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War of Independence

Bloody Sunday: How the senseless attack in Croke Park hastened the end of British rule

We take a look at the events of that day, using newspaper reports and archive material.

49428787547_dfb17eb96c_k Croke Park, the morning after the shooting. The mound seen in this picture is the original Hill 16, then known as Hill 60. National Library of Ireland National Library of Ireland

TODAY MARKS 100 years since Bloody Sunday, one of the most significant moments of Ireland’s revolutionary period.

In the early hours of 21 November 1920, a group of IRA members – known as The Squad, under the command of Michael Collins – assassinated nine British Army officers across Dublin city centre.

The events which followed that that afternoon have cast a long shadow, becoming a defining moment in Ireland’s struggle for independence: British forces indiscriminately shooting into the crowd during a match at Croke Park.

While the morning’s assassinations made a dent in London’s ability to undermine the activities of the IRA, it was the afternoon’s reprisal which caused a more significant impact on the course of the War of Independence, turning the tide of opinion both at home and abroad more firmly against the British government in Ireland.

The Squad targeted a group of British spies known as the Cairo Gang, although to this day it’s unclear if all nine officers killed were involved in this type of work – some certainly were.

Michael_Collins_1921 Michael Collins, pictured here in 1921. Wikimedia Wikimedia

Two police paramilitaries were also fatally shot, as well as one member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a civilian landlord, one man who was most likely a civilian, and another man whose exact role remains unknown. Five others were injured.

That afternoon, shortly after a friendly match between Dublin and Tipperary kicked off, a number of Black and Tans and Auxiliaries arrived at Croke Park.

These were paramilitaries recruited in 1920 as reinforcements for the RIC, who were starting to buckle under the pressure of the armed insurgency in Ireland. Their ranks consisted of mostly ex-British Army soldiers.

Historian DM Leeson describes the activities Black and Tans as more static – patrolling areas and defending police stations – than the Auxiliaries, who were offensive in their role.

What happened next was essentially a search operation gone wrong, as the British Army hoped to find members of The Squad hiding out in the crowd.

The paramilitaries opened fire on civilians in Croke Park. It was yet another example of the brutality and lack of discipline they would become known for.

Outside_the_London_and_North_Western_Hotel_in_Dublin,_April_21,_1921 A group of British paramilitaries outside the London and North Western Hotel in April 1921. National Library of Ireland National Library of Ireland

A total of 14 people were killed, and as many as 60 were injured, although some estimates of the number injured are higher than that due to the 90 seconds of indiscriminate shooting which took place.

Speaking to, historian-in-residence at Dublin City Council Cormac Moore said this bloodshed wasn’t what had been intended when those in charge of British forces in Dublin ordered the operation:

There seems to be little doubt of this: the leaders of the Crown forces, the police or the military, they did want to search.
Now, that to me is a bit foolhardy, you can’t but expect chaos when searching for a handful of men in a crowd of thousands.

Some members of The Squad were there that day, hiding amongst the crowd.

Michael Foley’s The Bloodied Field details how there was fear among organisers of the match and those involved in the republican movement that Croke Park could be the target of reprisal.

The British plan was for military troops to seal off each exit of the stadium, and for the police to enter and search the crowd.

Dublin Team, Bloody Sunday 1920 The Dublin team, pictured here on Bloody Sunday. GAA Museum GAA Museum

Tipperary Team, Bloody Sunday 1920 The Tipperary team on Bloody Sunday. GAA Museum GAA Museum

It’s not clear what happened once these troops arrived.

Moore detailed how that autopsy reports of the first victims – William Robinson (11) and Jerome O’Leary (10) – indicated that they most likely that they had been watching the match and were turning around to look behind them when they were shot, meaning the first shots likely came from the police and paramilitaries themselves.

This jars with the already largely dispelled accusation that the first shots came from the crowd, which was used initially as justification for the violence. It was initially claimed there were IRA scouts outside – these men were actually ticket sellers.

The Auxiliaries and Black and Tans had already gained a reputation for violence against civilians – for example in the Sack of Balbriggan just two months previously. The morning’s assassinations were all that was needed to set them off again.

The sense of the panic that gripped the spectators, and the brutal nature of the deaths, were revealed in eyewitness reports recorded years later.

This includes details of how people jumping into the nearby Royal Canal to escape were fired on by paramilitaries while in the water.

RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman dug into the station’s archives and broadcast some of this testimony on his Radio 1 programme Bowman: Sunday: 8.30 last week, including one man – a schoolboy at the time – describing how people jumped into the Royal Canal to escape, only to have the Black and Tans shoot at them in the water.

Another clip was from Tom Ryan, a Tipperary player who was beside his team captain who was fatally shot – Michael Hogan, after whom the Hogan stand was named:

The first thing that struck us, those of us with Volunteer training, was to lay prone on the ground, and following that, a [...] voice shouted out, ‘they’re firing blanks’. A minute later, it was obvious they weren’t firing blanks: sparks started to fly out of the railway wall, and people started to roll down the embankment and it was obvious that people [were] getting shot.
We lay still prone, and our backs and the Dublin forwards rushed away from the firing end, from the canal end of it and rushed towards the railway exit. As the firing continued, both the Dublin and Tipperary players decided to leave in pairs. Two players left, Hogan was the third player that got up to go, and as he did, he fell forward.
I was about three yards of him at the time, lay in the centre’s field, when, as he fell forward and fell to the ground, I saw the blood gushing through his jersey. I knew that he was shot and slipped across towards him and heard the words ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ from lips. I decided to rush for my life and try and get out.

1280px-Croke_park_hogan_stand The Hogan Stand, named after Michael Hogan. Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons

Other first-hand sources paint a dark picture of events.

The following Tuesday, the Freeman’s Journal published a number of eyewitness reports.

This ranges from a description of the stampede which followed the shooting, the looting of items lost in the panic, and a visit to the stadium by US journalists and members of The Labour Party, who saw pools of dried blood.

This following extract described the death of a young boy, and was provided by researchers at the, a searchable archive containing millions of pages of historical British and Irish newsprint dating from 1699 up to 2009.

A little boy named John William Scott (“Billie”) aged 14, was taken into a house in James’s Avenue, Clonliffe Road, suffering from what appeared to be a bayonet wound in the chest, and he died in the house, his body being afterwards taken to the Mater Hospital by the military.
His father, John Scott, resides at 15 Fitzroy Avenue, opposite Croke Park. He told a reporter that the boy who was killed was his eldest child and had been attending Saint Patrick’s School, Drumcondra. The boy had his dinner on Sunday and then hurried off to the match with a playmate, a little fellow named Daly.
Hearing that a boy had been killed and was lying in a house at James’ Avenue, the father proceeded there, but found that the body had been taken away by the military. The lady who occupies the house showed him the glasses and a tie-pin belonging to the boy, however, and he recognised them as his son’s. The father afterwards identified the body. There was a wound across the left breast, which had apparently been caused by a bullet.
Mrs. Colman, 37 James’ Avenue told our representative that when young Scott was carried into her house he was bleeding profusely from the chest, and seemed to be in great pain. A number of men had sought shelter in her house and in other houses in the avenue. The little boy was placed on a table. Mrs Coleman and her two little girls knelt down by his side and said some prayers, and the poor boy made the responses. All the time the rattle of shots was heard outside, some being fired up the Avenue, and they were unable to get out for a drink of water for the dying child.

Details found in the Military Service Pensions Collection at the Military Archives shed light on the assassinations around the city earlier that day.

In order for anyone who took part in activities with organisations like the IRA or the Irish Volunteers to be awarded a pension for their service, they were required to apply to the pensions board and provide detailed information of their activities.

More than 160 applications mention Bloody Sunday, with the full list available here.

These have been made public through the painstaking work of a team of archivists.

Cumann na mBan member Emily Valentine’s file describes how, on the morning of Bloody Sunday, she fetched two revolvers from a shop in Ballybough and left them behind at a house in Archbold Place, which are believed to have been used by The Squad.

Later that day, she found herself attending to the wounded at Croke Park:

In the afternoon of the same day, I dressed two men who were wounded at Croke Park (I was on duty in the area).

Nicholas or Nick Leonard was present at the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street where two men were killed – both former members of the British Army, now civilians. 

Several statements from other former IRA members describe his role on Bloody Sunday.

Michael Noone – later a National Army officer – said the operation “might have been a failure only for his action”, while another, James Cahill, goes into more detail:

I was also present with [Leonard] in the Gresham Hotel and on this occasion another Volunteer failed to do his work but the applicant immediately done this man’s work and so made the job a success.

This man who “failed to do his work” was William Conor Hogan. He too applied for a pension - and Leonard himself submitted a letter lambasting Hogan for his actions on Bloody Sunday:

[Hogan] failed to carry out the duties assigned to him, and further neglected to issue the necessary instructions to those in his charge, thereby endangering the success of the operation, not to mention the casualties likely to be incurred on all sides through any confusion which might arise through his neglect of duty.

“Apart from this particular incident,” Leonard concludes, “Hogan’s service in the Volunteers to my knowledge was excellent.”

Another file lists all those involved in the operation (for unknown reasons, James Cahill’s name is missing from this list).

“The men carried out the task which was entrusted to them,” it reads.

a85-dublin-brigade-pg-21 MSPC MSPC

Click here to see a larger version of this image.

However, the targeting of these two men in the Gresham Hotel was likely the result of poor intelligence, particularly the shooting of Patrick MacCormack. He was a Catholic from Co Mayo, who was now a veterinary surgeon and officer in the British Army.

Michael Collins personally wrote to McCormack’s mother after the attack, describing his killing as a mistake and stressing that he had no connection to the British spy ring.

PastedImage-91548 The Gresham Hotel today. Google Maps Google Maps

The exact role of the other man killed, Leonard Wilde, is still unknown. An ex-soldier, now a civilian working with a consular office in Spain, is said to have introduced himself to the IRA members as a British intelligence officer, without realising who they actually were.

The MSPC’s Brigade Activity Report for 1 Dublin Brigade, 2 Eastern Division of the IRA describes the assassination of two men and the injuring of one at Morehampton Road – this time the IRA found who they were looking for, Lieutenant Donald Lewis MacLean, believed to have been a member of the Cairo Gang.

The other man killed was a civilian, although some sources suggest he may have been an informer.

A member of The Squad, James Bird, lists the eight people involved in the attack. The file notes that he believes there was 10 present, but he can’t recall who the other two were.

Fourth on this list is J. Norton, referring to James Paul Norton.

These documents suggest that the stress of Bloody Sunday was what led to a later diagnosis of mental illness (although he also points towards ‘patrol duty under arms’ around Merrion Square in 1921 as being the primary cause).

The file describes Norton’s military service “culminating in the events of Bloody Sunday [...], in which applicant was personally responsible as one of the firing party for the shooting of three British Intelligence Officers, two of which were killed and one seriously wounded in the presence of their screaming wives and children.”

wdp9489jamespaulnorton-5 MSPC MSPC

View a larger version here.

This version of events is corroborated by other reports.

Norton himself writes:

I took part in the raids on Intelligence Officers on [Bloody Sunday] and was one of the firing squad. The strain of that operation played on my mind and nerves.

He describes that his “mental trouble” reached breaking point just a couple of days before the truce in July 1921. He attempted to stop a truck loaded with British Army by hopping out in front of it outside the Custom House in Dublin, armed with only a revolver.

He was arrested and sent to Dartmoor Prison in England, and was admitted to Grangegorman Mental Hospital just days after he was released in January 1922.

Bird’s own file also includes a question and answer about the attack at Morehampton Road.

Q: What did you do on Bloody Sunday?
A: I was in charge.
Q: Where were you detailed to go?

A: Morehampton Road. I put three men up against the wall and plugged them.

Q: You recovered arms in the barracks?

A: Yes. That was the morning after.

Q: You were ordered to hand back arms to “B” Company?

A: I was to be court martialed – I had to hand them back. I handed them to P O’Meara.

Q: What house did you raid?

A: 119, Morehampton Road, three intelligence officers were executed.

Q: How many men were on that with you?

A: Either eight or 10 men. I think it was ten – I know there were eight.

A_Black_and_Tan_on_duty_in_Dublin File photo of an unnamed Black and Tan, pictured here in 1921. Wikimedia Wikimedia

The primary result of Bloody Sunday was the groundswell of support it caused for the Republican movement.

Cormac Moore explained that this wasn’t necessarily going to be a big loss for British intelligence and, if anything, The Squad’s activities on Bloody Sunday were a learning exercise for them.

He describes it as more of a propaganda victory.

Essentially, the British authorities made the same mistake as 1916, when regardless of what way public opinion was swaying immediately after the Rising, their reprisals – the drawn-out executions of republican leaders – turned the tide against them.

The Squad’s activities on Bloody Sunday could have been spun into a propaganda win for the British, Moore said:

You can imagine if the killing had stopped after the morning attacks, the British could have used that to their advantage, getting sympathy internationally.
They made a huge deal about what happened to those men – a lot of them very young, sleeping in their beds, shot in cold blood that Sunday morning – and there were state funerals for most of them.

The shootings at Croke Park as well as the later killing of three republican prisoners in Dublin Castle made the British the perpetrators rather than the victims of violence.

(Dick McKee, Peader Clancy, and Conor Clune were being held in Dublin Castle. They were shot and possibly tortured by British authorities that evening. McKee and Clancy had helped plan the morning’s assassinations.)

It also fed into the growing awareness of the brutal actions of some in the British Army. Just a year and a half earlier, the world learned of the Amritsar massacre in India, when the British Indian Army killed almost 400 people and injured more than 1,200 more.

Moore added that it likely increased willingness of British prime minister David Lloyd George to speak to Sinn Féin, albeit not publicly.

politics-the-liberal-party-david-lloyd-george-london David Lloyd George, pictured here in 1914. PA PA

Not only was this a win for those leading the fight for Irish independence at home and abroad, but it was a morale booster for those fighting on the ground.

“Bloody Sunday was that turning point, the start of the violent endgame really,” Moore said.

He noted that just a week before Bloody Sunday, Lloyd George said that by boosting the number of paramilitary troops in Ireland, authorities now had ‘murder by the throat’.

The British were making inroads, Moore said, and it was an increasingly tough battle, but the combined events of that day gave the IRA a better resolve to continue.

A change of tone for the GAA

Moore has also written extensively on the history of the GAA in Ireland, and suggests that Bloody Sunday led to an overstatement of the organisation’s involvement in the revolutionary period.

A simple example of this is the renaming of Hill 60, originally commemorating the Irishmen who died fighting with the Connaught Rangers, a British Army regiment, on a hill with the same title in Gallipoli during World War I, to what is now known as Hill 16, after the 1916 Rising.

“Although many of its leaders supported Sinn Féin, it [previously] declared itself apolitical [during the revolutionary period],” he said. 

But Croke Park changed that day from being just a playing field. It became martyred ground with Bloody Sunday, and it became a shrine as well to the dead and what the British had done.

“It definitely changed its status in the whole narrative of the independence struggle.”

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