ACCOUNTS of BLOODY SUNDAY - from 'The Plot' (November 2020)

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.”
As the November half-light turned into a clear blue sky, the bells of the local church began to ring, scatterings of birds dispersed from rooftops and the sound of gunshots echoed through Mount street. As the men burst out of the house, fire was opened on them from the other side. They retreated down an alley and onto to Mount Street Lower. Here Byrne crossed paths with Thomas Keogh – another young volunteer - running at pace, dropping from his hand a revolver onto the cobblestone path. Keogh, along with accomplice Jim Slattery and six others from the 2nd battalion E company had been assigned to 22 Lower Mount Street at 9am to “eliminate a number of British Intelligence Agents and spies” who were residing there. The Company were admitted to the house by a maid and proceeded to separate rooms on separate floors - the numbers of which they had already been ascertained. While upstairs, Slattery heard the sound of gun fire at the front door. A housekeeper had spotted a patrol of British Auxiliaries passing outside and had started to scream for attention. They immediately surrounded the house and tried to gain admission. One of the volunteers, Billy McClean, fired at them through the door and got wounded in the hand. McClean however had bought a little time for the men upstairs to find and assassinate their prime targets and to make their escape. The company would make their way to the Quays, where a boat was arranged to take members of the squad across to North Wall. Later Keogh would stand in the famous Hill 16 as British Forces opened fire into the crowd at an All-Ireland final in Croke Park. McClean would make his way to a safe house in Denzille Place to be treated for his injuries.

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 Slattery and company were making their approaches to the target location on Mount Street Lower, Bill Stapleton was waiting under Baggot Street Bridge, after being instructed to report fully armed for an operation that Sunday Morning. There he would meet Joe Leonard and other members of his Company at the appointed location to “liquidate members of the British Intelligence Service” living at No. 92. Nine O’Clock was zero hour. After mobilising the men into positions around Baggot street and Herbert Street, Stapleton entered the house and requested to see Captain William F. Newberry: “He was in his pyjamas, and as he was attempting to escape by the window and was shot a number of times. One of our party on guard outside fired at him from outside.” Newbury was shot seven times and his body left hanging from the window. The operation lasted about fifteen minutes.  Upon their retreat, Stapleton and Leonard intercepted a British dispatch rider, took his motorcycle and made their way to the Quays. Stapleton would later head to Croke Park and was present when it was raided by the British: “I was beside a man who was shot and I was splashed with his blood. We were on the top step of a new stand which was in course of construction on the North side of Croke Park, and I escaped by jumping over the wall into the back yard of one of the houses in Jones's Road. We were very much upset over the Croke Park incident. Some of us went down to Jervis St. hospital and saw the dead bodies, but as far as I was concerned no action took place that night.”
At 119 Lower Baggot Street, Captain Geoffrey Baggally - a member of military courts that sentenced IRA volunteers to death and also believed to be one of Kevin Barry's torturers, was high on the list for assassination. The IRA unit which carried out the operation included a future Taoiseach - Sean Lemass, as well Patrick McCrea, who was a veteran of IRA activities since 1913. At 9am the men entered the house, leaving one man on guard on each side of the building. They already had particulars of the agent's bedroom. Baggally opened the door to and armed unit and tried to escape through the window. Before he could reach it, he was shot on the top of the head, through the left eye and twice in the chest. According to McCrea: “The job was completed in the space of a few minutes. We got away without incident.” A car picked up a few men coming off the Mount St. job and arrived back at an assigned headquarters at North Richmond St – in the shadow of the canal end at Croke Park. McCrea would arrive home to Dolymount at 11am that morning after reporting to Richmond Street HQ.  His absence was noticeable to his family - he had missed breakfast and not been to Mass: “Up to this point my wife did not think I was deeply involved. When I said I had been out fishing she asked me where was the fish. This remark caused me to stumble and I could not think of a satisfactory answer. In order not to give myself away, after breakfast I took the tram into town and went to the short 12 o’clock Mass in Marlboro’ St. when I left the church I met several of the fellows who had been out that morning with us and, at this time, there was terrific activity on the part of the military and Tans all over the city.”

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.
From Ongoing Photographic and Research Project ‘The Plot’ by Martin Cregg