Bloody Sunday (1920)

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Bloody Sunday remembrance plaque at Croke Park Bloody Sunday Croke Park.jpg
Bloody Sunday remembrance plaque at Croke Park

Bloody Sunday (Irish : Domhnach na Fola) was a day of violence in Dublin on 21 November 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. Thirty-two people were killed or fatally wounded: thirteen British soldiers and police, sixteen Irish civilians, and three Irish republican prisoners.


The day began with an Irish Republican Army (IRA) operation, organised by Michael Collins, to assassinate the 'Cairo Gang' – a team of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin. IRA members went to a number of addresses and killed or fatally wounded fifteen people: nine British Army officers, a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officer, two members of the Auxiliary Division, two civilians, and another man who is believed to have been an intelligence agent. [1]

Later that afternoon, members of the Auxiliary Division and RIC opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, killing or fatally wounding fourteen civilians and wounding at least sixty others. [2] [3] [4] That evening, three Irish republican suspects being held in Dublin Castle were beaten and killed by their captors, who said they were trying to escape.

Overall Bloody Sunday was considered a victory for the IRA, as Collins's operation severely damaged British intelligence, while the later reprisals did no real harm to the guerrillas but increased support for the IRA at home and abroad. [5]


Bloody Sunday was one of the most significant events to take place during the Irish War of Independence, which followed the declaration of an Irish Republic and its parliament, Dáil Éireann. The army of the new republic, the Irish Republican Army (1917–22) (IRA), waged a guerrilla war against the Royal Irish Constabulary, its auxiliary organisations, and the British Army, who were tasked with suppressing it. Some members of the Gaelic Athletic Association which owned Croke Park were Irish nationalists, but others were not. [6]

In response to IRA actions, the British Government formed paramilitary forces to augment the RIC, the "Black and Tans" (a nickname arising from their mixture of police and military uniforms), and the Auxiliary Division (generally known as the Auxiliaries or Auxies). The behaviour of both groups immediately became controversial for their reprisals against the civilian population. In Dublin, the war largely took the form of assassinations and reprisals on either side.

The events on the morning of 21 November were an effort by the IRA in Dublin, under Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, to destroy the British intelligence network in the city.

Collins's plan

Michael Collins was the Finance Minister for the Irish Republic, head of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood and IRA Chief of Intelligence. Since 1919 he had operated a clandestine "Squad" of IRA members in Dublin (a.k.a. "The Twelve Apostles"), who were tasked with assassinating RIC and British Intelligence officers. By late 1920, British Intelligence in Dublin had established an extensive network of spies and informers around the city. This included eighteen British Intelligence agents known as the 'Cairo Gang'; a nickname which came from their patronage of the Cairo Cafe on Grafton Street and from their service in British military intelligence in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War. [7] [8] Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, described it as, "a very dangerous and cleverly placed spy organisation". [9]

In November 1920, Collins ordered the assassination of British agents around the city, judging that if they did not do this, the IRA's organisation in the capital would be in grave danger. The IRA also believed that a co-ordinated policy of assassination of leading republicans was being implemented by British forces. [10] Dick McKee was put in charge of planning the operation. The addresses of the British agents were discovered from a variety of sources, including sympathetic housemaids, careless talk from some of the British, and an IRA informant in the RIC (Sergeant Mannix) based in Donnybrook barracks. On 20 November, the assassination teams, which included the Squad and members of the IRA's Dublin Brigade, were briefed on their targets, which included twenty agents at eight different locations in Dublin. [9] Collins's plan had been to kill over fifty British intelligence officers and informers, but the list was reduced to thirty-five on the insistence of Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defence for the Irish Republic, on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence against some of those named. [11]

Bloody Sunday


Bloody Sunday shootings
Locationcentral Dublin
Date21 November 1920
Early morning (GMT)
Attack type
Weapons revolvers, Semi-automatic pistols
Deaths15: Nine Army officers
1 RIC Defence-of-Barracks Sergeant
2 ADRIC Temporary Cadets
2 civilians
1 uncertain (probably a British agent)
InjuredOne military intelligence officer
1 army officer
1 civilian
1 IRA volunteer
Perpetrator Irish Republican Army

Early on the morning of 21 November, the IRA teams mounted the operation. Most of the assassinations occurred within a small middle-class area of south inner-city Dublin, with the exception of two shootings at the Gresham Hotel on Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street). The most successful attack took place at 28 Upper Pembroke Street, where two British Army officers were killed (both of whom were Intelligence officers), and a third officer—Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Montgomery—was wounded so badly that he died on 10 December. Another successful attack took place at 38 Upper Mount Street, where another two Intelligence officers were killed. [12] [13]

At 22 Lower Mount Street, one intelligence officer was killed, but another escaped: the building was then surrounded by members of the Auxiliary Division, who happened to be passing by, and the IRA team was forced to shoot its way out. One IRA volunteer, Frank Teeling, was wounded and captured, but in the meantime, two Auxiliaries who had been sent to bring reinforcements had been captured and killed by the IRA. [14] [15] At 117 Morehampton Road, the IRA killed a sixth intelligence officer, but also shot the civilian landlord, presumably by mistake: [16] [17] while at the Gresham Hotel, they killed another civilian by mistake, along with a man who was probably an intelligence agent, but whose exact status is unknown. [18] [19]

One of the IRA volunteers who took part in these attacks, Seán Lemass, would later become a prominent Irish politician, and serve as Taoiseach from 1959 to 1966. On the morning of Bloody Sunday, he took part in the assassination of British Army officer, Captain G. T. Baggallay, at 119 Lower Baggot Street. [20] [21]

A photo purportedly of the Cairo Gang, but more probably the Igoe Gang (sometimes called the "Murder Gang" by the IRA). These were RIC officers who were brought to Dublin to identify and target IRA men who had moved to the capital from their respective counties. There is no known photograph of the Cairo Gang. Cairo gang.jpg
A photo purportedly of the Cairo Gang, but more probably the Igoe Gang (sometimes called the "Murder Gang" by the IRA). These were RIC officers who were brought to Dublin to identify and target IRA men who had moved to the capital from their respective counties. There is no known photograph of the Cairo Gang.

There has been confusion and disagreement about the status of the IRA's victims on the morning of Bloody Sunday. At the time, the British government said that the men killed were either court-martial officers or (in some cases) innocent civilians. Irish revolutionaries, by contrast, were convinced that the IRA's targets had been British intelligence agents. In a 1972 article, historian Tom Bowden concluded that "the officers shot by the IRA were, in the main, involved in some aspect of British intelligence." [22] Charles Townshend disagreed: in a response published in 1979, he criticized Bowden's work, while presenting evidence from the Collins Papers to show that "several of the 21st November cases were just regular officers." [23] The most recent research, by Jane Leonard, indicates that out of the nine British officers who were killed or fatally wounded that morning, six had been undertaking intelligence work; two had been court-martial officers; another was a senior staff officer serving with Irish Command, but unconnected with military intelligence. One of the two men shot at the Gresham Hotel (Leonard Wilde) was probably on secret service, but the other (Patrick MacCormack) was an innocent civilian. [19]

In all, fourteen men were killed, and a fifteenth was mortally wounded, while five were wounded but survived. Only one Squad member was captured, Frank Teeling, but he managed to escape from jail soon after. [24] [25] Another IRA volunteer was slightly wounded in the hand. However, out of the 35 people on Collins's hit list, less than a third had been killed. IRA volunteer and future Irish politician, Todd Andrews, recalled later, "the fact is that the majority of the IRA raids were abortive. The men sought were not in their digs or in several cases, the men looking for them bungled their jobs". [26] Nevertheless, the action crippled British intelligence in Ireland, causing many other agents and informers to flee for Dublin Castle, and caused consternation in the British administration.

Collins justified the killings in this way:

My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. If I had a second motive it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin. [27]


Croke Park massacre
Location Croke Park, Dublin
Date21 November 1920
15:25 (GMT)
Attack type
Mass shooting
Weaponsrifles, revolvers and an armoured car
Deaths14 civilians
Injured60–70 civilians
Perpetrator Royal Irish Constabulary
Auxiliary Division

The Dublin Gaelic football team was scheduled to play the Tipperary team later the same day in Croke Park, the Gaelic Athletic Association's major football ground. Despite the general unease in Dublin as news broke of the assassinations, a war-weary populace continued with life. About 5,000 spectators went to Croke Park for the Tipperary match, which began thirty minutes late, at 3:15 p.m. [28]

Meanwhile, outside the park, unseen by the crowd, British forces were approaching and preparing to raid the match. A convoy of troops drove in from the northwest, along Clonliffe Road, while a convoy of police (including Auxiliaries and Black and Tans) approached the park from the south or canal end. Their orders were to surround the ground, guard the exits, and search every man in the park. The authorities later stated that their intention was to announce by megaphone that all males leaving the stadium would be searched and that anyone leaving by other means would be shot. However, for some reason, shots were fired as soon as the police convoy reached the stadium, at 3:25 p.m. [29]

Some of the police later claimed that they were fired on first by IRA sentries, but this has never been proved. [30] [31] Correspondents for the Manchester Guardian and Britain's Daily News interviewed eyewitnesses, and concluded that the "IRA sentries" were actually ticket-sellers:

It is the custom at this football ground for tickets to be sold outside the gates by recognised ticket-sellers, who would probably present the appearance of pickets, and would naturally run inside at the approach of a dozen military lorries. No man exposes himself needlessly in Ireland when a military lorry passes by. [32]

The police in the convoy's leading cars appear to have jumped out, chased these men down the passage to the Canal End gate, forced their way through the turnstiles, and started firing rapidly with rifles and revolvers. Ireland's Freeman's Journal reported that,

The spectators were startled by a volley of shots fired from inside the turnstile entrances. Armed and uniformed men were seen entering the field, and immediately after the firing broke out scenes of the wildest confusion took place. The spectators made a rush for the far side of Croke Park and shots were fired over their heads and into the crowd. [33]

The police kept shooting for about ninety seconds. Their commander, Major Mills, later admitted that his men were "excited and out of hand". [34] Some police fired into the fleeing crowd from the pitch, while others, outside the park, opened fire from the Canal Bridge at spectators who climbed over the Canal End Wall trying to escape. At the other end of the park, soldiers on Clonliffe Road were startled first by the sound of the fusillade, then by the sight of panicked people fleeing the grounds. As the spectators streamed out, an armoured car on St James Avenue fired its machine guns over the heads of the crowd, trying to halt them. [33]

By the time Major Mills got his men back under control, the police had fired 114 rounds of rifle ammunition, and an unknown amount of revolver ammunition as well, not counting fifty rounds fired from the machine guns in the armoured car outside the Park. [35] Seven people had been shot to death, and five more had been shot and wounded so badly that they later died; another two people had been trampled to death in the stampede. The dead included Jeannie Boyle, who had gone to the match with her fiancé and was due to be married five days later, and two boys aged ten and eleven. Two football players, Michael Hogan and Jim Egan, had been shot; Hogan was killed, but Egan survived, along with dozens of other wounded and injured. The police raiding party suffered no casualties. [36]

Once the firing stopped, the security forces searched the remaining men in the crowd before letting them go. The military raiding party recovered one revolver: a local householder testified that a fleeing spectator had thrown it away in his garden. Once the grounds were cleared, the park was searched for arms, but, according to Major Mills, none were found. [37]

The actions of the police were officially unauthorised and were greeted with public horror by the Dublin Castle-based British authorities. In an effort to cover up the nature of the behaviour by British forces, a press release was issued which claimed:

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 which took place in Dublin that morning. Learning on Saturday that a number of these gunmen were present in Croke Park, the Crown forces went to raid the field. It was the original intention that an officer would go to the centre of the field and speaking from a megaphone, invite the assassins to come forward. But on their approach, armed pickets gave warning. Shots were fired to warn the wanted men, who caused a stampede and escaped in the confusion. [38]

The Times , which during the war was a pro-Unionist publication, ridiculed Dublin Castle's version of events, [38] as did a British Labour Party delegation visiting Ireland at the time. The British Brigadier Frank Percy Crozier, technically in command that day, later 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". [11]

Two military courts of inquiry into the massacre were held, and one found that "the fire of the RIC was carried out without orders and exceeded the demands of the situation". Major General Boyd, the officer commanding Dublin District, added that in his opinion, "the firing on the crowd was carried out without orders, was indiscriminate, and unjustifiable, with the exception of any shooting which took place inside the enclosure." [39] The findings of these courts of inquiry were suppressed by the British Government, and only came to light in 2000. [40]

List of the Croke Park victims [41]


Plaque in memory of the three volunteers at Dublin Castle Commemorative plaque Dublin Castle.JPG
Plaque in memory of the three volunteers at Dublin Castle

Later that day, two high-ranking IRA officers, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, who had helped plan the killings of the British agents, together with another man, Conor Clune (a nephew of Patrick Clune, Archbishop of Perth, Australia), who were being held in Dublin Castle, were shot. Their bodies showed signs of torture. [42] Their captors said that, because there was no room in the cells, they were placed in a guardroom containing arms, and were killed while making a getaway. [43]


The behaviour of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence helped turn the Irish public against the British authorities. Some British politicians[ who? ] and the King made no secret of their horror at the behaviour of British forces. The killings of men, women and children, both spectators and football players, made international headlines, damaging British credibility. Some contemporary newspapers, including the nationalist Freeman's Journal , drew parallels between the shootings in Croke Park and the Amritsar massacre which had taken place the year before in April 1919. [44] While these parallels were also noted by subsequent commentators, [45] within Britain and in the short term, the IRA killings of British officers received more attention. The bodies of nine of the British officers assassinated in Dublin were brought in procession through the streets of London for funerals at Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. [46] When Joseph Devlin, an Irish Parliamentary Party MP, tried to bring up the Croke Park killings at Westminster, he was shouted down and physically assaulted by his fellow MPs; [27] the sitting had to be suspended.

Two members of the Squad, Patrick Moran and Thomas Whelan, were hanged for murder in March 1921.

A combination of the loss of the Cairo Gang, which devastated British Intelligence in Ireland, and the public relations disaster that was Bloody Sunday severely damaged the cause of British rule in Ireland and increased support for the republican government under Éamon de Valera. The events of Bloody Sunday have survived in public memory. The Gaelic Athletic Association named one of the stands in Croke Park the 'Hogan Stand' in memory of Michael Hogan, the football player killed in the incident. [47]

The fate of the Cairo Gang was seen in Dublin as an IRA intelligence victory, but Lloyd George commented dismissively that his men "... got what they deserved, beaten by counter-jumpers...". Winston Churchill added that they were ".. careless fellows ... who ought to have taken precautions". [48]

James "Shanker" Ryan, who had informed on Clancy and McKee, was shot and killed by the IRA in February 1921. [49]

IRA assassinations continued in Dublin for the remainder of the war, in addition to more large scale urban guerrilla actions by the Dublin Brigade. By the spring of 1921, the British had rebuilt their intelligence organisation in Dublin, and the IRA were planning another assassination attempt on British agents in the summer of that year. However, many of these plans were called off because of the truce that ended the war in July 1921. [50]

22 Lower Mount Street Trial

The trial for the Lower Mount Street killings was held as a Field General Court-martial at City Hall in Dublin, on Tuesday 25 January 1921. The four accused men were William Conway, Frank Teeling, Daniel Healy, and Edward Potter. They were charged with the murder or manslaughter of Lieutenant McMahon, also known as Lieutenant H. Angliss. Daniel Healy was excused by the prosecution and given a separate trial after a petition by counsel that the evidence against the other prisoners would embarrass his client. The trial of the three other prisoners proceeded. They were charged with the murder of Lieutenant H. Angliss of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, otherwise known as Mr. McMahon of 22 Lower Mount Street.[ citation needed ]

The whole of Ireland was enthralled by the trial with most Irish newspapers and international newspapers reporting it. [51] [52] [53]

The prosecution opened with the start of the incident. Reported by the Times 25 January 1921 - "At about 9 am two men came to the front door of 22 Lower Mount Street, one of whom asked for Mr McMahon and the second asked for Mr “B”. The men dashed upstairs and one of the, identified as Mr. Conway, went to Mr. B.’s room. The other went to Mr. McMahon's door. More men with revolvers came up the stairs. The servant called out to warn Mr. McMahon and a companion occupying the same room, and she saw Teeling enter the room followed by others. He called out “Hands Up” and Mr. McMahon and a companion occupying the same room were covered with revolvers, two of they were identified as Potter and Teeling. Mr B. barricaded his door and it was said Conway fired shots through it. The servant who admitted the men identified the three prisoners as having been among them who carried out the attack. Both Potter and Conway claimed that they were not at the scene of the crime, William Conway said he was at 9am Sunday Mass in Westmoreland Street."[ citation needed ]

Mr "C" [54] was brought forward as a witness on 28 January and was identified as the man sleeping in the same bed who escaped by jumping out the window when the attackers came into the room. Mr "C" was identified as Lieutenant John Joseph Connolly.

Mr "B" [55] was another trial witness, and he was later identified as Lt Charles R. Peel. His description of the incident during the trial was reported in hansard.

The maid opened the door, twenty men rushed in (the IRA say 11 men), and demanded to know the bedrooms of Mr. Mahon (Angliss) and Mr. Peel. Mr. Mahon's room was pointed out. They entered, and five shots were fired immediately at a few inches range. Mr. Mahon was killed. At the same time others attempted to enter Mr. Peel's room. The door was locked. Seventeen shots were fired through the panels. Mr. Peel escaped uninjured. Meanwhile another servant, hearing the shots, shouted from an upper window to a party of officers of the Auxiliary Division who had left Beggars Bush Barracks to catch an early train southward for duty..[ citation needed ]

The maid from the house, Nellie Stapleton, was one of the main witnesses for the prosecution. After the IRA volunteers burst in, she called for help from an upstairs window at a group of passing Auxiliaries, "they are killing an officer upstairs". The Auxiliary Division men were under the command of Thomas Mitchell RIC, who was awarded the Constabulary Medal for his bravery rushed the front door. Inside the door one of the IRA was guarding it. Billy McLean was there and he put his hand round the door and fired his pistol. Return fire from the Auxiliaries hit McLean on the hand, but he was not badly hurt.[ citation needed ]

Irish Independent 1921 January 26 – Cross examined by a witness at the house, Mr. Bewley said "he did not see Teeling in the house." He saw him being carried out from the yard. One witness stated that he took the first witness Nellie Stapleton to Wellington Barracks on 17 December. She was put into a corridor in which there 3 or 4 windows covered with brown paper. Eight prisoners were brought out and the lady pointed out Potter. The man who shared McMahons room, Mr. "C" also identified Potter. [56] Witness told Potter he was identified as being in the assassination, and he need not say anything that might incriminate him. Potter answered, "It’s ridiculous, you are making a big mistake. I can prove it." On 1 December at the Bridewell, the same woman, Nellie Stapleton, identified William Conway of being at the scene. Cross examined by Mr. Brown the witness said he did not know when Conway was arrested. Another witness stated that when Conway was formally charged, on 5 January, with the murder of Mr. McMahon the accused replied "I am not guilty, I was at 9 o'clock mass that morning in Westland Row. I was not there at all."[ citation needed ] During the trial Potter said he was in bed at the time of the occurrence. He did not get up till 11.30 and went to 12 o’clock mass in Rathmines church.

William Conway of 32 Lower Mount Street, Frank Teeling of Upper Jane Place, Dublin; and Edward Potter 41 Richmond Road, were all found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged.[ citation needed ]

Frank Teeling managed to escape from Kilmainham [57] in a daring raid organised by Michael Collins.

The Irish Times reported [58] that on 6 March 1921, William Conway's and Edward Potter's sentence of death was commuted by the Viceroy of Ireland to penal servitude.

Daniel Healy was eventually found not guilty and released.[ citation needed ]


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