. Hunt managed to evade his pursuers, but would be found and arrested within a week.

A more republican-minded account of what happened paints a somewhat different picture. It is claimed that the Garda entered the building firing, and that it was here that Harte was hit: McGrath would allege that he was arrested when he returned to the house in order to try and retrieve Harte, who had been unable to get away. No official inquest was ever held into the deaths of the two Garda, and an internal inquiry was never published. It’s impossible to know the exact sequence of events on Rathgar Road that night, but the salient facts were that two Garda were killed, and two IRA men involved in their deaths arrested. A late arrival to the meeting found a crowd of people outside, and departed as soon as he realised what had happened, though the onlookers allegedly declared that what had occurred was a shoot-out between the Garda and “German spies”.

McGrath and Harte underwent a trial via a military tribunal only four days later. facilitated by the emergency powers legislation. Taking place in Collins Barracks, Harte had to be carried on a stretcher owing to his leg wound. Neither man recognised the authority of the court, and refused any assistance in their defence. Both men were found guilty after a basic delivery of evidence linking bullets that had killed the Garda to a gun allegedly fired by Harte. Both were then sentenced to death by firing squad. According to McGarth he and Harte were denied an opportunity to address the court at the conclusion. McGrath never denied killing he two Garda, but did refute the idea that it was unlawful.

A relief committee did attempt to get the sentences commuted, with some high-profile people involved. Not least of these was Kathleen Clarke, wife of Thomas, then serving as Lord Mayor of Dublin (a member of Fianna Fail at the time, she would quit the party in 1943), and Sean MacBride, the former Chief-of-Staff for the IRA. MacBride, an able barrister, conducted his own campaign to get the death sentences commuted, arguing that given there was no state of war in Ireland then the means by which the men were tired were unlawful. It was a failing effort, with the tribunal deemed legal by the Supreme Court and the executions only delayed two days. The government did meet to consider the idea of reducing the sentence, but the cabinet was steadfast: having backed down in the face of the hunger strike the previous year, it was felt that no such volte face could be acceptable owing to the deaths of Garda. They were also helped in their decision by the unpopularity of the IRA among large portions of the population at the time, and in the censorship powers allotted to them whereby information about the executions was limited in newspapers. The executions went ahead, with McGrath and Harte shot on the morning of the 6th September 1940. Hunt’s trial only went ahead the day after, to the disgust of MacBride who claimed this was done to prevent McGrath or Harte being called as witnesses: similarly found guilty, Hunt’s sentence was in the end commuted to life imprisonment.

The entire affair had a remarkable postscript, which exposed some of the issues with the IRA leadership. Stephen Hayes was the Chief-of-Staff at the time, despite his failings. Nine months later, he was abducted by members of the Northern Irish IRA, and subjected to a secret court-martial. The charge was treason, owing to alleged contact between Hayes and the Dublin authorities, with the Chief-of-Staff accused of leaking copious amounts of information, up to and including the location of the IRA training base at Rathgar Road ahead of the raid that ended up claiming four lives. Hayes signed a confession to that effect, but later claimed he did so only after being days of torture, and as a means of buying himself time ahead of a death sentence: it apparently ran to over 150 pages. Hayes was able to escape his confinement and hand himself into the Garda, and later served five years in prison for his IRA membership: one of the men who tried him, Seán McCaughey, would die on hunger strike in 1946, the last man to do so within the 26 counties. Hayes went to his grave braded a traitor by his former comrades, but always denied that he had ever informed on his compatriots or the IRA in general: his innocence or guilt has never been effectively established since. His tenure as Cheif-of-Staff was a disaster for the IRA on many levels, with the organisation of the Volunteers collapsing all over Ireland. Whether Hayes was guilty or not, the entire affair was a disaster for IRA morale.

The shootout and aftermath offers some interesting viewpoints. On a basic level, the Garda could be criticised for the manner of their raid, which left them vulnerable to a sudden attack, and indicated that the ground level threat of the IRA was not being taken as seriously as it should. The IRA could be criticised for the way in which the organisation was being riddled with holes, and becoming so susceptible to such raids. On a larger level the affair showcased the advantages that the 1940 Irish state had in dealing with things in comparison to the British during the War of Independence: the execution of republicans carried with it the still similar danger of creating martyrs, but with control of the press and the general acquiescence of the population, such things were far less likely to become a negative for Dublin, something that the IRA and other republicans may not have fully realised.

Still, if the state hoped that the executions would dissuade the IRA from attacking Garda, they were to be disappointed. Before the end of the Second World War two more members of the police force would be killed by the IRA, one in a targeted assassination in 1942, and another during another shoot-out during a raid of an IRA safehouse. We will come to those incidents in time. For now, we move on again, and move back to the war proper. The Allies, which now largely consisted of the United Kingdom and those members of the Commonwealth willing to go to war with them, were reeling in the aftermath of France’s fall. There followed a period that has perhaps been grandiosely described as “Britain Alone”: from an existential crisis to a resumption of offensive operations in other parts of the world, it was another time when the Irish named regiments were often at the forefront of the fighting.

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

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Rathgar Road Shootout

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

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA Leadership Crisis in 1942 | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA “Northern Campaign” | Never Felt Better

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