Three British soldiers are killed, the first in the city since the Easter Rising of 1916, and two more wounded in a short exchange of gunfire with an Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit on the morning of September 20, 1920, at the corner North King Street and Church Street in Dublin.
Just before 11 o’clock, fifteen soldiers of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment arrive in a motor lorry at Monks’ Bakery, North King Street, to acquire a supply of bread for Collinstown aerodrome. What happens next is disputed. Soldiers involved in the incident testify later that the volunteers began the shooting, after shouting “Hands Up!” and demanding they hand over their rifles.
Two key testimonies tally. The driver of the truck, Private C. Barnes, testifies at IRA volunteer Kevin Barry‘s court martial that he had been looking under the bonnet of the vehicle when he saw a civilian carrying a pistol walk up, shout “Hands Up!,” and fire a single round into the air. Decades later, the officer commanding the IRA unit that day, Seamus Kavanagh, tells the Bureau of Military History that it was indeed one of his men, but not Barry, that had fired the first shot, perhaps due to “overanxiety.”
Kavanagh sees the soldiers in the truck immediately rise to their feet, rifles in hand. The plan has fallen apart at the first hurdle, the element of surprise is lost, and there are no guns captured that day. He says he then gives the order to open fire, and retreat from the bakery. The exchange lasts four or five minutes.
In the last seconds of the ambush, Barry is in trouble. His gun has jammed twice, and has only fired two shots. Trying to clear the second jam, he fails to realise the rest of the unit has retreated, leaving him alone. He rolls under the lorry to hide, but a woman in the crowd of onlookers points him out to the soldiers, actually out of concern that he might be run over. He is taken prisoner and brought to the nearest base, at the North Dublin Union.
One reporter who attends the scene counts 22 bullet marks on walls, doors and windows in nearby homes and shops and adds that the military lorry is also riddled with bullet holes.
The three dead soldiers are identified as 18 year-old Private Harold Washington, who is found dead at the scene, Private Marshall Whitehead and Private Thomas Humphries who both die subsequently in King George V Hospital in Stoneybatter. The two wounded are Private William Smith and Private Frank Noble, neither of whom is armed.
It is rumoured that one or two of the attackers are killed, but this is not confirmed. Several volunteers are slightly wounded, but get away. Bob Flanagan’s wound is the most serious, a bullet literally parting his scalp. One onlooker expresses disbelief that the episode did not result in further fatalities given how close the soldiers and their assailants were to each other.
One person is understood to have been arrested in connection with the incident, however, according to eyewitnesses, the civilian in question has nothing to do with the attack and is taking shelter under a dray when arrested.
(Pictured: The funeral of the soldiers killed in the North King Street ambush, Irish Life, October 1, 1920)