If, as Vladimir Lenin once said, there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen, how many years happened in Dublin on Sunday, 21 November, 1920?
9am to 9.30am
The 'Particular Ones' must die
They lived well.
They lodged in fine Georgian townhouses, in substantial middle-class Edwardian and Victorian suburban homes, or in the best hotels. Nothing in their surroundings would have been out of place anywhere in a major city in the United Kingdom. A home from home.
Perhaps that is why they never suspected the fury that was about to befall them, in a few blood-soaked minutes, just after 9am on the morning of Sunday, 21 November.
Perhaps that is why their Sunday had begun exactly as it would for British Army officers in peacetime postings from Dublin to Calcutta.
A lie-in. The Sunday papers, a big breakfast. A game of squash or tennis, then a good lunch at a restaurant or hotel.
Not this morning, not today, and never again.
As nine o'clock drew near, dozens of young men were closing in on the apartments, digs and hotel rooms of what they had been told were the elite of British military intelligence. Officers and undercover agents, infiltrated into Dublin with the single purpose of rolling up the entire IRA leadership and command structure. Michael Collins had devised a codename for the targets: "The Particular Ones".
The plan was brutal and simple. Surround the buildings, with scouts, lookouts, and gunmen. For each building, eight to ten men to rush the entrance, two to four men left outside to act as scouts and lookouts. Take the carpeted stairs two at a time, kick in doors, identify the target, and shoot to kill at point blank range. Any incriminating papers found with the dead men would be a bonus.
In a few minutes, 12 members of the British armed forces were killed; nine army officers and three policemen, two of whom were auxiliaries. Several others were wounded.
There was farce and even more tragedy. One volunteer, racing up the stairs at the Shelbourne Hotel, turned and fired at a shape that seemed to be lunging at him. He had shot at his own reflection in a mirror. One British officer, it was later claimed, mistook the armed men in raincoats racing up the stairs for British officers on a raid, and identified himself to his killers. One attack was aborted when the raiders accidentally set fire to the house, staying to douse the flames before withdrawing.
It is now accepted that perhaps half of the officers shot were with military intelligence. Two were in Dublin to prosecute IRA members in courts martial. The two auxiliaries who were shot had been intercepted on the way to raise the alarm, at the nearby Beggar's Bush barracks.
At least three of the men shot that morning were civilians: one an ex-army veterinary surgeon; one the landlord of an officer targeted in the raid; and one man just arrived in Dublin to join the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Two factors meant the loss of life was less than it could have been. First, Cathal Brugha, the Dáil government's Defence Minister, did not agree to sanction the number of targets presented by Michael Collins. He crossed a considerable number of names off the list because the 'case' against the officers in question – that they were not ordinary army officers or police officers but undercover agents and intelligence operatives – could not be proven.
Second, fate had a part to play. Many of the targeted men were simply not at home when the IRA raided. Some were, in fact, out on raids of their own that morning.
The net is closing
The claim made by the IRA was that the slain men were all part of an elite hit squad, sent to take out the IRA leadership. It was a case of strike first, or be struck. For many years it was claimed that these men killed were part of what was called 'The Cairo Gang', a special unit of senior intelligence officers who had served in the Middle East during the Great War. This theory is now debunked. There is no doubt many of those shot were indeed intelligence officers, but others were not.
It was not paranoia on the part of the IRA leadership in Dublin that the net was closing about them. British intelligence was mounting raids that yielded vital clues about the IRA's operations and were, it was feared, close to actually capturing the likes of Collins and Mulcahy. The night before Bloody Sunday, two of the IRA's senior officers in Dublin, Richard McKee, Dublin Brigade Commandant; and his deputy, Peadar Clancy, had been arrested. Collins had evaded capture by minutes in other raids. Days before, Richard Mulcahy's hideout had been located and raided. His renowned capacity for record-keeping was to be turned against the IRA, as identities and locations of hundreds of volunteers were revealed in the documents seized. The British had started acting on that priceless information just two nights before.
So how were the IRA's targets selected and located? For the big picture, Collins had what the British acknowledged after the war they never had: agents at the heart of the enemy operation. He had three detectives in the Dublin Metropolitan G Division, James McNamara, Ned Broy and David Neligan. They had access to information that detailed the movements of key players in the British intelligence operation. What they knew, Collins knew.
For the fine detail, the daily routines, the addresses, Collins had an army of eyes and ears. It has been observed that many of the most effective contributors to the War of Independence never fired a shot, nor were expected to. They were the unseen: hotel porters, receptionists, waiters, maids, telephone operators, passing on dozens of tiny scraps of detail that allowed the IRA build profiles of those they intended to kill.
A death-blow, or a wake-up call?
Another claim made many times has been that the killings delivered a blinding blow to British intelligence operations in Ireland.
The British had about 160 intelligence officers deployed in Ireland, so it's hard to see how losing maybe six to ten officers could have dealt a mortal blow. The papers seized during the raids by the IRA do not appear to have yielded a great deal of hard information.
The British proved their resilience by their response: a wave of arrests, internment without trial, martial law.
The dead officers were accorded full military honours in Dublin and London. As the British leaders gathered to pay their respects at Westminster Abbey, the quiet, hard-faced men among the mourners, the men who made all the major decisions, would have separated out the hysteria and propaganda mind-games from the unavoidable facts.
The unavoidable facts
This: It happened.
This: The scale and speed of the operation. The British were publicly appalled at the ruthlessness of the operation. It was staged at multiple addresses at precisely the same time, with officers shot at point blank range while mostly unarmed, in some cases still in their pyjamas, and in some cases in front of their wives.
But they would have understood that this could not have been carried out by a mere gang of assassins. Over a hundred men of varying reliability had to have been assembled, assigned, armed and briefed by the IRA leadership, without a single detail leaking to the enemy.
This: "beaten by a gang of counterjumpers".
The hard-faced men would have ignored the bewailing in the newspapers of the fact that so many of the victims were shot in their pyjamas.
This is one of the red herrings of the narrative of the War of Independence. Were the volunteers to 'blame' that these men, war veterans all, had decided that it was okay to lounge around half-dressed at 9am, many with no weapon to hand, in unguarded civilian lodgings? Should the gunmen have apologised and arranged to come back when their targets were 'decent'?
If this seems callous, it was precisely the attitude of the British leadership.
Behind the solemnity of the funerals and memorial services, there was little sympathy for the dead and injured men. Prime Minister Lloyd George said the men were soldiers, who took a soldier's risk – and were "beaten by a gang of counterjumpers". Winston Churchill said they were "careless fellows...who ought to have taken precautions".
The Chief Secretary for Ireland, Hamar Greenwood, expressed disbelief that the men were not armed when they were attacked. He personally carried a revolver everywhere, all the time, night and day.
This: the scale of the unmasking.
There was a realisation of what the security forces were up against, that key parts of their operation had been exposed. Even if some of the victims were not intelligence officers or agents, that was irrelevant; many of them were. The homes of seven other intelligence officers and agents had been located, but they avoided death or wounding through good luck, by simply not being there when the raids happened. The key fact the British had to accept was that the IRA knew where to find them, that the intelligence network had been compromised.
How many other agents and intelligence officers would be exposed? Men with secret agendas, who needed to live quietly among the civilian population, could no longer do so. They had to withdraw inside the security cordon around Dublin Castle and nearby hotels.
At the same time, there was a realisation of just what the IRA could potentially do in this war outside of Ireland. Armed police cordons went up that Sunday evening in London – far away from the conflict – around Downing Street, Westminster and Whitehall, because the British government now feared that such attacks could also be mounted in Britain.
The killings totally undermined Lloyd George's claim that the authorities in Ireland "had murder by the throat".
3pm to 4pm
Much thought and research has gone into establishing just what connection there was between the shootings in the morning and the events at Croke Park in the afternoon.
The minutes of the inquiries held into the Croke Park massacre were finally made public in 2003.
In the dry, clipped military and police testimony delivered at the inquiries, details emerged of a pattern of police and army officers around barracks in Dublin sending and receiving orders between 12.15pm and 1.45pm, to mount a major security operation at Croke Park.
The operation was to commence just after 3.30pm. There is no overt reference in the testimony of officers to the operation being a response to the morning's shootings.
Thousands of football fans were going to assemble in Croke Park that afternoon to watch a challenge match between two of the game's giants, Tipperary and Dublin.
Secretary of State for Ireland Hamar Greenwood went on the record in the House of Commons in the days following Bloody Sunday to say that there was a direct link. He said that the authorities believed the gunmen who carried out the morning killings had used the influx of fans into the city as cover, and that inside that body of people they would find evidence linking some of them to the shootings. Incriminating documents, weapons, or both.
The stated plan was for army and police units to converge on Croke Park at around 3.30pm. The timing was key; they wanted to ensure that everyone was already in the venue, but that there would still be daylight for the troops and police to see by.
The plan called for the army to secure the exits at the north side of the ground; the police the south side. Then, for an intelligence officer to walk on to the pitch, stop the game and announce via loudhailer that everyone – fans, officials and players – was to leave the pitch, the dressing rooms and the stands via the exits, where they would be searched and questioned.
Army troops, from the Duke of Wellington's regiment, would arrive from the north end, stay out of the ground, but prevent anyone from leaving before they had been searched.
Two police units, one of Black and Tans and one of Auxiliaries, would approach from the Canal side; they would do the detaining and searching.
'A rotten show. The worst I've ever seen.'
Two things were required of the police units at Croke Park that day, silence and discipline.
Instead, whatever plan there was unravelled in seconds.
The army units took up their position outside the ground, to the North-East. As the police trucks arrived across the Canal bridge, the ticket sellers, merchandise and fruit sellers that always gathered around Croke Park on match days fled inside via the nearest entrance.
Discipline among the Black and Tans dissolved as men jumped from the trucks and began running towards the nearest entrance. A Dublin Metropolitan Police Constable saw men ignore orders to form up before deploying into Croke Park. The officer commanding the Auxiliary unit, Major Edward Mills, heard several Black and Tans between him and the ground, shout "ambush!".
Shots were fired.
The Black and Tans began firing into Croke Park, then ran in and continued firing. A sports correspondent covering the match for 'The Freeman's Journal' testified that a man in the crowd told him the police ran in firing, "as if they were fighting the Germans".
The panic drove the crowd away from the Canal end to the palisade fence and the St James's Avenue exit at the north-east corner of the ground, in search of safety. As the spectators flowed out of Croke Park, the army units outside, under orders not to let anyone leave, fired warning shots, driving the people back on to those still trying to escape. What injuries and death the bullets did not cause, the crush would.
The shooting lasted between a minute and a minute-and-a-half at most. The official tally of bullets fired was over a hundred rounds of rifle fire, and an unknown number of pistol rounds.
The Auxiliary Commander, Major Edward Mills, testified that many of those rounds had been fired in the time it took him to make his way 200 yards to the entrance of the ground, yelling at the Black and Tans to cease firing.
He claimed to have regained control of those policemen by the time he entered the ground, but there was still firing going on inside. He and other officers then had to order the Black and Tans inside Croke Park to cease fire before the shooting ended.
Major Mills' last act of the day was to report to his superior, Brigadier-General Frank Crozier, about "A rotten show, the worst I've ever seen." Crozier told him to immediately write his report.
This report, written in the white heat of the aftermath, gave key details, which the official account, put forward in the days ahead, would try to contradict:
All the shots were fired indiscriminately by the Black and Tans; no shots came from the ground. There was no need for any firing.
Despite searching everyone still in the Croke Park, no weapons were found.
Fourteen people died of gunshot wounds and crush injuries. The exact number of injured has never been agreed. Somewhere between sixty and a hundred.
The dead of Croke Park are often described in the order in which they died. A simple list, as in the conclusions of the official inquiries, can be just as chilling.
The official opinion of the Mater Hospital Inquiry in the following weeks listed the dead that had passed through its doors:
James Matthews (48): Death from shock and haemorrhage caused by a bullet wound received on that date.
John William Scott (14): Death from shock and haemorrhage caused by a bullet wound received on that date.
Patrick O'Dowd (57): Death from laceration of the brain caused by a bullet wound received on that date.
Jerome O'Leary (10): Death from shock and haemorrhage caused by a bullet wound received on that date.
William Robinson (11): Death from shock and haemorrhage caused by a bullet wound received on that date.
Thomas Hogan (19): Toxaemia following gas gangrene following gunshot wounds received on that date.
Jane Boyle (28): Death from shock and haemorrhage caused by a bullet wound received on that date.
The dead brought to Jervis Street Hospital:
James Burke (44): Crushed to death. Shock and heart failure.
Daniel Carroll (30): Shot in the leg. Blood loss.
Michael Feery (30): Impaled on a spike on the ground's perimeter. Blood loss.
Thomas Ryan (27): Shot in the stomach.
James Teehan (26): Crushed to death.
Joe Traynor (20): Shot twice in the back.
Michael Hogan (24): Shot three times in the back.
When the smoke cleared, there were dead and injured civilians, players and spectators, strewn across the ground. The merchandise brought for sale that afternoon – hats, badges, flags and the contents of the fruit-sellers' baskets – was scattered and crushed into the turf, alongside the spent cartridges ejected from the Black and Tans' weapons. And the blood.
If it looked like a battlefield, the Black and Tans certainly behaved as if they'd just won a battle, waving their guns at the uninjured people still inside the ground, yelling threats and orders.
The Tipperary team was lined up against a wall, threatened with death. One Black and Tan was seen waving a Tipperary team photo, inviting people to see "something you won't see again". Players years later recalled Major Edward Mills walking up and down between them and the police guns, ensuring there could be no fresh massacre.
Meanwhile, the Dublin players were in the dressing room, watching while their belongings were ransacked by the police, anything of value pocketed.
The Black and Tans inflicted all the casualties.
The Black and Tans claimed they were fired on, first by what they called "IRA scouts" outside the ground. Yet the (unarmed) Dublin Metropolitan Police men on duty at the bridge said the 'scouts' were the usual ticket agents, merchandise and fruit sellers that were there for every game. If they ran into the ground after seeing the police trucks, said a reporter from 'The Manchester Guardian', that was a normal reaction in Dublin by then.
Major Mills had gone on the record in the hours after the operation. He said that no gunfire came from inside the ground. The shots he heard were rifle shots – and the Black and Tans were doing all the shooting into Croke Park for no reason.
Three shots fired?
By the time of the formal inquiries, Major Mills had slightly changed his story. He said that when the firing started, he was too far away to see who was firing.
One eyewitness who was at the match told the Mater Inquiry that he heard a shout that "the military are coming", then he saw three men in the grandstand take out pistols and fire in the air. No one else around this witness recalled anything like this happening.
In his report to Parliament two days later, The Secretary for Ireland, Hamar Greenwood, made the exact same claim, using almost exactly the same words.
The officer commanding the army units on the northern perimeter, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Bray, testified that he heard three single shots fired, followed by a fusillade of gunfire.
Two of the Black and Tans gave evidence at the same inquiry. They said they heard three single shots fired, but could not say from where.
Was this claim implausible? Volunteers had shown poor fire discipline before at key moments. A few weeks earlier, a single shot fired from an IRA revolver in defiance of orders had turned the Monk's Bakery ambush from a weapons snatch into a bloodbath that took the lives of three soldiers and eventually Kevin Barry.
Can the possibility be discounted that IRA volunteers present saw only one way to warn comrades in the ground to either flee, or dump anything incriminating?
If there had been so many armed men in Croke Park when it was stormed by the police, would the evidence not literally be found lying all over the field and stands, as incriminating evidence was dumped?
In the immediate aftermath, the police claimed that 30 revolvers had indeed been recovered from the playing field and surroundings.
Photos were published purporting to be of the haul of guns. Yet this was never backed up in testimony to the inquiries. Three police witnesses, including Major Mills, testified that no weapons were found inside Croke Park. One police witness testified that a single revolver was found in a garden of a house near the ground.
Major Mills told General Crozier that night that whatever plan had existed to corral and search match-goers, it was a stupid plan. What IRA man, facing a search inside the ground, would keep a weapon on him?
As dusk descended, the houses in the streets around Croke Park filled with traumatised survivors from the crowd and the players. One house was raided and found to have 80 people cowering inside.
Dublin and Tipperary players wandered the streets, their money having been stolen by the Black and Tans, in some cases wearing only what clothes they could borrow.
The courts of inquiry heard all the testimonies, weighed up the evidence, and still backed up the claims by the Black and Tans that the first shots came from the ground. But they also found that the firing in response by the Black and Tans was done without orders, and was indiscriminate and unjustifiable.
The Last Act
McKee, Clancy and Clune
The night before Bloody Sunday, two of the most senior volunteer officers in Dublin, Richard McKee and Peadar Clancy, had been arrested. This was a loss to the IRA operation in the city that even Michael Collins believed could be terminal, especially in the case of McKee. Arrested also was Conor Clune, an Irish language activist with no connection to the conduct of the war.
Did the British know who they had captured? Did they share Collins's view of the importance of Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy? It is claimed that only minutes before his arrest, McKee had destroyed a list of targets for the next morning's shootings.
What happened next would indicate they had some idea of the importance of McKee and Clancy. They were separated from other prisoners taken that day and moved to Dublin Castle.
Yet if the authorities were aware of their importance, why did they also transfer Conor Clune to the Castle, a man with no connection to the IRA?
Did British intelligence even know McKee and Clancy had been captured? If so, would they have countenanced what happened next, before they had been properly questioned?
Because what happened next has never been explained.
The three men were held in the Guard Room at Dublin Castle. Twenty-four hours after their arrest, they were dead. The allegation was they had been "shot trying to escape".
Except "shot trying to escape" does not explain the condition of the bodies. John FitzPatrick, a fellow prisoner and friend of McKee's, was told to identify the men. He said later that he got a good look.
He saw McKee:
A gash like a bayonet wound to his body.
Hands covered in cuts from a sharp weapon, that would now be described by forensic officers as classic defensive wounds.
Face badly battered.
He saw Clancy:
Forehead battered, swelled out. Appearance of having been burned.
All three bodies showed bullet wounds and broken bones.
A doctor who examined the bodies after they were released, reported that they had broken bones and deep scratches on the skin.
FitzPatrick claimed to have been approached in custody by a young British officer who boasted that he had just shot McKee and Clancy.
A Court of Inquiry found that the men had been lawfully killed.
'Tell him to keep his head.'
Forty-one people died as a result of the events of 21 November, 1920; not all of them soldiers, police, football fans or IRA volunteers.
Contemplating the carnage, it is hard to believe that behind the scenes there were still contacts being made to bring the sides together to discuss a way out of the conflict.
The day after Bloody Sunday, even as he contemplated how hollow his claims to "have murder by the throat" had just been shown to be, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was sending messages to the Acting President of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith. "Tell him to keep his head, and not to break off the slender link that has been established," he said.
The events of the day would have made one thing clear; there could not be many more days like it.
Except there was such a day, and that day came within a week. It was a day that would take the conflict to a new level, and force Lloyd George to acknowledge that it was time to stop talking about assassins and murder gangs. That day 'happened' at a place called Kilmichael.
"Murder by the throat", indeed.
To be continued...
For more analysis on the events of Bloody Sunday and its place in the Irish War of Independence visit other resources from RTÉ.
- Detailed map of the attacks in Dublin city on the morning of Bloody Sunday
- Interactive map detailing the timeline of Bloody Sunday in Croke Park
- RTÉ History: Bloody Sunday
- Bloody Sunday and the Killmichael Ambush