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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Ken Welsh via PA Images Suspects Being Searched In Dublin, Ireland In 1920

Bloody Sunday, ballot boxes and the death of Terence MacSweeney Ireland's dramatic year of 1920

1920 is a year that shaped the island of Ireland in ways we still see today, historian Donal Fallon writes.

AS JANUARY FAST approaches, we move towards a year of very significant commemoration in the context of the Irish revolution. 1920 is a year that shaped the island of Ireland in ways we still see today, bringing about the framework for partition.

While the War of Independence may have had its beginnings in the Soloheadbeg ambush of January 1919 in Tipperary, it would be well into the following year before there was a marked escalation in the military conflict. Indeed, the Spanish Flu, an influenza wave which hit Ireland hard in 1919, was more likely to take the lives of British military personnel than the IRA campaign.

Elections and Dáil Éireann control:

1920 began with the casting of ballots in the local elections, with urban councils across the island of Ireland going to the polls. The results, much like the 1918 General Election, were indicative of public support for Sinn Féin, but they also demonstrated the power of the Labour Party, who took almost a fifth of the vote. More than 170 of Ireland’s 206 borough and urban district councils were now in the hands of pro-independence councillors.

In Derry, the election resulted in a nationalist-controlled council, leading to Loyalist hysteria that for the first time since 1690, the city was under “Catholic control”. Tensions in the northern city ran high, eventually erupting into full scale sectarian rioting by April, with fresh outbreaks in June. Dozens of lives were lost in the city, a local newspaper writing in June that “the streets had the appearance as if an avenging army had passed through them, so great was the destruction caused”.

The year witnessed the Irish Republican Army, as the Irish Volunteers now styled themselves, demonstrating their ability to hurt state infrastructure. Easter 1920 was marked with a coordinated series of attacks across the country on income tax offices and evacuated Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, these destroyed buildings intended to serve as a reminder of new revolutionary governance.

Dáil Courts were established, operating at Parish, District, Circuit and Supreme Court level. The courts were praised for their fairness, even sometimes from conservative quarters of the British press and beyond.

Winston Churchill spoke in June of loyalists who “had applied to S.F Courts and been well treated”, while the revolutionary newspaper The Irish Bulletin, essentially the Dáil’s official publication, took delighted in reprinting the words of a Daily Mail journalist, who wrote that “I have just returned from a tour in Wicklow, and can speak with knowledge of the admirable work of the Irish Volunteers in keeping law and order. In scores of miles I never saw a policeman, a row, or a drunken man”.

There were some things Dáil Éireann was powerless to stop. In July, the revolutionary
parliament issued a decree forbidding emigration from Ireland, noting that “Ireland cannot spare any of her children at the present juncture”. Despite insisting that “no Citizens of the Irish Republic shall be permitted to leave Ireland for the purpose of settling abroad unless with the written sanction of the Government of the Republic”, the movement of the poor from the island of Ireland continued apace.

british-troops-guarding-a-wall-which-is-plastered-with-a-sinn-fein-advertisement-during-the-irish-war-of-independence-aka-anglo-irish-war-in-1920-from-twenty-five-yearspublished-1935 Ken Welsh British troops guarding a wall during the Irish War of Independence in 1920 Ken Welsh

The changing nature of the war:

IRA activity throughout 1920 varied wildly depending on where in the country one was.

In Dublin, the intelligence war continued apace. From a quiet office at 3 Crow Street, not far from Dublin Castle, the intelligence unit created by Michael Collins continued to gather information on spies, informers and the hated G Division, the intelligence section of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. ‘G Men’, as their operatives were known, were intimidated and encouraged to resign from their posts. Those who didn’t were subject to assassination attempts.

William Redmond, G Division’s Assistant Commissioner, was gunned down on 21 January, and it became harder and harder for British state intelligence to operate in the capital. Reflecting coldly on the death of Redmond, a member of the IRA’s assassination team later recalled how “we knew he had a bullet-proof waistcoat, so we shot him in the head”.

Throughout 1920, it was clear that there were several revolutionary Irelands, and that they were all working together.

In May, trade unionists in Dublin’s docklands refused to handle British military equipment or supplies, a decision which would be quickly adopted also by railway workers. This refusal, well captured in Ken Loach’s fictionalised The Wind That Shakes The Barley, infuriated British authorities.

In Westminster, Sir Hamar Greenwood thundered that “no government can allow railways subsidised out of the pockets of the taxpayers to refuse to carry police and soldiers”.

Irish Labour more broadly was a recognised threat by the authorities. So-called ‘Soviets’ continued to spring up across the country, workplace seizures by workers encouraged by the militancy of the day.

In April 1920, The Red Flag and Amhrán na bhFiann were both sung in Waterford by workers who had seized the City Hall. The Guardian, in over-dramatic style, reported that there was a “Soviet Government in Waterford”.

In the countryside, the IRA raided police barracks in the hope of securing arms, but ambush tactics in rural environments were coming to the fore too. The increasing recognition of the IRA’s ability had led to the deployment of the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve, who would enter popular consciousness as the ‘Black and Tans.’ A later force, the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC), known as the ‘Auxies’, would become particularly detested. This body consisted exclusively of ex officers of the British Army and Navy, most of whom had seen service in the World War.

Republican Officer Tom Barry would recount that “There was no excuse for them. Every damned one of them had to be a commissioned officer … They were far worse than the Black and Tans.”

The death of Terence MacSweeney:

International attention was focused on individual sacrifice, in particular the death of Cork’s charismatic Lord Mayor, Terence MacSweeney, on hunger strike in Brixton Prison.

MacSweeney, who had proclaimed that “it is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer”, became a rallying call for the Irish Diaspora and beyond.

A young Vietnamese dishwasher working in London, Nguyen Tat Thanhn, was so moved by the spectacle of MacSweeney’s death he proclaimed “a country with a citizen like this will never surrender”. He himself would later enter human history as Ho Chi Minh.

In Irish America too, MacSweeney’s passing had an electric impact.

Militarily speaking, the second half of 1920 was dramatic.

At Rineen in Clare, six Royal Irish Constabulary officers were killed in an IRA ambush in September, but the most remarkable military engagements came later in the year, and it was the closing weeks of the year which brought scenes of unprecedented violence.

Much commemorative focus in 2020 will focus on the months of November and December, which witnessed the hanging of young IRA volunteer Kevin Barry, the drama of Bloody Sunday in Croke Park and on the streets of Dublin, the Kilmichael Ambush, and the burning of Cork City, destroying much of the city centre core.

Particular commemorative focus will go to the events in Croke Park. The GAA, having done so well in marking the centenary of Gaelic Sunday in 2018 (a day on which the GAA defined a ban on its ability to organise) on a local and national level, will be well prepared for this significant centenary.

Who will be commemorating, and who will be celebrating, in 2020?

It should be remembered that perhaps the defining political event of the year was the passing of the Government of Ireland Act, which became law two days before Christmas and which essentially created the Northern Ireland state. A statue of one of the architects of that state, Dubliner Lord Edward Carson, stands outside the Stormont Parliament today.

Some Unionists in 1920 even suggested that the northern state be called Carsonia in his honour. Yet with no politicians inside the Stormont buildings, and the recent election results in Northern Ireland, one wonders if Unionists will have anything to celebrate.

Donal Fallon is a historian and editor of ‘Come Here To Me’ ( He is the author of several studies of Irish history, including Revolutionary Dublin: A Walking Guide (Collins Press, 2018).

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