Dublin awoke on the morning to 14th March 1921, to the news that six IRA Volunteers, captured in an ambush at Drumcondra two months before, had been hanged, including Francis Xavier Flood, Thomas Bryan, Patrick Doyle, Bernard Ryan and Dermot O’Sullivan.
The gates of Mountjoy Gaol were opened at 8:25 am and news of the executions was read out to the distraught relatives of the dead. As many as 40,000 people had gathered outside and many mournfully said the rosary for the executed men.
By the evening, the streets cleared rapidly as the British-imposed curfew came into effect at 9pm each night. The city must have been a fearful place, patrolled by regular British troops and the much-feared paramilitary police, or Auxiliaries, as people scurried home and awaited IRA retaliation for the hangings. This was not long in coming.
On the evening of 14 March, their captain Peadar O’Meara sent them out to attack police or military targets. As many as 34 IRA men prowled the area, armed with the standard urban guerrilla arms of easily hidden handguns and grenades. One young Volunteer, Sean Dolan threw a grenade at a police station on nearby Merrion Square, which bounced back before it could explode, blowing off his own leg.
It was about 8 o’clock. The curfew was approaching. A company of Auxiliaries, based in Dublin Castle was sent to the area to investigate the explosion. It consisted of one Rolls Royce armoured car and two tenders (trucks) holding about 16 men. Apparently the Auxiliaries had some inside information as they made straight for the local IRA headquarters at 144 Pearse Street. One later testified in court that: ‘I had been notified there were a certain number of gunmen there’.
But the IRA were also waiting. As soon as the Auxiliaries approached the building, fire was opened on them from three sides.
What the newspapers described as ‘hail of fire’ tore into the Auxiliaries’ vehicles. Five of the eight Auxiliaries in the first tender were hit in the opening fusillade. Two of them were fatally injured, including the driver (an Irishman named O’Farrell) and an Auxiliary named L. Beard.
But the IRA fighters were seriously outgunned. The Rolls Royce armoured car was impervious to small arms fire (except its tyres, which were shot out) but mounted a Vickers heavy machine gun, which sprayed the surrounding houses with bullets. The unwounded Auxiliaries also clambered out of their tenders and returned fire at the gun flashes from street corners and rooftops. A company of Auxiliaries was sent to Pearse Street to raid a suspected IRA meeting-house but ran into an ambush.
Civilian passersby flung themselves to the ground to avoid the bullets but four were hit, by which side it was impossible to tell. The British military court of inquiry into the incident found that the civilians had been killed by persons unknown, if by the IRA then they were ‘murdered’, if hit by Auxiliaries the shootings were ‘accidental’; which, aside from demonstrating the court’s bias, shows us that no one was sure who had killed them.
Firing lasted for just five minutes but in that time seven people (including the two Auxiliaries) were killed or fatally wounded and at least six more wounded. A young man, Bernard O’Hanlon aged just 18, originally from Dundalk, lay sprawled, dead, outside number 145, his ‘bull-dog’ revolver under him which had five chambers, two of which contained expended rounds and three live rounds – indicating he had got off just two shots before being cut down.
Another IRA Volunteer, Leo Fitzgerald was also killed outright. Two more guerrillas were wounded, one in the hip and one in the back. They, along with Sean Dolan who had been wounded by his own grenade were spirited away by sympathetic fire brigade members and members of Cumann na mBan and treated in nearby Mercer’s hospital.
Three civilians lay dead on the street. One, Thomas Asquith was a 68-year-old caretaker, another, David Kelly was a prominent Sinn Féin member and head of the Sinn Féin bank. His brother, Thomas Kelly was a veteran Sinn Féin politician and since 1918 a Member of Parliament. The third, Stephen Clarke, aged 22, was an ex-soldier and may have been the one who had tipped off the Auxiliaries about the whereabouts of the IRA meeting-house. An internal IRA report noted that he was ‘under observation, as he was a tout for the enemy’.
In five minutes of intense gunfire, seven people were mortally wounded; two IRA Volunteers, two Auxiliaries and three civilians.
Two IRA men were captured as they fled the scene, one, Thomas Traynor a 40-year-old veteran of the Easter Rising, was carrying an automatic pistol, but claimed to have had no part in the ambush itself. He had, he maintained, simply been asked to bring in the weapon to 144 Great Brunswick Street. The other was Joseph Donnelly a youth of just 17.
As most of the IRA fighters got away through houses, over walls and into backstreets, the Auxiliaries ransacked St Andrew’s Catholic Hall at number 144, but found little of value. Regular British Army troops quickly arrived from nearby Beggars Bush barracks and cordoned off the area, but no further arrests were made. Desultory sniping carried on in the city for several hours into the night.
Photo: Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) in the earl 20th century. Source: John Dorney