By Colm Connolly:
In the summary of Commandant Vincent Byrne’s military activities, it is stated that he was a member of the party that assassinated Detective Sergeant Johnny Barton in November, 1919, “but did not fire the shot”.
I was the writer/director of the RTE television documentary, “The Shadow of Béalnabláth” which was first transmitted in 1989. Vinny Byrne was one of those who took part in the programme and helped reconstruct the shooting by him of two undercover officers at a house in Upper Mount Street, Dublin, on Bloody Sunday.
After filming, I dropped Vinny off in O’Connell Street and, during the journey there, asked him how many men exactly he had personally shot as a member of Michael Collins’ Squad.
“Three altogether,” he answered. “Those two in Upper Mount Street and a detective called Barton in College Street.”
Vinny told me that Barton was warned a number of times to keep out of intelligence work against the IRA. But he ignored the threats, so the Squad was ordered to kill him. He was an easy target because he was, apparently, a creature of habit, following a daily route from the G Division office in the police station to, presumably, Dublin Castle.
On the day of his death, Barton had just left Great Brunswick Street police station (now Pearse Street Garda Station) and, as usual, crossed the road and followed the footpath outside the railings of Trinity College, along College Street and towards Dame Street. Vinny, with seven other members of the Squad positioned at different places along the street to act as protection and backup, walked towards the detective on the same footpath.
At a distance of about twelve feet, Vinny and Barton came eye-to-eye. “He suddenly realised what was about to happen,” Vinny told me. “It must have been the expression on my face that said I’d come to plug him.”
Barton frantically tried to pull a handgun from his jacket pocket. Vinny drew his own gun from the waistband of his trousers and shot Barton in the upper stomach.
“He sank down on one knee,” Vinny said, “and he managed then to get out his gun and fire some shots at me. But they were wild and they all missed.”
And what did Vinny do? “I ran like hell,” he said.
Barton was taken to Mercer’s Hospital where he died shortly after arrival. The inquest into his death was told that he died from a gunshot wound to the chest, the bullet passing through his right lung. There was evidence, the inquest heard, that he had been shot in the back. But, if this was true, then he would have died from a gunshot wound to his back and not the chest.
“If Barton had carried his gun in a shoulder holster or the belt of his trousers, I might’ve been shot meself,” Vinny said. “We never carried guns in our pockets on a job because they’d always get caught up when we tried to pull them out.”
As we drove into College Street, Vinny pointed out the spot where he said he had shot Barton. Today, at that place, there is a tall lamp post beside a bus shelter.
Obviously, I can’t substantiate Vinny Byrne’s version of the Johnny Barton shooting, but he was very clear about every detail and I can’t understand why he would claim that particular killing out of all the assassination operations he took part in.