Walking towards St Andrews church at dawn on a cold November day, one can feel a small sense of physical and psychological alignment with young men who traversed the same Westland Row streets just over one hundred years ago. This is where Vinny Byrne assembled his small group of volunteers on the morning of Bloody Sunday. Byrne was 19, an apprentice cabinet maker turned member of the Irish Republican Army. Regardless of his age, he was a hardened veteran of the ongoing war of independence. He went to school at St Andrews, just around the corner, and was just two days away from his 20th birthday when he was placed in charge of a special brigade of men involved in an operation designed to bring down the heart of British Intelligence networks in Ireland.
Collectively referred to as ‘The Squad’, Byrne and his comrades had been undergoing intelligence operations of their own under the direction of Michael Collins. They had been secretly observing the activities of British officers and plainclothes agents on the streets of Dublin - evaluating patterns and movements, identifying players and establishing each address where their enemies resided. On this particular morning, a plot to eliminate a tangible threat to Irish republican ambitions was put into play. A list had been circulated amongst an inner group of the Republican movement and a series of synchronised assassinations were planned in key locations of South Central Dublin.
Every man paraded at the appointed hour. It was 8am. Collectively, the brigade was mobilised to make the slow walk to Mount Street - just a short distance away - to carry out the execution of known British agents, who were known to be living across from the corner of Merrion Square. The young volunteers made their way along the dimly lit paths of Denzille Lane, past the National Maternity Hospital – where Byrne and many members of the Squad were born - and took up their designated positions on the corners and doorways of Upper Mount Street.
It was here at No 38 that two prime targets had been identified – key intelligence agents George Bennett of the Royal Army Service Corps and Peter Ashmun Ames, an American working undercover for MI5. Both were considered leaders of British intel operations in Dublin. A servant girl opened the door and quietly pointed in the direction of two occupied rooms up the stairs and along the hallway. According to Byrne, both agents were found in their respective beds, asked to get up at gunpoint, march to the back room and face the wall: “I said to myself – May The Lord have mercy on your souls! I then opened fire... They both fell dead.”
One of the targets at the operation in Mount Street Lower was one Henry James Angliss – known in Dublin by his alias - Lieutenant Patrick McMahon – a plainclothes undercover agent, who was a decorated veteran of the first world war, serving in Russia before being dispatched to Ireland to become a specialist in intelligence in the war against the Irish Republican movement. McMahon was high on Collins’ list after he had divulged, under the influence of drink to a female lodger, that he had killed an Irish legal clerk named John Lynch in the Exchange Hotel in September 1920. The girl had passed this information onto on IRA intelligence agent, making McMahon a prime target for execution.
As Slattery recalls: “We succeeded in shooting Lieutenant McMahon, but could not gain admission into the room where the other agent was sleeping. There was a second man in McMahon's bed, but we did not shoot him as we had no instructions to do so. We discovered afterwards that he was an undesirable character as far as we were concerned, and that we should have shot him.” The second man in McMahons bed was allowed to live. In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the man – referred to as “Mr C” in military documents - went absent without leave, refusing to attend inquests relating to the events of Bloody Sunday. He was found and arrested in southern England, forced to come back under escort to testify and subsequently admonished by the British Military for a history of misconduct.
While news of assassinations and ambushes spread across the streets of Dublin, in Pembroke Street the lodgers of No. 28 were still coming to terms with the events of that morning. It was here that seven British regimental officers in total resided. Inside the house, now an interconnected row of offices, a deep blue carpet leads to the first floor where Mrs Caroline Woodcock awoke to the sound of church bells ringing around Dublin, summoning people to mass. Her husband Col. Wilfred James Woodcock – a commander of four battalions in the Great War, hurried over his dressing as he was himself to take a Church parade at the Commander-in-Chiefs lodgings. As she stood at the window, struggling with the cuffs of her blouse, she spotted a man climbing over the garden wall. It was shortly after 9am. A group of about ten republican volunteers, of the 3rd battalion, had entered the house and ascended the staircase in search of their targets. Only two members on ‘the list’ were killed on the day – Captain Leonard Price and Major Charles Dowling. Col. Woodcock was injured, as were three of his colleagues, one of which died subsequently in early December. Mrs Woodcock later reflected “Had it not been for those silly little buttons I should have gone down to breakfast with my husband, and should have had the agony of seeing him and others killed or wounded before my eyes, and should probably have been shot myself.”
One member of the IRA unit which entered the house at Pembroke Street was Charles Dalton, who was 17 years old and had become a key intelligence officer for the IRA under Collins. A youthful man, obviously with a sense of patriotic energy and commitment to the cause, Dalton had done most of the groundwork to find information on the condemned men at this particular location. He had courted the maid, got an IRA man employed as a porter and established the rooms where the targets were sleeping. He was involved in the execution of Price and Dowling, both of whom were unarmed and in their pyjamas: “They were lined up. They were held up on the staircase. I saw one hit the floor and fall down the stairs.”
In 1929 Dalton would author a book detailing his activities with the Dublin Brigade and offering an intense personal account of his experience on the day of Bloody Sunday. Years later, in the 1950s, Dalton would contribute to the Irish Bureau of Military history – who conducted interviews with many of the volunteers involved in the events of Bloody Sunday. Through carefully reading these witness testimonies, it is possible to establish not only known locations connected to the war of independence, but also to identify surrounding narratives to many of the main events of the time – surveillance operations that were put into play, methods used to gather intelligence, key players involved, specific locations that were battlegrounds for the intelligence war between the IRA and British Agents – all of whom were navigating and working the same streets at the time of these events. Witness statements help to construct a very broad and detailed sense of this historical moment and how it unfolded. They offer a more authentic and personal portrayal of the events from various vantage points, perspectives and, as discovered, sensibilities of these young men. To trace the specifics of Bloody Sunday, through the narratives of first-hand accounts and memories, is a process of revisiting and revising the hidden histories of the familiar streets of Dublin City and surrounds. That morning several successful attempts by the IRA to execute members of British Intelligence were complimented by several failed attempts and abandoned operations.
For this ongoing photography and research project, witness accounts have allowed me to map-out the key locations and the surrounding settings of each individual assassination, assassination attempt and failed operation. It is possible to establish the possible entry routes and escape routes of the volunteers, locations where surveillance happened and pieces of information passed hands, locations where meetings took place and back alleys which acted as IRA ‘Dumps’ or safe houses where weapons were kept and where instructions were passed. Each setting played its part in the history of the day, where plans were made and where the plot unravelled.