A sailor’s life – 55. A trip to Dublin, September 1920
“Dublin is a fine city, or would be if this unrest would stop,” Bert Sivell wrote when the Shell oil tanker Orthis moored in the Liffey in the first week of September 1920. “I think, my dear, your fears about our safety in Ireland are unfounded. It is quite safe for anyone to go ashore as long as they keep their tongues quiet.”
Dublin was under curfew. In the two years since the end of the first world war, Irish republicans had set up their own parliament, declared their inalienable right to nationhood in the face of the “existing state of war between Ireland and England” and raised £355,000 to fund the struggle for independence. Sinn Féin had 73 elected MPs and a volunteer army harrying the occupying forces. For the British, the country had become increasingly impossible to police.
In March 1920 MPs in London had passed the Irish Home Rule bill, and the first of hundreds of poorly trained unemployed ex-servicemen – known as Black and Tans for their motley uniforms – were posted across the Irish Sea to help keep order, followed the next month by the more ruthless, officer-class Auxiliaries. Searches became rougher and reprisals less discriminate, until the month before Bert arrived the coroners’ courts had been suspended, because of the rising tide of verdicts against British forces.
The assizes had failed in June, no jurors being willing to serve. The dwindling Royal Irish Constabulary, ostracised by the local population, intimidated and harassed by the guerrilla tactics of the volunteer Irish Republican Army, had been forced to pull back to the cities, leaving the IRA to torch the abandoned outposts – and 100 income tax offices. With elected Sinn Féin members in control of most councils even local taxes were not being passed on.
In the weeks before Bert’s visit, dockers in Dublin had downed tools, refusing to handle “war materials”, and train drivers were refusing to carry British troops. In mid August, a Restoration of Order in Ireland bill was hurriedly pushed through parliament – effectively introducing martial law.
“Everything appears quite normal, but yet there is a queer expression on all the men, a kind of suspicious, sly expression,” wrote Bert, on September 8.
“We wandered up Sackville Street where the Easter rioting  took place and inspected some of the ruins. The Post Office, which was burned and completely gutted, was a fine stone building. It had not long been built when it was destroyed. Now only portions of the walls are left standing. After a while we boarded a car and went to Phoenix Park. This is a fine part, with gardens and all sorts. There were crowds of people out in spite of the rain.
“We enjoyed our walk and about 10pm took another car back to Sackville Street. Things were getting pretty lively then with dancing at the street corners etc. Bicycles fly round here with no lights at all and vehicles only carry the off-side light so there is some excitement even in crossing the street. We got home just after 11pm. I do wish you were able to come round with me and see all these nice places.
“Dublin is under martial law and the curfew sounds every night at midnight. No one is allowed out then until 3am except with a special permit. Needless to say we had a permit to work cargo on Monday night. They wanted us to finish about 11pm, but I was not having any. Somehow the pump would not work very fast. It is strange how these things happen when one is in a hurry. So the ‘old man’ and I went ashore again on Monday evening. He ordered a carriage down and we drove up in style.”
It was the best port they had struck so far, he said – their moorings being only a mile and a quarter from the centre of the city, unusual for an oil tanker. “So one can’t grumble.”
“My dear, after what I have seen in Dublin, I shall never believe another newspaper report. They are printed to be sold and all the talk about Ireland has been well enlarged for the public benefit.”
Twelve days later Orthis was back in the Liffey, having called at Portishead and Barrow-in-Furness. Even Bert noticed the change. “When we came into dock on Sunday forenoon the first thing we saw was a steamer with sentries and fixed bayonets posted everywhere. She was lying next to our berth and when we got closer we saw that soldiers were discharging her cargo. It turns out that she brought a cargo of army huts in sections from France and the dockers refused to discharge her as in their opinion the cargo was classed as munitions.
“The soldiers were working all day Sunday and a fleet of motor lorries were busy taking the stuff away. We went ashore in the evening and took a car down to Kingstown, about five miles away. It is a very nice little place. A band was playing and all the Irish beauty was out on parade. We spent a very enjoyable evening on the whole and returned on board about 11pm.
“… Yesterday the soldiers were at work on the steamer again. The lorries this time were travelling in convoys and were guarded by an armoured car. There was trouble in Dublin yesterday morning and three soldiers were killed as well as several injured. You will probably see something about it in the papers. We went ashore again yesterday evening, but the signs of unrest were quite evident. The police were patrolling in groups of three, squads of military police were out and several armoured cars were touring the streets. We saw a mob of about 300 down one street, so taking everything into consideration we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and ‘beat it’ for home. This morning the soldiers turned up to work on the steamer but the sentries have been doubled, so they are evidently expecting trouble.”
The letter is dated September 20, though evidently it was not closed until the following day. That morning 18-year-old Kevin Barry was arrested with a gun in his hand after IRA volunteers ambushed an army truck at a bakery in Church Street. Three soldiers were killed. That evening British forces – witnesses claimed Black and Tans – attacked the town of Balbriggan, outside Dublin. Houses, pubs and a mill were wrecked. Two men died in police custody.
Bloody Sunday was barely more than a month away. Bert didn’t go back.