Bloody Sunday 1920: new evidence

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 11

The events of Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920, are generally regarded as having marked a decisive turning-point in the military struggle between the British forces and the IRA, the military wing of the underground Dáil government. Three separate but connected events occurred on Bloody Sunday. First came the killings by Michael Collins’s ‘squad’ of twelve British Intelligence agents in their Dublin suburban homes that morning; two auxiliary policemen were also killed. In the afternoon came the killing by  British forces of fourteen civilians—including a Gaelic footballer, Michael Hogan, who was playing for Tipperary that day—at Croke Park. Finally, in the evening came the arrest and killing (in somewhat murky circumstances) of two high-ranking Dublin IRA officers, Brigadier Dick McKee and Vice-Brigadier Peadar Clancy. In all, 30 people died within fifteen hours on that fateful day in Dublin.
The assassinations of the British Intelligence officers virtually crippled the intelligence operations of Dublin Castle. Bloody Sunday also marked an emotional turning-point in the War of Independence and has gone down as a central event in nationalist history. Although thousands were in attendance at Croke Park that day, the exact events which led to the killings have never been conclusively proven, with each side contradicting the other. The only public statement issued by the authorities was one hurriedly drafted by Dublin Castle, blaming the IRA for shooting at Crown forces when they arrived to raid Croke Park. No authoritative account from the British side had ever been published. Now, after almost 83 years, the official British record of a military inquiry, known to have been carried out in lieu of an inquest on the fourteen Irish fatalities but held in camera, has recently become available in the British Public Record Office at Kew. It finally enables rival accounts to be compared.

The court of inquiry and inquest

The file contains the proceedings of the military inquiry held at some time before 8 December 1920, and probably at military headquarters, Parkgate, Dublin. The documents now released contain no date or precise location. The inquiry was held in camera under the Defence of the Realm Act. The personnel of the three-man inquiry were Major R. Bunbury, president, Lieutenant S.H. Winterbottom of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and Lieutenant B.J. Key of the 2nd Worcester Regiment. There are two different versions of the proceedings; one is handwritten and the other typed, but the contents are practically identical. Evidence was given by over 30 witnesses—depending on which set of documents one relies on. The details of the identities of the witnesses were generally withheld, although they were mainly from the RIC and the auxiliaries. In the case of a handful of Dublin Metropolitan Police witnesses, one has no problem in identifying the force to which they belonged. Uncharacteristically, one is even named and his rank specified.
In addition to the main inquiry there was also a separate one, again ‘in lieu of an inquest’ (under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act), into the deaths of fourteen civilians at Croke Park—John Scott, James Matthews, Jeremiah O’Leary, Patrick O’Dowd, Jane Boyle, William Robinson, Thomas Hogan, James Burke, Michael Feery, James Teehan, Joseph Traynor, Thomas Ryan, Michael Hogan and Daniel Carroll. In all these cases evidence was given by relatives who had identified the bodies and by doctors who had received and examined them in Dublin hospitals. Documents relating to this second inquiry have also been released, showing that the verdicts were, predictably, death from bullet wounds in most of the cases, with heart failure listed as the cause of death in the remaining cases. The descriptions make grim reading. In the inquest on the death of Thomas Hogan, Dr Patrick Moran of the Mater Hospital stated:

‘Thomas Hogan was admitted to this hospital at 4pm on November 21st. There was a small round wound 3⁄8 inch in diameter under the spine of the right scapula. There was a large round wound one inch in diameter just beneath the acromion process in front. This was apparently an exit wound. There were two other small wounds a quarter inch in diameter one inch above acromion process, and about an inch apart. These might have been caused by bone splinters. On admission the patient was bleeding profusely, and was in a state of severe collapse. The right arm was amputated on Monday, 22nd November. The shoulder joint was found to be completely disorganised. The head of the humerus was completely severed from the shaft and about 2 inches of the shaft was shattered. The auxiliary border of the scapula was also shattered. A small piece of nickel casing was found in the region of the shoulder joint. Gas gangrene set in after the operation and the patient died at 12.30 on November 26th. Death was in my opinion due to toxaemia following gas gangrene following gunshot wounds.’

There are undoubtedly difficulties in taking on board such material. Because the sittings of the main inquiry were held in camera, no witness had any legal representation and there appears to have been no cross-examination. There was only one exception to this routine. After five military witnesses and three ambulance men had been heard, i.e. between witnesses 8 and 9, two lawyers briefly addressed the court. James Comyn BL said that he was led by Michael Comyn KC (his brother), that they appeared for the family of Jane Boyle (a 26-year-old woman killed at Croke Park) and wished to produce witnesses. However, Michael Comyn KC told the court that because the inquiry was ‘held behind closed doors’ he would not take part in the inquiry, and led his party out.

The verdict

On 8 December 1920 the verdict of the court of inquiry, whose proceedings were destined to be kept secret for over 80 years, was issued. The court found that during a raid on Croke Park on 21 November 1920 by a mixed force of RIC, auxiliary police and military, firing was started by unknown civilians, either as a warning of the raid or else to create a panic, and that the injuries to dead civilians were inflicted by rifle or revolver fire from the canal bridge by the RIC, some of whom fired over the crowd’s heads, others of whom fired into the crowd at persons believed to be trying to evade arrest. It also found that the RIC firing was carried out without orders and in excess of what was required but that no firing came from the auxiliary police or the military, except that soldiers in an armoured car (at the St James’s Avenue exit) fired a burst into the air to stop the crowd from breaking through and out of the ground.
Appended to the inquiry report is a copy (marked ‘Secret and V. Urgent!’) dated 21 November 1920 of the (unsigned) order given by a brigade major, Infantry Brigade, to the RIC and containing details of the operation planned to take place that day at Croke Park. The ground was to be surrounded and pickets placed at specified points, e.g. on the railway and at the three known exits. One infantry platoon was to be kept in reserve and at 3.15pm two (army) armoured cars would meet the mixed RIC and auxiliary police at Fitzroy Avenue (opposite the main entrance). A quarter of an hour before the end of the match a special intelligence officer would warn the crowd by megaphone that anybody trying to leave other than by the exits would be shot, and that all males would be stopped and searched.
The opinion of the competent military authority (dated 11 December 1920), which convened the court of inquiry, was:

(i) that it agreed with the court findings [summarised above];

(ii) that the first shots were fired by the crowd and led to the panic;

(iii) that the firing on the crowd was carried out without orders and was indiscriminate and unjustifiable, with the exception of any shooting which took place inside the enclosure.

This opinion was signed by Major-General G.F. Boyd, commanding officer, Dublin.
Because much of the evidence at the court of inquiry is at variance with accounts given by Irish survivors (including at least two of the 30 footballers involved), the credibility of this inquiry, published so long after the deaths of all involved on both sides, must be open to challenge. However, the withholding not only of the identities of witnesses (all also presumably dead) but also of the identities of the forces (other than the Dublin Metropolitan Police [DMP]) to which they belonged presents difficulties to any challenge more than 80 years after the event. Nevertheless the inquiry cannot be discounted as it offers the only known piece of official documentation for one of the most important events in modern Irish history.

Who fired first?

The central point in dispute was that of who fired first. Common to all reports is that the firing started at the south-west corner of the ground (that is, the corner where Jones’s Road crosses the Royal Canal). Was the government claim that their forces were fired on first true? There were undoubtedly IRA men in the grounds that day. At the time there was considerable overlap between membership of the IRA and membership of the GAA. It is certainly not out of the question that shots could have been fired at the Crown forces. If that was the case, it was obviously an extremely irresponsible act.
The alternative theory is that the RIC and auxiliaries raided Croke Park in reprisal for the attacks of that morning. Such reprisals were becoming common. Balbriggan had been sacked in September. Less than three weeks after Bloody Sunday Cork city felt the brunt of such a reprisal. These were mainly unofficial, but little was done by high-ranking officers to discourage their men, who felt justified in exacting revenge on a population protecting what they regarded as a ‘murder gang’.
The inquiry is by no means conclusive but it does shed some light on a number of points. Several of the RIC witnesses contend that the firing began from inside the ground, presumably by armed spectators, before any Crown forces had entered. Admittedly, down the years this allegation has occasionally been made, and Tim Pat Coogan’s biography of Michael Collins could be said to accept it as valid by implication. But precisely how this allegation, even if true, justified the shooting dead of at least fourteen unarmed civilians (including two young boys and a 26-year-old woman), as well as the wounding of scores of spectators, by the mixed force of police and military is not explained in the inquiry’s conclusions. Indeed, the court of inquiry found the shootings to be unauthorised and far in excess of what was deemed appropriate even if the Crown forces were fired on first. The documents now released also reveal that a total of 228 rounds of small arms ammunition were fired by the RIC (including auxiliaries) and that the army machine-gun at the St James’s Avenue exit fired a total of 50 rounds.
Of those who admitted to firing rounds, one member of the Crown forces was especially graphic:

‘On November 21st 1920 I was in the second lorry of the convoy to Croke Park. The lorry halted just over the canal bridge. I saw no civilians on the bridge. There were some civilians in the passage leading to the turnstiles. I got out and went to the turnstiles as quickly as I could. As I got to the turnstiles I heard shots. I am certain they were revolver shots, a few shots fired quickly. They were fired inside the field. I tried to get through the turnstiles and found that they were locked. When getting over them a bullet hit the wall convenient to my head. This was the wall on the right hand side inside the archway and splinters of brick and mortar hit me in the face. It could not have been fired from outside the field. As I got inside I landed on my hands and feet. I saw young men aged between 20 and 25 running stooping among the crowd, away from me between the fence and the wall. I pursued and discharged my revolver in their direction. My duties were identification of persons. I was in plain clothes having a Glengarry cap in my pocket for identification by my own men if necessary. Having been fired at I used my own discretion in returning fire. I aimed at individual young men who were running away trying to conceal themselves in the crowd. I used a .450 revolver and service ammunition. I chased them across the ground nearly to the wall on the east side. I then saw that a number of people were going back towards the main gate by which I came in. I rushed to that gate and took up my position outside to try and carry out my duties of identification. I stayed there until the ground was cleared, that is about an hour and a half.’

Many of the RIC witnesses stated that when the first of their members got out of their lorry a group of civilians, ranging in number from 3–4 to 8–9, who were at the start of the passage from the canal bridge down to the canal entry turnstiles and who appeared to be acting in concert, turned and ran at speed through the turnstiles. Some of the party, it was alleged, fired back in the direction of the men dismounting from the lorry. It is this alleged engagement between armed IRA men and the raiding party that is at the core of apportioning blame for the deaths at Croke Park.
Among those backing up this version of events was the eighth witness, who states:

‘On 21st November I was in the first car of the convoy detailed to go to Croke Park. Immediately we came to the canal bridge on the rise overlooking the park I observed several men rushing back from the top of the bridge towards the entrance gate of the park. I observed three of them turning backward as they ran and discharging revolvers in our direction. Almost immediately the firing appeared to be taken up by members of the crowd inside the enclosure. At this time the members of our party were jumping out of the cars. Most of them rushed down the incline towards the entrance gate.’

DMP evidence

The first and second DMP witnesses were on Jones’s Road near the canal bridge. Neither reported seeing any civilians who could have threatened the Crown forces, nor did they report any shots being fired outside the ground. The first DMP constable called stated that shortly after 3.30pm about fifteen lorries of military and RIC arrived at the canal bridge entrance. The occupants of the first car ran down the passage leading to the football grounds. He stated that he did not know who started the firing but he reported that a military officer came running up to the bridge and said ‘What is all the firing about, stop that firing’. The third DMP officer was on duty further down Jones’s Road, outside the main entrance to Croke Park. He gave evidence concerning a separate group of RIC who arrived at the main gate:

‘On Sunday 21st inst. I was on duty outside the main entrance to Croke Park in Jones’s Road. At about 3.25 p.m. I saw six or seven large lorries accompanied by two armoured cars, one in front and one behind, pass along the Clonliffe Road from Drumcondra towards Ballybough. Immediately after a small armoured car came across Jones’s Road from Fitzroy Avenue and pulled up at the entrance of the main gate. Immediately after that, three small Crossley lorries pulled up in Jones’s Road. There were about ten or twelve men dressed in RIC uniforms in each. When they got out of the cars they started firing in the air which I thought was blank ammunition, and almost immediately firing started all round the ground.’

On the face of it, the DMP evidence differs from other Crown forces witnesses on the crucial question of who fired first. Since they might be expected to corroborate the evidence of other forces, their testimony may be the most significant of all that given to the inquiry.

Evidence of spectators

The evidence of two of the three spectators who gave evidence to the inquiry, one of whom is easily identified (see below), is of interest, since it too is in conflict with the bulk of the evidence from the RIC, auxiliaries and military. Witness 9, who appears to have accompanied to the game Jeremiah O’Leary (killed), stated that the first shooting came from the canal bridge, and that it came from auxiliaries (‘men in RIC caps and khaki trousers’). According to this witness, the officer in charge  at the bridge (probably from the first lorry to reach the bridge) also wore this uniform and had a bonnet, i.e. a Glengarry cap, peculiar to the ‘Auxies’.
The next witness (no. 10) described himself as manager of Croke Park. Although also unnamed, this was Luke O’Toole, general secretary of the GAA, who resided beside the canal bridge. He told of how, from a low mound, then on the site of the recently demolished Nally Stand (to which he had moved from a seat in the stand when firing began), he saw firing commence at the canal end. Of all the statements known to have been made after Bloody Sunday, this is believed to be the only one made by a GAA official to the British authorities. However, O’Toole died suddenly in 1929, long before any statements from the Irish side were ever made, either to Irish newspapers or to the Military History Bureau.
The shooting at Croke Park lasted only a matter of minutes, yet almost 83 years later the events of that day are still emotive and controversial. The overall findings of the military inquiry, now released, must be viewed with some suspicion. However, contained within its pages is much new information on this event.

Tim Carey is former Administrator of the GAA Museum and is currently writing a book on the history of Croke Park. Marcus de Búrca is author of The GAA: a history.


Further reading:

File WO 35/88, Public Record Office, Kew, London (also available at the GAA Museum, Croke Park).

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