The sun rose on a beautiful autumn day in Dublin on November 21, 1920, belying the fact that the day would be forever remembered as “Bloody Sunday” in Irish history. It would be a day that would host a series of violent and tragic acts; each alone would more than justify that. (see endnote on other “Bloody Sundays”).
For over a year since the suppression by the British of the Irish Government Dáil Éireann, created by the democratic mandate of the Irish people, Michael Collins had been leading a war, the type of which had rarely been seen before and arguably none more effectively. Facing the British Empire’s might with few men and fewer resources, he had effectively disrupted the British Government’s administration of Ireland. Unlike previous Irish revolutionaries, Collins grasped the reality that the Irish could never hope to defeat the British with all their resources in the field. Instead, like the Greek myth of Ulysses against the giant Cyclopes, Collins concentrated on rendering Britain’s great size and strength ineffective by blinding her in Ireland by systematically taking out her intelligence agents.
So effective was Collins and his counterintelligence force, known as “the Squad” or sometimes “the Twelve Apostles,” that he forced the British to counter by assembling an elite group of spies and intelligence agents from across their empire known equally for their effectiveness and ruthlessness. Some had served in the abortive British attempts to check the Bolsheviks in Russia after WW I; others had served in British Palestine. Whether in reference to some of their members’ Middle East service or because they sometimes used Dublin’s Cafe Cairo as a rendezvous, they have become known as “The Cairo Gang.” On learning of the formation of the Cairo Gang, Collins was quick to appreciate that this was a far more sophisticated force than the ex-WW I British soldiers that comprise the “Black and Tans” and “Auxiliaries” he had been fighting up to now. It was clearly a case of getting them before they got him and his men.
British intelligence had been very clever in dispersing the Cairo Gang members across Dublin; they had arrived individually with established cover stories and jobs. Identifying who they were would be a challenge. However, Collins had his own intelligence network, often leveraging a British class system that rendered working people invisible. Director Michael Jordan, in his movie “Michael Collins,” should not be taken to task for taking some liberties with facts for the sake of storytelling in the limited time of a film. A maid in a bordering house had told her boyfriend of two men she thought curious; it was clear they were military but wore civilian clothes and didn’t go out till night. Collins did instruct her to collect and turn over any wastepaper from the trash; from those scraps, other intelligence operatives were identified. Collin’s also had a key agent, Lily Mernin, known as “Lt. G”, who was the secretary of a key British intelligence officer. Other agents were identified by just dogged detective work by Collin’s men.
By November 1920, Collins had a list of 35 names and addresses of British agents. Cathal Brugha reviewed the list and the evidence of each man being a British agent; he found insufficient evidence against 15 and removed them from the list. Collins received word that those on the list should be in their lodgings on Sunday the 21st; all would need to be attacked simultaneously less they escape.
The operation was ambitious and nearly failed before it started. The night before the attack, an informer advised the Auxiliaries that Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the Commandant and Vice-Command of the Dublin Brigade, were staying at Fitzpatrick’s Hotel. The two men were lifted in a raid along with a completely innocent man name Conor Clune who was up from Clare on business. It was a tragic coincidence; the British still did not know of Collins’ plan
At 9:00 AM Sunday, the men of Collins’ squad supplemented by Dublin Brigade volunteers struck. Some targets were not at their residence, some escaped, but 15 men had been killed and another five wounded by the end of the morning. Two of those killed had been civilians, one a landlord who tried to intervene and another when members of the Dublin Brigade entered the wrong room. The operation had an unforeseen consequence: the actions of Collins’ men caused such panic that spies and informants, hitherto still unknown, went streaming to Dublin Castle to ask for sanctuary and protection.
The actions of Collins’ men provoked an immediate British response. That afternoon, Dublin was playing Tipperary in a football match at Croke Park. The British decided to surround the game and search of all spectators as they left the grounds for weapons and known Republicans. To carry out the sweep, units of the Auxiliaries, who had already earned a reputation for indiscipline and outrage, and two armored cars were dispatched. As soon as they approached Croke Park, the Auxiliaries opened fire; the first victim was a ten-year-old boy who had climbed a tree to watch the match from outside the park. One of the Armored cars fired a 50-round burst outside the stadium (again at variance with the movie Michael Collins). The gunfire created panic, and the Auxiliaries and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary used this as a pretext to shoot people allegedly “trying to escape.” One victim was a 26-year-old girl newly engaged who had been watching the match with her fiancé. The most remembered victim was Michael Hogan, the Tipperary Squad’s right fullback, shot multiple times in the back. Hogan is remembered today by “the Hogan Stand” at Croke Park. In all, the Auxiliaries and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary killed 14 people.
However, the day’s violence was still not over. Later in the day, it was revealed that Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy, and Conor Clune, who had been lifted at their hotel before events started, had all been shot. An implausible story was released that on being taken to Dublin Castle, they had mistakenly been put into a storage room which contained grenades and a rifle and they had tried to escape (despite being allegedly so well armed, no victims of this escape attempt were identified). Later examination of the bodies showed not only multiple bullet wounds but signs of being beaten. (Just to complete the comparison to the movie “Michael Collins,” it is likely the emotion surrounding their deaths that Director Jorden was trying to capture in the scene showing the death of the character “Ned” Broy.” The real Ned Broy would become commissioner of the Garda and live till 1972 ).
They [his own British Agents] got what they deserved, beaten by counterjumpersBritish Prime Minister Lloyd George
There will be some who will see a moral equivalence in all these tragedies, or, in the case of revisionists, putting the sole responsibility for the deaths of Bloody Sunday at the feat of Michael Collins. However, let us see what contemporary British authorities thought:
Per Collins’ attack on British Intelligence members, Prime Minister Lloyd George observed, “They [his own British Agents] got what they deserved, beaten by counterjumpers,” a rather frank admission that his men were about to do the same to the Irish if Collins had not gotten there first. Llyod George remarked to another subordinate, “These men were soldiers and took a soldier’s risk.”
Winston Churchill added that they were “.. careless fellows … who ought to have taken precautions“.
However, of the killings at Croke Park, the British spin machine went into high gear. They claimed that “A number of men came to Dublin on Saturday under the guise of asking to attend a football match between Tipperary and Dublin. But their real intention was to take part in the series of murderous outrages” and that British forces sent to apprehend them had been fired on by “sentries” posted outside; the “sentries” turned out to be ticket sellers who fled when they saw armed troops and armored cars descend on them. Even the London Times ridiculed the Dublin authorities’ assertions. Many noted that the incident in Dublin, where a gathering of civilians was attacked in reprisal, was almost identical to the Amritsar Massacre perpetrated by British forces in India a year earlier.
British Brigadier Crozier resigned over what he believed was the official condoning of the unjustified actions of the Auxiliaries in Croke Park. One of his officers told him that “Black and Tans fired into the crowd without any provocation whatsoever.” A military court of inquiry into the Croke Park massacre found that “the fire of the RIC was carried out without orders and exceeded the demands of the situation.” A British Army Officer testified, “the firing on the crowd was carried out without orders, was indiscriminate, and unjustifiable.” The British Government suppressed the findings of the court, only releasing them in 2000.
Sadly, these same coverup tactics, slandering victims and still to this day protecting undisciplined troops who committed unjustifiable killings, would be repeated in the wake of 1972’s Bloody Sunday. Let us pray that we have finally learned from history and it is the last
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian
Endnote: In a previous history, it was noted that the fact that Ireland has in the course of some eighty years four events known as “Bloody Sunday” bears a sad testament to its history under British rule. The first occurred in 1913, when members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police baton-charged a labor protest. The second is the subject of this article. The third was a pogrom against Catholics in Belfast in 1921 after partition. The last was when members of the Parachute Regiment of the British Army opened fire on Civil Rights protestors killing fourteen in 1972