A British Tank On An Irish Street

A British Army Mark V tank rams a sealed premises on Capel Street, Dublin, January 18th 1921, during destructive house-searches by the UK Occupation Forces in Ireland
A British Army Mark V tank rams a sealed premises on Capel Street, Dublin, January 18th 1921, during destructive house-searches by the UK Occupation Forces in Ireland

On the 13th of January 1921 a number of British soldiers manning a vehicle-checkpoint on O’Connell Bridge, the main river-crossing in Dublin city, opened fire on a crowd of men, women and children protesting their presence, killing two civilians and wounding five others. Exploiting subsequent unrest in the capital’s northside districts on the 15th of January the British Occupation Forces (BOF) sealed off a zone bounded by Capel Street, Church Street, North King Street and the Quays to carry out searches for arms and equipment belonging to the urban battalions of the Dublin Brigade, Irish Republican Army (IRA). Up to eight hundred troops and paramilitary police conducted destructive house-raids and arrests in the area, supported by armoured cars and tanks. On the 18th a second cordon was placed around the nearby Mountjoy Square district, confining its inhabitants within another zone. In both cases the results for the BOF were negligible, beyond further alienating an already hostile resident population.

The image above was taken at the time of the searches by a correspondent with Het Leven, a Dutch news magazine, at the junction of Capel Street with Abbey Street Upper (left) and Mary’s Abbey (right), facing south-east towards the River Liffey. Captured on January 18th it shows a British Mark V tank, fitted with an improvised ram, smashing open the doors of No. 148 Capel Street, the licensed premises of J. Behan (the Mark Vs were produced in two versions. The “Male”, which was armed with 57 mm guns and machine guns, and the “Female”, armed solely with machine guns. This vehicle is almost certainly the heavier Male class). The use of tanks or armoured vehicles to access sealed buildings was relatively common in the country’s major cities, Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Derry, though the practice was rarer elsewhere due to a scarcity of equipment. Dozens of British soldiers can be seen preparing to enter the premises, while at least two men (civilians or more likely plainclothes detectives from the infamous G Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police) loiter in nearby doorways. The visible shop names are H. Williams & Co. at No. 25 Capel Street, a tea merchants and grocers, and Skeffington & Co. at No. 24, a confectioners; the latter is sharing the address with M. Egan. Next door to that, and possibly holding Nos. 23-21, is a premises signposted as Miller. The row of buildings at No.21-25 Capel Street are now a Spar Supermarket while the address opposite, No. 148, has become the Boar’s Head public house.

Note: This image is also found in the digital collection of the South Dublin County Libraries where it is mislabelled “British Army manoeuvre a tank across Capel Street near the junction with Mary Street, Dublin” and incorrectly dated to 1920.

The junction of Capel Street with Abbey Street Upper and Mary’s Abbey
The junction of Capel Street with Abbey Street Upper and Mary’s Abbey
21-24 Capel Street, near the junction with Abbey Street Upper and Mary’s Abbey
21-24 Capel Street, near the junction with Abbey Street Upper and Mary’s Abbey
No. 148 Capel Street, the Boar’s Head public house
No. 148 Capel Street, the Boar’s Head public house
Dubliners are so blasé these days
Ah here, leave it out…!
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7 comments

  1. Very nice article. What I find especially notable in the picture is the absence of any perceived threat from the location. Even though bracketed in by high-rises on both sides, the troops are bunched up and no real effort appears to be expended on anticipated defence. Based on this picture not being taken in the usual post-action reenactment poses (and by a foreign journalist), it seems to be the genuine “search effort.” In light of the totality of these circumstances, these searches are most likely purely retaliatory harassment with no true military value. I think whoever ordered them and those who carried them out expected them not to yield anything but negligible results (and hence were rather “relaxed” during their execution) and had the arrogance to full well intend to further alienate the already hostile population. Very “British” for the time.

    1. The British imposed intermittent curfews across Dublin city and county from 1920, and the cordoned area where the photo was taken was under a particularly strict one at the time. So the streets would have been cleared of civilians. The men in plainclothes attire pictured in the photo (one in the open talking to some officers, two in doorways) were almost certainly British spies, either with the G Division of the DMP or with one of the UK undercover units (the so-called Cairo Gang, the Igoe Gang, etc.).

      Most attacks by the IRA were of a hit-and-run nature from the streets itself, several individuals armed with with handguns and grenades. Rifles and shotguns were rarely used in Dublin. Passing troops or vehicles would be hit at close range, the attackers fleeing into the crowds. Sniping remained relatively rare in the capital. Once the streets were cleared the British knew that the threat of attack was lessened.

      Yes, quite true, most searches were designed to intimidate the host population the guerillas relied upon, not to find anything in particular. Of course occupying armies also require things to do, to look busy to their higher ups, particularly their political masters.

    1. Jānis, sadly all too true, and a point worth making over and over. At different times and in different ways both Pearse and Connolly expressed the view that an independent Ireland that was simply a sovereign “West Britain” wasn’t worth the spilling of one drop of blood. They were right.

      More on streets here.

      1. That was a good read – makes you wonder – what’s the point in blowing up Nelson’s column and not renaming the street that’s named after him.
        And why is “Londonderry” so offensive, but Londonbridge road and Prince of Wales street are perfectly fine?

  2. Not wanting to be too pedantic, the tank is a MK V* which was an elongated version of the MK V . This is quiet obvious on side elevation view which the photo affords. Don’t know why they just didn’t knock. 😅

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