A momentous day as first Dáil meets and first shots of War of Independence occur

“The Irish historian of the future will, no doubt, regard the 21st January, 1919, as a date that marked a turning point in the political history of this country — a new departure that influenced Ireland’s outlook and helped to mould her fate.

The opening of An Dáil Éireann yesterday must be regarded as a political event of the first importance,” The Cork Examiner began its lead editorial.

That same day an incident was reported from Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, that has been remembered as the start of the War of Independence.

First Dáil

Two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constables — Patrick O’Connell, 50, a bachelor from Coachford, Co. Cork, and James McDonnell, 57, a widower with four children from Belmullet, Co. Mayo — were killed and this took some of the spotlight off the Dáil.

They were shot for failing to drop their rifles when ordered to do so by Irish volunteers, who were seizing explosives that the police were escorting.

“We would have preferred to avoid bloodshed, but they were inflexible,” Dan Breen, one of the volunteers recalled in his memoir, My Fight for Irish Freedom.

“Our only regret,” he added paradoxically, “was that the escort had consisted of only two Peelers instead of six. If there had to be dead Peelers at all, six would have created a better impression than a mere two.”

The Irish Volunteers had not sanctioned the attack, and it was greatly resented in Dublin, because it detracted from the Dáil.

If such attacks continued, Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith warned, “we would soon be eating one another.”

Monsignor Arthur Ryan, the parish priest of Tipperary, roundly denounced the murders from the pulpit the following Sunday.

“It used to be said, ‘Where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows.’ God help poor Ireland if she follows this lead in blood,” he warned. “Let us give her the lead in our indignant denunciation of this crime.

We must show our abhorrence of this inhuman act; we must denounce it and the cowardly miscreants who are guilty of it—aye, and all who try to excuse or justify it.

Breen and his colleagues soon found themselves unwelcome even in some Republican circles. When things got too hot for them down the country, they moved to Dublin, where Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, noted that they were not very welcome.

“The only place in which they could find association and some kind of scope for their activities was on the fringe of Collins’ intelligence activity work,” according to Mulcahy.

Although Collins was listed as one of twenty-six members at the opening of the Dáil, he felt he had better things to do with his time.

He was busy making preparations to spring Éamon de Valera from Lincoln Gaol in England in order to have him lead a renewed armed struggle with the British.

Following his election as Sinn Féin President in October 1917, de Valera had promised to “draw the naked sword” in order to make the British do likewise, if more peaceful methods failed.

With the success of de Valera’s escape on February 6, Collins wrote to Austin Stack, that the movement was entering a new phrase.

Austin Stack

“As for us on the outside,” he wrote, “all ordinary peaceful means are ended and we shall be taking the only alternative actions in a short while now."

After de Valera was spirited back to Ireland, however, he had no intention of renewing the armed struggle.

He thought Ireland's best chance of success still lay in enlisting American help, in view of President Woodrow Wilson's eloquent pronouncements on international relations.

“You know what it is to argue with Dev,” Collins wrote. “He says he thought it out while in prison, and he feels that the one place where he can be useful to Ireland is in America.”

De Valera returned to Britain to await a ship to the United States. But while he was in Britain, the British released all of the other members of Sinn Féin, jailed in connection with the so-called German Plot, so de Valera decided to return to Ireland.

“The home-coming of de Valera will be an occasion of national rejoicing,” according to an announcement, supposedly issued by Tom Kelly and Harry Boland, Joint National Secretaries of Sinn Féin.

“The Lord Mayor of Dublin will receive him at the gates of the city, and will escort him to the Mansion House, where he will deliver a message to the Irish people.”

It was the kind of reception that would normally be accorded to visiting royalty, so Dublin Castle promptly banned the reception.

As the Sinn Féin executive met to discuss its response to the ban, members witnessed an amazing display of contemptuous arrogance.

When Darrell Figgis asked on whose authority the announcement had been issued, Tom Kelly said the first he heard of it was when he read the statement he had supposedly issued in the press.

Michael Collins brazenly announced that he was the author.

He emphasised that he and others believed “the sooner fighting was forced and a general state of disorder created through the country,” the better it would be for Ireland.

“They were not to be deterred by weaklings and cowards,” he added. He went on to say that those present “were only summoned to confirm what the proper people had decided.”

Arthur Griffith, who was presiding at the meeting, was incensed at this contemptuous display.

A heated argument ensued for two hours and was only resolved by deciding to consult de Valera, who duly requested that the reception be cancelled, rather than risk a confrontation in which lives might be lost.

During the next three months de Valera took control of Sinn Féin.

Collins complained bitterly to Stack on May 17, about Sinn Féin politicians making things “intolerable” for militants.

The policy now seems to be to squeeze out anyone who is tainted with strong fighting ideas, or should I say the utility of fighting.

The moderates were clearly in control and he felt a lot of hostility towards himself and his views.

It was all “rather pitiful and disheartening,” he wrote. “At the moment I’m awfully fed up.”

“Things are not going very smoothly,” Collins wrote to Stack, three weeks later, on June 6.

“All sort of miserable little under currents are working and the effect is anything but good.”

After de Valera went to the United States that month, Collins began to get his own way.

The delay had probably been to his advantage, because it allowed him to develop his intelligence network before the conflict really erupted.

He recruited some particularly effective spies from within the Crown police forces, especially the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP)— Ned Broy, Joe Kavanagh, and James McNamara.

Broy was a confidential typist at G Division's headquarters in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street.

He was looking for somebody within Sinn Féin who could make proper use of important information he was prepared to pass on. He was introduced to Collins in January 1919.

“Immediately I met him,” Broy later explained. “I knew he was the man who could beat the British and I decided to work for him from then on.”

When Broy typed any report likely to interest Collins, he simply inserted an extra carbon and made an additional copy.

He then passed those on at weekly meetings that he and Kavanagh had with Collins.

Collins developed a clear vision of what he wished to do it.

He was looking for a military confrontation with the British, but not a conventional war.

“If we were to stand up against the powerful military organisation arrayed against us,” he explained, “something more was necessary than a guerrilla war in which small bands of our warriors, aided by their knowledge of the country, attacked the larger forces of the enemy and reduced their numbers.

"England could always reinforce her army. She could replace every soldier that she lost.”

Harry Boland, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and Éamon Duggan

But there were indispensable individuals who would not be easily replaced.

To paralyse the British machine it was necessary to strike at individuals such as the detectives in Dublin and the police throughout the country who help them locate the volunteers they wanted.

The British were dependent on such people and would be virtually blind without them.

Thus, Collins targeted the policemen who were functioning as the eyes and ears of the British administration in Dublin Castle.

Two of his earliest targets were Detective Sergeant Patrick Smith, 52, a native of Dromard, Co Longford and Detective Constable Daniel Hoey, 31, from Rhode near Edenderry, Co Offaly.

They had helped to identify leaders of the Easter Rebellion after its collapse.

When Smith, and his colleague Detective Sergeant Thomas Wharton, arrested Piaras Beaslaí for a seditious speech in 1919, they found incriminating notes on him.

Smith was warned not to produce those notes in court.

“I’m not letting any young scuts tell me how to do my duty,” Smith said.

He produced the evidence, and Wharton supported his testimony in court. As a result Beaslaí was sentenced to two years in jail, instead of the two months he might have otherwise expected.

Defence Minister Cathal Brugha and Chief of Staff Mulcahy authorised Collins to kill Smith, and he set up the Squad to do the job. Smith was mortally wounded on the night of July 30, 1919.

He lingered for five weeks before dying on September 8, 1919.

Dublin Castle then reacted by proscribing Dáil Éireann, the Irish Volunteers, Sinn Féin Clubs, Cumann na mBan, and the Gaelic League. The same day Sinn Féin headquarters on Harcourt Street was raided.

Detective Constable Hoey, who had taken part in that raid, was shot dead by the Squad that night.

Detective Sergeant Thomas Wharton, a Kerry-man from Killarney, was shot on November 10, 1919.

He managed to survive though shot through the lung, but it ended his career.

His colleague, and fellow Kerry-man, Detective Sergeant Johnny Barton, who investigated Wharton’s shooting, was not so lucky.

The Squad shot him dead outside the Detective Division headquarters on the night of November 30, 1919.

Collins was behind an attempt on the life of the Lord Lieutenant Viscount French, the following month.

One those engaged in the attempt was killed, and another, Dan Breen, was wounded.

The Squad managed to kill DMP Assistant Commissioner Forbes Redmond, who was reorganising the DMP’s detective division.

He was shot dead on Harcourt Street at the height of the evening rush hour on January 21, 1920.

Collins felt justified in targeting specific policemen, but he was insistent that the IRA in Dublin should not target the police as a whole, because some of his own most valuable agents were policemen.

Outside of Dublin, there were scattered attacks on police in the months after de Valera went to the United States, but those attacks were largely confined to Munster, with individual policemen being killed in Ennistymon, Co Clare, and in Thurles and Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, while a British soldier was killed in an attack on military barrack in Fermoy.

An attack on an RIC barrack in Carrightwohill, Co Cork, on January 2, 1920, marked an escalation in the campaign against the police in the following weeks.

The IRA attacked RIC barracks in Drumlish, Co Longford; Ardmore, Co Waterford; Allihies and Castlemartyr, Co Cork; and Castleblaney, Co Monaghan.

Éamon de Valera

On the night of March 19, 1920 the IRA in Cork killed Constable Joe Murtagh on Pope’s Quay, Cork.

Hours later Tomás MacCurtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, would pay for this with his life, even though he had had no involvement.

RIC officers, associated with the Orange Order, raided MacCurtain’s home and killed him. They tried to make it appear that the IRA was responsible, but nobody was fooled.

The coroner’s jury returned “a verdict of wilful murder” against the British prime minister, members of the Irish administration, and leading members of the police force.

The conflict was taking on a very different aspect.

The following week the British introduced the Black and Tans, and the struggle became a distinctly Anglo-Irish conflict.


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