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November 21 1920: The Irish Citizen Army and the Intelligence That Led to the Assassination of 14 British Agents on Bloody Sunday.

By James Lawlor

For 100 years, the official narrative in Ireland has proclaimed that Michael Collins was the mastermindedof the intelligence network that led to the assassination of 14 British Agents on Bloody Sunday 1920. While Collins was indeed the Irish Republican Army’s Chief of Intelligence and the Commander of ‘The Squad’, the role of the Irish Citizen Army in gathering the vital intelligence that led to one of the most successful IRA operations of the Tan War, has been largely overlooked. Put simply it was the Irish Citizen Army and not Collins who provided the Intelligence for Bloody Sunday. 

As early as April 1917 as the Republican Movement and was reorganising after the 1916 Rising, a meeting was held in Dublin between representatives of the Volunteer Executive and the Army Council of the Irish Citizen Army to work out the relationship between the two organisations as constituent parts of the IRA. The Volunteers were represented at this meeting by Cathal Brugha and Michael Collins, and the Citizen Army were represented by their new Commandant, James O’Neill and by Staff Captain Dick Mc Cormack. At the meeting it was agreed that the Citizen Army would remain a constituent part of the IRA, but would also maintain its autonomy, its constitution and the right to independent action so long as operations were discussed with the IRA leadership. Michael Collins was appointed the contact for the Citizen Army in the IRA, establishing a relationship that would lead to Bloody Sunday just three years later.

At the meeting between the Volunteers and the ICA it had been suggested that the Citizen Army would put an emphasis on intelligence and police work on behalf of the IRA. This suggestion would largely shape the role of the ICA in the War for National Liberation that recommenced in 1919, and as a result the Army’s contribution in that struggle has been largely overlooked.

The Irish Citizen Army would make intelligence something of a specialty.   As the Army was being reorganised in 1917 and made fit for purpose again, a new Army Council was elected. As part of this reorganisation, 1916 Veteran, Staff Captain Bob DeCoeur became the ICA’s Chief of Intelligence.  De Coeur was at this point living in Sherriff Street in the Heart of the North Inner City and was working in the nearby docklands. An Active trade unionist, De Coeur set about building the Citizen Army’s intelligence network in earnest. By the outbreak off the tan war, the network was so extensive that it was said nothing moved in Dublin City without Bob De Coeur knowing. 

The Citizen Army’s intelligence network included dockworkers, transport workers, paper boys and women working as cooks, cleaners and domestic servants in hotels, boarding houses and private homes across the city. This final category would prove particularly important for acquiring the intelligence that led to the IRA’s Bloody Sunday operation. 

Understanding the effectiveness of the ICA’s Intelligence network Collins held weekly meetings with the group. He established a chain of command that saw De Coeur report intelligence to his Commandant James O’Neill who then held weekly meetings with Collins to report this intelligence either in Kirwan’s Bar on Parnell Street or in Marino Villa on the Malahide Road. It can therefore be seen that while Collins has been given credit for the Republican intelligence network, the ICA played a far greater role then has been recorded, with Collins being hyped up by a political establishment that would like us, wrongly, to believe the Citizen Army and armed Socialist Republicanism, never came out of the ashes of 1916. 

In gaining the intelligence, for Bloody Sunday, a key part of De Coeur’s intelligence network was a Citizen Army Volunteer named Christy Crothers. Crothers, like his commanding officer De Coeur was a veteran of the 1916 Rising having fought at the Garrison at Stephens Green as a 14 year old Lieutenant of the ICA Scouts. Aged 19 in 1920 he remained an active member of the Citizen Army and was a particularly talented Intelligence officer.  Commandant James O’Neill commented on Crothers prolific intelligence gathering stating, “he had a peculiar connection and seemed to be able to find out these things”.

Working under De Couer, Crothers put together an important intelligence gathering network of his own which included two operatives that would lead him directly the intelligence for Bloody Sunday, Kate Murphy and Thomas Millea. At some point in 1920 Kate Murphy approached Crothers with very important intel. Crothers states, “Murphy was “a personal friend of Mrs Sankey. Mrs Sankey’s house was, at that time, a call office for the British Intelligence here. Kate Murphy worked for her. She eventually succeeded in putting me on to the people who were shot on ‘Bloody Sunday”.  Mrs Sankeys house was at 15 Fitzwilliam Street. Crothers Continues, “I used to visit the house in Fitzwilliam Street once or twice a day. Any documents I could get I took and handed them over.”

In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, Crothers records the importance of the intelligencebrought to him by Kate Murphy. Miss Murphy approached me one evening when she was visiting the house and told me that about twelve men had taken up residence in the house where she was employed. She thought that they were ex-British Officers … she told me that while these men were supposed to be commercial travellers they never went out in the daytime; that the earliest they left the house was at 5 o’clock in the evening and that they were not back when she was retiring. She added that she knew they returned in the small hours of the morning – sometimes around 6 and 7 a.m.  They were never seen leaving together: they generally left in ones and twos and on some occasions they did not leave the house until very late at night. All these matters I reported to Captain de Coeur…. As a result of this I was asked to try if possible to get the name of every man who was in the house and if possible to report more regularly on what was occurring there. This I did. As well as that I visited the house whenever the opportunity occurred and searched for any documents or evidence that would be of help. A few weeks later I was instructed to keep away from the house but at the same time to keep in close contact with Miss Murphy. About the month of August Miss Murphy reported that the men were leaving the house in the matter of a few days. I asked her from whom did she get that information. She told me that Captain Bennett told her they were going. I then asked her how did it occur that he spoke to her and gave her this information and she told me that she had occasion to go into his room that morning and he started to jeer her about her friends and told her that he was leaving and that her friends would find it very hard to find him. I reported this matter at once and was told to carry on. It would appear from the information I received that somebody was observed watching the house and that they in turn were watched. The men in question left the house in about three days.”

Crothers work was about to pay off. When the British Officers left Fitzwilliam Street, Crothers network attempted to track their new locations and were successful in a number of cases. One British operative they successfully tracked was George Bennett. Crothers explains, “When they left that house they scattered and it was then that the group of people were of assistance to me. Millea was in a house in Mount Street and a British intelligence officer named Bennet went to stay there.”

George Bennett and Peter Ames were the leaders of the Cairo Gang and the core of the British Military Intelligence operation in Ireland. The Irish Citizen Army successfully tracked Bennett and Ames from Fitzwilliam Street to 38 Mount Street, where they had taken new lodgings. This information was passed to Bob De Couer who in turn passed it to James O’Neill and the report was placed directly into the hands of Michael Collins. 

Michael Collins instructed IRA GHQ Officer Dick McKee to plan an assassination operation based on the Intelligence provided by the ICA, to take out the British Military Intelligence Network in Dublin. The operation would be carried out by ‘The Squad’. 

On the morning of November 21st 1920, the IRA sprung into action. The intelligence proved accurate and over the course of the morning 14 members of British Military Intelligence, including Bennett and Ames, were systematically executed in a massive propaganda victory for the Republican Movement and what was a textbook application of Urban Guerrilla Warfare. 

The operation would not have been possible without the Irish citizen Army. Commenting later, the ICA Commandant James O’Neill stated that Christy Crothers “produced some valuable information which was responsible for the destroying of the British Intelligence staff in Dublin”.

In a 1935 interview, Crothers was clear about the role played by himself and the Citizen Army in Bloody Sunday. He was asked directly, 

You make the claim you really supplied a substantial amount of information in connection with ‘Bloody Sunday?” Crothers responded defiantly, “I claim all the information.” 

100 years after Bloody Sunday it is important that the significant role of the Irish Citizen Army in that operation is remembered and recognised. While it was Collins who gave the order, Dick McKee who planned it and ‘The Squad’ who pulled the triggers, it was the Irish Citizen Army that provided the intelligence and legwork that made the whole operation possible. 

100 years on from the Tan War, the role of the Irish Citizen Army in the fight for National Liberation after 1916 continues to be deliberately played down, ridiculed or written out of the history books, by an establishment that fears the ICA’s Revolutionary Irish Socialist Republicanism.  Bloody Sunday is far from the only military operation the ICA had involvement in during the Tan War or the War in Defence of the Republic. As we commemorate this important period in our ongoing struggle for National Liberation it is important that the Socialist Republicans of today sign a light on the true role of the ICA during the Revolutionary Period and bring the names of James O’Neill, Bob DeCoeur, Christy Crothers and their comrades who continued James Connolly’s fight for the All Ireland Socialist Republic in the ranks of the Irish Citizen Army to the fore, and ensure that Revolutionary People’s Army takes its rightful place in the history of the struggle for Freedom and Socialism. 

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