Photo: Michael Barnes (seated, left) and family at his mother’s funeral in Dublin in 1988
Today is the centenary of Bloody Sunday, when the British army killed or fatally wounded 14 civilians during a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, Dublin. Here the former Labour MP Michael Barnes describes his parents’ walk-on (or drive-by) role in the day’s events:
Born in 1904, my mother Katherine Kennedy was Irish. Her father Frederick was a Dublin solicitor. His family were southern Protestants thought to have come from Limerick, but the name Kennedy suggests that they may have been Catholics who converted to protestantism during the potato famine in return for food, or ‘soupers’, as these starving families were known, because they queued up at Anglican soup kitchens. Whatever the Kennedys’ origins, my grandmother Mary Louise Irwin, who came from a protestant family in the North, was in no doubt where she stood and always referred to Dun Laoghaire as Kingstown, long after the South became Eire and later the Irish Republic. She was my grandfather’s third wife. When they married she was in her early twenties and he was about sixty. His two previous wives had both died after bearing him several children, but his third family was the largest with a dozen children. The older children tended to be as staunchly loyalist as their parents, but some of the younger ones had strong nationalist and republican sympathies. One of my uncles was in the IRA during the Troubles in the early 1920s, and my mother’s heroes were the Irish republicans Michael Collins and Kevin Barry. I was probably named Michael after Collins, and my mother often used to sing me the Irish rebel song about Barry’s execution as a lullaby when I was a child. She was no more than a child herself, a month short of her twelfth birthday, at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising and only in her mid-teens during the Troubles. Yet she witnessed the violence of the Irish uprising at first hand. On 26th March 1920, for instance, on her way to school in Dublin, she was sitting in the tram that was stopped by half a dozen IRA men who proceeded to execute one of the passengers, Alan Bell, a leader of the ‘Cairo Gang’ of British intelligence officers based at Dublin Castle. Recalling the event half a century later, with a mixture of horror and excitement, she described the victim as a ‘mufti [i.e. plainclothes] man’ who was ‘against the Irish’:
Six men got onto the tram at about Merrion Avenue. It was very exciting. They looked just ordinary chaps, dressed in ordinary clothes, you know. You didn’t see a gun or anything. Three went upstairs and three stayed downstairs. They were lovely trams, the Dublin trams! And at Ballsbridge, one of the men stood up and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Come on, Mr Bell, don’t make a fuss, come out.’ Bell was reading his newspaper and he just looked at the man with astonishment. He didn’t know what was happening. And then the other three came down from upstairs and said, ‘Come on, mate, get out, you’re holding up the tram,’ or something – I’ve forgotten exactly what they said – but anyhow Bell got up and walked out with them. But he didn’t walk very far because the moment he stepped onto the pavement they shot him dead.
The irony of the story is that my mother and father, who was English, only met because he too was posted to Dublin Castle as a military intelligence officer. In 1919, having acquired a basic grasp of Russian from his fellow prisoners of war in a German camp, my father known as Fluffy had been sent to Crimea as part of the British military mission to support the White Russians in their short-lived resistance to the Bolsheviks. Back in Dublin the following year, he probably worked alongside Bell and other members of the Cairo Gang trying to capture my mother’s hero Michael Collins. Yet her republican sympathies did nothing to obstruct his romantic interest when he was invited one Sunday afternoon in 1920 to play tennis at Frescati, the Kennedys’ house in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock. Built in 1739, the house itself was famous. During the second half of the eighteenth century it had been the seaside home of the Duke and Duchess of Leinster. Their son, the Irish nationalist Lord Edward Fitzgerald, grew up at Frescati and even held meetings of the United Irishmen at the house.
It was customary for British army officers to visit the houses of well-to-do Irish Protestants on their days off, but venturing out of Dublin Castle was also dangerous. The Cairo Gang was so called because its members used to hang out at the Cairo Café in Grafton Street. On the morning of 21st November 1920, Michael Collins’s gang killed a dozen of them in their lodgings. Some were having breakfast with their wives in the Gresham Hotel when the gunmen burst in. I don’t know where my father had breakfast that day but in the afternoon the police took revenge for the killings by opening fire on the crowd at Croke Park. I do remember him telling me that he had received a tip-off not to sleep in his bed the night before. He didn’t say who gave him the warning – or why? Maybe people knew he had an Irish girlfriend. In any case, he definitely had my mother to thank for another lucky escape that evening as the IRA attacked police barracks at Bray and Cabinteely on the outskirts of Dublin in reprisal for the Croke Park massacre. The two of them were out on a drive to the Vale of Avoca in my father’s Model-T Ford, as my mother recalled towards the end of her life:
I was driving and he was sitting beside me and it was the night – we saw it from our house – that Cabinteely police barracks was burnt to the ground, blown up. And when we got to Cabinteely, we were stopped by a chap with a rifle. I was terrified for Fluffy, and the IRA man came over and he said, ‘Hey, miss, can you give me a lift to Bray?’ And I said, ‘Yes, hop in!’ And he hopped in behind me, with the gun pointing at my back. And I said, ‘You must excuse my friend. He’s got laryngitis. He can’t talk.’ Because I knew he’d know the English accent. But Cabinteely’s fairly near Bray, thank God, so we got to Bray and he got out and said, ‘Thanks very much. God bless you.’ And I said, ‘Goodbye, good luck!’ And that was it – it was perfectly all right.