When one thinks of Bloody Sunday, what usually comes to mind is the 1972 civil rights march in Derry, where English soldiers opened fire on marchers and brutally murdered fourteen innocent people. This incident shocked the world and spilled over into pop culture leading to multiple songs, movies, documentaries and more – making it one of the most notorious moments in Irish history. It was not the first “Bloody Sunday” in Ireland, but (thankfully) it was the last. There have been four dreadful days known as Bloody Sunday in recent Irish history and the second (and most deadly) one occurred on this date, November 21st, 1920, in Dublin.
On the morning of that Bloody Sunday, members of the IRA’s Dublin Brigade led by Michael Collins knocked on or broke down many doors throughout the city. Collins had been planning an operation to scare the hell out of the English Intelligence community that had taken root in Dublin and his plan was put into action on that fateful day. He targeted thirty-five people but many were not found. In all, fourteen people were killed in the city, and half a dozen more were wounded, one dying later of his injuries. More than half of the victims were English agents of some kind and the rest were Auxiliary forces, police officers, informers, or bystanders. It was ruthless operation designed to terrorize those who Collins deemed as oppressors and spies and even though the majority of the people on his list were not found or killed on that morning, his objective was met.
Given the efficient brutality of the assassinations, the English might have been able to demonize Collins (and the Irish Republican cause in general) in the worldwide arena had they not retaliated, but their response to these deaths was much more public and even more horrifying to the rest of the world. Collins justified his operation by confining it to those he felt were legitimate, military targets. He instructed the people who carried them out to avoid civilian casualties whenever possible, which they did. That cannot be said about the heavy-handed English reprisal.
The news of the assassinations spread quickly throughout the city. Many Dubliners were uneasy and expecting retaliation, but no one thought that the English forces would open fire on a crowd of spectators at the football match later in the day. Five thousand people were watching the match when the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Auxiliary forces ran into the stadium and started shooting into the innocent crowd.
The police fired for at least ninety seconds in the arena, and as the crowd stampeded and fled, they were fired on by armored vehicles and forces outside the stadium as well. Eleven civilians were killed outright including women and children and one of the football players on the field. Three more died later of their injuries and more than sixty others were wounded.
This atrocity was condemned worldwide and disavowed by authorities at Dublin Castle. The government attempted to cover up the indiscriminate firing by issuing a false statement saying that that the assassins had been in the crowd and had fired first on the police when they entered the field. This was entirely untrue. The police and auxiliaries had gone rogue in a revenge mission that immediately overshadowed the Collins operation and inflamed Irish people and anti-English sentiment everywhere.
Two different military inquiries were convened in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. One confirmed what everyone knew – that the shootings were wholly unjustified, and that the forces had indiscriminately fired into the crowd in retaliation for the deaths of their comrades earlier that day. However, these findings were suppressed by the English government and only came to light eighty years later, long after most of the victims and survivors were dead. By the year 2000 when the reports were finally released two additional Bloody Sundays, both of which involved the English armed forces, had occurred on the island.