Bloody Sunday occurred in Dublin on November 21, 1920. Beginning at 9 a.m. sharp, agents of Michael Collins’ Squad—the legendary “Twelve Apostles”—shot dead fourteen agents of the British Secret Service. Later that morning, in the confines of Dublin Castle, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the Commandant and Vice-Command of the Dublin Brigades, were beaten to death along with Conor Clune, a young Gaelic Leaguer up from County Clare. How McKee and Clancy were apprehended by the British is one of the more sordid stories of Bloody Sunday.
The night before Bloody Sunday, McKee and Clancy were meeting with Michael Collins at Vaughan’s Hotel on Parnell Square to go over details of the morrow’s actions. Collins, always the perfect Pimpernel, slipped away unnoticed as McKee and Clancy started back to their bed-for-the-night at #36 Lower Gloucester (now renamed Seán MacDiarmada) Street in Dublin’s famed “Nighttown.” Unbeknownst to them, they had been followed by John “Shankers” Ryan, a top British tout.
Nighttown and Becky Cooper
Nighttown—AKA “The Kips,” or “Monto” because Montgomery Street ran through it—was Dublin’s Red Light District, made famous by James Joyce in Ulysses. It ran from the Customs House north to Mountjoy Square and extended out to Amiens Street (now Connolly) Station in the east. It is estimated that by 1900 over 1,600 prostitutes worked the carnal trade, servicing everyone from Joyce himself to the Prince of Wales and every British soldier and sailor who passed through Dublin.
One of its most colorful characters, Becky Cooper, is still remembered today in song and verse. Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners raucously recalled her—and other well-known madams—in “Dicey Reilly”:
Long years ago when men were men and fancied May Oblong
Or lovely Becky Cooper or Maggie`s Mary Wong,
One woman put them all to shame, just one was worthy of the name,
And the name of the dame was Dicey Reilly
Joyce disguised Becky as “Bella Cohen” in the Circe’s chapter of Ulysses. He also wrote his friend—and later foe—Oliver St. John Gogarty into literary history as the “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” of the opening page.
Gogarty had a distinguished career as a physician, wit, poet, writer and politician. He was a personal friend of Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, W.B. Yeats and a defiant enemy of Eamon de Valera (“Every time de Valera contradicts himself, he’s right!). He even went head-to-head with a young Samuel Beckett in a libel suit before fleeing Ireland to spend the last twenty years of his life in New York City. But before he became one of the most famous faces in Dublin he was a client of Becky Cooper, Madam Extraordinaire, and he remembered her fondly:
Italy’s maids are fair to see
And France’s maids are willing,
But less expensive, ’tis to me,
Becky’s for a shilling.”
Becky’s Brother, Shankers Ryan
Becky Cooper was one of the most prominent denizens of Nighttown. Her colorful infamy was well deserved, but in the annals of Irish revolutionary history, she had nothing on her brother, John “Shankers” Ryan. The only thing sure about Ryan was that he worked for the British. He had been in the British army and by 1920 was possibly working for them (or the Dublin Metropolitan Police) as an informer or tout.
On Saturday night, November 20th, he trailed McKee and Clancy back to their residence and duly reported his find to Dublin Castle. Forces of the Crown soon arrived and arrested both men and took them back to Dublin Castle. On Sunday morning, as news flooded into the Castle about the assassination of their Secret Service agents, the British turned on McKee, Clancy and Clune and beat them to death. Officially, the British reported that they had been killed “attempting to escape.”
Michael Collins was outraged. He personally went to the mortuary chapel at the Pro Cathedral (ironically, also located in Nighttown) and dressed McKee and Clancy in their Volunteer uniforms for the funeral. With everyone in Dublin looking for him, Collins defied logic and attended the funeral, pinning a note of appreciation on his friends’ coffins.
Early in 1921, Collins’ intelligence office discovered that Shankers Ryan was responsible for the apprehension of McKee and Clancy. Collins set his Squad on Ryan. He was “tagged” by intelligence agents who soon found that Ryan liked to start his day with an eye-opener at Hynes pub at the corner of Old Glouchester Place and Corporation Street. At 10:30 a.m. on the morning of February 5, 1921 Squad members Paddy Kennedy, Bill Stapelton and Eddie Byrne entered Hynes pub as Ryan enjoyed his wake-me-up drink.
According to T. Ryle Dwyer’s excellent book, The Squad, Stapelton and Byrne went up to him and asked: “You are Ryan?”
“Yes,” he replied, “and what about it?” He was immediately shot dead and the Squad escaped untouched.
Michael Collins had sent the ultimate message to any eager informers who wanted to work for the British and fool with his Squad: SPIES BEWARE!
Nighttown No More
The end of British occupation in 1922 also signaled the end of Nighttown. There were no British servicemen to service and the turf fell on hard times. Soon the Legion of Mary would collaborate with the new Free State government in eliminating the prostitutes from Nighttown. Buildings were grazed, new homes were built for its impoverished residents, and respectability became the august theme of the Saorstát Éireann. Censorship, in other forms, would follow.
They even went so far as to rename the streets, as if changing names would protect the innocent from the district’s notorious past. Montgomery Street morphed into Foley Street. Gloucester Street became Seán MacDiarmada Street. Mecklenburgh Street became Tyrone Street, then Railway Street. Mabbot Street became Corporation Street. Then, as the millennium approached, in the irony of ironies, Corporation Street was renamed for one of Nighttown’s most famous clients and publicists—it became James Joyce Street, neatly tucked in between Railway and Foley Streets. Joyce would probably think it the perfect salute from his native city.
The one street name you won’t find within the confines of the erstwhile Nighttown is “Shankers Ryan Place.” Michael Collins and the Twelve Apostles made sure of that.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com.*
*Originally published in 2015