In 1939, the IRA was involved with the Sabotage Campaign, against the civil and military infrastructure of Britain. The Christmas Raid was a famous raid by the poorly armed organisation against the Magazine Fort in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, Ireland’s largest munitions dump, on December 23rd.
The raid was ordered because although the IRA had many Thompson submachine guns, the ammunition used in these guns was not easily available -- but the Free State Army had large supplies. An extract from Liam Brady’s autobiography, ‘A Libertarian in the Thirties’, in which he describes the operation.
‘Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense
Here Irish wit is seen
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine’.
Whatever disdain we felt for the Magazine Fort when it was built, and my quotation from Swift seems to infer that it was not a worthwhile project, certainly the Free State Army felt differently when they took it over.
It was there that the majority of the Free State’s arsenal was held in 1939. The idea of raiding a military fort must surely be an audacious one. To do it in a small island country is doubly so. That a raid was carried out on a fort - as impregnable as the Magazine - is not only audacious but a first class tactical military achievement, and no amount of apology can change that fact. My only regret is that it wasn’t occupied by the British forces at the time, but that is romantic and sentimental wishful thinking..
On arrival we were quickly dispatched to our relevant stations. My comrade and I were first placed on guard while the telephone lines were cut. Meanwhile one of our men was dispatched on a messenger bike to the front gate of the Magazine to force an initial entry. Our main assault force lined the avenue leading to the main gate. As soon as the main gate was opened, our leading man was to hold up the sentry on guard and then the main assault force would storm the fort. All this was done in a matter of seconds. The Free State sergeant of the guard, wisely and in my opinion showing great officer concern for his men, ordered a capitulation, so that at that stage no shots were fired and no one was hurt.
Now that the telephone wires were cut and since everything was quiet in the fort, we were sent out to guard it from the Island Bridge gate entrance which is where any rescue force of military would come from, if at all.
Then according to the well-timed plan, in less than half a hour, the lorries started to arrive from all the counties which were sharing and dumping the acquirements of the raid. After giving the relevant password, we directed them to the ramp up to the fort where they were loaded up with arms and out again in quick time.
On one occasion during our patrolling, we discovered a park ranger in the process of examining the cut telephone wires, and since I realised that his next move would be to run for help to Island Bridge barracks, I immediately held him up to bring him up to the fort to be kept under guard. He tried to resist at one stage, and even though my orders were to shoot anyone in an eventuality like this, I realised that if I could incapacitate him without firing a shot, it would be the wiser course. This I did by the expedient of knocking him out. My comrade and I carried him into the Fort and handed him over to our sergeant of the guard, who propped him up in bed and tended to his wounds. After he realised what was going on he settled down and one of our men gave him some money as compensation. The poor man was just unfortunate and probably didn’t assess the gravity of the situation.
At this stage we went on a tour of the fort, to acquaint ourselves with its layout, only as a matter of historical interest. During this period of our tenure it was discovered that a Free State army sentry was still patrolling one of the cat-walks on a rampart, evidently unaware that the fort had been taken over! When approached by one of our men to hand up his rifle, he replied, still obviously unaware who was taking his rifle, that he still had half an hour stint to do before he was off sentry duty! We later found out that he was only a raw recruit and was imprisoned for dereliction of duty.
Back on sentry patrol again we took up our positions as before and saw an army officer approach from the direction of the fort. We held him up and as he didn’t know the password we concluded that he was a State officer attached to the fort. Some of our men had State uniforms on them so we had to have a password to identify each other. We escorted him back to the fort and found that he was indeed the officer in command.
By now the operation was nearly over. All the trucks had gone and cleaning up operations were being attended to prior to leaving the fort.
Our job as sentry now became outpost, that is we were nearer the Island Bridge gate and would have to be a rear guard when the last of our men were coming out of the fort. Just before the last of them were due to come out of the fort, a military lorry appeared on the scene, coming from Island Bridge barracks and pulled up at the foot of the ramp - they were obviously confused as to what was going on - but before they could leave the lorry, I was able to discharge several shots over their heads, the arranged signal, in order to warn the remaining occupants of the fort.
They came out safely and evaded the military lorry whose occupants had by now taken cover. Our last remaining occupants of the fort reached us and told us to disperse, which we all did - my comrade and I over the wall at Conyngham Road.
After the raid my comrade and I went to a house where it was arranged that we could stay until the heat of the anticipated police and military activities would have died down. The house was owned by a widow with long republican associations over the years since the troubles. Since she had a fairly large and grown up family, we had, perchance, to sleep in her bed. What we didn’t realise was that she intended to sleep in the bed with us as she had no other place to sleep. She didn’t tell us because she thought we would insist on sleeping on the floor. So it was that she stayed up half the night and only got into bed when we were fast asleep.
Next morning, she was up and preparing our breakfasts, much to our chagrin, as she was very poor and could not afford this entertaining of us, but she would brook no objections of ours and even refused the money we offered her. The problem was solved for us by another act of her naive kindness. One of the reasons she stayed up late the night before was that she was making a tri-colour flag and sticking it out the window. As it caught our eye, we knew it was only a matter of time until gossip would lead the police to investigate the reason for her putting out a national flag on Christmas Eve. So ever so politely, we left after breakfast.
This was effectively the last time I lived as a Libertarian, for I never lived in our Liberty again. By the time I was finished with being on the run and later jailed and interned it was half way into the next decade and our house was no longer there.