By Jack Holland
At a little after 5 p.m. on Friday, May 17, 1974, I was in my apartment near on Pembroke Lane in Dublin, a few minutes’ walk from Trinity College in one direction and St. Stephen’s Green in the other. I was waiting for my partner, Mary Hudson, to return from work at a nearby language school (where she taught English to French speakers). The bus drivers were on strike, forcing thousands of home-bound commuters to walk or take their cars, causing confusion and congestion in the already busy streets of central Dublin. Fortunately, I thought, she did not have to depend on public transport, as her school was in nearby Mount Street Lower.
It was 5:27 p.m. when I heard two loud but dull thuds. It reminded me of the bombs I had heard go off in Belfast. But this was Dublin, I thought, reassuring myself and continued working. At 5:33 p.m. there was a third, much louder thud, obviously coming from somewhere closer. I switched on the radio and heard the terrible news: three bombs had exploded in Dublin, two in the north of the city, on Talbot Street and Parnell Street, and the third on South Leinster Street, which runs along Trinity College’s playing fields. Suddenly, the screech of ambulance sirens seemed to be coming from all directions.
The details of the casualties poured in horrific detail. I was relieved when Mary returned home at around 6 p.m. Usually on Friday afternoon, she took her class for a walking tour around the city, and would have been passing near where the third bomb exploded, not far from her school, had she followed her usual routine. But because her class had fallen behind in its work, she’d decided to cancel the walk.
About half an hour after she came home there was more terrible news. Another bomb had gone off — this time in Monaghan town, not far from the border. There were many dead and wounded. The time — 6:42 p.m. The number of fatalities continued to grow. By the end of the day, 23 were dead in Dublin and five in Monaghan. By May 20, the figure had risen to 25 in Dublin. By June 24, the total was 26 dead in Dublin and 7 in Monaghan — 33 altogether. One hundred and twenty people were injured, many of them terribly maimed. It was the worst day for fatalities in the history of the Troubles. And so it has remained.
On the evening of the 17th, an eerie hush fell over the city. The usual crowds that flocked to the bustling downtown pubs were absent. It was risky for anyone with a Northern accent to venture out. People were blaming the Provisional IRA, though no group had claimed responsibility. The taoiseach, William Cosgrave, went on television that evening and in a speech said that the Provisionals were responsible whether or not they had actually planted the bombs. It was an astonishing claim, but at that moment it fitted the mood of the general public in the Irish state, which had become angry and sickened by the violence north of the border.
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No one claimed responsibility for the massacre. But the day before, Vanguard leader William Craig, who was fronting the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in the North against the Sunningdale Agreement, warned that "further action would be taken against the Irish Republic and those who attempt to implement the agreement." Shortly after the attacks, Sammy Smyth, who was a press officer for the UWC’s strike coordinating committee, told the press: "I am very happy about the bombings in Dublin. There is a war with the Free state and now we are laughing at them." The UDA and UVF were furious that Smyth had spoken out about the bombings, drawing attention to loyalist responsibility. Two years later, he was murdered for his indiscretion.
In 1994, while working on a documentary called "Loved Ones," which recorded the stories of 25 victims of the Troubles, I met with the family of 21-year-old Anna Massey, one of the Dublin dead. She was a twin. The birth of her and her sister had made her father "the proudest dad in Ireland," he said.
Anna worked as a bookkeeper. On the day of her death, because of the bus strike, her fiancé had arranged to pick her up in his car to give her a lift home. They were due to be married in July. She was on her way down South Leinster Street to meet him when the bomb exploded.
The controversy over who carried out the attacks continues. In 1977 while researching a history of the UDA along with my co-author, David McKittrick, I spoke with a group of UDA men in Portadown who claimed that the attacks were a joint UDA-UVF operation. The UDA was responsible for the Monaghan attack, they said.
Various allegations have appeared that British intelligence was involved. In the summer of 1993 an RTE documentary alleged that loyalist attackers might have been aided by members of the security forces. Part of the reason they gave was the fact that two of the bombs — those on Talbot Street and South Leinster Street — had exploded at almost exactly the same moment. Unusually, too, hardly a trace of the explosives was left — all of it had gone off, making it harder to trace their origin.
The UVF replied to RTE’s allegations. On July 15, 1993, it issued a statement for the first time claiming responsibility for the worst mass murder in recent Irish history. It said: "The operation, whilst requiring a fair degree of preparation and not a little courage, did not, as was suggested by the so-called experts, require a great deal of technical expertise. . . . The structure of the bombs placed in Dublin and Monaghan were similar, if not identical, to those being placed in Northern Ireland on an almost daily basis." It emphasized that "clearly and without reservation . . . the entire operation was, from its conception to its successful conclusion, planned and carried out by our volunteers aided by no outside bodies."
Many refuse to accept this as the definitive statement on what happened that day in Dublin 25 years ago. They will continue to press the Irish government to reopen the investigation.