Their mission was as clear as it was dangerous: locate and kill as many as two dozen members of an elite British unit engaged in espionage and assassination during the ongoing Irish War for Independence. Planned with extraordinary skill and aided by good luck at several turns, the strike achieved a stunning success. Before most of Dublin awoke that morning, 19 of the marked men lay dead. The “Bloody Sunday” killings crippled the British intelligence network and cemented the reputation of their chief planner, Michael Collins, as a brilliant military tactician. They also brought a fierce act of retribution later that day.
The Irish War of Independence had begun nearly two years earlier, in January 1919. For most of that year, the outgunned IRA enjoyed significant success by adopting guerilla-style hit-and-run tactics against the Royal Irish Constabulary. Through midnight assaults on RIC barracks, ambushes of RIC units, and assassinations of officers, the IRA soon gained the upper hand in the conflict and by the end of 1919 dozens of RIC members had been killed and hundreds of RIC barracks destroyed. To make matters worse for the British, hundreds of RIC officers resigned rather than risk the wrath of the IRA.
The man most responsible for the success enjoyed by the IRA against the British was Michael Collins (1890-1922). Born into a farming family in Cork, he grew to embrace the Irish nationalism of his father and schoolmaster (the latter a member of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood). At 16, he took a clerkship in London, where he learned finance and developed organizational and planning skills — all of which served him well after he joined the IRB. He participated in the Easter Rising but was not recognized as a leader and thus was spared execution. In 1919, the First Dail Eireann named him minister of finance. He also acted as director of intelligence, a position that made him a key figure in the buildup of the Irish Volunteers (soon recognized as the IRA). In these capacities he organized the acquisition and distribution of arms for the IRA and established an ingenious intelligence network that kept him informed of British operations. Collins also devised the successful guerilla tactics employed with such effectiveness against the British army and RIC.
But the British were not about to give up without an all-out effort to crush Collins and his band of revolutionaries committed to Irish independence. So in January 1920, British authorities began to recruit a special force for deployment in Ireland made up largely of former British soldiers and sailors. Known as the Black and Tans (on account of their mixed uniform of dark green RIC shirts combined with tan British army pants), they soon acquired a fearsome reputation for brutality and reprisal. In addition, the British sent the Cairo Gang (a nickname derived from their past service in Egypt), dozens of highly trained men who served as spies and assassins. Together the Cairo Gang and Black and Tans inflicted serious losses on the IRA and sent terror through the Irish populace.
By the fall of 1920, it was clear to Collins that the Cairo Gang was closing in on him and the IRA leadership. Several key men had been detained for questioning or arrested. One option was to curtail their movements in order to avoid capture or assassination. But that, of course, would limit their ability to wage war effectively.
So Collins decided to turn the tables and pursue the pursuers. Drawing on his own network of spies and informants, he drew up a list of British agents, complete with addresses and detailed descriptions of their homes and surrounding streets. Collins decided to strike on a Sunday to increase the chances of finding their targets at home and, knowing a big football match scheduled for later in the day would fill the streets with crowds and help the gunmen escape.
They struck in the early morning hours in squads of two to four men. Converging on eight Dublin addresses, they burst in while their quarry slept. Some were shot in bed, others standing against a wall. In all, 19 men were killed, including two soldiers who were probably not members of the Cairo Gang. None of Collins’s men were killed and one who was captured was subsequently freed. The operation was a spectacular success, dealing a devastating blow to the intelligence network so crucial to the British war effort.
As expected, the Bloody Sunday strike sent a shockwave of terror through the streets of Dublin. Newspapers extras flooded the streets with details of the killings as people headed to and from church. Everyone knew a reprisal by the Black and Tans and RIC would be soon in coming.
It occurred later that afternoon at the football match at Croke Park. Shortly after the game began, security forces surrounded the stadium on the pretext that, in the words of one British MP, “some of the most desperate criminals in Ireland were amongst the spectators.” How the shooting started remains a hotly disputed question to this day, but what occurred once the bullets started to fly is not. Black and Tans and RIC officers sprayed the spectators and players with rifle and machine gun fire. Twenty minutes later, 13 spectators and one player lay dead in what remains one of the most stunning acts of brutality on the part of the British in their long campaign to deny Irish freedom.
To those who tried to draw some equivalence between the killing of British soldiers in the morning and Irish civilians in the afternoon, Collins had a ready answer: “There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and the inforer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.” He would continue to do so in the months that followed, gradually wearing down the British until they agreed to a truce in July 1921 to be followed by a negotiated settlement beginning in October.
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