The events of Sunday, 21 November 1920, are generally regarded as having marked a decisive turning-point in the military struggle between the British forces and the IRA. Thirty-one people – fourteen British agents, fourteen Irish civilians and three republican prisoners – lost their lives on a day that is now one of the most infamous in modern Irish history, writes Eamonn Duggan.
“My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of the ordinary decent citizen. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed…I have paid them back in their own coin.” Michael Collins
By late 1920, the War of Independence had reached a level of hostility many had never thought possible. The vicious guerrilla war which had engulfed the country with its ambushes and attacks had already left a devastating trail of death and destruction. Many lives had been lost, civilian and military, and there seemed to be little prospect of the conflict coming to an end with both sides becoming ever more entrenched.
The country had been witnessing many dark and bloody days since the Soloheadbeg attack in January 1919 and the everyday news cycle was dominated by reports of violent engagements between the IRA and the forces of the Crown. The bloodiest day of the conflict came on Sunday, November 21, 1920, when 31 people lost their lives in Dublin, fourteen British agents, fourteen Irish civilians and three republican prisoners. The day quickly became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and it now takes its place as one of the most infamous in modern Irish history.
By November, 1920, the British Intelligence service had established an extensive network of spies and informers around Dublin. On the other hand, Michael Collins, the IRA Director of Intelligence, had gathered a group of young men whose main purpose was to eliminate British agents and spies as well as informers. They were collectively known as the ‘Squad’ and they all, to a man, pledged their loyalty and allegiance to their leader and mentor.
In November, 1920, Collins targeted a group of eighteen British Intelligence Officers known as the ‘Cairo Gang’. who took their name from the Cairo Café on Grafton Street which they frequented and from their service in the British military intelligence in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War. The republican leadership were well aware of the gang’s existence in the city and Richard Mulcahy, the then IRA Chief of Staff, called them “a very dangerous and cleverly placed spy organisation”.
Collins and his Intelligence Unit had, by that time, concluded the British were planning to eliminate leading republicans. In anticipation of any such attack, Collins directed the young men in his intelligence network to strike first and eliminate the ‘Cairo Gang’. Dick McKee was given charge of planning for the strike and the gathering of intelligence began in earnest.
The Intelligence Unit had, over time, cultivated a very sophisticated network of informants from many walks of life and had little trouble in compiling the addresses of the targeted British agents. Information came readily from many sources including housemaids, post office and railway workers as well as at least one police informant.
Some of the targeted agents openly and arrogantly made themselves known around the city, making it easier for Collins and his people to identify them.