IT would have been yesterday, a Monday in November, 94 years ago, that Luke O’Toole, the general secretary of the GAA, walked through the early-morning mist and the blood-stained, bullet-ridden grass of Croke Park, shadowed by a journalist.
A small gathering was praying at the spot where Mick Hogan, a Tipperary footballer, had been shot and killed. Another man was going about the task he had been assigned of picking up the bodies amidst all the hats and umbrellas and apples and oranges scattered all over the ground.
The previous day had been Bloody Sunday and, thanks to a new book, The Bloodied Field, published by O’Brien Press, we now have a much more vivid and greater understanding of the frightening events that happened that time. Michael Foley of The Sunday Times had brilliantly captured another monumental moment in Irish sport with Kings of September: The Day Offaly Denied Kerry Five In A Row. He has now turned his attention to the dead of November, bringing those people and the climate of the time back to life. What follows is virtual cinema, though probably all the more important because of cinema. For younger and, indeed, older generations, their abiding image of that day is that from Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins: Machine-gun equipped armoured cars go into Croke Park and open fire. Jordan would explain his deviation from fact on the understandable grounds that he felt the machine-gunned tank captured the faceless callousness of imperialism more strikingly than soldiers shooting, explaining that “I wanted the scene to last 30 seconds”. The film was about Collins, not Bloody Sunday, but Bloody Sunday went on for much longer than 30 seconds and Foley here captures the mayhem before and on that day.
Spectators were crushed to death in the stampede to leave the ground. Those who got out fled to neighbouring houses, only for British forces to find some of them, up to 80 hiding under one roof, before they were marched to Croke Park to be searched. So were some players, though 12 of the 18 Tipperary players that travelled up to play that day were detained at gunpoint at a corner by the Railway wall near Hill 60, as it was then known. Eventually, they would be freed, as would all the women and children, but late into that evening thousands of people were still being searched.
It’s a time we can barely fathom now, yet there’s still a lot about The Bloodied Field with which today’s players and young can identify. The Tipperary and Dublin footballers, contrary to what some folk might assume, weren’t playing in the All-Ireland final that day, but, being two of the most improving and ambitious teams in the country, All-Irelands were certainly on their mind, which was why they were the two sides contesting a challenge game that would bring over 15,000 into Croke Park.
Tipp had lined out in the All-Ireland final 20 months earlier, foiled by a Wexford side that was winning its fourth title on the trot. They’d had a training camp in Dungarvan for that game, and lost by just a single point, one of their most reliable players, Gus McCarthy, uncharacteristically fluffing a late chance.
“They left Croke Park with the luxury of regret,” writes Foley. “What if Dick Heffernan’s point had stood? Gus McCarthy had made an error they would never expect from him. Some players wondered about the ferocity of the training in Dungarvan; had they done too much?”
Ninety-four years before Paul Durcan’s fluffed kickout, Colm McFadden’s late goal chance and the dubious merits of Donegal’s hugely intense pre-match camp in Enniskillen, a group of footballers had similar questions and regrets.
We discover too that, back then, there were also objections to Dublin having all their games in Croke Park, Wexford at one point railed against such an arrangement, before then having to accede.
For sure, though, times were different. When Tipp won that 1918 Munster championship, Davy Tobin had been one of their heroes, scoring the winning goal against Cork. Before the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo was played, Davy was dead, one of the 10,000 in Ireland and 25m worldwide that year struck down by the Spanish flu. That 1918 All-Ireland final against Wexford wouldn’t be played until 1919 with all that was going on. When they’d play Wexford again two months later in a fundraising challenge game, there were 25,000 people there, a bigger attendance than had been at the All-Ireland.
That’s why so many people flocked to Croke Park that November Sunday, despite the rumblings there could be trouble after word spread that Collins’s special units had taken out 14 British intelligence and security servicemen. Dublin had qualified for the All-Ireland final but needed a challenge game, and Tipp wanted a game to keep them ticking over due to the Munster championship being delayed.
In fact, they had penned a letter in Sport newspaper, “We understand that Tipperary’s superiority over Dublin in football, despite two decisive [challenge game] victories by Tipperary, is being questioned by Dublin. We therefore challenge Dublin to a match on the first available date in any venue or any object.”
You wouldn’t get any players doing that now.
Or, the day before the game, going up on a train and engaging in a wrestling match with British soldiers. Or some of them out on the town the night before the game taking in a bar frequented by hookers and dockers. Or one of their opponents being part of a hit squad the morning of the match. Or, one of them being shot, as was 24-year-old Mick Hogan.
There would be some light after all that darkness. A long-forgotten footnote to Bloody Sunday is that Tipperary would make it through to play Dublin in that delayed 1920 All-Ireland final, coming out winners, their final point being kicked by Gus McCarthy, the man who missed that late chance against Wexford. Of course, in keeping with that timeless theme of the GAA, they did it for Mick.
Foley has also fittingly honoured him here. By ensuring Hogan and others are remembered, he’s produced a book that’s unforgettable.
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