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  • James Houser

November 21, 1920 - Bloody Sunday & the Irish War of Independence

Updated: May 22, 2021

November 21, 1920. The morning is broken by violence in houses and apartments across Dublin as members of the Irish Republican Army launch a series of brutal raids against suspected British spies. This shocking act is eclipsed, though, by the overreaction. British soldiers and police open fire on a football game that evening, killing 14 civilians including two children. Though it’s known as Bloody Sunday, it’s business as usual in the Irish War of Independence.


The Irish had never enjoyed British rule and had made that very clear. Ever since the first invasion by Norman knights in the 1100s, the Irish had been treated as something like second-class citizens by their English overlords, and the Tudor conquest of the whole island under Elizabeth I put a seal on that. Oliver Cromwell’s near-genocidal campaigns on the island in the 1640s, the Potato Famine in the 1840s, and the continuing British refusal to let the Irish govern themselves into the 20th Century all compounded the Irish resentment of their British overlords. Multiple rebellions, including the famous 1798 Uprising, failed to defeat the British and usually succumbed to infighting amongst the Irish factions themselves.


Ireland remained divided on the eve of the First World War. On the one hand was the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which since the 1870s had been demanding “Home Rule” – basically, self-government but still as a part of Great Britain. The Irish revolutionary faction Sinn Fein, on the other hand, lobbied for total independence, but at this point they were in a small minority. The Irish were also divided along religious lines, with the Irish Protestants – mostly based in northeast Ireland around Belfast – opposed to Home Rule, since they feared living in a Catholic-dominated state. Their simple slogan was that “Home Rule is Rome Rule.”


The Irish agitation for autonomy became the major political issue in Britain leading up to the First World War. Much of the British public strongly identified with the Protestant minority, viewed Ireland as an indivisible part of the United Kingdom, and viewed Home Rule as the first step to a breakup of the Empire, but the rise of the Liberal Democrats helped open up possibilities. The British Parliament, to the acclaim of its Irish representatives, passed a Home Rule bill in 1912 – though this was immediately met by howls of protest from the Ulster Protestants, who formed a local militia known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to prevent the new Irish autonomous government from taking control. Irish independence advocates soon had their own organization – the Irish Volunteers, founded in 1913.


Parliament was soon forced to suspend home rule when even the British Army refused to crack down on the UVF, since its generals were strongly sympathetic. Home Rule and its surrounding controversies were so all-consuming in the early 1910s that when some idiot Archduke was murdered in Sarajevo in 1914, the headlines were more concerned with Irish events than European ones.


Of course, we know the British got dragged into the First World War. The Irish Parliamentary Party viewed this as an opportunity: by demonstrating their loyalty to the United Kingdom, they could convince the British public that they were worthy of Home Rule. The IPP encouraged Irishmen to turn out in droves for King and Country, and the Irish divisions performed brilliantly at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Many of their members were former Irish Volunteers who had answered the call of the IPP. But the harder edge of Irish activism would not be satisfied with Home Rule, and were not concerned with catering to British public opinion. They opposed Irish involvement in World War I, believed that collaboration with the Royalists was treason, and finally broke away led by the separatist Irish Republican Brotherhood. These radicals would not rest until independence was won, and they too saw an opportunity in the First World War – an opportunity to break free of the English.


On April 24, 1916, even as their countrymen were preparing for the Battle of the Somme over in France, the Republicans – including some Irish Volunteers - poured out onto the streets of London in a planned revolt. They seized key buildings, but failed to take Dublin Castle, the center of British power in Ireland. Within hours, the British Army responded, with Irish regiments clad in khaki storming the streets against their Revolutionary brethren. The “Easter Rising” ended up being a pathetic failure, with almost all of its plans backfiring. The Republicans’ uprising had intended to spark a nationwide movement, but most of the Irish people didn’t take the bait, and the British regained the upper hand from the get-go.


The Easter Rising’s planning and execution was amateurish and near-farcical. Most of Ireland had not favored a violent revolution, and the Republicans found very little support among the population. Few were sympathetic to out-and-out independence, and the clumsy execution of the Rising encouraged nobody. It could well have spelled the death knell of Irish independence hopes.


That it didn’t was mainly the result of extreme British overreaction. The Army had used overwhelming firepower to crush the revolt, killing many civilians in the crossfire. Almost all the captured leaders were executed, 15 in all, while many lower-ranked rebels languished in prison camps. The only leader to survive the British executions was Eamon de Valera, who survived due to his American citizenship. Over 400 people had died in the course of the Uprising, many due to sloppy British firepower, and thousands of pro-independence activists were rounded up across the country. Soon all of Ireland was under martial law, and the unpunished murder of Irish journalist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a British officer during the Rising granted the struggle a truly innocent martyr.


If the Easter Rising rebels had hoped to provoke the British and gain sympathy for their cause, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The British crackdown, executions, and heavy-handed intrusions soon began to push Irish public opinion away from Home Rule and toward outright independence. Soon Sinn Fein, which had only been a fringe party in the prewar years, began to explode in membership. This trend was only exacerbated in 1918, when the British were under pressure from German attacks during the last year of World War I. Desperate for manpower, they attempted to impose conscription on the Irish population – which, due to not having full autonomy, had been exempt beforehand. The Irish exploded in outrage, with mass antiwar demonstrations taking place across the country in the Conscription Crisis. Even the end of World War I could not stem the tide of Irish nationalist sentiment. British clumsiness and arrogance had done more to bring Ireland to independence than anything the Republicans had ever done.


The December 1918 Parliamentary elections in Ireland produced a staggering result. In what was obviously a referendum on British policy, Sinn Fein won almost 70% of Ireland’s Parliamentary seats. This was a shocking moment, as if the Libertarians somehow won a major state in the United States by a landslide. Of course, the election map told a different story: Sinn Fein only won 46% of the vote in heavily Protestant Ulster. This spelled trouble for everyone. The Sinn Fein Members of Parliament, now believing themselves to have a clear mandate for Irish independence, refused to sit in the British Parliament and held their own separate meetings. On January 21, 1919, the provisional cabinet of Sinn Fein met in Dublin and under the leadership of Eamon de Valera – last surviving leader of the Easter Rising - declared Irish independence, also noting as a corollary that they recognized a “state of war between Ireland and England.”


Remember all that stuff I keep saying about how it was just chaos across Europe after World War I? Put another tally mark on the board.


A war needed an army. The Irish Volunteers, somehow still surviving after the Easter Rising, had gained a new designation: the Irish Republican Army or IRA. Among them were both hardcore Irish revolutionaries and many First World War vets, though the old guard looked askance at these men who had fought for the British King. Nevertheless, the IRA’s chosen method of warfare became apparent quickly. On the same day as the Irish Republic declared independence – January 21, 1919 - several IRA members on their own initiative killed two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, or RIC. The Constabulary was the British-controlled police force of Ireland. It is fitting, in the end, that the Irish War of Independence started with Irishmen killing Irishmen. That would essentially be the rule.


The Irish War of Independence, or the Anglo-Irish War, would continue for three years. It was a difficult, demoralizing conflict, one that the British have done their best to forget and the Irish are forced to remember. It resembled a gang war more than anything else, as the IRA constantly battled it out with both British Army forces and the Protestant militias, as well as the police forces that sought to snuff out Irish independence movements. The War of Independence turned into a messy guerrilla conflict of drive-by shootings, street battles, bombings, terror, and torture.


The IRA’s leadership was nominally a committee, but in actuality its driving force was the revolutionary Michael Collins. Collins was a charismatic, vigorous figure who impressed everyone who met him, often subduing rival revolutionary factions by beating up their leaders in pubs. A veteran of the Easter Rising, he was technically the Minister of Finance in the Sinn Fein government but used this position to smuggle money for arms and ammunition to the IRA. The IRA’s “flying columns” – guerrilla cells of ten to a hundred men – roamed the Irish countryside, terrorizing British administrators and RIC constables. British Army patrols were ambushed, local officials were assassinated, and trains were bombed. Though Eamon de Valera had favored a conventional warfare approach, Collins successfully convinced the Sinn Fein government that the Easter Rising had shown how futile action in the open would be. The IRA would continue to strike from the shadows.


Despite Collins’ tactics, throughout 1919 and into early 1920 the violence was relatively limited. The Sinn Fein government and the IRA took the time to organize, build their networks, and expand their organizations. This early method involved building up something like a shadow government – an alternate form of authority hidden within Irish society. They also encouraged public ostracism of RIC constables, labor strikes, and boycotts of British goods. The terror campaign would not kick into overdrive until 1920. These strikes especially hurt British transport, as dockworkers refused to unload Royal Navy ships or carry British soldiers on their trains.


Collins began to step up his gradual pressure on the British in mid-1920. The frequency and violence of IRA attacks increased, forcing the Army to abandon many of their isolated posts and barracks. These buildings were an easy spot for IRA attacks, and many barracks bombings killed and wounded the King’s soldiers. As the Army withdrew, the British civil administration found it impossible to carry out the laws, and the Sinn Fein government-in-waiting stepped in to fill in the gaps. British tax receipts from Ireland plummeted, and the Sinn Fein police and administration stepped in to police the streets and raise money for Collins and the IRA. Local women’s and youth organizations cared for wounded fighters, carried information, and provided many other forms of support. Though as many as 100,000 people ended up on IRA rolls, Collins estimated that only 15,000 ever actually took part in fighting, and of these only 3,000 were core combatants. This was a small force to fight an independence war with, but their efforts were working.


The British leadership grew increasingly draconian in their efforts to defeat the IRA. As often happens in many guerrilla wars, the public did not support the IRA’s violence at first – but the harsh and heavy-handed British response often pushed the civilians into the IRA’s camp. IRA raids soon caused “reprisals,” such as the burning of entire towns, indiscriminate shootings into villages, and unsanctioned murders. When this was not ordered by the British overlords, the local police or Army troops took things into their own hands. The struggle escalated into a violent cycle of revenge murders – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Sinn Fein’s politicians were murdered in broad daylight, women and children were gunned down in their homes, and Irish civilians lay awake in fear of that knock on the door. Even if the IRA had started the cycle of violence, the British response only made the Republicans more popular.


Collins had a particular nemesis that he wanted to root out: the “G Division” of the Dublin Police. This was a network of Irish detectives that worked for the British and would uncover and report guerrilla cells. Collins had infiltrated many spies within G Division, and had begun to take out anyone on the money or information trail of the IRA in Dublin itself, which the British still held tightly. Soon Collins had a small band of about 20 men known as “The Squad” who answered only to him. Their mission would be to hunt down and execute British spies and G Division agents. The first targeted killings took place in July 1919. Collins’ assassination squad would launch well-planned strikes on their targets and vanish expertly into the darkness of Dublin’s alleyways.


In late 1920, the British continued to double down, and into autumn the cycle of violence only grew. To avoid the public opinion hit that would occur by deploying more Army troops, the British government sent increasing numbers of paramilitary and militia forces out to fight the IRA. The most prominent of these were the “Black and Tans,” English First World War veterans who were recruited for the Royal Irish Constabulary and displayed shocking brutality in their suppression efforts. Around 7,000 English Black and Tans swarmed the streets of Dublin and other cities, and made themselves infamous through their drunken rampages. War veterans do not necessarily make good police, and many of these former Tommies took out their war trauma on the Irish population. Their violence and poor discipline helped drive even more Irishmen into the hands of the IRA. They were only part of the widespread British crackdown on IRA activity, which caused more IRA attacks, which caused more crackdowns.


It should be obvious by now that things were going to come to a breaking point. The increasing violence of the British occupation of Ireland was more and more shocking to the British public and more and more antagonizing towards the Irish. Even if the UK DID manage to hold Ireland, what did they think they would gain by retaining a country that was growing to hate them? The anarchy only benefited the IRA. British soldiers, volunteers and policemen began to look at every Irish civilian with distrust, fingers tightening on the trigger wells as every man, woman and child passed by. Were they a spy? A saboteur? Was a pistol in his coat, or a bomb in her purse?

Things truly exploded on November 21, 1920. The IRA leadership had some recent near misses with British police raiding their hideouts, which led Collins to identify a set of British spies known as the “Cairo Squad.” Collins believed that the Cairo Squad posed an imminent threat to the IRA organization in Dublin, so he gave the all-clear for a wave of targeted killings on the morning of November 20, to be carried out by his “Squad” and the Dublin IRA.


Collins’ hits were almost uncovered when the RIC raided his headquarters and he had to slip out a back door. His agents Dick McKee and Peadar Clancey, however, were captured, but this did not stop the strike. On November 21 the Squad and their assistants attempted attacks on 35 British intelligence officers and agents. 14 of them were killed outright, most in their apartments as their doors were kicked in just before dawn. Pistol shots and rifle cracks echoed across Dublin as the British officers were gunned down, with only one Squad member captured though he later managed to escape prison. Collins was exultant with the result, saying that he bore no guilt, with “no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter.”


On the same day, a Dublin-Tipperary football match was scheduled for Croke Park. Sports had been one of the public relations arenas of the War of Independence, since all the money raised from attendees at the matches usually went to benefit the families of imprisoned IRA fighters. (To compare, consider Palestinian payments to the families of deceased suicide bombers.) The British, as usual, overreacted decisively to Collins’ assassination strike of the morning. They determined that the football match would be a gathering point for IRA agents, and decided to cordon and search the entire gathering. As the football match began at around 3:15pm, British-allied forces descended from both north and south, encircling the field. Along with a handful of armored cars, the force was mainly made up of RIC Black and Tans riding along in open-topped trucks.


The police claimed that their intention was to cordon off the match, announce by megaphone that they would search every adult male leaving the game, and shoot anyone who left. Somehow, though, they never got that far. For some reason, the column coming from the south opened fire on the football game as soon as the crowd was within sight. Though the British later claimed that they had been fired on first, no civilian witnesses ever corroborated this story. The Irish locals all affirmed that the RIC fired without any provocation, and soon rifle and pistol fire echoed off the buildings. The startled sports fans ran in all directions as the police dismounted from their trucks and shot wildly into the crowd.


Though the firing only lasted 90 seconds before officers managed to halt the wild shooting, it had done enough. By the end of the Bloody Sunday event, 14 Irish civilians were dead. One, Jane Boyle, had come to the match with her fiancé and perished five days before her wedding day. One football player was also killed in the clash. Two young boys, not even teenagers, died as well. Though the British claimed to have picked up multiple firearms from the crowd, later reports suggest that this was a lie: the civilians at Croke Park had been totally unarmed.


But the killing was still not done on Bloody Sunday. That night in Dublin Castle, the Black and Tans murdered the imprisoned Dick McKee and Peadar Clancey – the IRA agents scooped up the previous night. They were allegedly “shot while trying to escape,” the favorite excuse of all oppressive governments. These three events – the morning assassinations, the Croke Park massacre, and the Dublin Castle executions – made up the horrible trio of Bloody Sunday.


Bloody Sunday sent shockwaves across the world press. Though the British public was more concerned with the murders of the officers, it was the Croke Park massacre that garnered international headlines. An IPP Member of Parliament who raised a voice in protest against the Croke Park massacre was angrily shouted down by the rest of Parliament, who condemned him as a traitor for daring to bring it up. The British garrison in Ireland was horrified and agonized privately by Croke Park, but publicly they never investigated it and defended the actions of the Black and Tans.


Bloody Sunday, more than any single event, helped cement Irish public opinion in favor of the IRA. The IRA itself waved the bloody shirt of Croke Park and showed even less mercy to captured British soldiers and RIC constables. Once again, the British had proved to be their own worst enemy in Ireland. As 1920 turned into 1921, the Irish people sided more and more with independence and less with the Crown. The struggle dragged on, with pro-British forces increasingly confined to a few major cities, and after the killings of November 20 no British officer ever felt safe. Increasingly large IRA units ambushed and engaged in firefights with as many as a thousand British soldiers. The violence reached its peak in mid-1921.


It was clear that Britain had lost Ireland. On July 11, 1921, the British government agreed to a truce with the IRA, marking the end of the Irish War of Independence. But the fighting did not end. While Collins and his allies agreed to a peace that partitioned Ireland, leaving the Protestant North as part of the United Kingdom, the hardliners in the IRA were never reconciled to the splitting of the home country. Even after the proclamation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Irish Civil War (1922-23) erupted over the refusal of the IRA to accept the peace treaty. They even assassinated Provisional President Michael Collins in 1922 for his “betrayal” of the independence fight. Both Northern Ireland and the new Republic would remain shattered by ethnic strife and tension long after Irish independence had been achieved.


The IRA would continue its struggle well into the second half of the 20th Century, resulting in the infamous “Troubles” that gained world headlines in the 1980s and 1990s. But these terror tactics, though they seemed related to the rising specter of international terrorism in that decade, were not new. They were a continuing legacy of the bitter, bloody struggle known to history as the Irish War of Independence.


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