British authorities hang six Irish Republican Army (IRA) Volunteers in Mountjoy Gaol for crimes of high treason and murder on the morning of March 14, 1921. The Volunteers, including Francis Xavier Flood, Thomas Bryan, Patrick Doyle, Bernard Ryan and Dermot O’Sullivan, had been captured in an ambush at Drumcondra two months earlier.
The gates of Mountjoy Gaol are opened at 8:25 AM and news of the executions is read out to the distraught relatives of the dead. As many as 40,000 people gather outside the prison and many mournfully say the Rosary for the executed men.
By evening, the streets clear rapidly as the British-imposed curfew comes into effect at 9:00 PM each night. During this period, the city is a fearful place, patrolled by regular British troops and the much-feared paramilitary police, the Auxiliary Division, as people scurry home and await IRA retaliation for the hangings, which is not long in coming.
That very evening, IRA captain Peadar O’Meara sends as many as thirty-four IRA men out to attack police or military targets. They are armed with the standard urban guerrilla arms of easily hidden handguns and grenades. One young Volunteer, Sean Dolan, throws a grenade at a police station on nearby Merrion Square, which bounces back before it explodes, blowing off his own leg.
At around 8:00 PM, with the curfew fast approaching, a company of Auxiliaries based in Dublin Castle is sent to the area to investigate the explosion. It consists of one Rolls Royce armoured car and two trucks holding about sixteen men. Apparently the Auxiliaries have some inside information as they head straight for the local IRA headquarters at 144 Great Brunswick Street, now Pearse Street. One later testifies in court that “I had been notified there were a certain number of gunmen there.”
The IRA is expecting the Auxiliaries. As soon as the Auxiliaries approach the building, fire is opened on them from three sides. What is described in newspapers as a “hail of fire” tears into the Auxiliaries’ vehicles. Five of the eight Auxiliaries in the first truck are hit in the opening fusillade, two of them fatally injured. The IRA fighters, however, are seriously outgunned. The Rolls Royce armoured car is impervious to small arms fire (except its tires, which are shot out) but mounts a Vickers heavy machine gun which sprays the surrounding houses with bullets. The uninjured Auxiliaries also clamber out of their trucks and return fire at the gun flashes from street corners and rooftops.
Civilian passersby fling themselves to the ground to avoid the bullets but four are hit, by which side it is impossible to tell. The British military court of inquiry into the incident finds that the civilians had been killed by persons unknown, if by the IRA then they were “murdered,” if hit by Auxiliaries the shootings were “accidental.”
The gunfire lasts only five minutes but in that time seven people, including the two Auxiliaries, are killed or fatally wounded and at least six more wounded. Three civilians lay dead on the street – Thomas Asquith is a 68-year-old caretaker, David Kelly is a prominent Sinn Féin member and head of the Sinn Féin bank, and Stephen Clarke, aged 22, is an ex-soldier and may have been the individual who tipped off the Auxiliaries about the whereabouts of the IRA meeting house. An internal IRA report notes that he is “under observation, as he was a tout for the enemy.” The wounded are spirited away by sympathetic fire brigade members and members of Cumann na mBan and treated at nearby Mercer’s Hospital.
Two IRA men are captured as they flee the scene. Thomas Traynor, a 40-year-old veteran of the Easter Rising, is carrying an automatic pistol, but claims to have had no part in the ambush itself. He had, he maintains, simply been asked to bring in the weapon to 144 Great Brunswick Street. The other is Joseph Donnelly a youth of just 17 years of age.
As most of the IRA fighters get away through houses, over walls and into backstreets, the Auxiliaries ransack St. Andrew’s Catholic Hall at 144 Great Brunswick Street but find little of value. Regular British Army troops quickly arrive from nearby Beggars Bush Barracks and cordon off the area, but no further arrests are made. Desultory sniping carries on in the city for several hours into the night.