Grief and despair on Galway streets November 1920

Sunday November 21 1920, known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, marked one of the most significant events in the Irish War of Independence. The day began with an IRA operation, organised by Michael Collins, to assassinate the so called ‘Cairo Gang’ - a team of undercover British agents, working and living in Dublin. IRA members went to a number of addresses, and shot dead 14 people including nine army officers.

That afternoon, incensed at the outrage, British forces opened fire on the crowd at Croke Park, killing 11 civilians and wounding at least 60. That evening three IRA suspects, held in Dublin Castle, were beaten to death.

The next morning a large force of Black and Tans* blocked all the entrances to UCG. Professor of Romance Languages, Liam Ó Briain, was eating his lunch when he saw a soldier peering in the window. There was a bit of shouting at the door, before a girl turned and said: ‘They are here for you Professor!’

Fearing harsh treatment Ó Briain was relieved when he noticed that among the Black and Tans, were regular RIC constables. One of them whispered in a friendly manner: ‘You are lucky we came for you in the middle of the day. You will be alright from now on.’

Yet it was the beginning of 13 months imprisonment in Galway’s makeshift jails, and later at the Curragh. It was one of the more bizarre experiences of his adventurous life.

Still active

From the authority’s point of view picking up Ó Briain was probably a wise move. A Dubliner and a brilliant linguist, he studied in Berlin on the first travelling scholarship awarded by NUI. He returned to Ireland in 1914. As a passionate Irish language supporter, he followed his friends into the Volunteers. During the Rising he served under Michael Mallon in St Stephen’s Green, and in the Royal College of Surgeons. He was imprisoned in Wandsworth, London, and in Frongoch, Wales, where he became friends with Michael Collins.

He was freed in the general amnesty of Christmas 1916. He returned penniless, only to find he was appointed to a professorship in Galway. Four years later, however, he was still active in the resistance. On Collin’s instructions he had recently returned from arranging arms shipments from Italy and France.

Two funerals

His arrest came in the midst of immense civil disturbance, and anxiety, not only in Dublin but also in Galway. As the troubles reached their height in late 1920, Galway witnessed a series of tit-for-tat assassinations. On the night of November 14, just one week before Ó’Briain’s arrest, a popular young priest, Fr Michael Griffin, was kidnapped by the Black and Tans and murdered. Griffin, a known IRA sympathiser, was taken in response to the disappearance of Patrick Joyce, the principal of Barna school, and the local Peace Commissioner. Joyce’s letter to Dublin Castle, containing infromation on local volunteers, was intercepted by the IRA. He was shot and buried in the Spiddal bog, and not discovered for decades.

Fr Griffin’s body, however, was found in a shallow grave a week after his disappearance. There was a huge outcry throughout Ireland, and in the British House of Commons. David Lloyd George assured the House that no crown forces were involved in Griffin’s murder.** Fr Griffin’s funeral, on November 23, two days after Ó Briain’s arrest, was an immense affair. An estimated 12,000 attended - a remarkable figure given that only 14,000 lived in the town at the time.

This was in sharp contrast to the funeral of the murdered publican and shopkeeper Micheál Breathnach in the preceding month, October 19 1920. This poor man was taken from his premises, Old Malt House on Quay Street, and shot dead at Long Walk. His body was found in the mud the next day.

Commissioner of the Police, R F Cruise, issued a public warning that only 50 people would be allowed to walk in the funeral procession. This order was enforced by an armoured car following immediately after the procession, followed again ‘by a motor-truck full of Tans with their guns aimed specifically from the truck at the people!’ Crowds lined the streets however, and Ó Briain followed the cortege along the footpath.

Outpouring of grief

Undoubtedly the big brouhaha raised by the murder of a priest, the prime minister’s false reassurance that no member of the armed forces was responsible, and the guilty conscience of the local police/army authorities who knew exactly how Fr Griffin had died, made the Commissioner of the Police change his mind as to how Griffin’s funeral should be conducted. The enormous crowd displayed an outpouring of grief and despair at the fearful state of the town and country.

No doubt Ó Briain heard all the details of Griffin’s funeral, as it must have been widely discussed, inside Galway gaol.

Next week: Imprisonment in the Town Hall, and Captain H’s mocking of prisoners.

NOTES: *Former World War I soldiers, recruited as a complementary force to the RIC, wearing green and military khaki uniforms, which gave them the black and tan tag. Their behaviour generally was undisciplined, and at times murderous.

**On the orders of Michael Collins a local investigation was carried out. It found that an Auxiliary named Nicholas, fired the fatal shot. After the Anglo Irish Truce became effective on March 31 1922, the editor of the Connacht Tribune, Tom Cork Kenny, interviewed Richard Cruise, High Commissioner of Police. He admitted that Griffin was shot dead during interrogation at Lenaboy Castle.

For this week’s Diary I am leaning on Essays By An Irish Rebel (published 1934 - 1968 ) translated from the Irish by Eoin Ó Dochartaigh, published by Ardcrú Books, on sale €18.


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