The GAA is to be commended for the unveiling this week of headstones to three more victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Croke Park.
For 99 years, Jerome O’Leary, Patrick O’Dowd and Michael Feery lay in unmarked graves.
Jerome O’Leary was just 10 years of age. He was from 69 Blessington Street in Dublin. His father (also Jerome) was an accountant, and as well as his mother Ellen, was from Cork. He was murdered as he sat on a wall behind the Canal End goal, watching the early stages of the match between the footballers of Dublin and Tipperary. His body was identified at the Mater Hospital by his father who said: “He was a schoolboy.”
Patrick O’Dowd was 57. He was an ordinary working man, one of the collection of labourers, barmen, mechanics, laundry workers, and butchers’ charge hands who were killed on the day. He was murdered as he helped people over the old wall that once stood as a dividing line between what is now the Cusack Stand and the former Belvedere College grounds.
On the day he was buried, the mourners were led by his son John, his daughter Mary, and the men he worked with at Clarke’s Builders in Fairview.
Michael Feery was 40. He was also a labourer who lived on Buckingham Street in the north inner-city. He managed to escape from Croke Park and made it as far as the Canal bridge. He was bleeding badly from a thigh wound and was brought into a house on Russell Street.
He died in that house, before being brought to a morgue. His body lay unclaimed for five days. The British Army officer who identified him as he lay in the morgue of Jervis Street Hospital, noted the number of his teeth that were missing and the fact that he was badly malnourished. He was wearing old army fatigues and worn-down army boots.
By November 1920, Michael Feery was unemployed and struggling, but like many GAA players and supporters, he had fought for the British Army in the Great War.
The story of their murder is painstakingly told by Michael Foley in his book, The Bloodied Field which recounts the events and the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.
It is a brilliant book, not least because of the manner in which it foregrounds the story of those who died in Croke Park.
It takes their personal stories and humanises them by moving them beyond a simple roll-call of the dead. Most of all, those who died emerge as individuals, rather being assembling into an anonymous collection of 14 people who were murdered at a football match.
What happened in Croke Park on that Sunday afternoon passed into the story of the Irish Revolution.
It became a key reference point, presented as evidence of the brutality of the British regime, of callousness and cruelty, of disregard for the lives of the ‘mere’ Irish.
It became a touchstone in the history of the GAA as well. In independent Ireland, it was pushed forward time and time again as compelling, incontrovertible evidence of the GAA’s identification with nationalism and, in particular, with the nationalist struggle which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.
This is not the place to argue about the merit of that claimed history.
Instead, the point to be made is that the real meaning of the day lies not in grand historical narratives but in the personal pain and the legacy of trauma of those who were bereaved.
How did Jerome O’Leary cope with the death of his young son? How did James Boyle cope with the loss of his sister Jane who was just 26?
What about Annie Burke who came in from Windy Arbour to identify her husband in the morgue?
She said: “He left on Sunday morning to see the football match. It was 2 o’clock.”
How did Bridget Robinson cope with having to go from her house on Little Britain Street across to the old Drumcondra Hospital where her son William lay.
He had been sitting in a tree watching the match when a bullet ripped into his chest and out through his shoulder, throwing him to the ground. He fought to survive, but he could not be saved. Bridget Robinson, herself, was just 29 and her dead son was 11.
How did his father Patrick cope in that hospital as a surgeon fought to save the life of his son, who was nicknamed ‘Perry’?
Bloody Sunday took on a national historical significance which occluded the suffering of the bereaved.
And that is what ordinarily happens in time of war: the roll call of the dead is absorbed into a conflict.
Death becomes another thing to be fought over. And once that happens, reclaiming truth becomes almost impossible and protecting the place of the actual people who lost their lives or who had their lives destroyed is subverted.
It should be remembered that this is something that also happened to those who were bereaved by the murders committed by the Irish Republican Army on the morning of that football match.
The story of that morning has been told by the Trinity College historian Anne Dolan in her article, ‘Killing and Bloody Sunday’, November 1920’.
This article looks at how the shooting on that morning when 14 British forces personnel were murdered in their bedrooms impacted on the lives of those from Michael Collins’s ‘Squad’ who carried out the attack.
Some of these men were utterly traumatised by the actions. They ended up in nervous breakdown, or habitual drunkenness, or a general collapse of health.
As Anne Dolan wrote: “Killing a spy may have been an order or a duty, but there was much to reconcile when all you saw was a man in his pyjamas clinging to his wife.” And what of those wives? Or of the parents? Or the children?
Where do they fit in this story?
One of the ‘Squad’ – William Stapleton – described what happened when they arrived to where Captain W.F. Newbury lived at 92 Lower Baggot Street on the morning of Bloody Sunday.
When they broke into Captain Newbury’s flat, he was in his pyjamas and tried to escape out a window.
He was shot seven times and ended up hanging from the window, his wife – then heavily pregnant, threw herself in front of her husband in order to protect him.
Captain Newbury’s wife, said William Stapleton, was then “in a terrified and hysterical condition.” Within fifteen minutes, her husband was dead. She covered him in a blanket.
As Anne Dolan wrote, she “lived for three weeks haunted by the sound of shooting, of gunmen laughing, by the memory of a man washing her husband’s blood off his hands in her own sink. She died giving birth to a still-born child.”
And then there were the two men who were shot dead in the Gresham Hotel where it was said that the amount of blood in the rooms was “particularly shocking”.
The blood of Bloody Sunday flowed freely and its legacy left an appalling stain on the lives of too many people. It is essential all the innocent victims of the day be remembered – and in this remembrance, in the raw truth of grief and irrecoverable loss, lies the meaning of all war.
- Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.