Bloody Sunday: November 21 1920 – Representation and Legacy

As we wend our way through the next decade of commemorations great and small, sometimes with a sure footing, sometimes without, Fintan O’Toole has written that ‘the decade that is being marked is not only about violence and conflict but it is undeniably steeped in bloodshed, animosity and disastrous division. History should not wallow in these swamps, but it cannot stay clear of them either.’[1] Violence and sport are age-old bed-fellows – whether on the pitch or in the stands – violence, and the threat of it, forms part of the frisson of sporting endeavour. However, some forms of violence enacted in sporting contexts are utterly unexpected. Violence doesn’t tend to form as strong a part of Irish people’s conception of their sporting history as it does say in England, where violence at football in particular has been absorbed into its narrative particularly in the last forty years. Largely this is because the same phenomenon, hooliganism, hasn’t received quite as much attention in an Irish context – except by a sensationalist press – and because it happened on a much smaller scale. There is an exception to this: one violent act does loom large in Ireland’s sporting history.

Representation

One of the stand-out sequences in Neil Jordan’s biopic Michael Collins are those depicting the events of November 21 1920, more commonly known as Bloody Sunday. One of the most arresting aspects of Jordan’s portrayal is the Gaelic football match between Tipperary and Dublin in Croke Park. As with much of the film, Jordan took some liberties in portraying this retaliatory event, though having read some contemporary reports, there seems little need since the reality strikes me as being sufficiently shocking. Two of Jordan’s key changes, partially for the purposes of narrative drive but also for visual impact, was firstly to have the shooting done by Auxiliary Forces rather than the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and secondly to have an armoured tank come on the pitch to do the shooting, but this did not happen, rather the tank was outside the ground firing into the air. Sean Crosson, discussing the scene in an article on representations of the GAA on film says this scene was one of the most controversial on the films release in Ireland, in November 1996. According to Crosson ‘Jordan has defended his use of armoured cars as he wanted this “scene to last more than 30 seconds”‘.[2]

“A Thrilling Game Expected!”: A Challenge Match

Due to the disruptions to normal life caused by the war of independence, there were serious knock-on effects for sport too. Matches were less frequent and competition difficult to compete. It was in this context that a challenge match was arranged between Tipperary and Dublin to be played in November 1920. An ad in the Irish Independent the day beforehand let us know a thrilling game was expected between the challengers and the Leinster champions.[3] Somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people turned out to witness the game. What few of the spectators would have known was that morning, some 14 British intelligence officers were shot around various parts of Dublin (according to Ferriter several were not in fact intelligence agents at all and one was a cousin of Michael Davitt).[4] FSL Lyons wrote that ‘this multiple shooting spread a wave of horror through both England and Ireland’ but, he continues on ‘the horror was redoubled by the revenge of the Black and Tans’, where in Lyons’ words they ‘fired indiscriminately on the players and the crowd.’[5] Not long into the match, shots rang out as according to some armoured vehicles were parked at each corner of the ground. Amid the confusion, 13 civilians – some of them children – were killed and one player, Tipperary captain that day Michael Hogan, was shot in the mouth as he scrambled to duck from the firing.  Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse and Mark Duncan’s The GAA: A People’s History wrote of it that ‘of all the bloody days of the War of Independence, this was the bloodiest of them all – at least in terms of its impact on the public psyche.’[6]

Press Reporting

In the days and even weeks following this event, the newspapers were full of reports of the events as more and more of what happened slowly came to light. The thrilling match that had been advertised turned out to be something rather different. Rather than a tale of sporting exploits, the headline in the Irish Independent that Monday read starkly:

Irish Independent, Monday 22 November 1920

Irish Independent, Monday 22 November 1920

The newspaper reported ‘terrifying scenes’ when the RIC, military and auxiliaries made their appearance. They reported too that there were ‘most painful scenes’ as the dead and injured were picked up and brought to hospital for treatment.[7] The Freeman’s Journal wrote about a priest who ministered the last rites to the injured and dying.[8] The same issue of the newspaper carried an official statement from Dublin Castle to say that the RIC and other personnel had gone to the grounds on information of finding some particular suspects.[9] The Freeman’s Journal a few days later reported that Sir Hamar Greenwood in response to a query in Parliament about the matter that ‘the firing by the Crown forces was fully justified in the exceptional circumstances of the situation Sunday last.’[10] The Irish Times reports were the only ones to acknowledge that there was some ambiguity to the exact sequence of events, and conflicting reports. Given the papers political stance, the front page next Saturday led with the murder of the famous ‘Cairo Gang’ but their front page also had this as a follow on from that story:

Irish Times, Saturday 27 November 1920

Irish Times, Saturday 27 November 1920

Legacy

In the aftermath of the event, Hogan was buried in his Tipperary jersey, his coffin draped in the Irish tricolour. In their people’s history of the GAA Mike Cronin, Paul Rouse and Mark Duncan write of Bloody Sunday 1920 being ‘for the GAA… an entirely new aspect to the place of Croke Park in the story of the Association. This was now more than merely a playing field: it was martyred ground’. It was, they write ‘the place where people had been shot because they attended a Gaelic football match.’[11] Echoing this, John Sugden and Alan Bairner described the event as one ‘etched in the consciousness of Gaels’ and argue that ‘events like [Bloody Sunday] rapidly accelerated the alienation felt between the authorities and the Irish people’, thus ‘undermining the basis for continued British rule in Ireland.’[12]

The  naming of a stand after the Tipperary player who died, Michael Hogan, four years later attests to this – it is indeed hard to sit in a seat in the Hogan Stand and not, even briefly, cast your mind back to the event and so to the surrounding events. This stand was built in time for the 1924 Aonach Tailteann, a project for promoting the newly independent state to the world via the medium of sport.[13] Brian Hanley informs us the events of Bloody Sunday were being used in the mid-1960s in an United Irishman newspaper article on the ban on foreign games where the journalist insisted that on that day in 1920 the Black and Tans “knew where to find the Fíor Gael” and that was at Croke Park and not at Lansdowne Road or Dalymount.[14]

A ticket from the Bloody Sunday match, recently sold at auction. Image Source: www.thurles.info

A ticket from the Bloody Sunday match, recently sold at auction. Image Source: www.thurles.info

Former President of the GAA Peter Quinn (1991-1994), reflected that when the GAA was during his tenure considering the redevelopment or building of a new state-of-the-art stadium that the management committee decided that ‘tradition, history, the symbolism of Hill 16, the memory of Bloody Sunday and a myriad of other factors’ dictated against a new ground and instead the redevelopment of Croke Park as it then existed.[15] According to an Irish Examiner report, a ticket from that match (pictured above) was sold at auction in Co. Clare in 2012 for over €5,000. The same article notes that another ticket from the match had a few years previously, in 2007, sold for around the €7,500 mark. The Irish Examiner article places this March 2007 sale in the context of the opening of Croke Park to foreign games.[16] The event was a central part of the Queen’s visit to Croke Park as part of her visit to Ireland in the summer of 2011, where according to a report on TheScore.ie then President of the GAA, Christy Cooney, while making reference to the tragic events of Bloody Sunday 1920 said that

We also know that in our shared history there have been many tragic events which have inflicted hurt on us all.

While acknowledging the significance of the past and honouring all those that have lost their lives, including those that died in this place, the Gaelic Athletic Association has consistently supported and helped advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

This use of the event stands in stark contrast to that which Brian Hanley noted in the 1960s in the pages of the United Irishman. This particular articulation of the event, as being part of a shared history, is in keeping with the more conciliatory role the GAA has been seen to play since the 1990s, and noted by both Bairner and Sugden in their work on sport and sectarianism in Ireland. Of all the legacies, tributes, and modes of commemoration, one stands out most. The most poignant tribute made to Hogan was the one when Tipperary would play Dublin for the title of 1920 All-Ireland champions in 1922, and upon winning, the Tipperary players gathered at the spot where Hogan was shot to hear the music struck up by the CJ Kickham band.[17]


[1] Fintan O’Toole, “Beyond Amnesia and Piety” in Horne, John and Madigan, Edward, Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution, 1912-923, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy 2013, p.158

[2] Seán Crosson, “Gaelic Games and ‘the Movies’”, in Cronin, Murphy, Rouse (eds.) The Gaelic Athletic Association, 1884-2009, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2009, p.119

[3] Irish Independent, 20 November 1920

[4] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000, London: Profile Books 2005, p.235

[5] FSL Lyons, Ireland Since the Great Famine, London: Fontana Press 1985 edition, p.419

[6] Cronin, Duncan, Rouse, The GAA: A People’s History, Cork: The Collins Press 2009, p.154

[7] Irish Independent, 22 November 1920

[8] Freemans Journal, 22 November 1920

[9] Ibid.

[10] Freemans Journal, 27 November 1920

[11] Cronin, Duncan, Rouse, The GAA: A People’s History, p.154

[12] Sugden, John and Bairner, Alan, Sport and Sectarianism in a Divided Ireland, London: Leicester University Press 1993, p.33

[13] Cronin, Mike and Higgins, Roisín, Places We Play: Ireland’s Sporting Heritage, Cork: The Collins Press 2011, p.96; See also Mike Cronin, “The Irish Free State and Aonach Tailteann”, in Bairner, Alan (ed.) Sport and the Irish: Histories, Identities, Issues, Dublin: UCD Press 2005, pp.53-69

[14] Brian Hanley, “Irish Republican Attitudes to sport since 1921”, in McAnallen, Hassan and Hegarty (eds.), The Evolution of the GAA: Ulaidh, Éire agus Eile, Dublin: The GAA 2009, p.179; Interestingly though, one of the Tipperary players that day – James McNamara, had less than ten years previously won trophies playing soccer with Cahir Park Football Club, see Paul Buckley, Cameos of a Century, Cahir: Cahir Park 2010, p.9

[15] Peter Quinn, “From Tigh Mór to Croke Park”, in McAnallen, Hassan and Hegarty (eds.), The Evolution of the GAA, p.48

[16] Irish Examiner, 15 February 2012

[17] Cronin, Duncan, Rouse, The GAA: County by County, Cork: The Collins Press, pp.362-3

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6 Comments

Filed under Irish History, Memory, Sports History, Twentieth Century

6 responses to “Bloody Sunday: November 21 1920 – Representation and Legacy

  1. Great piece David. Could never understand Jordan’s decision to stray from the facts in this scene.

  2. Far be it from me to belittle the sufferings of the Irish people as they sought to rid themselves of the occupying force. I am cursed with the thought of the original Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg, when the Tsar`s cavalry cut down 300 unarmed protestors. Then Russia exchanged one horrible tyranny for another much,much worse and are still not free of it. Lenin`s legacy is not much understood, although it will be shortly,thanks in part to the work of James Ryan.

  3. Adrian – apparently he strayed because he basically felt showing police shooting civvies was too disconcerting for a Holywood flick; and to be fair its an epic set piece in a film full of them. Ironically enough it was filmed apparently at Bray Wanderers ground!

  4. Póló

    You can hear an eyewitness description of some of the Croke Park shooting along with a funny story here:
    [audio src="http://photopol.com/larry/bloody_sunday.mp3" /]

    The speaker is Larry Medlar and it was recorded by his son in law Dave on the occasion of Larry’s 90th birthday in 1978. He died in 1986, RIP.

    More of Larry’s stories from the same recording here:
    http://photopol.com/larry/larry.html

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