“He’s up there if you want him …. on the footpath.”
On 14th April 1920, a man in plainclothes was shot by another, also in plain clothes, in Camden Street, Portobello, on the south side of the city and not far from the centre. A passing motorist rushed the gunshot victim to the nearby Meath Hospital but he died there.
The victim was Det. Constable Harry Kells of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, a man of 41 years of age who lived in No. 7 Pleasant Street, i.e very close to where he was shot. He was married without children.
Many reports say that Kells was a member of the DMP “G” Division, which were known as “the political police” (apparently both within the DMP and outside). However, “McRIC” in the irishconstabulary forum states that this is inaccurate and that the man, although recently promoted to plain clothes work, was rather in “B” Division and investigating a number of burglaries in the city.
From a number of investigations carried out it seems that this question may never be resolved but it is highly likely that Kells was at least in the process of being transferred to “G” Division. However, the reason for his killing is almost certainly much more specific. It seems that Kells had been reviewing identity parades in Mountjoy Jail in attempts to find the killers of British intelligence agent Alan Bell, who had been assassinated on the 27th March. While engaged in this work, he had been identified by Peadar Clancy1, Vice-Commandant of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, who sent a note about him to Michael Collins, who put the execution order on Kells.
It is worth noting that Republican prisoners in Mountjopy had also been taking part in a hunger-strike at that time in protest at removal of political status while detained without trial. Ironically, 90 prisoners were released on the very day Kells was killed.
THE LARGEST RAID EVER CARRIED OUT BY BRITISH TROOPS IN DUBLIN
“Aul Decency”, posting on Dublin Forum.ie on 31st March 2012, drawing on April reports in the Irish Times and New York Times, says that the incident “was the cause of the largest raid ever carried out by British Troops in Dublin.”
According to “Aul Decency”: “Two of those sought in connection with Kells’ killing were Sinn Féin members Michael and William Kavanagh who lived at 5 Pleasant St., who had previously been “fingered” by Kells, and it was thought they would seek refuge among friends in the neighbourhood. The troops swarmed over Camden St from Cuffe street and into Portobello and the homes of the local Jews2. Over 100 people were arrested that day but Kells’ killer was not among them.”
This “fingering” had in fact been carried out after the 1916 Rising when Kells reported that the brothers had been seeing changing into Volunteer uniforms in the house, information which had resulted in at least one of the brothers ending up in Frongoch concentration camp that year and losing his job.
It is enough perhaps to know that Kells was killed by Republicans and the probable reason but we can go a bit further, drawing on The Squad by T. Ryle Dwyer (quoted in irishconstabulary.com) where Paddy Daly of the Squad is quoted about the operation to kill the police officer:
“On our way we picked up Hugo MacNeill, a nephew of Eoin MacNeill3 the initial President of the Irish Volunteers. He was not a member of the Squad but he asked to come along.
We divided up into patrols of two4, MacNeill was with Joe Leonard. O‘Daly said he heard a couple of shots, and saw MacNeill sauntering down Pleasant St. as if nothing had happened.
‘What was the shooting about?‘ O’Daly asked.
‘Kells is up there if you want him‘, MacNeill replied.
‘Where?‘ O’Daly asked.
‘On the footpath‘, replied MacNeill.
Det. Constable was the third police officer to be killed in Dublin so far in 1920 in a war between the British occupation forces and the IRA, in which not only police officers but intelligence agents and British soldiers on one side were killed and, on the other, Volunteers, active Republicans, sympathisers and uninvolved civilians. Of course the war was going on in many other parts of Ireland but it is often forgotten that among those areas subject to martial-type law were Dublin County and City, where had been the HQ of the British occupation since 1171: Dublin Castle.
1Peadar Clancy was one of two Volunteers and one civilian who were tortured by RIC Auxiliaries in Dublin Castle and killed on November 21, 1920 (Bloody Sunday).
2Portobello had a Jewish quarter at that time. Some of the residents are reputed to have been active in the resistance movement and a number had been on strike or locked out in 1913.
3He who had on Easter Saturday 1916 issued the cancellation order for the Rising.
4According to testimonies by Squad members, working in two groups of two was standard procedure. Typically each pair would take one side of the road. Once the assassination was carried out, the two who had not done the killing would cover the escape of the two who had.