On the morning of November 21, 1920 at precisely 9 a.m. agents of Michael Collins’ Squad “The Twelve Apostles” spread throughout Dublin City and went to work. When they were finished twelve British Secret Service agents and two Auxiliary Policemen were dead and the legend of “Bloody Sunday” was written in the annals of Irish history.
The events of 95 years ago today on Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, are generally regarded as having marked a decisive turning-point in the military struggle between the British forces and the IRA, the military wing of the underground Dáil government. Three separate but connected events occurred on Bloody Sunday. First came the killings by Michael Collins’s ‘squad’ of twelve British Intelligence agents in their Dublin suburban homes that morning; two auxiliary policemen were also killed. In the afternoon came the killing by British forces of fourteen civilians—including a Gaelic footballer, Michael Hogan, who was playing for Tipperary that day—at Croke Park. Finally, in the evening came the arrest and killing (in somewhat murky circumstances) of two high-ranking Dublin IRA officers, Brigadier Dick McKee and Vice-Brigadier Peadar Clancy. In all, 30 people died within fifteen hours on that fateful day in Dublin.
Since 1919, Irish Finance Minister, head of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood and IRA Chief of Intelligence Michael Collins had operated a clandestine “Squad” of IRA members in Dublin (a.k.a. “The Twelve Apostles”), who were tasked with assassinating RIC and British Intelligence officers. By late 1920, British Intelligence in Dublin had established an extensive network of spies and informers around the city. This included eighteen high-ranking British Intelligence officers known as the ‘Cairo Gang’; a nickname which came from their patronage of the Cairo Cafe on Grafton Street and from their service in British military intelligence in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War. Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, described it as, “a very dangerous and cleverly placed spy organisation”.
In November 1920, Collins ordered the assassination of British agents around the city, judging that if they did not do this, the IRA’s organisation in the capital would be in grave danger. The IRA also believed that a co-ordinated policy of assassination of leading republicans was being implemented by British forces. Dick McKee was put in charge of planning the operation. The addresses of the British agents were discovered from a variety of sources, including sympathetic housemaids, careless talk from some of the British, and an IRA informant in the RIC (Sergeant Mannix) based in Donnybrook barracks. On 20 November, the assassination teams, which included the Squad and members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade, were briefed on their targets, who included 20 agents at eight different locations in Dublin. Collins’s plan had been to kill over 50 British intelligence officers and informers, but the list was reduced to 35 on the insistence of Cathal Brugha, the Irish Minister for Defence, on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence against some of those named.
Early on the morning of 21 November, the IRA teams mounted the operation. Most of the killings occurred within a small middle-class area of south inner-city Dublin, with the exception of one shooting at the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street. At 28 Upper Pembroke Street, four agents were killed. At 22 Lower Mount Street, one British officer was killed and another narrowly escaped. The building was surrounded by Auxiliaries, alerted by the firing, and in the ensuing gun fight two Auxiliaries were killed and one IRA volunteer, Frank Teeling, was wounded and captured. Future Irish Taoiseach Seán Lemass was involved in the killing of a Captain G. T. Baggally, also on Mount Street, while in two further incidents on the same street three more British agents were killed. Only a few streets away, further shootings took place on Baggot Street, Fitzwilliam Square, Morehampton Road and Earlsfort Terrace.
Collins justified the killings in this way:
“My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.”
The fourteen executions panicked the British. Intelligence agents and their families jammed the entrance to Dublin Castle to escape what they thought were more imminent executions. The Black and Tans opened fire at a football match in Croke Park where another fourteen were killed, including a footballer, Michael Hogan. Back at Dublin Castle, McKee and Peadar Clancy, brigadier and vice-brigadier of the Dublin Brigades, captured the night before with the help of tout Shankers Ryan, were murdered along with a Gaelic Leaguer up from the country by the name of Conor Clune.
It was at this time the world saw Michael Collins as his most fearless. The next morning, with everyone in Dublin looking for him, he kept a promise and attended a wedding reception. He then personally dressed the bodies of McKee and Clancy in the Mortuary Chapel of the Pro Cathedral, before attending the funeral mass. At the mass he pinned a personal note on McKee’s coffin: “In memory of two good friends—Dick and Peadar—and two of Ireland’s best soldiers.” It was signed Mícheál Ó Coileáin.
A combination of the loss of the Cairo Gang, which devastated British Intelligence in Ireland, and the public relations disaster that was Bloody Sunday severely damaged the cause of British rule in Ireland and increased support for the republican government under Éamon de Valera. The events of Bloody Sunday have survived in public memory. The Gaelic Athletic Association named one of the stands in Croke Park the ‘Hogan Stand’ in memory of Michael Hogan, the football player killed in the incident.
For all intent purposes, the war was over. Michael Collins knew it and so did Prime Minister David Lloyd George, but atrocities would go on for another seven months until King George V brokered a truce in July 1921. Just twelve months and 16 days after Bloody Sunday, on December 6, 1921, Collins signed the Treaty which, after 700 years of occupation, returned Ireland to nationhood.
Without this terrible day in Irish history there is a great possibility that the Union Jack might still be flying over the GPO in O’Connell Street. Young Irelander Thomas Davis only dreamed of “A Nation Once Again,” but Michael Collins, a revolutionary genius not afraid to use the ruthless brutality that the British had applied to Ireland over seven centuries, made it happen.
For more on General Michael Collins and his role in the struggle for Irish Independence see: