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25 March 1999 Edition

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Remembering the Past: Daring arms raid

By Aengus O Snodaigh

Following the success of the raid to capture weapons and explosives at Solohedbeg, County Tipperary in January, other areas around the country began cranking up their IRA units. Until now most of their operations consisted of drilling, parading and 'manoeuvres'.

Dublin in 1919 was much the same as the rest of the organisation, short of armaments, funds and in the process of rebuilding. The First Battalion undertook a daring operation to alleviate the problem. Their target was to be then Royal Air Force base at Collinstown Aerodrome, specifically the arsenal.

Five Volunteers who were civilian employees at the Aerodrome, Patrick Houlihan,, Peadar Breslin, Pat Doyle, Sean Doyle and Christy O'Malley provided the intelligence information required for the operation and early in March 1919 Brigadier Dick McKee sanctioned the arms-raid. The five Volunteers working at the aerodrome were first to volunteer to take part, but Lieutenant Houlihan refused permission for Pat Doyle to take part on the grounds he was married. Under threat of resignation from the IRA and with his wife's backing Pat was included in the final make up of the raiding party. Of the 25 others involved Phil Leddy, George Fitzgerald, Brian Kelly, P. J. Ryan, Mick Magee, Barney Ryan and Tom Merrigan, C. O'Malley.

'A' and 'F' Companies of the First Battalion were mobilised and set off in motorcars from Doyle's small family home in St Mary's Place in Dublin's north inner city at about 11.30pm on March 20 1919. The raiding party of 25 men dressed in Khaki and equipped with masks, dividing itself into two sections four miles from the target, one heading to the Ballymun Road and the other the Swords Road. Despite a full moon it had been agreed to press on.

Tom Merrigan overpowered the sentry and his unit entered the guard-room by the front entrance, having crawled undetected for about two miles. The other section crept across country and succeeded in effecting entrance by the rear. In total silence the entire guard of 21 was disarmed and was now prisoners of the IRA. They were tied up and secured to the beams of the guardhouse. Earlier that day Houlihan and Sean Doyle had taken care of the two Airedales guard dogs by administering them a large dose of poison which was calculated to kill them just before the raid began.

Within sight of the guardhouse over about 200 men of the Royal Air Force remained asleep throughout the operation.

The second unit was collecting all arms and ammunition it could while preparing to load them on the approaching IRA convoy. With the armaments away and Pat McCrea car's waiting to transport the men back to the city, the unit demolished the 20 or so cars in the military garage, so as to prevent pursuit. A second car to bring them back hadn't appeared and McCrea drove 13 men back to Dublin

The captured rifles (75) and 5,000 rounds of ammunition and equipment was brought and despotised in dumps at Clonliffe Road and to Naul, County Dublin. Half way to Naul, the commandeered car, carrying 50 of the rifles which were going to the North Fingal Brigade, suffered a puncture, then a broken spring, it eventually had to be pushed 3 miles to the dump and back 2 miles again before the four men could set off on the ten-mile trek home the four Volunteers had to walk the 10 miles back to Dublin

The following morning the five 'civilian' workers turned up for work as usual. They saw much to their amusement the 20 guards being led away under arrest under suspicion of complicity in the raid. They lost their jobs a short time later.

Of the 25 Volunteers who took part in one of the most daring operations of the Tan War, several were to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country's freedom: Volunteers Pat Doyle and Barney Ryan were hanged along with two other Volunteers by the English in Mountjoy Jail on March 14 1921; Peadar Breslin was shot dead by Free State forces during an escape bid from Mountjoy Jail on October 10 1922; Sean Doyle died of wounds received in the ill-fated attack on the Customs House in May 1921, and Mick Magee was killed in an ambush on January 21 1921. The arms raid on Collinstown Aerodrome took place 80 years ago this week.

An Phoblacht
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