Bloody Sunday Nov 21st 1920


By Diarmaid Ferriter

 Bloody Sunday was a stark reminder that there were two wars being fought in Ireland in 1920; the military one and the intelligence one. It also occurred during what was a bloody and emotive year, incorporating the death of Terence MacSweeney, Lord Mayor of Cork and Dublin student Kevin Barry, and it was to get even bloodier; the infamous Kilmichael Ambush in which 13 British Auxilleries were killed occurred just a week later, the burning of Cork not long after. In many respects, Bloody Sunday and the murd er of 26 people in a single day was a microcosm of the War of Independence, in respect of the role of killing, the role of espionage, heavy civilian casualties, the taking of significant risks, a fiercely fought propaganda battle; its contribution to the building and sustaining of myths about key individuals, its relevance to the debate about whether the war was to be long or short. Arguably, it is also relevant to the issue of passive resistance, which is what standing in Croke Park amounted to; that was what the Bloody Sunday victims became, whether they had planned it or not.

Tipperary newspapers like the Tipperary Star and the Nationalist in Clonmel, used the words,‘Holocaust’,‘slaughter’ and ‘massacre’, to describe what happened; that was precisely how it looked when the day was over, with the Nationalist suggesting “the vicious cycle must be allowed to run its course”, a recognition, it seemed, that this was a defining but not a final tragedy. The death of Mike Hogan, the erection of the new Hogan stand in 1924, and various memorial matches gave a new status to the GAA’s relationship with Irish republicanism, the same organisation that five years previously did not allow the Irish Volunteers to parade on their grounds

The last five months of 1920 witnessed assassination, reprisal and counter-reprisal. Undoubtedly, the impact on the British intelligence network was significant, but identifying exactly how significant created problems for historians; as Tom Bowden, one of the first academics to research the issue pointed out in 1972, “where espionage and intelligence services are concerned, truth and fiction are most closely enmeshed”. But this was also a psychological, political and propaganda battle and the ramifications of Bloody Sunday may ultimately have been more important in that realm than in the military or intelligence realm.

Its effect on public opinion needs to be put in the context of the rhetoric being used by senior British politicians and supposed military masterminds in late 1920. The British Chief Secretary, Hamar Greenwood had insisted, prior to Bloody Sunday, that Britain had Ireland under control and that things were improving. The Prime Minister Lloyd George deliberately referred to the IRA as ‘ a small murdergang’, and on 9 November at a speech in the Guildhall, announced ‘we have murderby the throat’. The truth is that the maintenance of law and order had long crumbled in Ireland and the conduct of the war from the British side was a disaster. Dublin Castle could not put together an effective, unified security command. As previously classified documents have become available, they have revealed a vast accumulation of frustration, error and confusion within the Dublin Castle administration and its police force and also within the British cabinet and army. It is significant in this regard that after the Truce of July 1921, Britain was keen to learn from its mistakes, and initiated a number of analyses of what had gone wrong.

One of their mistakes was to completely misunderstand Ireland and the IRA and their public utterances on this subject reveal the importance of public figures choosing their words carefully. General Neville MacCready, the commander of the British army in Ireland at this time, said many things during the War of Independence, but perhaps the three most important words he uttered were ‘I loathe Ireland’. Hatred and ignorance fuelled many of the mistakes made in Ireland, and in this era of polit ical correctness, it is important to state that emphatically. A failure to grasp the impact of the sho oting of civilians continued to blight the British government’s approach to Ireland for many more decades, right up to the second Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when, according to documents released three years ago, Prime minister Ted Heath was unrepentant: “that was a provocative march today” he told an emotional Jack Lynch. Substitute the word ‘march’ with the words ‘ GAA match’, and you can see the parallels with 1920.

Another of the difficulties for Britain in late 1920 was in losing control over public opinion. The British public did become aware of what was being done in their name and this was not necessarily due just to the success of Sinn Féin propagandists. British correspondents and journalists like Hugh Martin of the Daily News and J.L.Hammond of the Manchester Guardian were sending home objective reports of what was going on in Ireland as eye-witnesses to scenes which suggested the empire was being humbled by guerrilla fighters; in which there patently is a war going on, despite the official denial of that. In the summer of 1920 the Manchester Guardian had specifically referred to the IRA as a ‘dry force’; not drunken, indiscplined murdergangs. The assassinations of Bloody Sunday morning were not the work of hungover thugs, but rather determined professionals.

The Propaganda Department established in Dublin Castle with a branch at the Irish office in London, was an official recognition of the need to try and beat Sinn Féin at their own game, particularly given the relative success of The Irish Bulletin, which had a wide circulation and gave the Sinn Féin version of what was happening in Ireland. According to a contemporary document, the Dublin Castle Propagand Department was set up “to suppress or neutralise the plethora of adverse news reports” circulating about Ireland in the UK, and the development of British public criticism is crucial in this regard. Important sections of the British media, including The Daily Mail, reported what happened in Croke Park as a reprisal and an illustration that the Irish issue was not being ‘contained’. Bloody Sunday was also supposed to have been part of a cross-channel spectacular with the destruction of commercial targets in London, Liverpool and Manchester to specifically demonstrate Irish resolve; they were called off after the capture of IRA Chief-of-Staff Richard Mulcahy’s notebooks, but what the plans amounted to was a very public defiance of the notion that republicans were, or could be, contained.

Quite rightly, historians in recent years have been more sceptical about the scale of the damage inflicted by Michael Collins. Bloody Sunday undoubtedly contributed to the contention, to use the phrase of Arthur Griffith, that he was “the man who won the war”. In truth, as Peter Hart points out in his new biography, no one man planned directed and controlled the war. Collins is often quoted as saying in relation to Bloody Sunday, he ‘had to get them before they got him,’ but the 14murdered on Bloody Sunday morning, the so-called ‘hush-hush men’ represented a British presence that did not begin murdering andtorturing until after Bloody Sunday. As both Hart and indeed Charles Townshend point out, it was not the Napoleonic masterstroke or “ a brilliant demonstration of pinpoint selective assassination”. Most historians now accept that not all that morning’s targets were involved in intelligence work (one was a vet, some were court-martial officers). They were easy targets because they had never contemplated such attacks, as prior to this no spies had been killed in their residences.

It was thus a risky strategy because it suggested war on a new level and that meant a danger of losing public support. In this sense, in propaganda terms, the reprisals in Croke Park worked to the IRA’s advantage, as it neutralised any revulsion that might have festered had their not been a retaliation in the afternoon. Overall, the day suggested something of a draw when it came to the body count. British intelligence had its own revenge by mur dering the IRA’s Dublin Brigade’s Peadar Clancy and Dick McKee, instrumental men in Collin’s efforts. As Liam Tobin pointed out, ‘the enemy had evened up on us.’

In the short-term, the backlash to Bloody Sunday left the IRA reeling; internment without trial, wide scale arrests, and martial law, (though it was telling that the martial law that was introduced was a diluted version of what the military chiefs wanted) and the arrest of Arthur Griffith. The British intelligence effort was back on track. The IRA recovered too; how robust they were is open to debate, but it can be asserted that in the realm of ‘secret service’ the IRA were victorious. The IRA spy network was not penetrated; the British did not succeed in infiltrating the underground. The Official Record of the Rebellion in Ireland records that ‘the murders of 21 November temporarily paralysed the Special Branch. Several of its most efficient members were murd ered and the majority of the others resident in the city were brought into the Castle and the Central Hotel for safety’.

But neither, in terms of general intelligence, was the IRA infallible; the broader British intelligence was actually better than it got credit for. What cannot be contested was the formidable achievement of Collins, a masterful organiser, in cultivating contacts throughout the government, but also turning some of the opposing players against their own side, and in killing detectives and intelligence officers and their agents in order to protect his own intelligence network.

But this was also about politics. It is no coincidence that at the time of Bloody Sunday, the militarists were also thinking in terms of length of conflict and possible channels of communication. The war was on a new level, but ultimately and paradoxically, the increased focus on coercion and targeting was with a view to conciliation and discussions. The short-term backlash to BloodySunday was not as important as the fact that neither side could afford a repeat of events on that scale. The historian Michael Hopkinson uses a modern phrase, ‘peace process’, to describe what was emerging in 1920 and it is no co-incidence that it developed more momentum in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday.

The status of Britain’s Empire, it seemed, would be better served by getting out of southern Ireland through the means of a political compromise, and crucially, the IRA was enough of a broad coalition to contemplate this. Hopkinson suggests, for example, that Collins was prepared to agree a Truce in December 1920, and that this did not happen for another six months because of the stubbornness and lack of political bravery of the man they called the ‘Welsh wizard’, Lloyd-George, who allowed himself to be convinced by the hawks who had his ear. But the important point is that a beginning had been made prior to Bloody Sunday, and that willingness to work towards a Truce was reinforced by the events of Bloody Sunday.

These moves were also a reflection of increased pressure on the IRA. Collins suggested in early December 1920 that ‘It is too much to expect that IRA force could beat English force for any length of time if the directors of the latter could get a free hand for ruthlessness’. Hopkinson goes as far as to suggest that the importance of the 1920 Bloody Sunday was on a par with the 1972 event; a defining moment in changing British attitudes to Irish independence; violence ultimately creating a channel to negotiation. In the summer of 1920, Lloyd-George had informally authorised contact with representatives of the Dáil. In October 1920, the British conservative MP George Cockrell had publicly suggested a Truce; Patrick Moylett, a Mayo IRB man, had extensive contact with the British Foreign Office. Two Days before Bloody Sunday, Arthur Griffith had communicated about possible terms for negotiations and C.J.Philips in the Foreign Office referred to the ‘slender link which has been established’. Clare man Archbishop Clune of Perth was then drafted in in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday to begin his shuttle diplomacy between Lloyd-George and Sinn Féin. It took nearly a year because of concerns by both sides about the extent to which talk of a truce was a sign of weakness. The truth was that this was a political response to a military impasse: military victory, it seemed was impossible for either side. An event like Bloody Sunday was crucial because its scale forced a reassessment of the nature and long-term objectives of this war.

Bloody Sunday was also an indication that most civilian casualties of war are the working classes, as can be gathered from the addresses of those who were killed in Croke Park. That aspect of war, it seems, never changes. – DIARMAID FERRITER