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Bloody Sunday, 1920

The Dublin football team was scheduled to play Tipperary, in Croke Park, on the 21st of November 1920; the proceeds of this ‘great challenge match’ to be donated to the Irish Republican Prisoners Fund.

The night before Michael Collins sent his ‘Squad’ out to assassinate the ‘Cairo Gang’, a team of undercover British agents working and living in Dublin. A series of shootings took place throughout the night which left 14 members of the British Forces dead.

The Crown Forces, led by the Auxiliaries (and supported by the ‘Black and Tans’) mobilised in Dublin on the morning of the match with orders to go to Croke Park and search the crowd for known gunmen and weapons.

Throw-in for the match was scheduled for 2.45p.m. but when three I.R.A. men, Sean Russell, Tom Kilcoyne and Harry Colley, were informed (by their contacts) of the planned search of Croke Park they came to Croke Park and pleaded with Luke O’Toole, General Secretary of the G.A.A., to cancel the match.

O’Toole took the decision not to cancel the match; the mood in Dublin, and the Stadium, was very tense, rumours of the previous nights exploits were circulating amongst the crowd and thoughts of reprisals must have been prominent in peoples minds. O’Toole judged that any announcement to clear the stadium would lead to a panic induced exodus amongst the 10,000 strong crowd and that a crush could develop at the turnstiles.

Mick Sammon, the Kildare referee, threw in the ball at 3.15p.m. Accounts given by eye-witnesses suggest that five minutes after the throw-in the stadium was raided by the British forces with the shooting breaking out almost immediately. The British had entered the stadium at the Canal End and when the shooting began the crowd surged away from that end of the stadium hoping to make it over the wall at the railway end of the stadium.

Ultimately fourteen people lost their lives as a result of the shooting in Croke Park that day. Included in the dead were Michael Hogan, a player on the Tipperary Team (whom the Hogan Stand is named after); Thomas Ryan, shot on his knees whispering an act of contrition to Hogan; Jane Boyle, due to be married five days later and fourteen year old William Scott, so badly mutilated that it was at first thought he had been bayoneted to death.

Two military enquiries were established into the shootings and the findings of these enquiries, made public in 2003, are the main primary source for the events of that day. Strangely the main historical records of the Association, (the Central Council minute books), make no reference whatsoever to Bloody Sunday.

The findings of the enquiry and the statements released by Dublin Castle often contradict one another. In a series of ‘official statements‘ the British Authorities offered three possible scenarios for the bloodshed; the first being that the raiding party returned fire at I.R.A. pickets placed outside Croke Park; the second being that the raiding party came under fire in the ground itself while the third explanation was that upon the raiding party’s arrival three warning shots were fired by an I.R.A. man in the crowd and this caused a stampede. In all Dublin Castle scenarios however one thing is constant, the British had come under fire first.

Almost immediately serious doubts were expressed about the official version of events; the media picked glaring holes in the Dublin Castle statements; in particular their claims about I.R.A. pickets outside the ground, were these not unofficial ticket sellers, a common match-day feature. One claim made by Dublin Castle, that 30 revolvers had been found in the stadium, caused particular annoyance amongst the public and the media who begged the question; if thirty arms were found why were they not presented to the enquiry and why was no-one arrested when found with a gun. The purported aim of the raid was, after-all, to search for guns and gunmen.

The events of the day had a profound impact on the people of Ireland; it seemed as if the British authorities had deliberately chosen an easy target-a stadium full of innocent people-to exact revenge for a military loss suffered the night before. Bloody Sunday shocked the British public too and while it is too simple to say that it helped end the War of Independence it must certainly be considered a key factor.