Turtle Bunbury

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26 July 1914

The first stone struck Major Alfred Haig on the bridge of his nose. The officer stood his ground and considered the large, seething crowd that had been hurling stones and rotten fruit at his men for the past three hours. It was 6:30pm on a hot Sunday evening, 26 July 1914. The Major was rapidly losing his cool. He had been enjoying a day off when a messenger had urged him to come quickly to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street.

Upon arrival, the Major found his 180-strong battalion – the King’s Own Scottish Borderers – in a state of considerable disarray. Many, officers included, had serious wounds, with blood dripping from gashes on their heads. Major Haig had seen mobs before but, as he later told the inquest, this crowd seemed to be particularly ugly. He estimated their number to be at least a thousand strong and that it mostly comprised of men in their 20s and 30s. There were, he conceded, a number of women and children amongst them.

Major Haig marched his men south towards the River Liffey, wheeling right by the Daniel O’Connell Monument down Bachelor’s Walk in the direction of the Royal Barracks (now Collins Barracks) where they were garrisoned.

The crowd followed close to heel, throwing stones with increasing ferocity and frequency, often at short range. As they approached Liffey Street, another crowd appeared from the shadows, armed with more rocks. Up towards the Ha’penny Bridge, three men flung themselves at one of the soldiers and began to drag him kicking and screaming onto the sidewalk. Several soldiers, bayonets fixed, charged to his rescue.

It was at this moment that Major Haig about turned, summoned up the full velocity of his vocals and ordered the crowd to disperse. The second stone hit him square on the chin. The third slammed into his right ear. The crowd hissed. The stones and fruit continued to rain down. A soldier standing nearby buckled as a glass bottle exploded in his face. Major Haig ordered twenty men at the back of the column to form into a double line. The front rank knelt and the rear rank closed up.

Suddenly a shot rang out, to be followed by a withering volley discharged directly into the crowd.

Major Haig always denied that he gave the order to fire. His men are believed to have assumed he gave the order when he raised his hand to silence the crowd. The official verdict was simply that ‘promiscuous firing by 21 soldiers took place without orders’. It did not matter that no soldier fired more than two rounds. When the shooting stopped, three civilians lay dead and thirty-two were wounded. One witness recalled how the victims ‘fell like partridges’. The three dead were 50-year-old Mary Duffy, 50-year-old Patrick Quinn and 18-year-old James Brennan. Several witnesses came forward to say they had seen Major Haig’s deputy, Captain Cobden, deliberately shoot Mrs Duffy down. Another man, bayoneted during the conflict, died some days later. Amongst those wounded were a cyclist crossing O’Connell Bridge and a young boy called Luke Kelly whose son, also Luke, was one of the founding members of The Dubliners.

To understand the context of the shooting, one needs to go back to that same Sunday morning, when, shortly before noon, a white speck appeared on the horizon and began to move towards the small port of Howth. Skippered by Erskine Childers, the Asgard was on the home straight from Operation Picnic, one of the most daring gun-running missions in modern history. The previous days, Childers’ yacht had met with a German tugboat in the North Sea and received a cargo of 900 Mauser rifles and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. The weapons were destined for the hands of the Irish Volunteers who had pledged to defend Home Rule for Ireland. Masterminded by Sir Roger Casement and financed by Anglo-Irish Republican sympathizers, the mission was a direct response to the successful night-time landing of a shipment of 35,000 German rifles at Larne for Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers the previous April.

As the Asgard hove into Howth, one thousand Irish Volunteers, headed up by Bulmer Hosbon, Eoin MacNeill and The O’Rahilly, made their way onto the pier. Within half an hour, every gun had been handed out. The Volunteers about turned and marched back towards Dublin. Civil war between the North and South of Ireland was looking ever more likely.

A force of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, under Assistant Commissioner William Harrel, set off to disarm the Volunteers. [i] After a small skirmish between the two sides on the Howth Road, the police secured an ineffectual haul of nineteen guns. During a parlay between Harrel and the Volunteer leaders, the command was issued for the Volunteers to disperse into the fields and by-ways and hide their weapons wherever they could. The German guns and ammunition boxes rapidly vanished into thatched roofs and drainpipes, hedges and holes.

At 3:30pm, the Scottish Borderers in the Royal Barracks received a telephone message ordering 100 men of the battalion to proceed by tram to assist the police. Each man was to bring 100 rounds of ammunition and they were to prepare to use force if necessary.[ii] However, by the time they arrived at Clontarf, the Volunteers had vanished, leaving a small and hostile crowd to jeer and hoot at them. As the disheartened soldiers made their way back to the city, the crowd snowballed into the angry rabble which greeted Major Haig when he arrived to take command on O’Connell Street. [iii]

Padraig Pearse considered the "Bachelor’s Walk Massacre" to be an iconic moment in the struggle for independence.[iv] Certainly, when coupled with the triumphant Howth gun-running, it focused the international spotlight on the Irish Volunteers. It also exposed what appeared to be a British double standard where Unionists were effectively allowed to arm without government interference, albeit by night, whilst Home Rulers were shot down when they attempted to do likewise.[v]

While ‘Remember Bachelor’s Walk’ quickly became a rallying cry across the land, events in Europe were moving so fast that the dark shadows of the First World War were about to engulf Ireland. Nine days after the shootings, Britain declared war on Germany.

The official inquest into the incident led to the scapegoat suspensions of Assistant Commissioner Harrel and Major Haig. The government's commission concluded that the actions of the Scottish Borderers were 'tainted with illegality'. [vi] Their battalion diary recorded that 'the feeling against us in Dublin was very bitter and the battalion was strictly confined to their barracks.'

With the outbreak of the war, they were transferred to the Western Front where many were annihilated. [vii] Both Major Haig and Captain Cobden were captured in September 1914 and remained prisoners for the rest of the war. For many years, Irish nationalists referred to the regiment as the King's Own Scottish Butchers.

The day after the shootings, the artist Jack Butler Yeats made his way to the scene and sketched his impression. Seven years later, he unveiled his conclusions in Paris with a suitably gloomy watercolour, entitled 'Bachelor's Walk, In Memory'. The painting, which the National Gallery of Ireland hung last week, depicts a young flower girl placing a rose by the spot where the civilians were killed. This painting was among five works stolen from Lady Dunsany’s private collection in 1990. It resurfaced after it was seen in a Sotheby’s publication in London in 2007. Now on loan from a new anonymous owner, Yeats’ painting can be seen for the first time in public since 1971.

This article was published in the Irish Daily Mail in November 2009.


Trevor Royle, The King's Own Scottish Borderers (Mainstream, 2008).

The Times & The Irish Times.


[i] I initially thought this force had been dispatched by the authorities in Dublin Castle but I was informed by Kevin Myers in July 2014 that Harrel was not acting under orders and that both Dublin Castle and the Lord Chancellor tried to stop him. 'The assistant chief secretary Dougherty spent all morning trying to find Harrel and stop him: the legal advice from the Lord Chancellor - who left his home in Dundrum to find Harrel and control him - was that it was illegal for the army to intervene as a precautionary measure: it could only do so after violence had erupted, and when Harrel started his solo run, it hadn't.'

'Intervention was not a legal matter for the police because the Firearms Act had expired in 1906: it was solely a matter for Customs & Excise. The police had no powers to seize the guns, which were now legally held. It was the importation that was illegal, and therefore a matter for C & E. It was also the responsibility of the civil power to ensure that army intervention would not result in more violence. In the Lord Chancellor's view, deploying the army would lead to more violence. Moreover, Brigadier General Cuthbert didn't know the law relating to the army being deployed in aid of the civil power. I would gather from some of the commentary at the time, Harrel had a bit of previous - presumably during the Larkin strike that is wrongly and tendentiously called the 'lock-out'. Either way, as a Royal Naval Reservist, he too went off to war. So far as I can see, young Duffy survived the war.

The Castle’s traditional means of communication had been scuppered by the cutting of strategic telegraph links earlier in the day. A combined force of soldiers and police blocked the Volunteers as they came marching down the Howth Road with Daniel Figgis at their head. As the police advanced to disarm the Volunteers, ‘a considerable melee’ broke out. The military were ordered to make a bayonets charge and several Volunteers fired their revolvers upon the soldiers, injuring two. The parlay was mainly conducted between Harrel and Figgis.

[ii] Every man in the rank and file of that Scottish regiment must have been aware that the Borderers origins lay in the 17th century wars between William of Orange and James II when they were formed to defend Edinburgh against the Catholic Jacobites.

[iii] In the meantime, Captain Cobden, the company commander, became sufficiently nervous to order his men to load their weapons.

[iv] Pearse claimed it ‘re-baptized the movement’. Flags were flown at half-mast at Hibernia Hall in O’Connell Street and, by order of the Mayor, Lorcan Sherlock, on most municipal buildings. On 28th July, John Redmond organized a monster demonstration in Dublin to which ‘practically every man, woman and child in the city’ turned out. The Lord Mayor demanded punishment of those responsible for the killings and congratulated the Volunteers on the landing of arms at Howth. He urged all Irishmen to join the Volunteers for, ‘after Sunday’s business, any Irishman not in the ranks of the Volunteers was not for but against Ireland’. That same day, Austria declared war on Serbia.

Dubliners penned a ballad to those who died which concluded:

God rest the souls of those who sleep apart from earthly sin,
Including Mrs. Duffy, James Brennan and Patrick Quinn;
But we will yet avenge them and the time will surely come,
That we'll make the Scottish Borderers pay for the cowardly deeds they've done.

[v] It reinforced an idea in nationalist minds that the government favoured the unionists. It was certainly appalling PR for the British recruiting sergeants on the very eve of the war. The ‘massacre’ would be used throughout the war to counter accounts of German atrocities in Belgium.

[vi] K. Myers email of July 29th 2014 states: 'In order for the enquiry to get at the full truth, Mrs Duffy's son and nephew, who were both soldiers and who were by her side when she was shot, were as potential witnesses placed under the protection of the enquiry so they couldn't be sent by the army to the Front.' He also observed that 'two of the three members of the enquiry were Irish Catholic lawyers.'

[vii] I haven't had a chance to check this yet but I'm told The Irish Times reported that when the KOSBs left for the front. a large crowd turned out to cheer them off - not wishing them a hasty death, but in apparent good humour.

NB: Martin, Francis Xavier, 1922-2000 (ed.). The Howth gun-running and the Kilcoole gun-running, 1914, apparently states that not one stone or rock was thown. On page 186 it says the streets had been paved with setts for about a mile of the way before the firing began, and there is not a pebble to be seen anywhere. It also states no missile of any sort was found after only fruit skins. My information came from The Times (London) which covered the Dublin Inquiry into the massacres on 31st July and 1st August 1914.