Bloody Sunday: How 90 seconds of shooting at a Gaelic football match resonated for 100 years

·9-min read
<p>The commemoration of the 95th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at Croke Park in 2015</p> (Getty Images)

The commemoration of the 95th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at Croke Park in 2015

(Getty Images)

At 3pm on Saturday, referee Pascal Gauzere will sound his whistle to begin the England vs Ireland rugby match and the war metaphors will spill forward in the opening moments.

Irish thoughts may rewind to events that occurred exactly 100 years ago at a very different sporting event in Croke Park, Dublin, when a Gaelic football challenge match between Tipperary and Dublin offered the prospect of a peaceful afternoon in a country gripped by the bloody War of Independence.

Instead, it delivered another day of carnage and 14 people who went to a football match and never came home.

That day, 21 November 1920, began with a hint of spring on a winter morning. All around Dublin, IRA operatives were getting ready to make an audacious move to execute 20 members of the British intelligence under the guidance of their own head of intelligence, Michael Collins, using information garnered from a mixture of informers, sympathetic housemaids and employees.

Fourteen men were killed across a variety of locations. The operations were messy. Among the assassins was Johnny McDonnell, who would later line out in goal for the Dublin team.

At Dublin Castle, seat of the British Government’s administration in Ireland, panic set in when the news was called in. One officer shot himself in his room. The rumour went that he had believed himself to have accidentally betrayed one of those killed by revealing his address.

A response was needed. Commander in chief of the military in Ireland, Nevil Macready, felt that the football match that evening was an opportunity to shake a few branches. A message was sent out to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bray at Collingstown Aerodrome, where the 2nd Batalion Duke of Wellingtons (West Riding Regiment) were stationed, to surround the football ground and picquet all exits.

All males were to be searched before they could leave. Additional help was called in, a mixture of Auxiliary forces, Black and Tans. Some were frustrated and trigger happy, scared and seeking to inflict serious damage.

That there was a game on that day was quite something. There was little in the way of activity with most of the country under a permanent siege and finals came and went, unplayed.

Tipperary were a team of promise and had been in an All-Ireland final, losing to Wexford by a point in February 1919. They had won Munster titles in 1918 and 1920. Then, as now, there was already a glamour attached to Dublin that made any more ‘country’ team giddy with the prospect of beating them.

A letter was carried in The Freeman’s Journal from Tipperary county secretary Tommy Ryan, reprinted in Sport newspaper on 6 November, with the intention of goading their prospective opponents.

“We understand that Tipperary’s superiority over Dublin in football, despite two decisive victories by Tipperary, is being questioned by Dublin. We, therefore, challenge Dublin to a match on the first available date in any venue and for any object.”

It had the desired effect. Tipperary were invited to come to Dublin for a game in Croke Park on 21 November.

As it wasn’t a particularly official game, they played in the kit of the Grangemockler club, white jerseys with a green band instead of their customary blue with a gold band.

On their journey up to Dublin by train, the Tipperary team were happily whiling away the time when a group of soldiers boarded at Ballybrophy. One made a remark to a Priest, Fr Delahunty from Kilkenny, and Tipperary player Jackie Brett got up and swung a punch. It descended into a scrum.

In the middle of it was the young Tipperary corner-back Mick Hogan. He was also a member of the IRA and in his shoe was a set of despatches he had been given that morning to drop off in Phil Shanahan’s pub – a sympathetic house for Republicans located in the Monto area – a red light district.

Tipperary ‘won’ the skirmish with the soldiers and allowed themselves a cheer when the forces disembarked the train. They also made it to their billeting in Barry’s Hotel without fuss or their progress halted.

While there was trepidation the morning of the match, once the ball was thrown in half an hour late at 3.15pm, the game was on. Mick Hogan was marking the speedy Frank Burke.

Ten minutes into the game the whine of military trucks came over the Canal Bridge.

And then, the shooting. Ninety seconds of it that would resonate for 100 years.

Roland Knight was barely 20 years old, from the small town of Fareham on the south coast of England. He wasn’t even wearing uniform, his only distinguishing item his glengarry cap in his pocket. He had already seen far too much of war and dying.

He climbed the wall and drew his weapon, firing into a terrified group. Joe Traynor was hit in the back. Then he just opened up at anyone, anything. Fire. Aim. Fire. Aim. Fire.

<p>Arms said to have been found at Croke Park after the shooting</p>Getty Images

Arms said to have been found at Croke Park after the shooting

Getty Images

The first to be hit was an 11-year-old boy, William ‘Perry’ Robinson, who had taken up position in the crook of a tree to better see the action. A bullet went into his chest and exited through his right shoulder. He fell from the tree.

Two other children died, 14-year-old John William Scott and 10-year-old Jerome O’Leary.

In total 14 people were killed, the victims representing a cross-section of Irish society.

Hogan, the Tipperary corner-back, was wriggling along the ground when the firing started, trying to make his way to a picket fence for cover. A line of bullets tore in a straight line towards him, the fatal shot going through his back.

Thomas Ryan, a 27-year-old who worked for the gas company, knelt down to say an act of contrition into Hogan’s ear and got a bullet. Both were IRA men.

The only woman to die was Jane Boyle, a 26-year-old charge-hand at a pork butchers. She was due to be married that week. Instead, she was buried in her wedding dress.

With the commotion and panic ongoing, Major EL Mills, in charge of the Auxiliaries, came running from his truck at the back of the convoy and ordered his men to hold fire.

In the century that followed, the stories got muddled and confused. Somehow, the challenge game that it was became known as an All-Ireland final. The number of those dead ranged from 12 to 20.

When Croke Park was redeveloped, the main stand was christened the Hogan Stand in memory of the slain Tipperary corner-back.

Enquiry reports were conducted around events on the day and sealed until 1999. Academics gained access thereafter and papers were produced, later worked into newspaper features.

On Saturday 24 February 2007, Ireland hosted England for a Six Nations rugby game.

The usual home of Irish rugby, Lansdowne Road was undergoing development and so the game was hosted at Croke Park.

The GAA had until recently Rule 42, which forbade the staging of horse racing, greyhound racing or field games other that those sanctioned by Central Council. That was amended in 2005.

Outside the ground, some protests invoked the names of the 14 dead on Bloody Sunday and the sound of God Save The Queen being played within.

Inside, the anthems were greeted with silent respect, the day topped with an Irish win, 43-13.

Something about the coverage, some of the inaccuracies, bugged journalist Michael Foley and he plunged into several years of research, publishing the definitive and exhaustive book, The Bloodied Field, in 2014.

For a time it felt he was documenting the day. And then the personal stories of the slain began to grip him. By the time he finished he couldn’t let go of the fact that the dead were in unmarked graves. Eight out of the 14 were completely lost.

“The following year, 2015, a few things happened. Number one, the GAA decided for whatever reason to have a 95th anniversary commemoration before Ireland v Australia,” recalls Foley.

“At the same time, the Boyle family decided they were going to erect a grave for Jane and we got in touch with each other.”

The GAA also became interested and provided the Boyles with support to put up a headstone. From that, the Bloody Sunday Graves Project began. So far, they have seven headstones erected.

It has thawed the relationships between families and the GAA body who spent decades after the formation of the Republic treading a delicate line, unsure of where to place themselves politically while also traumatised by the day.

Sinn Fein leader and Commander-In-Chief of the Irish Free State Army Michael Collins starting a hurling match at Croke Park in 1921Getty Images
Sinn Fein leader and Commander-In-Chief of the Irish Free State Army Michael Collins starting a hurling match at Croke Park in 1921Getty Images

“For the families, it helps this element of healing. I have seen it at the graves events. The emotions are immense for these people,” Foley recalls.

“And it’s not necessarily that they are crying tears for the person who died on Bloody Sunday. But they are remembering an aunt of a grandaunt or granduncle who spoke of this person, all down the years and hoped that at some stage their memory would be honoured on the way it is remembered.”

Previously, the GAA was uncertain as to how to handle it. There was no expression of condolences. British authorities imposed severe restrictions on attendances at the funerals.

The only public act was the naming of the The Hogan Stand, where captains of victorious teams climb to lift their trophies.

The last few months has seen a flurry of activity. Foley repackaged all his work and has released a series, The Bloodied Field Podcast.

The Croke Park museum has hosted a series of lectures and displays, of artifacts and what Foley describes as “relics” of the time.

This Saturday, Dublin face Meath in the Leinster football final. The date was only made possible by the delay of the summer Championship due to the pandemic.

Prior to the game there will be a torch-lighting ceremony in the corner of Hill 16 where several deaths occurred, including the killing of Hogan.

In June 1922, Tipperary won the refixed 1920 All-Ireland final, defeating Dublin. It was their fourth title. They never appeared in another football final since.

But on Sunday, the day after the centenary, they are back in the big time of the Munster football final. And instead of their blue and gold, they will wear white with a green band, the colours of a century ago, the blood-stained jersey of Mick Hogan.

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