A dangerous game

An Irishman’s Diary about Bloody Sunday, 1920


Michael Foley is not quite the first person to write a history of the events of November 21st, 1920. Although the queue is surprisingly short, James Gleeson’s 1962 book, simply titled Bloody Sunday, was there before him.

And of course many historians have featured the episode in general histories of the period, usually focusing on Michael Collins, whose orchestrated assassination of British agents was the massacre’s prelude. But Foley has broken new ground by putting Croke Park – “The Bloodied Field” of his title – at the centre of events. So doing, remarkably, he has created something new and very fresh out of a 94-year-old story. His approach is to focus on two of the players in the fateful challenge match between Dublin and Tipperary – one long immortalised in the name of a Croke Park stand, the other still much less well known, despite being central to both Bloody Sunday’s main episodes.

In a prologue that reads like a thriller, the author follows the movements of Johnny McDonnell, Dublin’s goalkeeper, who began the day by crossing the river Liffey (in a boat) to take part in the shooting of two of Collins’s targets, Lieut Ames and Lieut Bennett.

A few breathless pages and another boat-trip later, McDonnell is back on the northside, togged out and surveying an opposition that included the young Tipperary fullback Michael Hogan, who would not survive the afternoon. From that dramatic start, Foley weaves a highly skilful narrative, back and forth in history, to explain the sporting and political circumstances that led everyone involved to the showdown. And by the time we return to the field, it’s clear that even many of the protagonists knew the day would not end well.

Dublin had been a tinderbox before the Collins operation (itself somewhat botched, since most of the targets escaped, including one forewarned by a nervous, would-be assassin who shot at his own reflection in a hallway mirror). But by Sunday afternoon, with the assassinations reverberating, reprisals seemed so inevitable that the IRA tried to get the game called off.

The official plan by police was that 15 minutes before the final whistle there would be an announcement by megaphone. Instead of “stewards to end of match positions”, the crowd would hear someone telling them to leave by the official exists, where all men would be searched for weapons.

It was a stupid idea, even before it went wrong. Anyone carrying guns would surely have jettisoned them on the way out. But in the event, no sooner had police arrived at the ground than some of them started shooting. The resultant panic added to the death toll. And when the military leadership regained control after a few murderous minutes, the searches yielded nothing.

In an unadorned account, written immediately afterwards, Auxiliary Maj EL Mills blamed “excited and out of hand RIC Constables” for the deaths. He added: “I did not see any need for any firing at all and the indiscriminate firing absolutely spoilt any chance of getting hold of any people with arms.”

But subsequent official reaction was not so frank. In the House of Commons, asked for a statement on what had happened, the Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood at first confined himself to listing Collins’s victims, in graphic detail.

When Belfast nationalist Joe Devlin insisted on the rest of the story from Dublin, there were scuffles in the chamber. Then, with calm restored, Greenwood rose again to give a heavily revisionist account of the Croke Park debacle, in which police had been fired on first. Even the more conservative British newspapers struggled to believe him, and the cover story was already thoroughly discredited before the official inquiries.

Foley lists some interesting postscripts, related and otherwise. They include the fact that, having beaten Dublin in the 1920 All-Ireland final (played, confusingly, in 1922), Tipperary would never win the competition again – to date, anyway. A more direct consequence, arguably, was that Gen Frank Crozier, the man in nominal charge of the Croke Park operation, became a committed pacifist later in life.

More recent sequels include the 2011 visit to the stadium of the British monarch, and an unforgettable evening in 2007 when GAA headquarters listened in pin-dropping silence to God Save the Queen before roaring an Irish rugby team to a record defeat of England. Foley was among the attendance that night, as was I. And at least one of us was sufficiently inspired by the occasion to write a very fine book.