“GUNFIGHTS IN DUBLIN SUBURB — TWO OFFICERS KILLED – POLICE HUNT GUNMEN”
Those words above might have been the headline of the national media in Ireland on a Monday 95 years ago. On the Tuesday a headline might have declared INTENSE POLICE HUNT — DRUMCONDRA MURDERERS STILL AT LARGE! to be followed on Thursday by SHOOTOUT YESTERDAY IN DUBLIN CITY CENTRE – FOUR DEAD!
The events to which those headlines might have referred occurred on 13th, 14th and 15th October 1920 and they involved two men, Seán Treacy and Dan Breen. They were events of amazing initiative, determination and courage – and also of tragedy. They took place in Dublin city centre and in a location roughly a mile away. And they were shortly to lead to further amazing deeds of determination and courage – and even greater tragedies.
Dan Breen and Sean Treacy were both Tipperary men and members of the newly-created Irish Republican Army unit in their home county. Already they had participated in the event that touched off the War of Independence in January 1919, the Solohodbeg Ambush. Their unit, under Séamus Robinson, had acted without any order from their Dublin Headquarters on the day the First Dáil met in the Mansion House in Dublin and their action was disapproved of by at least some of the TDs, including some in the newly-reorganised Sinn Féin political party. The attack in which Treacy and Breen participated killed two members of the colonial Royal Irish Constabulary, captured arms and an amount of gelignite.
Dan Breen had been sworn into the secret organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in 1912 at the age of eighteen. In 1914, he joined the Irish Volunteers but due to Mac Neill’s cancellation order and resulting confusion, like most of the Volunteers, took no part in the fighting of 1916. He made up for that omission afterwards.
Sean Treacy, whom Breen admired tremendously had, according to Breen himself a much wider and more defined political ideology. He left school at the age of 14 and joined the IRB at the age of 16, in 1911. He was also a member of Connradh na Gaeilge. Arrested in the roundups after the 1916 Rising, he spent two years interned without trial. As soon as he was released in 1918, Treacy was made vice-commander of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Volunteers which, in 1919, became the IRA and he was eager to start the war to rid Ireland of British colonialism.
Treacy and Breen had eventful times in Tipperary and nearby counties as they escalated their war against the British colonial occupation, attacking RIC barracks and carrying out ambushes. Among their most dangerous and famous events was the daring IRA rescue at Knockalong of Sean Hogan from the train in which he was being carried as a prisoner under armed escort on 13th May 1919, in which a fierce hand-to-hand struggle took place and both Treacy and Breen were seriously wounded.
Towards the end of that year, on 19th December in Dublin, Breen and Treacy were in action with Sean Hogan in an attempt on the life of General Sir John French, the British King’s representative and chief of HM Armed Forces in Ireland. The operation was led by Paddy Daly (of “Collins’ Squad” notoriety and later infamous for his part in the Civil War) and consisted of ten Volunteers, to which Martin Savage was added the previous night due to his own earnest request. Through misinformation the waiting Volunteers barely missed French as he headed in convoy towards his Residence (now the US Ambassador’s) in Phoenix Park and in the shootout that followed with the other convoy vehicles Breen was wounded in the leg and Volunteer Martin Savage in the neck, dying in Breen’s arms (Martin Savage is remembered in the song Ashtown Road by Dominic Behan).
At least a number of Sinn Féin TDs and activists were incensed by this action, including Charlotte Despard, who also happened to be John French’s sister. There was more than family relations involved – many in Sinn Féin were ambivalent about armed struggle and although both were banned later in 1919, neither the party nor the Dáil declared war on the British until a few months before the Truce in 1921.
After the Knockalong rescue, things had got a bit hot for Treacy and Breen in Tipperary and Collins invited them up to Dublin, where they were expected to merge more easily in the busy city centre.
They returned to Tipperary in the summer of 1920, where they continued to be active in the war, until Collins invited them up to the city again, partly for their own safety and partly to help him out in Dublin in the work of his “Apostles”, the “Squad”, especially in assassinations of British Intelligence agents, troublesome police and informers.
CIS — BRITISH INTELLIGENCE IN IRELAND REORGANISED
However, British Intelligence in Ireland had already been re-organised. The RIC’s intelligence and its personnel were by this time considered unreliable by British Army Intelligence and many in the force had also resigned or become disaffected. “By the spring of 1920 the political police of both the Crimes Special Branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and G-Division (Special Branch) of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) had been effectively neutralised by IRA counter-intelligence operatives working for Michael Collins. The British thoroughly reorganised their administration at Dublin Castle, including the appointment of Army Colonel Ormonde de l’Epee Winter as Chief of a new Combined Intelligence Service (CIS) for Ireland. Working closely with Sir Basil Thomson, Director of Civil Intelligence in the Home Office, with Colonel Hill Dillon, Chief of British Military Intelligence in Ireland, and with the local British Secret Service Head of Station Count Sevigné at Dublin Castle, Ormonde Winter began to import dozens of professional Secret Service agents from all parts of the British Empire into Ireland to track down IRA operatives and Sinn Féin leaders.” (Wikipedia).
Ormonde developed or introduced lots of intelligence-gathering procedures and “black propapaganda” in Ireland. After the war he joined the British fascisti for a while and in 1940 fought for the Finns in the Winter War against the Red Army.
As part of the reorganisation under CIS, a number of Royal Irish Constabulary officers had been posted to Dublin from country areas where the IRA were active and Breen and Treacy were noted coming into Dublin or soon after their arrival and were placed under surveillance.
On the evening of 13th October 1920, Breen and Treacy had been to see a film in Dublin with the Fleming sisters, who told them that they were sure that Breen and Treacy were being followed. Neither of the men believed this to be true and before the start of the nightly curfew, headed out towards their safe house, “Fernside”, a little past the corner of Home Farm Road and Upper Drumcondra Road, which belonged to a Professor Carolan, who lived there and taught in the nearby St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.
BRITISH EARLY MORNING RAID
By this time, the Fernside address was known to British Intelligence. Around 1.00 or 2.00am, a party of DMP and British Army knocked on the door and when Professor Carolan answered, they entered, began to question him and a number started up the stairs. Both Treacy and Breen had slept in most of their clothes and with their guns ready. Instead of barricading themselves inside their room or escaping through the window, they charged down the stairs, firing as they went at the intruders, who fled. Breen and Treacy then went back upstairs and jumped from a first floor window. They seem to have been different windows, for Breen went through a glass house or conservatory and received a number of glass cuts, while Treacy suffered only a very slight injury of some sort, whether by glass or some such or by bullet, is not clear. Or possibly Breen jumped first and left little glass remaining to cut Treacy.
In the back garden of the house, Breen later recounted firing at the heads of either police or British soldiers he observe over the fence and saw some fall; in return fire he was seriously injured but managed to get out of the garden and work his way across the road down to the wall of the nearby St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (still there today). Although short of stature and badly injured, he scaled the wall and making his way across the College grounds, came out on the other side, by the Tolka and then went up the road to Phibsboro, where he knocked on doors. A man who opened the door to him got him a doctor, who then had him smuggled into the private patients’ part of the Mater Miserecordiae Hospital (known to Dubliners as “the Mater”), at the corner of Eccles Street and Dorset Street, under an assumed name in the care of the nuns. Another version has him going to Finglas before being smuggled to the Mater.
We know little of Treacy’s escape except that he too got away, only slightly hurt, to a house in Inchicore. Professon Carolan was shot during the event (probably by the enraged British who might have thought he had somehow signaled Breen and Treacy or in panic — they seem to have shot some of their own men) and died days later.
The Occupation forces admitted to only two of their dead, both officers in the British Army, although a contemporary Irish Times report mentioned three. But Joe Connolly, a member and later Chief of the Dublin Fire Brigade, which then as today operates ambulance services in Dublin, spoke of twelve bodies having been collected for delivery to the British Military Hospital in Arbour Hill.
The forces of the colonial Occupation were in a frenzy searching for both Treacy and Breen around the city and the Dublin IRA organised protection for them both.
Word reached Michael Collins that the Occupation forces were going to organise a formal funereal procession to take the dead British officers’ bodies to the quays for their journey home to Britain and that top officers of the Occupation’s army and police would be in attendance. Collins planned to shoot a number of them and assembled a group for the operation and notified the meeting place.
However, Collins cancelled the operation (and meeting) when he learned that the high-ranking British officers would not be attending the dead officers’ send-off to England. Treacy arrived late at the meeting place, a draper’s shop called “Republican Outfitters” (!) owned by the Boland family, at 94 Talbot Street, as did another man and both learned of the cancellation (according to one account; according to another he delayed leaving after the others had left). However, the British were closing in on Talbot Street with the intention of capturing Treacy, it seems. As Treacy came out into the street, an agent approached him with gun drawn and Treacy saw the British vehicles coming down the street from O’Connell (then Sackville) Street. He drew his Parabellum firearm and shot two agents but the machine-gunner caught Treacy in a burst as he was trying to mount his bicycle as people dived for cover and several were injured.
Sean Treacy died from the machine-gun bullets in that street, along with two civilians, a John Currigan, a tobacconist from Eden Quay and “a messenger boy named Carroll”, according to a press report at the time. A policeman on point duty was shot in the arm, which had to be amputated. Another boy, 15-year old apprentice photographer John J. Hogan, claiming to be out practicing with his employer’s camera, followed the action and took the famous photo of Treacy lying dead in the street.
It seems the Chief of the CIS himself, Ormand Winter, had attended the operation or had followed it up and was shocked at the outcome – an agent dead and another wounded and Treacy dead, along with two innocent bystanders, one only a boy. He told a press reporter it had been “a tragedy”.
It had long been believed that Treacy shot two agents dead but although Liuetenant Gilbert Price was definitely dead, another, Colour-Sergeant Frank Christian, later received compensation of £1,250 (a substantial amount in those days) for injury received during the event, according to press reports. Christian claimed to have been off duty and just passing at the time but this was more than likely said to preserve his cover and also to increase the amount of compensation. http://www.cairogang.com/incidents/treacy-talbot/treacy-talbot.html
Some of the IRA and their supporters were still in the area when the British Army arrived in Talbot Street and one, Dick McKee, barely made it away on a bicycle. He would not be so lucky another time which was fast approaching.
I once or twice heard some speculation that Treacy had been betrayed from within the IRA and even that Collins wanted him killed but these kinds of rumours often arise and no evidence has ever been provided to substantiate the speculation. It is indeed curious that Treacy had miraculously escaped on the 13th and had been recruited for a dangerous operation to take place two days later, then to be shot at the scene of a cancelled meeting but such things happen. It would take remarkable prescience on Collins’ part to have anticipated the course of the War of Independence in 1920 so as to have removed one of the most effective fighters that would help bring the struggle to truce, negotiation and a Treaty. The simplest explanation and the one that fits the best is that Treacy had been marked and followed and that after their debacle at Fernside, the colonial military authorities in Dublin had decided to take him prisoner there in Talbot Street if they could and, if not, kill him.
Treacy was buried in his native county at Kilfeakle, a funeral attended by thousands of mourners and a heavy concentration of RIC, holding rifles with fixed bayonets. Breen remarked that though not intended in that way, it was an appropriate mark of respect for the fallen guerrilla fighter.
MORE SHOOTINGS …. AND A MASSACRE
The police and army raids in Drumcondra and in Talbot Street, the first from which two tough and experienced IRA men had been lucky to escape and the second which had resulted in the death of one of them and nearly netted a few others, must have rung very loud alarm bells for IRA leaders and ordinary Volunteers. Apparently it convinced Collins that some very thorough offensive action was needed to remove or reduce the threat.
Just over a month later, in the early morning of Sunday 21 November 1920, Collins’ ‘Squad’ and teams mobilised by the Dublin IRA Brigade, went out to assassinate 35 men believed to be members of the British Intelligence network in the City. Collins had originally drawn up a list of 50 but Cathal Brugha, acting as Minister of Defence, had reduced the list on the basis that there was insufficient evidence against fifteen of them.
Most of the shootings by the IRA that morning took place in the southern suburbs of the city – Baggot, Upper Pembroke and Lower Mount streets, Fitzwilliam Square, Morehampton Road and Earlsfort Terrace. There were also shootings in the Gresham Hotel and on O’Connell Street. Some agents were, luckily for them, not in when the IRA came calling and some operations were bungled. A passing Auxilliary patrol (they were brought into Ireland in July 1920) got involved in one location and, in the subsequent fight, two of them were killed and one IRA man wounded and captured. But by midday, the British Army and colonial administration were counting their fatal losses, a total of:
10 Intelligence officers (one RIC and 9 Military)
1 military prosecutor
1 civilian informer
1 Army Veterinary officer (apparently a case of mistaken identity)
In addition, some more officers had been wounded, albeit not fatally.
Just as the operations organised by British Intelligence in the previous month had raised the alarm for the IRA, the response of the latter did the same in turn for the British military and political administration in Ireland. Henceforth, intelligence personnel would be accommodated in Dublin Castle or in barracks. But if the Intelligence establishment was rattled, the Auxilliaries and loyal RIC and DMP (Dublin Metropolitan Police) were incensed.
That afternoon, a Gaelic football game was scheduled to take place in Croke Park, the national stadium of the Gaelic Athletic Association, between Tipperary and Dublin teams. The IRA had considered advising the GAA to cancel the match but there were fears that — apart from alerting British Intelligence that something was planned — it might implicate the GAA in the planned operation that morning. In any case, the match went ahead with an estimated attendance of 5,000, unaware that a convoy of British Army troops was driving along Clonliffe Road from the Drumcondra Road end, while a convoy of DMP and Auxiliaries approached the Park from the south or Canal end.
At 3.25pm, ten minutes after the start of the match, the police burst into the ground, firing. Despite their claims later there is no evidence they received any return fire but nevertheless their own commander admitted they kept shooting for about a minute-and-a-half. They fired at spectators and players, some firing from the pitch while others fired from the Canal Bridge at those who tried to escape by climbing over the wall at the Canal end. The soldiers on Clonliffe Road fired machine gun bullets over the heads of the fleeing crowd in an unsuccessful effort to turn them back.
According to the commander of the operation, Major Mills, the police had fired 114 rifle rounds (revolver rounds were not counted) and the Army had fired 50 rounds in the street. The casualties were 9 people shot dead, five dying of wounds and two trampled to death in the panic. Two of the dead were boys aged 10 and 11. Michael Hogan, a player was dead and another player, Egan, wounded but survived. Dozens more were wounded by bullets or injured in the panic. Unlike the “Croke Park” scene in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins film (1996), it appears that the British Army shot no-one that day – that was all the work of the police.
The Castle issued a cover story in a statement that IRA men from outside Dublin had used the football game as a cover for getting into the city and, after the assassinations they had carried out, had gone to the game. When the police arrived to search fans for weapons, according to the statement, these men had fired on the police, who had been obliged to return fire. The most credulous would have found that story difficult to believe since not a single policeman had even been injured and even the loyalist Irish Times poured scorn on their story.
MURDER IN THE CASTLE
One of the planners of the earlier IRA operation was already in custody before the events of that day. Dick McKee, commander of the Dublin Brigade and another IRA man, Peadar Clancy, had been arrested by Crown Forces in the early hours of that Sunday morning. They were being interrogated in Dublin Castle.
Also being interrogated was Conor Clune, who had been arrested by the Auxilliaries in a raid on Saturday evening of Vaughan’s Hotel in Parnell Square, on the corner of Granby Lane. Clune was no IRA man but an language enthusiast who had come up to Dublin that day with his employer, Edward McLysaght, on business for the Raheen cooperative. Clune had gone on to meet Piaras Béaslaí, a member of the First Dáil (Irish Parliament set up in defiance of Westminster by the majority of Members of the British Parliament elected in Ireland). Béaslaí and some IRA men using Vaughan’s that evening were alerted by a hotel porter to the suspicious behaviour of a visitor, apparently a spy, and departed before the arrival of the “Auxies”, who arrested Clune on suspicion. Leading the interrogation team was Ormond Winters.
Later that awful day, McKee, Clancy and Clune were reported “shot while trying to escape”. Their captors said that, because there was no room in the cells, they had been placed in a guardroom and were killed while grabbing arms to shoot their captors and to make a getaway. To bolster the Castle’s story, they produced a number of photographs: one shows three civilians sitting apparently in conversation in a room, where a number of Auxiliaries and British Army are also shown relaxed, some eating a meal and another reading. Untended weapons are in view; another photograph shows a blur of men “trying to escape”. In none of the photos are the faces of any of the three prisoners clearly shown.
Family of the dead Irishmen said they had been tortured and then shot and few believed the Castle’s story (although apparently some historians today give it credence). It is said Collins wanted their bodies displayed to show bayonet wounds but was persuaded not to, however one of Collins’s Castle informers, Nelligan, was later adamant that they had not been bayoneted. All sides agree that the bodies did show extensive bruising. In any case, McKee and Clancy died without giving their captors any of the long list of names they carried in their heads, while Clune of course had none to give.
Conor Clune’s body was recovered by Mac Lysaght, who had it medically examined, revealing that he had been shot 13 times in the chest. The Army doctor who examined the bodies prior to their release said that Clancy had been hit with up to five bullets, which caused eight wounds, while Dick McKee had three wounds caused by two bullets.
Unfortunately for the Castle, Conor Clune was a nephew of Patrick Clune, Archbishop of Perth, Australia which caused the authorities some embarrassment.
A plaque commemorating the men (albeit listing Clune as a “Volunteer”) was placed by the National Graves Association on the wall of Dublin Castle near the eastern side of City Hall and every year a small commemoration ceremony takes place there.
There was a sequel to the deaths of the three, although it did not take place until the following year. An ex-British Army soldier, James “Shankers” Ryan, had betrayed McKee. On February 5, 1921, as Ryan was enjoying a pint in Hyne’s pub in Gloucester Place and studying the horse racing page of the newspaper, an IRA squad led by Bill Stapleton walked into Hynes’ pub in Gloucester Place and shot him dead.
REMEMBRANCE IN SONG AND STORY
A plaque was erected in Talbot Street, Dublin, by the voluntary non-party organisation, the National Graves Association, on the front facade of No. 94, the building outside of which Treacy was killed. The anniversary of his death is marked each year at a commemoration ceremony in Kilfeacle. Also at noon on the morning of All-Ireland Senior Hurling Finals in which the Tipperary GAA team participates, a ceremony of remembrance is held at the spot in Talbot Street where he died, organised “by people from West Tipperary and Dublin people of Tipperary extraction. The most recent such ceremony was held at midday on Sunday, 7 September 2014 and attracted a large attendance, most of whom were en route to Croke Park.” (Wikipedia).
It is worthy of note that every single one of those commemorations and memorial plaques is organised by voluntary bodies rather than by the State.
A number of songs about Sean Treacy are in existence: Sean Treacy by Dominic Behan and Tipperary So Far Away (author disputed: by Patsy O’Halloran OR Paddy Walsh/ Pádraig Breatnach/ Paddy Dwyer, with — if about Treacy — some obviously inaccurate versions by the Clancy Brothers and Wolfe Tones). Strangely neither Treacy nor Breen is mentioned in The Station of Knockalong, about the May 13th 1920 rescue of Sean Hogan from his captors on a train, after a fierce hand-to-hand struggle in which both Treacy and Breen were seriously wounded. The Galtee Mountain Boy is said to be also about Treacy but some of the lyrics make this unlikely and a contributor to Mudcat (a folk song website) claimed that song is about Paddy Davern, who was sentenced to die by both the British and the Irish Free State but escaped them both.
Strangely too, no song comes to light about the Drumcondra shoot-out. I have heard a few lines quoted, “He shot them in pairs coming down the stairs”, allegedly from a song about Sean Treacy by Dominic Behan. However, my searches have failed to turn up the source of those wonderful lines. If the song existed and was about Treacy, it could have referred to his death in Talbot Street but even more likely to the battle at Fernside.
Dan Breen is mentioned in a number of songs but none of which I am aware directly about him. Breen was very saddened at the death of his close comrade-in-arms and recovered slowly from his wounds, having been shot four times, twice in the lungs. He was smuggled out of Dublin while still recovering from his injuries and very weak, returning to active service later. In June 1921, Breen married Brigid Malone of the Dublin Cumann na mBan, who had helped nurse him while recovering from his wounds. The long Truce of 1921 followed in July which, according to his autobiography My Fight for Irish Freedom (1921 and many reprints since), Breen frowned upon, commenting that IRA discipline grew slack and information on identities of fighters and their locations would have come much more easily to Crown forces.
Dan Breen dissented from the Treaty of 1921 and took up arms on the Republican side, was captured and interned, went on hunger strike and was released. Breen was an anti-Treaty TD for Tipperary from 1923 for Sinn Féin, the TDs of which refused to take their seats in the “Partitionist” Fourth Dáil. When the Fianna Fáil party was created in a split away from Sinn Féin in 1926 with the intention of their representatives entering the Dáil if elected, Breen joined and was the first anti-Treaty TD to take his seat in the Dáil in 1927.
When he later failed to be reelected he went to the USA, which was under alcohol Prohibition at the time and there he ran a speakeasy. (He would probably have known Joe Kennedy, grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, who was a prominent gangster in that epoch). Returning to Ireland in 1932, Breen regained his Fianna Fáil seat. He died in 1969 and the attendance at his funeral was estimated at 10,000.