According to Sunday Times sports writer Michael Foley, attendees of a Dublin Gaelic football match expected a Sunday afternoon of fun and excitement, not a massacre. They had no idea they would be characterized as violent revolutionaries by British troops—or shot at upon exit.
“They assumed that there must have been outside help, people must have come up from the countryside, so how did they come up?,” Foley said. “Maybe they came up disguised among the crowd that [was] coming up for the game.”
At a virtual event titled “The Irish Influence, Bloody Sunday 1920 in a global context,” panelists commemorated the centennial passing of Bloody Sunday by discussing the violent events of the day and how they believe the massacre led to the politicization of the athletic world.
On the morning of Nov. 21, 1920, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassinated presumed British spies, the panelists explained. William Murphy, a Dublin City University professor, said that while most of the victims of the IRA attacks were British intelligence officers, some caught in the crossfire were innocent civilians as well.
Murphy also noted that the IRA not only sought military advantage over the British, but also hoped to provoke them into retaliating. Counter-attacks would aid the IRA’s propaganda war, making their side look less to blame, according to Murphy.
“They deploy violence in the knowledge that they’re likely to provoke counter-violence, and that counter-violence is crucial to them in what is the propaganda war,” Murphy said.
The British did not hold back in their reprisal, Foley said. In the afternoon following the assassination, they opened fire on civilians at a highly anticipated Gaelic football match, killing 14 people.
According to Foley, British intelligence targeted the soccer game at Croke Park in Dublin since they believed that attendees would be involved in the fight for Irish Independence.
“To the British authorities, they would have seen Croke Park as part of the other,” he said. “Part of that community of people who would’ve favored Irish independence, and, regardless of how the [Gaelic Athletic Association] wanted to be seen, this is how they were seen.”
Sports history scholar Heather Dichter said that sports and political agendas have long been intertwined. The Croke Park massacre, according to her, was perhaps the most noteworthy of such intersections in Irish independence culture.
“The fans are more localized, and, [especially if it is] their local team, that sense of impact is not just a collective memory of something that is in the media,” Dichter said. “It is of greater impact to the local population.”
According to Murphy, events at Croke Park gave Irish nationalists the upper hand in the propaganda war, further convincing the Irish public of the need for independence. Irish journalists, he said, framed the events in ways that promoted the IRA’s motivations.
“As soon as what happened at Croke Park ends and the news gets back to Dublin Castle, there is an awareness that this story has to be framed in a particular way because the propaganda war is so important,” Murphy said.
The civilian victims of Bloody Sunday, Foley said, were the greatest losers of the propaganda war, as their stories were forgotten by the media who instead focused on British-Irish conflict.
“In the case of the Bloody Sunday victims, they had no power,” Foley said. “They were caught between a political war that was going on, a propaganda war that was going on, and even after all was said and done, I would argue from the very moment the last bullet was dropped in Croke Park, the victims were forgotten.”
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor