by Mike McCormack, NY AOH Historian
One hundred years ago, November 21, 1920 was a day of such violence in Dublin that it was ever after referred to as Bloody Sunday (Irish: Domhnach na Fola). It occurred during the Irish War of Independence as 31 people were killed or fatally wounded on that one day – 14 British military, 14 Irish civilians, and 3 Irish prisoners.
The day began with an operation organized by Michael Collins, to “put out the eyes of the British empire” as GPO soldier Sam O’Reilly once told this writer. By late 1920, British Intelligence in Dublin had established an extensive network of spies and informers around the city. Michael Collins, as head of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and IRA Chief of Intelligence, was running his country’s war for independence and had been hampered to a large degree by those agents. They operated with impunity, believing that the Irish were unorganized and easily infiltrated. Collins was determined to show them otherwise by destroying their intelligence network in a coordinated manner.
Collins established his own undercover operation with patriots like Ned Broy, a detective in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, who smuggled him in to spend the night in the Records Room of Great Brunswick Street Police Barracks, and Elizabeth Mernin, first cousin of his IRA Publicity Director, Pearse Beasley who was a typist in Dublin Castle’s adjutant’s office. She shared critical information about the Castle’s intelligence officers and identified their Dublin residences. In addition to other operatives, Collins also had formed a clandestine ‘Squad’ of IRA men, known as The Twelve Apostles. They were tasked with eliminating informers and British operatives whenever they were identified. Then on 20 November, the Squad and select members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade, were assembled as a team to be briefed on a specific group of targets. Thirty-five undercover intelligence agents had been identified as living at different locations in Dublin and the instructions were to eliminate all of them the next morning at precisely 9AM. Early on the morning of 21 November, some of the team attended Mass and quietly went about their assigned tasks. One was Seán Lemass, who would later serve as Taoiseach from 1959 to 1966. On the morning of 21 November however, he helped in the assassination of British Captain G. Baggallay.
Out of the agents on Collins’s hit list, only 14 were killed and 5 were seriously wounded since some were not at home at the time. However, a number of agents and informers were seen later in the day lining up at the ferries back to England. The action caused shock waves throughout the Empire and crippled British intelligence in Ireland. The precision of the operation also caused consternation in the British administration who were now forced to re-evaluate their opponent. Collins justified the killings saying, ‘My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.’
Afterward, Collins advised the GAA to cancel the afternoon Dublin vs Tipperary football match at Croke Park fearing retaliation. It was denied since profits of the day were for families of imprisoned Republicans. About 5,000 spectators attended the game which began at 3:15 PM. Outside the park, unseen by the crowd, convoys containing a mixed force of military, Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Auxiliaries and Black and Tans and police drove in from the northwest and the south. The Auxiliaries and Black & Tans were ex-military from WWI sent to help the RIC defeat the Irish. They had orders to guard the exits and search every man as he left. However, as soon as they reached the stadium at 3:25 PM, they began shooting. Some claimed they were fired on first, but that was proven untrue. Actually, those in the convoy’s lead cars jumped out and chased the ticket sellers down the passage into the Park firing at them. Meanwhile, a gate opened and a Lorry of troops rode onto the field as scenes of wild confusion erupted. Spectators made a rush for the far end of the Park as shots were randomly fired into them for a full minute and a half. Auxiliary Commander, Major Mills, later admitted that his men were ‘excited and out of hand.’ RIC outside the park opened fire at spectators climbing over the wall to escape. At the other end of the park, soldiers were startled to see panicked people fleeing the grounds and opened fire with their armored car machine gun to halt them. By the time Major Mills got his men under control, 12 people had been shot dead, 60 were wounded and 2 had been trampled to death in the stampede. Tipperary player, Michael Hogan, was killed on the field as was a man who bent over him to whisper an Act of Contrition. Today’s Hogan Stand in Croke Park is named for him.
At first, Castle authorities issued a press release which claimed that a number of gunmen from the morning attack were in Croke Park and Crown forces went to arrest them. However, they were fired on by armed pickets to warn the wanted men, causing a stampede. Strongly denied by the thousands in attendance who refuted that bogus claim, when the stands were searched for arms or spent shells, none were found. British Brigadier Frank Crozier, in command that day, resigned in protest over the official condoning of the unjustified actions of the troops after one of his officers told him that, ‘Black and Tans fired into the crowd without any provocation whatsoever.’ Two military courts of inquiry were held. One found that ‘the fire of the RIC was carried out without orders and exceeded the demands of the situation’; the other found that ‘the firing on the crowd was carried out without orders, was indiscriminate and unjustifiable.’ These findings were suppressed by the British Government for 80 years and only came to light in 2000 revealing that a total of 228 rounds of ammunition were fired by the RIC and auxiliaries and that the army machine-gun at the St James’s Avenue exit fired a total of 50 rounds.
Further, the first victims were two boys watching the game without paying. William Robinson, 11, was shot as he sat in a tree that gave him a view over the wall and Jerry O’Leary, 10, was shot as he sat on a wall at the southwest end of the field. They were shot before the Tans and Auxiliaries ever entered the park, suggesting that whatever their orders had been that day, the RIC had other ideas. It was an act of mass murder by trigger-happy Black and Tans and Auxiliaries bent on avenging the morning’s losses. Later that day, two Republican officers, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, together with Conor Clune (a nephew of the Archbishop of Perth, Australia), who were being held in Dublin Castle, were tortured and shot by the Brits who said they were killed trying to escape! McKee and Clancy later had Irish Army military barracks in Dublin named for them.
Overall Bloody Sunday was a victory for Collins whose operation severely damaged British intelligence, while the British reprisals increased support for Republican forces at home and abroad. Bloody Sunday was one of the most significant events to take place during the Irish War of Independence and it happened just 100 years ago.