Goodbye Dublin: The War of Independence in the City

Black and Tan uniform on display at the exhibition
Photo by Dermot Carmody.

Dermot Carmody

The role of Dublin during the War of Independence (1919-1921), and the experiences of her ordinary citizens during that conflict, are the subject of an exhibition at the Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street. The exhibition’s curators have used contemporary photographs, newspapers and film to chart the background to the war and to document the main protagonists and incidents in the capital where over 300 people lost their lives in the violence.

NewsFour attended a guided tour of the exhibition where James Curry, one of Dublin City Council’s Historians in Residence, walked a group of us through the exhibition. We began at the eye-catching centerpiece in the middle of the exhibition, a representation on Nelson’s Pillar, the monument which once stood on the site of the Spire in O’Connell Street (previously named Sackville Street).

This symbol of empire and military power survived both the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence of course, to be eventually destroyed by a bomb in 1966. As James pointed out, those visiting the exhibition can still see Nelson’s head upstairs in the main reading room of the library.

The exhibition gives the visitor a context to the War of Independence with a brief guide to political events leading up to it, from the abolition of the parliament in Ireland in 1800 following the Act of Union. A long political struggle to achieve Home Rule, (independence for Ireland whilst remaining within the British Empire) ensued under the leadership of men like Isaac Butt and then Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).

However, as Home Rule was due to be enacted in 1914, the First World War broke out, which, as James Curry points out “put a bit of a dampener on things.” Critically the leader of the IPP, John Redmond urged Irish men to enlist to fight for the British cause in the War. Ultimately, around 200,000 Irish people fought in the War and around 35,000 were killed. With the failure of Home Rule to materialise and casualties mounting, support for the IPP dropped and increased for more radical groups like Sinn Féin. 

Although there was limited popular support for the 1916 rising at the time, this spread and became entrenched because of the British response – arrests, executions, and deportations – so that by the time the war ended and there was a general election in 1918 Sinn Féin won a landslide victory.

Curry makes the point, as he shows us some heavily-censored Sinn Féin electoral material from 1918, that although they played a relatively small part in the Rising, Sinn Féin’s victory capitalised entirely on the growth in sympathy after the fate of the rebels of 1916.

Sinn Féin had fought the election on an abstentionist policy, so that in January of 1919 the successful candidates did not take their seats at Westminster, but instead formed the first Dáil, meeting in the round room at the Mansion House.

There’s an iconic photograph of the first Dáil in the exhibition, but many in that crowd there are journalists rather than elected Sinn Féin members. Two thirds of those elected were still in jail or in exile, Curry points out.

On the same day as the first Dáil sat, two police officers were killed in Tipperary in an ambush. Because of the occurrence of these two events on that day, it is regarded as the start of the War of Independence.

There are a number of photographs of Michael Collins in the exhibition, including a rare one of him looking relaxed as he throws the ball in for a GAA match. As well as being Minister for Finance, Collins was of course the IRA’s director of intelligence, with its headquarters being in Mespil Road. Curry describes Collins and others as “the driving force” of the War of Independence, who were determined to fight on their terms, essentially by waging a guerilla war.

Towards the end of 1919 an incident in Dublin contributed to the escalation of the war when the IRA made an attempt to kill the Viceroy of Ireland, Lord French, at Ashtown. Curry explains, they failed in their efforts having targeted the wrong car in a motorcade transporting French from Ashtown railway station, where he had alighted on the way back from his Roscommon country dwelling to Dublin. The ambushers had waited in Kelly’s pub (now The Halfway House). One of them, Martin Savage, was killed during the incident. There is a memorial to him at Ashtown roundabout today.

As the violence escalated, the complicated policing situation in Ireland was exposed. From the start, when two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were killed at the Soloheadbeg ambush, the RIC and – in Dublin – the Dublin Metropolitan Police, were a target for the IRA. Apart from being in danger of being killed by IRA ambushes and raids on barracks, members of both forces were ostracised and recruitment dried up. To provide reinforcements, ex-army men were recruited, some in Dublin, but most came from Britain, to form an armed police force to cope with the actions of the IRA in Ireland. 

These were the notorious Black and Tans. when the first of them arrived in Ireland there were no uniforms for them and they wore a mixture of army khaki and black RIC trousers, giving rise to the nickname – also the name by which a pack of similarly mottled foxhounds on the Limerick / Tipperary border were known. A Black and Tan uniform along with typical equipment is on display in the exhibition.

Later came the Auxiliaries, a militia who were the brainchild of one Winston Churchill and who were recruited from the ranks of ex-army officers. Both groups were feared and loathed for their drunken, brutish and violent behaviour. The IRA used photographs, such as the one in the exhibition of a group of Auxiliaries who were stationed at Beggars Bush, to identify members of these forces as targets for assassination. Curry tells us that as dangerous as it was to be in such a photograph, it was also dangerous to be the photographer, as one ran the risk of being identified as part of the IRA intelligence effort.

Probably the biggest event in the memory of the War of Independence in Dublin is Bloody Sunday, 21st November 1920. There are photographs and other documents related to that in the exhibition as well as a large military map which documents many of the events of that day and lists the casualties of its culmination when British forces opened fire on civilians at an exhibition match in Croke Park.

The day had begun with a number of IRA assassinations and attempted assassinations, the location of which are marked on the map. This allows the visitor to connect personally with the events by seeking out places familiar to them where they occurred. As Curry says, there was a significant incident in 1921 virtually on the doorstep of Pearse Street Library in which six people, including two civilians lost their lives.

The exhibition affords an opportunity for the contemporary Dubliner to connect with the experience of their predecessors during the war. There are photographs of familiar places like Mountjoy Prison with protestors outside, while IRA prisoners went on hunger strike inside, or of ordinary people walking around dead bodies in the streets of Dublin.

It is a window on a Dublin where a curfew killed all entertainment, where children were killed and the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans were a fearsome law unto themselves. It succeeds in helping us to connect with a traumatic but important time in our city’s past.

Goodbye Dublin: The War of Independence in the City is at Dublin City Library and Archive, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2 until October 31st (Mon-Thurs 10am – 8pm; Fri/Sat 10am – 5pm). Admission is free. Guided tours are available and are free but booking is required. Book online at (Search “Goodbye Dublin”)