Remembering Bloody Sunday: Croke Park 21 November 1920

Croke Park
written by Gareth Houston

Earlier this month, I was elected as the Irish Language and Cultural Officer with a GAA club. Now, to most this seems unsurprising given my background as a musician. But as someone who grew up in Protestant Ulster, that sentence is something I’d never thought I’d be writing, and I’m sure it’s raised a few eyebrows already back home (sorry, Nan).
For those who aren’t familiar with the politics, the 6 counties in the North of Ireland are still under British occupation. The majority of people come from a Protestant British background, meaning any forms of Irish culture are very unwelcome, especially Gaelic sports and the GAA.

After joining the Cologne Celtics 2 years ago, this is a role that I feel very excited and prepared to take on. Having never played or experienced the GAA before then, I’ve happily soaked up every anecdote, story and piece of lore I could in an attempt to make up for lost time. So it’s with tentative confidence that I approach my first official contribution to the role with a short piece on possibly the most significant event in GAA (and Irish) history; Bloody Sunday.

For some (particularly those from the North of Ireland), Bloody Sunday conjures images of the 1972 civil rights protest in Derry, and unfortunately throughout Irish history, this is just one of many Bloody Sundays.

However today, I’ll be talking about the 1920 Bloody Sunday, which saw its 100 year anniversary last Saturday on the 21st of November. Viewed as one of the most significant days in the Irish War of Independence, Bloody Sunday was a day of violence in Dublin which saw over 30 people lose their lives. Several incidents occurred throughout the day across the capital; however for the GAA the most significant of these occurred at 3:25pm during a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary at Croke Park.

Bloody Sunday – a day of violence in Dublin

Throw-in for the game took place at 3:15pm with over 10,000 people inside the ground. After just 10 minutes of play, British military forces, including Auxiliaries and “Black and Tans”, stormed their way onto the Croke Park field in armoured vehicles. The raid was in response to a co-ordinated assassination earlier that day in Dublin which saw the Irish Republican Army kill 14 British Intelligence officers. Crown forces had reason to believe that possible suspects may have fled to the football match as a means to avoid capture, blending in amongst the Dublin and Tipperary fans. 

Upon arrival at the ground, British forces closed all exits and deployed armed police throughout the ground. But within minutes, mass panic ensued as police began (without warning) shooting indiscriminately into the civilian spectators, ultimately killing 14 people, including Tipperary footballer Michael Hogan (football fans may recognise this name from the stand at Croke Park now named after him).

The first victim was only 11 years old

Also amongst the fatalities were several children, including Jerome O’Leary (aged 10) and John William Scott (aged 14.) 11-year old William Robinson had climbed a tree during the game to get a better view, before being shot in the chest, knocking him from the tree. He was brought to Drumcondra Hospital where he died two days later, the first official victim of Bloody Sunday.

Later that evening, two Irish republicans (Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy) and an Irish civilian (Conor Clune) were assassinated in Dublin Castle, bringing a curtain down on the day’s violence.

The direct aftermath of Bloody Sunday saw a major shift in British policy in Ireland. As opposed to altering the course of the War of Independence, it signalled the onset of its most violent period. Crown forces pushed forward with internment and had brought in martial law across four counties in the south-west. Tensions continued to rise for a further  12 months, until the eventual signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, ending the War of Independence and Britain’s occupation of (the majority of) Ireland.

Moving memorial at Croke Park

The Bloody Sunday centenary events last weekend will live long in the memory for all who saw them. Firstly, the GAA Museum at Croke Park unveiled a diverse and sensitively curated series of events entitled “Remembering Bloody Sunday,” focussing specifically on Sport, Peace & Reconciliation.

Then, at 6:05pm on Saturday evening, there was a powerful ceremony broadcast live on TV. Hollywood actor Brendan Gleeson spoke beautifully at the foot of Hill 16 (a terrace at the Railway end of Croke Park) as he read out the names of all of the victims, along with some information about how they died that day. The stadium was bathed in darkness throughout, with a flame emerging for each individual.

Actual jerseys worn by the men who played in the match where 12 Irish were killed outside Croke Park which has come to be known as "Bloody Sunday". Photo: Steve Burt (flickr)
Actual jerseys worn by the men who played in the match. Photo: Steve Burt (flickr)

However, perhaps the most fitting tributes came on the field of play. Firstly, in the Ulster Senior Football Championship, Cavan ran out shock winners over Donegal with a 1-13 to -12 victory. On the same day, Tipperary (sporting replica jerseys of those worn at Bloody Sunday) pulled off an even bigger shock in the Munster Senior Football Championship and beat Cork 0-17 to -14 to end their 85-year wait for the title.

The combination of these 2 victories led to something quite spectacular; the 4 semi-finalists of the 2020 All-Ireland Senior Championship will be the exact same as those 100 years ago. Even though I’ve only been a part of the GAA community for 2 years, the poeticism of this wasn’t wasted on me.  In fact, I’ve learned pretty quickly that poetic coincidences maybe aren’t so coincidental in this world.

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