November 21, 1920, has gone down in history as Ireland’s first ‘Bloody Sunday’. For some of the people involved, that description was literally true.
At 17, Charlie Dalton was the youngest member of Michael Collins’s notorious assassination team known as ‘The Squad’.
On Bloody Sunday morning, he helped to kill Major Charles Dowling and Captain Leonard Price in their bedrooms on Upper Pembroke Street, an operation that left great splashes of red all over the walls and floors.
That night Dalton could not sleep, admitting that he was haunted by “the gurgling of the officers’ blood”.
After the carnage inflicted by British troops in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday afternoon, an injured 14-year-old schoolboy named Billy Scott was taken to a house nearby.
He asked for his mother and whispered, “Pray for me”, but nobody could do anything about the blood pouring from his chest. It took him 45 minutes to die.
Richard McKee was commanding officer of the IRA’s Dublin brigade and one of three republicans taken prisoner on Bloody Sunday. Later the British announced that they had all been shot while trying to escape from Dublin Castle, but their bloodied corpses told a different story.
“McKee’s face was battered up a lot,” an eye-witness wrote later.
“Some marks looked as if pieces of flesh were knocked out of them. He had a bayonet wound in his side and his fingers were all cut [from] where he had grabbed it.”
Why did Ireland’s War of Independence explode into such an orgy of violence over 24 hours?
A century later, the best way to explain Bloody Sunday is as a republican show of strength that provoked an almighty British backlash.
It ended with terrible casualties on both sides, but ultimately helped to persuade Britain that the Irish would have to be given at least some degree of independence.
Above all, Bloody Sunday happened because of Michael Collins.
In 1920 he was the British Empire’s most wanted man, a near-mythical figure even though few people knew what he actually looked like.
He seemed to be as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel, orchestrating a guerrilla war of independence while riding openly around Dublin on a bicycle.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Collins worried that he was losing the fight. A vicious new police unit popularly known as the Black and Tans had wreaked havoc in rural Ireland and the IRA was running dangerously low on resources.
On November 9, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George publicly declared: “We have murder by the throat!” – his typically melodramatic way of saying that victory was in sight.
Collins suspected that his troops had been infiltrated by a team of British spies known as the Cairo Gang, so-called because they frequented a café of that name on Grafton St.
He was a gambler and decided to risk everything on one throw of the dice. His plan was to eliminate Britain’s intelligence network in one fell swoop, visiting the suspected agents’ houses early one morning before anyone could realise what was happening.
A list of 50 was drawn up but eventually whittled down to 35, all living at prestigious addresses in central Dublin such as the Gresham Hotel, Mount Street and Earlsfort Terrace.
For the Squad (which included future
Taoiseach Sean Lemass), this was an exceptionally challenging assignment. It meant killing men up close, sometimes in their pyjamas with wives or children watching on.
The date chosen was a Sunday, partly because people would be sleeping late and partly so that religious gunmen would have time to attend Mass first.
Not surprisingly, some assassins handled their task better than others. One was so nervous that he shot at his own reflection in a Shelbourne Hotel mirror and allowed the target to escape.
Another was so cool that he took part in “plugging” his victim, then successfully asked the housemaid for a date.
A third lost all self-control when he found a half-naked woman in his target’s bed, beating her up and stealing her rings.
Inevitably, there were other ugly incidents along the way. Captain William Newberry was shot in his Baggot Street apartment while trying to escape through a window, in full view of his pregnant wife.
Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to a stillborn child and then died herself.
A total of 14 men died on Bloody Sunday morning and another was mortally wounded. To this day, historians are still arguing over how many really were British intelligence agents. The most recent evidence suggests that only six fitted that description, while the rest were court martial officers, regular soldiers or just innocent bystanders.
At 115 Morehampton Road, for example, the gunmen killed a blameless landlord by mistake. One of them would always be tormented afterwards by the memory of a small boy shouting, “Don’t shoot my daddy!”
Another fatality, Patrick McCormack, seems to have been a harmless ex-serviceman from Mayo who spent his days putting bets on horses.
His mother later wrote an anguished letter to the IRA, pleading with them to admit that he was not a British spy.
She was cruelly fobbed off.
Although Collins had hoped the death toll would be even higher, from his point of view the operation was broadly a success.
He had no remorse about the loss of life, writing: “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.”
Even so, Collins’s coup would come at a terrible price. When news of what had happened reached Dublin Castle, the British authorities determined to strike back quickly.
They soon identified a target of their own: the Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary scheduled to take place at Croke Park that afternoon.
Bloody Sunday had got off to a grisly start – but the biggest atrocity of this fateful day was yet to come.