Gaelic football is a kind of rugby, only wilder. It was not for nothing that it was called “rough-and-tumble-game” until the end of the 19th century with a few rules that uninhibited fighting on the playing field was stopped. The game is still very popular, especially in Ireland, not least because it allows you to set yourself apart from English rugby. Because Gaelic football was also a symbol of Irish national consciousness, which sought the decisive power struggle against the British masters after the First World War.
On November 21, 1920, the Corke Park Stadium in Dublin became a battlefield. In the end, 14 people were dead on the square, including children. Like “Bloody Sunday” of 1972, that of 1920 also made a deep impression on the island’s culture of remembrance, because of the massacre, but also because of the consequences, because from then on the British military power increasingly fell on the defensive.
The Irish War of Independence or Liberty (1919–1921) is one of the many conflicts that arose directly from the First World War. Great Britain had emerged from the world war as the big winner – the Empire was at its greatest expansion. At the same time, however, the victims and the self-determination of the peoples propagated by US President Woodrow Wilson turned out to be heavy mortgages.
Millions of subjects of the Empire had fought on the battlefields of Europe, now they are demanding their right to political self-determination. That was the case in India and also in Ireland. The Green Isle had been subject to English rule since the Tudor kings. After an uprising, Oliver Cromwell had demoted it to a regular colony, a status that reforms until the beginning of the 20th century changed little. The great famine in the middle of the 19th century, which probably killed a million Irish people and drove another to emigrate to the USA, had made this clear to those who stayed behind with brutal consistency.
So it happened that at Easter 1916, in the middle of the World War, Irish nationalists, with German support, dared an armed uprising that was brutally suppressed by the British. Until 1918, 200,000 Irish (40,000 of whom died) fought for King George V and a fatherland that they did not consider theirs. But the concept of the “Home Rule” – political autonomy within the framework of the Empire – with which London tried to defuse the Irish powder keg before the World War, was no longer sufficient for many Irish after the war.
The situation was fueled by the division of Ireland into a Catholic south and the north around Belfast, which was predominantly Protestant due to the influx of English settlers. The six counties in the north lived 1.3 million people while the south numbered 3.1 million. Rising unemployment and the contrast between the big landowners and the majority of the destitute builders created additional explosives.
In the British general election in 1918, the nationalist Sinn Féin won an absolute majority in Ireland. However, their MPs refused to move to Westminster, but instead proclaimed the Republic of Ireland. With World War veterans and partisans who had been active since the suppression of the Eastern Uprising, this had around 100,000 fighters who were organized in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1919.
This opened a broad guerrilla war, especially in the south. Military and police stations were raided to stock up on weapons. Bomb attacks and assassinations were the order of the day. British traitors or collaborators were killed. This ensured that the solidarity of the population with the perpetrators continued.
In return, the British steadily increased their regular troops in Ireland. In addition, two paramilitary volunteer units were set up; good pay ensured that numerous veterans of the Great War reported for service. The Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve was called “black and tans” because of their uniforms, the other was the Auxiliary Division, which consisted only of former officers.
Another force was the so-called Cairo Gang, civilian agents whose job it was to spy out Irish organizations. Twelve of them were murdered by an IRA commando on the night of November 21, 1921, some in front of their families. Two members of the “black and tans” were also shot. The British paramilitaries swore revenge.
That afternoon, the Gaelic football game between the home team and a team from Tipperary was scheduled at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin. Despite the difficult security situation, a good 5,000 spectators turned up that Sunday to forget the conflict. A few minutes after the start of the game at 3:15 p.m., a plane flew over the field and launched a flare. At the same time, paramilitaries surrounded the stadium and posted an armored car in front of it.
It is said to have been members of the auxiliaries who then stormed the field and shot at random with rifles and pistols at the crowd and the accrued teams. Seven people died instantly, five more succumbed to their injuries shortly afterwards, and two more were trampled to death. Up to 70 people were injured. As the crowd rushed out of the stadium in panic, the armored car’s machine-gun fired over their heads.
In an official statement, the British authorities called the operation a raid on the killers of the Cairo agents. Sympathizers tried to warn them by shooting in front of the stadium, so that the situation got out of hand. This representation was immediately contradicted by newspapers, including the renowned London “Times”.
This made Dublin’s “Bloody Sunday” the much-cited sign of British repression. No less a person than King George V made no secret of his critical attitude. The loss of the Cairo gang also meant a heavy loss for the British warfare, which subsequently brought tens of thousands of soldiers into the country. Nevertheless, it turned out that Ireland could hardly be brought under control.
As the British public increasingly turned against the costly and awkward engagement, London granted the Irish Parliament the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the end of 1921. The 26 Catholic counties of the south were to be granted independence as the Irish Free State (from which the Republic emerged), while the six Protestant counties would remain with Great Britain.
The quarrel between pragmatic supporters and radical opponents turned the independence into a brutal civil war. The moderates were finally able to win it with British help by mid-1923. The island should remain divided.