The first Bloody Sunday
The first Bloody Sunday
A historical account of the background and context of the Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park in 1920.

On the morning of Sunday 21 November 1920 the IRA carried out one of its most successful operations. The British secret service in Ireland was decimated when 13 senior intelligence officers were executed and many more fled into Dublin Castle.

Behind the war against the British state in Ireland was a highly organised Intelligence Department operating in the main under Michael Collins’s direction. Former and serving British soldiers or RIC men, tradesmen, landladies, maids, taximen, businessmen, postmen, British agents and others supplied vital snippets of information on which the department depended.

The IRA success forced the British to draft in agents/assassins from England. The Cairo Gang, so-called because of their intelligence work in the Middle East, was established because of Sir Henry Wilson’s demand that the IRA’s Intelligence Department be eliminated. Living unobtrusively in boarding houses in Dublin, the British agents prepared a hit list of known republicans for assassination.

But the IRA’s intelligence network was a step ahead. Frank Thornton obtained the names and addresses of all the senior British secret service men sent over to Dublin. An IRA agent in the Dublin Metropolitan Police stationed at Donnybrook, Sergeant Mannix, was the source.

From then on a close watch was kept on their movements. After many weeks’ observation Dublin Brigade and the Intelligence Department pooled information and resources, selected from a list of suspects a number whom they were sure were agents and set the date to execute them.

The operation had been carefully planned by many of the IRA’s most senior activists, including Michael Collins, Dick McKee, Liam Tobin, Peadar Clancy, Tom Cullen, Frank Thornton and Oscar Traynor. The date picked was the day of a big GAA match between the Leinster champions, Dublin and Tipperary, and the large crowds in Dublin, it was felt, would afford easier movement for the Volunteers.

The operation began at 9am when up to eight Volunteers entered 28 Pembroke Street. The first two secret service men to be shot were Major Dowling and Captain Leonard Price. Andy Coohey, Dublin Brigade, removed documentats from their rooms before three more British officers in the house were executed, Captain Keenlyside, Colonel Woodcock and Colonel Montgomery.

As Keenlyside was about to be executed a struggle ensued between his wife and Volunteer Mick O’Hanlon. The OC of the unit, Mick Flanagan, arrived, pushed Mrs Keenlyside out of the way and shot her husband.

Close by at 119 Morehampton Road six Volunteers entered, took three men into the hallway to be shot: Lieutenant McLean, his brother-in-law John Caldow, who had come from Scotland to join the RIC, and TH Smith, the landlord and a known informer. McLean asked not to be shot in front of his wife; the Volunteers obliged and took the three to the top floor, where Volunteers Vinnie Byrne and Sean Doyle shot them. Caldow survived his injuries and soon afterwards returned to Scotland.

At 92 Lower Baggot Street, Captain Newbury and his wife had blocked their bedroom door on hearing their front door crashing in. As Newbury tried to get out through his window he was shot dead by Volunteers Bill Stapleton and Joe Leonard. His body hung from the window for several hours because the Black and Tans refused to move it fearing it was part of a trap.

Two of the key figures in the Cairo Gang, Colonel Peter Aimes and Captain George Bennett, were shot dead after Volunteers were given access to 38 Upper Mount Street by a sympathetic maid. After a short gun battle both men lay dead in their rooms.

Captain Fitzgerald, alias `Fitzpatrick’, was shot dead at 28 Earlsfort Terrace. He was the son of a Tipperary man and had survived a previous execution attempt when the bullet only grazed his head. This time he was shot twice in the head. At this address the documentation found detailed the movements of senior IRA members, proving that the British Secret Service was planning an operation similar to the IRA’s of that morning.

Meanwhile an IRA unit led by Tom Keogh entered 22 Lower Mount Street to execute Lieutenant Angliss, real name McMahon, and Lieutenant Peel. Both had been recalled from Russia to organise the intelligence service in the south Dublin area. Angliss survived a previous assassination attempt when shot at in a billiard hall. He was targeted for murdering a Sinn Féin fundraiser John Lynch, mistaken for Liam Lynch, Divisional Commandant of the 1st Southern Division.

Angliss was shot as he reached for his gun. Peel, hearing the shots, managed to block his bedroom door and survived even though more then a dozen bullets were fired into his room. When members of Fianna Eireann on lookout reported that Auxiliaries were approaching the house, the unit of eleven Volunteers split up into two groups, the first leaving by the front door, the second leaving through the laneway at the back of the house.

In the laneway Frank Teeling fell injured during a running gun battle with the Auxiliaries (he was the only Volunteer captured that day). Under pressure, Auxiliaries Garnin and Morris went for reinforcements. They did not get very far before being shot dead.

At 119 Baggot Street, Captain Bagally, whose involvement in military courts led to manys a Volunteer’s execution, was shot dead by a three man IRA unit, one of whom was a future Fianna Fail Taoiseach, Sean Lemass.

Some officers had decided for safety reasons to reside in hotels. Captain McCormack and Captain Wilde were in the Gresham Hotel. The IRA unit gained access to these rooms by pretending to be British soldiers with important dispatches. When they opened their doors they were both shot..

Captain Crawford had a close call after the IRA entered a guesthouse in Fitzwilliam Square where he was staying, looking for a Major Callaghan. On not finding their target, they debated whether or not to shoot Crawford. It was decided that as he was not on the hit list he would not be shot, but was given 24 hours to leave Ireland, which he promptly did.

In the Eastwood Hotel the IRA drew a blank because the target, a Colonel Jennings, had, along with Major Callaghan, spent the night in a local brothel.

Those of the British Secret Service who survived the IRA operation 77 years ago this week either fled to Britain or sought refuge in Dublin Castle fearing that they were next on the IRA hit list. Frank Teeling, who was captured and was sentenced to death, managed to escape with others from Kilmainham Jail before the sentence could be carried out.


On Saturday 20 November, the night before the IRA’s operation to wipe out the Cairo Gang, a large number of Volunteers were arrested in British army raids. Amongst them were Commandant Dick McKee, Dublin Brigade, and Vice-Commandant Peadar Clancy, Dublin Brigade, two of the key figures involved in the planning of the Cairo Gang operation.

Both were captured in a safe house on Gloucester Street and along with the landlord of the house, Sean Fitzpatrick, were taken to the Guardroom of Dublin Castle where they were to be interrogated. The raid had been carried out following a tip off from police informer Shankers Ryan.

Among the prisoners was a Clareman, Conor Clune, who had arrived in Dublin to meet Piarais Beaslai and Edward McLyasght to discuss setting up Irish cultural projects. Vaughan’s Hotel, where the meeting took place, had earlier held a meeting of senior IRA figures, including McKee. The Auxiliaries, believing the meeting was still in progress, raided the hotel and arrested Clune. Beaslai and McLysaght escaped.

Each prisoner was interrogated separately by the Director of British Intelligence, Sir Ormonde Winter (known as `The Holy Terror’, because of the torture he inflicted on prisoners) and two of his officers, Captain Hardy and Captain King. (Hardy and King were on the IRA hit list for the following morning but escaped because they were still in the Castle interrogating prisoners.)

When news arrived at the Castle the next morning of the deaths of the intelligence officers, Sir Ormond Winter ordered all the prisoners off to different barracks but McKee, Clancy and Clune were held back for further `questioning’. Ben Doyle, an IRA Volunteer, later said that Clancy almost got away when he slipped into the line of men being marched out but was halted by Captain Hardy.

When Michael Collins got news of McKee and Clancy’s arrest he ordered Ned Broy, a police detective and IRA agent, to search out the Bridewell for them. Members of the Dublin Brigade were quickly assembled to break them out, but Broy returned saying they were not there. Another detective working for the IRA, James McNamara, reported that they were in the Castle and that the Auxiliaries were out of control and thirsting for revenge. There was nothing that could be done, as the Castle was seemingly impregnable.

At 11am the three men, McKee, Clancy and Clune were executed. The official Dublin Castle communique stated they had been shot while attempting to escape, producing staged photographs in an attempt to prove it. The truth however was that these three defenceless prisoners were tortured, bayoneted and then shot to death.

William Pearson, an ex colonel in the British army and doctor, went along with Ed McLysaght to the King George V Hospital to identify Clune’s body. On examination of the 13 wounds inflicted on Clune, Pearson believed that these wounds could not have been inflicted if Clune had been trying to escape. The bodies of McKee and Clancy were returned to their families and laid out in their coffins in full Volunteer uniform, but because their faces were so badly beaten it was decided to close the coffins.

Within two weeks the informer, Shankers Ryan, was shot dead as he sat drinking in a pub off Gloucester Street.


Despite the fears of reprisals, at 2.45pm on 21 November 1920 the much-publicised GAA match between Dublin, the Leinster champions, and Tipperary began when referee Mick Sammon threw in the ball. The match was being held to raise funds for the dependants of dead or imprisoned IRA Volunteers.

Jack Sholdice of Dublin Brigade discussed cancelling the match with senior GAA officials, including Alderman Nowlan, Luke O’Toole, Andy Harty and Dan McCarthy, but it was decided that because in the past sporting events had not been targeted by the British, there was nothing to fear.

With the teams and the crowd enthusiastically involved in the match little notice was taken of a red signal flare fired from a circling plane. That signal saw the Auxiliaries scale Croke Park’s walls and make their way onto the pitch. With that an Auxiliary officer opened fire on the teams, followed by the other soldiers turning machine gun and rifle fire on the spectators.

When the gunfire and the ensuing stampede subsided 14 people lay dead and another 62 were injured. The refusal of the crown forces to allow medical attention to the injured until all the spectators had been searched exacerbated the injuries of those wounded and may have led to the death of some who were not initially mortally wounded.

One of the dead was a Tipperary player Mick Hogan (the Hogan Stand is named after him). As he lay on the ground dying, a Wexfordman, Thomas Ryan, saying an act of contrition beside him, was shot dead.

Three children were among the dead: ten-year-old Jerry O’Leary, who died in his mother’s arms after being shot in the chest, and Willie Robinson (11) crushed to death during the stampede. Fourteen-year-old J. Scott was so badly shot that it was first suspected that he had been bayoneted to death. A young bride-to-be, Jenny Boyle, who had attended the match with her fiance, was crushed to death during the stampede.

The Auxiliaries, the brave elite which Britain’s Chief Secretary for Ireland Sir Hammer Greenwood, stated would fix the IRA once and for all, made its mark in Ireland by slaughtering innocent civilians.

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