The German Sociologist Max Weber famously defined the modern state as the “human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” (Emphasis added). The violence in Dublin on Sunday November 21, 1920, “Bloody Sunday,” began with the culmination of Michael Collins’ masterful counterintelligence operation – nineteen suspected British intelligence agents were shot by members of Collins’ special unit known as “the Squad,” augmented by members of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, including future Taoiseach Sean Lemass. The British had dominated Irish nationalist for generations with superior intelligence. Yet Collins had beaten the British at their own game, building his own network of informers and spies all the while brazenly hiding essentially in plain view.
The morning’s carnage might well have proven counterproductive for the IRA, in terms of public opinion, at home and abroad, had British forces not responded by massacring civilians in the afternoon. Dublin and Tipperary were meeting in a football match at Croke Park to benefit the Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund. Shortly after the match began at 3:15 p.m., a plane, apparently conducting reconnaissance, flew over the pitch. Moments later, truckloads of Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and regular British troops surrounded the Park and burst through the turnstiles, opening fire on the crowd. Although nominally intended as a cordon and search mission – looking for IRA men in connection with the morning’s shootings – the massacre at Croke Park was in fact a shockingly lawless reprisal – the murder of innocence civilians by forces of the British state.
While efforts were made to suggest that the Tans and Auxiliaries had merely responded to IRA gunfire, the truth was plain to see. The afternoon massacre at Croke Park was a reprisal by Crown forces in Ireland, reeling from the IRA’s brutally successfully morning operation, against the citizens of Dublin. The profiles and ages of the victims, who are being remembered this week in GAA circles and across Ireland, show them to have been ordinary citizens. The youngest, ten year-old Jerome O’Leary, was shot through the head as he sat on a wall, watching the match. Eleven year-old William Robinson was similarly shot as he sat perched in a tree to see the action.
British Prime Minister Lloyd George had proclaimed, just two weeks prior, that the British had “murder by the throat” in Ireland. As the sun set on Ireland on Sunday November 21, it was far from clear just who the murderers where. By misusing its “monopoly on the physical use of force” the British government in Ireland had scored an “own goal,” suffering a corresponding loss to its claim of legitimacy, in the eyes of the Irish people and the world. Just as the hasty executions following the Easter Rising had galvanized Irish Nationalists, the shocking mass murder by Government forces of citizens out to watch a football match swelled the inexorable tide of independence rising in Ireland and influenced policy makers on both sides of the Irish Sea. Diplomatic contacts between Sinn Fein and the British government accelerated, ultimately leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.
Croke Park, already the center of traditional Irish sport, became a shrine to the innocent dead and a monument to Irish nationhood. And all of this happened one hundred years ago this week.