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Donal Fallon: 100 years on from the IRA assassinations of Bloody Sunday morning, mysteries remain

The historian sets the scene of the morning of that fateful day 100 years ago today and the killings that preceded the Croke Park massacre.

Donal Fallon Historian, writer and broadcaster

EVEN AT THE remove of a century, there are more questions than answers about what took place in the Gresham Hotel on 21 November 1920.

At 9 o’clock in the morning, IRA assassination teams were moving into positions across the city, most of them in a small area of the south inner-city.

Reading the addresses today – Lower Baggot Street, Earlsfort Terrace, Upper Mount Street, Morehampton Road – it’s almost claustrophobic to imagine the killing zone that morning. But the Gresham, on the other side of the Liffey, was geographically removed from much of the action.

James Cahill, one of the IRA men dispatched to the hotel, later recounted “three groups, consisting of three men each, were detailed to carry out the shooting. The remainder of our party were given the tasks of controlling members of the hotel staff and residents, covering the exits and preventing communication with the outside during the operation.”

In Cahill’s recollections, they had been sent to the hotel to eliminate “three intelligence officers who were residing in the Gresham.”

Within minutes, two men were dead in the hotel. Cahill remembered entering the room of one of the targets, Captain Patrick Joseph MacCormack. Sitting up in bed, MacCormack fired a shot on the raiding party, “We fired almost in the same instant, killing him outright.”

Bloody-Sunday-Victims Some of the victims of Bloody Sunday Source: Donal Fallon

In the hallway of the hotel, the IRA party encountered another man, who introduced himself as “Alan Wilde, British Intelligence Officer, just back from Spain.” He was shot, dying instantly.

The mystery of MacCormack and Wilde

In subsequent years, the families of MacCormack and Wilde were adamant their loved ones were not secret service agents. MacCormack was a qualified vet and respected athlete who had joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.

His mother, writing to Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy later for answers, was informed that there was no particular charge against him except “that he was an enemy soldier.” 

Wilde proved more baffling still, and while he had a chequered British Army past, just what he was doing in Dublin is still unclear.

Three days before his death he had written to Arthur Henderson of the British Labour Party, telling him that as an eyewitness to what was happening in Ireland, “I must say first it is not British rule and second Ireland will not be coerced. Ireland is essentially a tradition-loving people and her traditions must be respected by those who govern her.”

Perhaps Wilde in his innocence felt he could solve the Irish problem; three days later, he was a fatality of it. The question remains, had he panicked on seeing the men in the corridor that day, presumed them police, and told them what he felt they wanted to hear?

A fateful and bloody morning

There are no such mysteries around most of the dead of the morning we now know as Bloody Sunday, and which the British press labelled Black Sunday. It marked a major escalation in an intelligence war which had been playing out on the streets of the capital for more than a year.

Through targeted assassination, The Squad – a team of IRA assassins which operated directly under the control of Michael Collins and his intelligence network – had neutralised the intelligence division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police throughout 1919.

But the men killed on the morning of Bloody Sunday were mostly of a different breed entirely, top-level intelligence agents who Collins felt had to be removed from the picture.

some_of_the_squad Some of The Squad, including Vincent Byrne (centre) Source: Donal Fallon

Reflecting on that need, Collins would insist that “my final goal was not to be reached merely by beating it [The British Secret Service] out of existence—I wanted to replace it with a better, and an Irish Secret Service. The way to do this was obvious, and it fell naturally into two main parts—making it unhealthy for Irishmen to betray their fellows, and making it deadly for Englishmen to exploit them.”

Collins maintained that the death of an intelligence agent was a hammer blow by comparison to the death of a soldier, as “even when the new spy stepped into the shoes of the old one, he could not step into the old man’s knowledge.”

The Twelve Apostles

The men Collins recruited into The Squad were primarily young volunteers, some still in their teens. Despite this, they were often already veterans of violence, as survivors of the 1916 Rising. There is a detached coldness in how some of them later spoke of their work; Vinnie Byrne telling the historian Tim Pat Coogan:

We were all young, twenty, twenty-one. We never thought we’d win or lose. We just wanted to have a go. We’d go out in pairs, walk up to the target and do it, then split….On a typical job we’d use about eight, including the back-up. Nobody got in our way. One of us would knock him over with the first shot, and the other would finish him off with a shot to the head.

The counter-intelligence war waged by Collins on the streets of Dublin had several facets. Charlie Dalton, just a teenager on the morning of Bloody Sunday, recounted that “we compiled a list of friendly persons in the public services, railways, mailboats and hotels. I was sent constantly to interview stewards, reporters, waiters and hotel porters to verify our reports of the movement of enemy agents.”

Perhaps the most important assist at their disposal was Lily Mernin, a typist in Dublin Castle, who had access to internal paperwork that was crucial in drawing up the Bloody Sunday hit list.

The Squad consisted of just a dozen hand-picked operatives, earning the moniker The Twelve Apostles. An operation like Bloody Sunday required more hands. The IRA’s Seán Russell, a 1916 veteran and later IRA Chief of Staff who sought military assistance from both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, was tasked with finding the additional men.

A Volunteer recounted the tensions the night before the operation, as Russell told them it was “vitally necessary for the success of our fight that they [the spies] be removed; that no country had scruples about shooting enemy spies in wartime; that if any man had moral scruples about going on this operation he was at full liberty to withdraw and no one would think any the worse of him; that he wanted every man to be satisfied in his conscience that he could properly take part in this operation.”

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Some IRA men struggled with what they were being asked to do – Charles Dalton remembered sitting up the night before, and that “I was wrought up, thinking of what we had to do the next morning, and I could the other men were the same.”

But on the day itself, there was a sort of adrenaline that moved through them all. In the words of Frank Thornton, they knew they had been asked that day “to do something which was outside the ordinary scope of the soldier.”

The dead of the morning killings

Accounts of the IRA arriving at addresses that morning survive from both sides of the opening doors. Vinnie Byrne recalled arriving at 38 Upper Mount Street, where two suspected secret service agents were residing:

I ordered the British officer to get out of bed. He asked me what was going to happen and I replied: ‘Ah, nothing.’ I then ordered him to march in front of me… I marched my officer down to the back room where the other officer was.

He was standing up in the bed, facing the wall. I ordered mine to do likewise. When the two of them were together I thought to myself ‘The Lord have mercy on your souls! ’ I then opened fire with my Peter. They both fell dead.

At 117 Morehampton Road, Thomas Herbert Smith, the landlord, is shot by a raiding party. He is a forgotten and accidental civilian casualty of the morning. Smith’s wife later told the inquiry:

I saw some men coming up the stairs, who appeared to number about twenty, with revolvers in their hands. They then told me to put my hands up and my husband came out on the landing and asked for a little time to put on some clothes, which they granted. I then asked if I could go into my baby in the next room and they pushed me roughly into it. I then heard about eight shots.

In London, there was ultimately fury in the press at the events of that morning but little sympathy from the political class, Hamar Greenwood telling the King’s Private Secretary that “he was astonished at the carelessness of those who lost their lives yesterday morning – not one of them had a revolver, whereas he never goes to bed without a revolver by his side and always carries one on his person.” 

To Greenwood, the men had been out-soldiered, beaten at their own game. To a government which referred to the IRA only as the ‘murder gang’, and insisted it had ‘murder by the throat’, the events of that morning were proof that the IRA was a capable opponent not only in the rural terrain of guerilla warfare but in the populated urban environments too.

The drama of Bloody Sunday, in those chaotic morning minutes, was only beginning.

Donal Fallon is a historian and presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcast, an episode of which explores the events of Bloody Sunday.

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About the author:

Donal Fallon  / Historian, writer and broadcaster

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