William Donegan was one of the pre-Truce IRA men who went on to confront several later incarnations of the organisation. Made redundant from Oriel House after the Civil War, he joined the new Garda Síochána Special Branch. Twenty-one years after losing 5 Republican comrades at the Burning, a detective colleague with him on a raid was killed in a shoot-out with two Republicans of the 1940s. History seems to have repeated itself for Bill Donegan.
Origin and Background
William Donegan was a Dubliner, born on 6 October 1903 at 5 Dunne Street, off Portland Row on the northside. His parents were a Boot Maker named James and his wife Elizabeth, originally Dunne. Young Bill grew up as second in a sequence of 6 boys (one of whom died as an infant in 1906) who were followed by 5 girls. The family moved to Richmond Road for a few years where they suffered the loss of youngest lad Patrick in 1914. The Donegans then settled at 13 Dunne’s Row, also in Ballybough. Bill’s widowed paternal grandmother Anastatia, a Wexford woman, lived with them until her death in 1917.
Joins 2nd Battalion Dublin Brigade
Almost nothing would be known of Bill Donegan’s IRA service except for the above image showing he was with 2nd Battalion, B Coy from 1917 to 1921; and a list of his Tan War operations kept by his descendants. It appears he joined Na Fianna aged 14 before becoming an IRA Volunteer.
In early 1921 he took part in the attack on a British armoured car at Clonliffe Road included above. Donegan confirmed this in a reference letter to the Army Pensions Board on behalf of fellow Custom House and B Coy comrade John Doyle.
Bill was on duty at the Burning on 25 May and became one of 18 IRA men picked out for special attention by the Auxiliaries who arrested them that day.
Taken to Dublin Castle’s notorious Guardroom, Bill and the others suffered badly at the hands of their crown forces captors. After savage interrogation, he along with eleven others was sent to the imposing but ancient Kilmainham Gaol on a charge of being “implicated in the Custom House outrage”.
He was recorded as a Labourer aged 18 from 13 Dunne Row.
Initially conditions for the prisoners were harsh and they were kept in solitary confinement. It must have been very tough on all of them, particularly the youngsters like Donegan and their worried parents and families. Then, in mid-June, the number of Custom House Men in the Gaol swelled substantially when the large contingent of suspects held at Arbour Hill joined the original dozen. The Truce on 11 July led to a gradual relaxation in the prison regime and after a while they were allowed free association and other small perks like sports and recreation. Bill appears in a few photos taken by the prisoners themselves.
He also signed the autograph books kept by fellow Custom House men Dan Rooney and Billy Doyle. Bill was one of the lads who took part in studying Gaeilge during lessons given by Joe Griffin and other native speakers in the Gaol.
After being freed in the General Amnesty of December 1921, Donegan rejoined his unit and remained active.
In the new year he became a member of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) based at Oriel House, a security arm of the Provisional Government (Free State) which got a name for extremely ruthless tactics against anti-Treaty IRA. The unit was implicated in beatings and extra-judicial killings of captured republican activists and suspects. However, there is no evidence Donegan took part in any such incidents.
The Red Cow Murders
He was, however, involved in the aftermath of one atrocity. In October 1922 Bill was one of the police investigating the scene of the killing of young republicans Edwin (Eamonn) Hughes, Brendan Holohan and Joseph Rogers. They were found shot to death the day after they had been arrested in Drumcondra on the other side of the city by Free State officers Charlie Dalton, Sean O’Connell and Nick Tobin of GHQ Intelligence. To republicans, it must have seemed highly ironic that the CID, given its own bloody reputation as the “Oriel House Murder Gang”, was involved in looking into illegal summary executions apparently carried out by soldiers of the Free State.
Donegan gave evidence at the inquest about searching young Hughes’s body and finding, among ordinary personal effects, two .38 calibre bullets. National Army witnesses summonsed to appear refused to answer many questions under legal instruction and others, including Dalton, failed to appear. The inquest turned into a propaganda and point-scoring battle between the legal representatives of the two Civil War sides. The eventual verdict of the jury was shooting by persons unknown. While most suspicion had fallen on Dalton, nobody was ever charged or tried for the killings which remain unsolved to this day. Obviously the actual perpetrators are long dead and have taken the truth to their graves.
Shortly after those sad proceedings Bill got married. On 25 October 1922 in St. Andrew’s Church on Westland Row, he wed Mary Smith, the daughter of a deceased Brick Layer, whose address was the St. Stephen’s Green Club. Bill and Mary’s daughter Carmel says the couple had been introduced by Bill’s brother Francis. Carmel adds that Mary Smith had lost her father when she was about a year old. Henry Smith (31) died after a fall from scaffolding at McBirney’s department store on Aston Quay. His widow Elizabeth, Mary’s mother, was seven months pregnant at the time. She delivered a son, Henry junior, in January 1903.
The best man was Gerald Hughes. Carmel confirms this was the man arrested at the Burning. He had also been a member of B Coy with Bill and they were close pals. Intriguingly, Gerry was an older brother of the murdered Edwin.
Redundancy and Redeployment
With such a controversial history in a short lifespan, Oriel House CID was disbanded in late 1923. The government was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to the outfit’s activities after Civil War conflict had ended. A letter to Bill Donegan from his superior notified him his service was being terminated on 24 October and he would be transferred to the Protective Officers Corps based on Merrion Street which provided bodyguard services for government ministers.
While most CID men were let go, Bill was hand-picked for G-Division (detectives) of the DMP which in 1925 was amalgamated with the new police force, An Garda Síochána. Detective Officer William Donegan became a member of the Garda Special Detective Unit, more commonly known as the Special Branch. As back then, its role remains the investigation of serious crime and anti-state activities by the IRA or other individuals or groups. Ironically, Bill would be headquartered in Dublin Castle, a place which may have brought back bad memories for him of his time there in May 1921.
Military Pension Appeal
In 1927 Bill was one of two representatives of a group of former Oriel House men claiming commissioned officer rank for military pension purposes. In a well argued letter to Dick Mulcahy, they outlined the history of the CID under Military Intelligence, then under Dept. of Justice and again back to Military Intelligence control; and outlined how other Oriel House men had been recognised as officers rather than being rated as NCO’s in their cases.
Their claim was successful and all were granted Lieutenant rank which boosted their pension awards. The file on the Military Archives site also includes an interesting list of CID men (pages 72-75) transferred to the Army (an option open to members during the Civil War) which includes Custom House Men Jack Grace, Dan Finlayson, Jack Young, Bob Halpin, Charles McCabe and Eddie Flood.
The Branch Man
A fascinating and fairly balanced history of the Special Branch from its inception to just after WW2 has been written by Gerard Lovett, a retired Special Branch Detective Inspector. Bill Donegan features a few times in the text. He had some close shaves but his experience was not exceptional to any great extent, nor was how he operated or the risks he took in doing his job. It was dangerous, even deadly work in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The IRA killed three Oriel House and seven Special Branch men between 1922 and 1942 with others seriously wounded or narrowly avoiding death. Several assassination plots against individual detectives were foiled or failed. On the other hand, seven IRA were shot dead by Special Branch men while a further six were tried and executed, usually by firing squad. Lovett also recounts how Special Branch men were sued by IRA men arrested on suspicion.
Detective Donegan was involved in both types of incident and his name was mentioned in a few newspaper reports over the years. He was sued at least once for wrongful detention. For example in 1930, he and a colleague (Detective Sergeant Mark Byrne) were brought to court by an IRA murder suspect named Sugrue claiming to have detained for an unreasonable time (46 hours). The jury found for the claimant, holding the two Gardaí liable for damages of £40 plus costs.
This was a regular tactic used for a time by the IRA aimed at harassing and demoralising Branch men. However, it did not work and any detectives sued were fully backed by the state. It was just another hazard of the job for detectives in the days when police procedures were far less strict or defined and searches and arrests less controlled than nowadays. Bill and colleagues would carry out arrests of IRA suspects on orders from a senior officer – often Superintendent Peter Ennis (brother of Tom and a former IRA Intelligence officer from the Tan War). The suspicions would mostly stem from an educated hunch or tip-offs, without concrete – or any – evidence. When interrogations (often robust) failed to get anywhere, the arrestees would simply be released and some would sue. Sympathetic judges and juries usually held in their favour. Many readers senior enough will recall regular claims that confessions were beaten out of prisoners by ‘Branch Men’. It was the way of the times when civil rights were not as defined as they are currently.
As for ordinary crime, Donegan featured as a witness in a 1938 case where two Englishmen carried out a spate of robberies of cash from sixty-nine telephone boxes around Dublin city. Bill was one of the detectives who shadowed, arrested and prosecuted the defendants who were jailed for 6 months before being deported. The police were commended by the judge for smart work.
Shootout with IRA Men
A far more serious incident involving Bill occurred on 24 October 1942. During a raid on a house in Donnycarney, Dublin for two wanted IRA men, Special Branch detective George Mordaunt, a Co. Wexford man, was fatally shot.
The dead officer was reported to have served in D Coy, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade and did serve as a Corporal with 2nd Eastern Division in the National Army, based at Inchicore Railway Works, before joining the police in 1925.
He and Donegan were with a party of armed police who had surrounded the house. Two men burst out the back door and after an exchange of fire in a narrow passageway, one man (Harry White alias Anderson of Belfast) escaped in the darkness but IRA member Maurice O’Neill from Cahirciveen, Co Kerry was arrested at the scene. His gun had fired five shots. Mordaunt’s body was later found in a nearby back garden.
It was clear O’Neill had not caused the death but he was charged with shooting at police, a capital offence under the Emergency Powers legislation then in force. He was found guilty by a military tribunal headed by Old IRA man Col. J. V. Joyce and shot by a firing squad on 12 November.
Four years later the second shooter Harry White, was detained by the RUC hiding in an arms cache under a shop in Co. Derry. He was interrogated in Crumlin Road Jail before being handed over to the Special Branch at the border. White had been a suspect for the killing of Detective Sergeant Dinny O’Brien and was now charged with the murder of detective Mordaunt and tried by the Special Criminal Court in Green Street. He was defended by well-known republican barrister Con Lehane. White admitted he was armed that night, was acting under orders from the IRA and had fired towards men shooting at him. He claimed he did not know they were Gardaí.
Detectives Martin Lanigan and William Donegan told the court of being fired at by one man and returning fire during a chase. Donegan added he had positively identified Harry White as the shooter in a lineup at the Bridewell. Other evidence was presented and White was found guilty, being sentenced to hang. However the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed that and substituted 12 years imprisonment for manslaughter on the grounds there was no lawful authority for the intended arrest on the date of the shooting. Harry White was released in March 1948 in an amnesty for the IRA after the election of the Inter-Party government. He went on to live with his wife and family in Santry, Dublin until his death in 1989. He always maintained that Detective Mordaunt had been shot by one of his own comrades and claimed the Special Branch had attempted to kill him several times in the 1940s.
The Uinseann MacEoin book on White’s story can be downloaded here.
The Dev Years
Earlier, in the 1930s, Bill had witnessed the first change of Free State government. It would have interesting consequences for him and his colleagues in the Special Branch. When Fianna Fáil gained power in 1932 there was an ongoing threat not just from the IRA but also the Blueshirts, with a background of rising violence between those two organisations.
De Valera initially tried a charm offensive with the IRA, removed most repressive measures against them and offered Military Pensions for anti-Treaty IRA. The Special Branch was slated for decentralisation and the scrapheap. It was pay-back time for anti-Treaty politicians who had personally suffered at the hands of the CID and Special Branch in the 1920s. There was a purge of those seen as too close to the previous Cosgrave administration, like its chief David Neligan. He was replaced by Ned Broy, well-known as a Collins man, to clearly show the police were to remain outside party-political influence. Over half the officers and men were transferred to uniformed duties and scattered around the country. The more successful senior officers were demoted and moved to desk jobs. Bill Donegan was among the experienced long-time members retained, although he was moved to Clontarf Garda Station.
The Broy Harriers
Very soon, however, Fianna Fáil found that they would need strong support from an armed police unit. In August 1933 the threat of a Blueshirt coup came close to reality (Their leader Eoin O’Duffy had been sacked as Garda Commissioner in February of that year). The Special Branch was suddenly resurrected and strengthened. Hundreds of new members were recruited from the ranks of the anti-Treaty IRA known to be loyal to Dev. Finding the men was the responsibility of Oscar Traynor. All normal police recruitment rules were ignored and the first 200 recruits got three minutes ‘training’ – a pep-talk – in Dublin Castle! Another 170 or so Fianna Fáil/IRA stalwarts were added, so Special Branch now comprised a mix of former pre-Truce IRA comrades who had split in the Civil War and were back on the same side again – as enemies of their old Army, the IRA. Donegan and his colleagues must have been shocked and amazed to share duties and offices with men they had shadowed, interrogated, brought to court as defendants and who they had done their best to keep off the streets and behind bars! It could only happen in Ireland?
The new Branch men soon became known as the Broy Harriers, with a nod to a fox-hunting club in Bray. When IRA activity increased during WW2, the Special Branch were the government’s first line of defence. Operating within harsh Emergency Powers legislation they were hated by the IRA and were a motley collection of individuals including the good and the bad. One was an IRA sympathiser (James Crofton) who helped bomb Special Branch HQ in Dublin Castle in 1940, another tried to kill two colleagues while drunk (Custom House man Thomas Carass), while others were dismissed for threatening to shoot suspects or other indiscipline. But in general they were the ideal opponents for the IRA, knowing their tactics, meeting places, organisation and many of the members personally.
More Peaceful Times
The bitter and bloody war between the IRA and the Special Branch quietened down after the War. The IRA was no longer seen as a major threat to state security. Detective work became a lot less hazardous for men like Donegan who continued in the ranks. From the mid-1950s the ill-fated IRA Border Campaign would flare up but fizzled out and caused no fatalities for the Special Branch. It wasn’t until after Bill Donegan had retired that the IRA would again roar back to life as the Troubles erupted in the north and conflict with the police in the twenty-six counties would begin again.
In 1933, Bill’s mother Elizabeth passed away (her death was registered by him) followed seven years later by his father James. Bill and his wife Mary moved from Clontarf to a newly-built house on Collins Avenue, a highly appropriate address for a pro-Treaty man. Their grandson Francis says his father, also Francis (a brother of Bill) was born there. After many years they moved to Walkinstown on Dublin’s southside (coincidentally they lived on Hughes Road, a strange echo of that surname from 1922). The couple had one daughter, Carmel and three sons – Henry, William and Francis. In 1943 Bill stood as Best Man at the wedding of his brother Francis.
Detective Donegan was reported in the papers attending several funerals of activists from the 1916-1921 period such as Mrs. Catherine McGinn from an Easter Rising family and a relative of Custom House Man Michael Love, in 1951. He was also noted at the burials of a few detective colleagues over the years.
Bill retired from the force but sadly in 1978 he became a widower. He lived on till 28 August 1983, passing away in a Dublin Nursing Home in Rathgar at the age of seventy-nine (Sadly his brother Francis died only a month later). Bill’s death notice referred to his past service with B Coy, 2nd Battalion Old IRA and An Garda Siochána. Survived by his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and siblings, he was laid to rest with his late wife in Esker Cemetery, Lucan, Co. Dublin.
The writer was delighted to meet two of Bill’s granddaughters, Joan Donegan and Yvonne Redmond, at last May’s Commemoration event. His daughter Carmel and her nephew Francis have been there many times in the past and plan to attend the 2023 event.
We are pleased to join with them in remembering the long service to Ireland of their ancestor, Custom House Fire Brigade Man William Donegan.