Vincent (Vinny) Byrne Joined the Irish volunteers in 1915 at the age of 14. He fought in E Company, 2nd Battalion during the 1916 Easter Rising at Jacobs Biscuit Factory on Bishop Street, Dublin seeing for the first time a man killed by gunfire. At one point armed with a .22 rifle the 14 year old Byrne held 2 policemen prisoner. He fought here alongside men such as Thomas MacDonagh, John McBride (a veteran of the Boer War) and Mick McDonnell (later leader of the Squad). After the surrender order he escaped and was arrested in a British Army sweep on the following Saturday. A group of the younger rebels were then held in Richmond Barracks (generally treated well in comparison to those at the Rotunda). One of the DMP men who fingerprinted him at Richmond Barracks was Detective Johnny Barton (later killed by Collins Squad on 29th November 1919). During questioning he was asked “Why did I not join the British Army. I said I would be fighting for England then and not for Ireland.” Due to their age they were released the following Friday evening (the older men being deported to Stafford Jail and then Frongoch Concentration Camp in Wales). In his statement to the Bureau of Military History he noted that “It might be well to mention that, strangely enough, in later years I was officer commanding this same barracks where I was held prisoner.”
Vinny Byrne went on the fight with Michael Collins counter intelligence unit ‘The Squad’, taking part in the standard guerilla warfare activities of intelligence gathering, raids for weapons, vehicles and supplies, ambushes, attacks and assasinations all throughout the Irish War of Independence (January 1919 – Truce July 1921). Below is an incomplete timeline of some of the operations he took part in from November 1919 through to Bloody Sunday of November 1920. It may be worth reading the notes at the end as some of this information is conflictive.
Sample one year timeline of Vinny Byrne activity Irish War of Independence :
November 1919 worked with Jim Slattery at Irish Woodworkers. At a meeting of Jim Slattery, Mick McDonnell & Tom Keogh at McDonnells House 29th November 1919 the possibility of Vinny Byrne taking part in the execution of Johnny Barton was discussed. He was a member of this party but did not fire the shot.
30 November 1919 – involved in the execution of Detective Sergeant Johnny Barton executed (15 minutes after he had agreed to do ‘Political Work’). Barton had been known to extort ‘Flyboys’ British men avoiding conscription in Ireland during WWI. Paddy O’Daly, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Vincent Byrne.
p 66-67 ‘The Squad: and the intelligence operations of Michael Collins’ by T. Ryle Dwyer
(This execution is ascribed to Seán Treacy in The Anglo-Irish War: The Troubles of 1913-1922 By Peter Cottrell)
19th December 1919 – Attempted assasination of Lord Lieutenant, Field Marshall Sir John French at Ashtown. This action involved men of the Squad along with the men from Soloheadbeg who had initiated the Irish war of Independence.
Mick McDonnell, Sean Treacy, Dan Breen, Seamus Robinson, J.J. Hogan, Paddy O’Daly, Martin Savage, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Vincent Byrne, Joe Leonard. P 71-
21st January 1920 – Detective Inspector W.C. Forbes Redmond (from Belfast & head of G Division) Executed. Tom Keogh, Vinny Byrne, Jim slattery, Joe Leonard, Séan Doyle, Paddy O’Daly. P81 –
5th February 1920 – Raid on Navy and Army Garage. Haul included tools, parts, motorcycles, 2x ford Trucks later used in several operations. Mick McDonnell, Jim Slattery, Vinny Byrne, Peader clancy (Dublin Brigade Vice-Brigadier). P83 –
12 February 1920 – The hold up of Military escort in attempt to free Robert Barton. (Jim Slattery, Peadar Clancy, Mick McDonnell, Entire Squad + E Company 2nd Battalion) P83 –
13th February 1920 – attempt on Ammunition Train (mixed reports) Squad + Dublin Brigade. P 85
19th February 1920 – Raid on Irish Steam Packet Company – Sir John Rogersons Quay. This raid was unsuccessful as the British Military had removed all ammunition stocks the day before. Vinny Byrne, Squad & Dublin Brigade. P87
2nd March 1920 – Execution of British Agent – John Charles Byrne. Paddy O’Daly, Ben Barrett, Tom Kilcoyne, (Liam Tobin, Tom Cullen). P89 –
3rd March 1920 – Seizure of Dublin Castle Mail. Jim Slattery, Joe Dolan, Paddy Kennedy, Charlie Dalton, Tom Keogh, Vinny Byrne, Pat McCrae. P90 –
9th March 1920 – Vinny Byrne and Joe Slattery quit jobs to work fulltime with the Squad.
Squad formalised with twelve men : Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jimmy Slattery, Paddy O’Doyle, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Vinny Byrne, Séan Doyle, Paddy Griffin, Eddie Byrne, Mick Reilly, Jimmy Conroy. Reported directly to Collins as Director of Intelligence (or his Deputy Liam Tobin). Based at 100 Seville Place, then later Oriel Street, then to a Builders Yard off Abbey street using the sign ‘Geo.Moreland, Cabinet Maker’. At this point Byrne and Slattery wore Carpenters aprons covering their guns posing as Carpenters for trade. P91 –
March 24th 1920 – Private Fergus Brian Molloy – British agent executed. (Vinny Byrne, Mick McDonnell, Jim Slattery, Tom Keogh). P97
26th March 1920 – Alan Bell Magistrate (former RIC) taken from tram and executed (for more context see note below). (Mick McDonnel, Jim Slattery, Vinny Byrne, Guilfoyle) P 99
20th April 1920 – Detective Constable Laurence Dalton executed.(Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Joe Dolan, Vinny Byrne. P102
Sergant Revell shot – (Tom Keogh, Paddy O’Daly, vinny Byrne). P103
30th July 1920 – Frank Brooke Railroad executive & advisor to Lord Lieutenant French executed at Westland Row
(Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Vinny Byrne). P123
Late September 1920 – Attempt on G Division
The Squad and the men from Soloheadbeg including ;
Paddy O’Daly, Joe Leonard, Mick McDonnell, Vinny Byrne, Charlie Dalton, Sean Treacy, Dan Breen, JJ Hogan, Seamus Robinson + Tom Cullen, Hugo McNeill, Jim Brennan. This was the planned attack on 8 to a dozen Dublin Castle political branch G division detectives. Aborted due to presence of Joe McNamara (Republican agent) among targets. 2nd failed Attempt a week later due to targets change of plans. As a result of the many roadblocks this 2nd attempt became attack on military at Binn’s bridge wounding 2 British Army soldiers. 3rd attempt following week cancelled by Michael Collins due to the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney’s Hunger strike in Brixton prison. P146
11th October 1920 Dan Breen and Séan Treacy surrounded at safe house and shoot their way out, killing Major Gerald Smyth (brother of Colonel Ferguson Smyth of Listowel infamy) & Captain A.P.White. On 14th October at the funeral of White and Smyth a planned attempt on Hamar Greenwood, General Tudor and prominent officers by members of the Squad was aborted on late receipt of information that they would not after all be present. P151
Bloody Sunday 21 November 1920 – In all 19 men were shot by the IRA, 14 died, also one more later died of wounds. Cairo Gang’ agents (mostly) were executed across Dublin on this morning by multiple units typically led by Squad men and staffed by volunteers. It is said that the list originally included 50 names and was reduced to 35 by Cathal Brugha. In the event about one third were killed the rest escaped or were not present (one being saved by an overnight stay at a brothel). After this event Dublin castle was the destination of an exodus of agents from their lodgings all over Dublin fleeing to the safety of the Castle.
Executions of Captain Peter Ames of the Grenadier Guards and Lieutenant George Bennett (believed head of the Cairo Gang) at 38 Upper Mount Sreet, Dublin. Tom Keogh, Vinny Byrne, Séan Doyle, Herbie Conroy, Frank Saurin, Tom Ennis, Tom Duffy. Of this attack Vinny Byrne is quoted as saying “The Lord have mercy on your souls. I then opened fire with my Peter. They both fell dead.’ This was confirmed in later years during a Television interview which included a re-enactment when Vinny Byrne recalled these words.
Of this momentous day in Irish history Michael Collins wrote: “I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. Perjury and torture are words too easily known to them. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. That should be the future’s judgement on this particular event. For myself my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.”
Later that Sunday afternoon the black and tans/auxiliaries drove to Croke Park and fired 228 rounds into the crowd (not counting 50 rounds from an armoured car). They shot 68 people, killing 15. Including a 10 yr old boy, a 14 yr old boy and also a player for the Tipperary team. This event damaged the British intelligence gathering and operational capability in Ireland and the reprisal at Croke Park massively increased popular support for the IRA. P170 –
Late November 1920 – Abortive attempt on the ‘Igoe Gang’. Thomas Newell, Charlie Dalton, Jim Hughes, Dan Mc Donnell, Tom Keogh, Vinny Byrne, Jim Slattery, Liam Tobin – resulted in the unarmed Newell being interrogated on the street then shot 4 times. P205
Above page numbers refer to :
‘The Squad: and the intelligence operations of Michael Collins’ by T. Ryle Dwyer
.One of the most notable later operations of the Irish War of Independence was the IRA attack on the Customs house in which Vinny Byrne took part.
Vinny Byrne on the Customs House attack :
‘However a 25 May IRA attack on the Customs House in Dublin made it clear that the advocates of continued force within the Irish Independence movement were more than content to keep the fight going. The attack, waged largely by the Dublin Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, marked the largest armed deployment by the rebel forces since the Easter Rising. With some 200 men involved in all, the attack in retrospect might be judged to have been as foolhardy for the IRA as it was dramatic in scale. While the objective of damaging the Customs House and destroying thousands of tax records was achieved, in all the attack resulted in the loss of some seventy-five members of the Dublin Brigade due to arrests at the scene and the deaths of six others. An entry in the diary of Mark Sturgis the day after the attack noted that the structure was ‘still burning this morning’. “O” is in high glee had a most successful raid tihs afternoon and cleared out Michael Colllin’s [sic] new headquarters office. Among the captured documents a letter written to M.C [Michael Collins] saying that a bloody business it was “that we lost all those galant fellows yesterday at the Customs House”. Collins’ attitude to the attack beforehand remains unclear. But given his gut reaction afterwards, the assessment offered by Dublin Brigade Commander, Oscar Traynor that ‘the objective we set out to accomplish has been achieved’ was less than a cause for celebration.
The objective for attacking the Customs House in fact dated back to the end of 1918, when the Irish Volunteers devised a plan for the building’s destruction if and when the British Government imposed conscription on Ireland. Vincent Byrne, a member of the execution gang attached to Michael Collins Intelligence Department, recalled his role in the attack and subsequent escape.
I got a tin of petrol and proceeded to the second floor. I opened the door and sitting inside there were a lady and a gentleman, civil servants having tea. I requested them to leave, stating that I was going to set fire to the office. The gentleman stood up and said ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ I showed him my gun and told him I was serious. . . The lady then asked me if she could get her coat, and I replied: ‘Miss, you’ll be lucky if you get out with your life.’
Byrne, like other Brigade members, was able to escape in the confusion caused by the smoke that engulfed the building and the mayhem that prevailed outside, as harried British Auxiliaries sought to round up suspects, who were indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Byrne, in fact, relied on his wits to escape from a situation in which he had been detained by joining a crowd that was being questioned by an officer.
Now it came my turn to come before the officer. I humbly asked him:’Could I go home now? He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I replied:’Sir, I was on my way to Brook Thomas to buy some timber.’ He ran his hand all over me and out of my back pocket he pulled a carpenters rule and a few pieces of paper. The paper showed different sizes of timber which I usually carried as a decoy. Handing me back my rule and papers he said’Get to Hell out of this.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ I was once more clear.
Byrne was much luckier than several IRA men in Cork one month earlier, who were executed by the British authorities in Cork City.’
The Irish Revolution and its Aftermath 1916-1923 – Years of Revolt Francis Costello
Activity of Vinny Byrne during the Irish Civil War (June 1922 – May 1923) which followed the signing of the treaty is less well documented. It is said that some former members of the squad were involved in executions of Anti-Treaty IRA men however this would not be indicative of their overall Civil War era activity as is outlined throughout the Scrapbook cuttings & documents with plentiful reference to large scale engagements.
Other miscellaneous references :
Vinny Byrne at the outbreak of the Irish Civil War:
When the soldiers guarding the Bank of Ireland Building in the centre of Dublin mutinied, shortly after the Army Convention of 26th March, the quick thinking of Vinny Byrne, who was in command of them, prevented a complete collapse by insisting, gun at the ready, that only those stating definite loyalty to the government could remain. He was rescued at the last moment by Beggars’ Bush reinforcements. While the mutiny was in process Oscar Traynor was outside the building ready to occupy it with a force from his Dublin no.1 Brigade. According to J.J O’Connell only 6 of the 50 men there had been prepared to declare their loyalty to GHQ, and a new guard had to be enlisted. After that the anti-Treaty IRA plans to storm Beggars’ Bush, by means of collusion from within, proved stillborn.
Green Against Green – The Irish Civil War Michael Hopkinson
On Michael Collins & joining the Squad:
The first members of the squad were Joe Leonard, Sean Doyle, Jim Slattery, Bill Stapleton, Pat McCrae, James Conroy, Ben Barrett and Daly. Then in January 1920 Collins added Tom Keogh, Mick O’Reilly and Vincent Byrne. The expanded squad became known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’.
Vinny Byrne told me:
we were all young, twenty, twenty-one. We never thought we’d win or lose. We just wanted to have a go. We’d go out in pairs, walk up to the target, do it, then split. You wouldn’t be nervous while you’d be waiting to plug him, but you’d imagine everyone was looking into your face. On a typical job we’d use about eight, including the back-up. Nobody got in our way. One of us would knock him over with the first shot, and the other would finish him off with a shot to the head.
Collins was a marvel. If he hadn’t done the work he did, we’d still be under Britain. Informers and drink would have taken care of us. But our movement was temperate. Collins would meet us from time to time and say, ‘You’re doing great work, lads.’ There was no formality about him. I remember after the Irish Government was set up I was on guard duty at Government Buildings, and he was Commander-in-Chief. He saw me and came over to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘How are you going on, Vinny?’
You got your orders. He was your target. That was your job and it was up to you to see that it was done however you went about it.
14th January 1988 interview Tim Pat Coogan and Vincent Byrne for ‘Michael Collins’ a biography by Tim Pat Coogan
Notes on Alan Bell execution :
Following the near miss of the IRA’s attempt to assasinate Lord French in December 1919, and the shooting of Redmond, the British authorities at last gave priority to reforming intelligence. A small, secret committee, including Alan Bell, a veteran of detective work in the land league days, was forced to consider the consequences of what G.C. Duggan described as the virtual extermination of the Intelligence system. Bell has generally been depicted at this time as leading an investigation into the location of Sinn Féin bank accounts but it is clear from his personal papers that he was involved in detective work relating to the French and Redmond shootings. While the committee was still sitting, Bell was shot dead by Collins’ men: the fact that he was unarmed and unprotected and travelling on his regular route by public transport between Monkstown and the city of Dublin says little for his idea of sensible precautions.
Michael Hopkinson – The Irish War of Independence p55
The Irish Times reported on March 9, 1920 :
Irish Banks and Sinn Fein – Opening of Inquiry
The inquiry authorised by the attorney-General for Ireland under the Crimes Act, for the purpose of ascertaining the relations alleged to exsist between certain Irish banks and Sinn Fein, was opened before Mr Alan Bell, R.M., in a room in the Dublin Police Court Buildings yesterday morning. The proceedings were conducted in private, no persons being present but an official shorthand writer and the witness who for the time being was under examination.
On March 27, 1920 The Irish Times reported :
The murder of Mr. Alan Bell establishes a link between the two most dreadful chapters in the modern history of Ireland. He served the Irish Government loyally in the worst days of the Land League, and helped to defeat that conspiracy of crime.
On March 29, 1920 The Irish Times reported :
Mr Bell had recently been engaged on what he (the Coroner) might describe as quasi-political work in connection with his office, and this, apparently, was sufficient to mark him down for destruction.
On the conflicting information around the official formation of the Squad :
In a written account of the formation of the Squad Major-General Paddy Daly has stated that eight men – Daly himself, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Sean Doyle, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Vincent Byrne, and Mick McDonnell – were called to a meeting early in September 1919 by Collins and Mulcahy, at which the Squad was formed, only the first four being then selected. Comdt Vincent Byrne, in a statement to the author, can recall atending no such meeting, and points out that it would have been strange to announce what was afoot to eight men and then select only four of them. His impression is that Smith was shot by ordinary Volunteers chosen in the main from 2nd Battn, Dublin Brigade, and that two ‘unofficial’ squads of four men each, under Daly and McDonnell respectively, carried out the shoooting of the G-man,Barton in November under authority of Collins, the Squad proper being formed in March 1920, when Comdt Byrne himself and Jim Slattery left their civil employment to join it in a full time capacity.
With many thanks to: All that is Irish past and present.