Light seeped into the narrow streets and alleys of the inner city, illuminating the darkness of the tenement buildings and cottages where Michael Feery, James Mathews, Patrick O’Dowd and 11-year-old William Robinson slept.
It brightened kitchens in Dolphin’s Barn, Stoneybatter, Windy Arbour and Ballymount where Tom Hogan, Tom Ryan, James Burke and Joseph Traynor talked about going to a football game between Dublin and Tipperary that afternoon. It warmed a day already filled with the excitement of a match for 10-year-old Jerome O’Leary and 14-year-old John William Scott. It got James Teehan and Daniel Carroll thinking whether a day in Croke Park at the match was a better option than work.
It peeped around curtains in hotel rooms and houses where Michael Hogan and members of the Tipperary team were thinking only of Croke Park and Dublin. And at nine o’clock that morning it glinted against the roof of St Andrew’s Church near Upper Mount Street, where the Dublin goalkeeper Johnny McDonnell had joined a group of IRA men moving quickly to a house nearby, to kill a pair of spies.
By mid-morning word was spreading of 15 British agents killed and mortally wounded in their own beds. Families flocked to Dublin Castle seeking refuge. One officer killed himself in his quarters thinking he had let slip the address of one victim to someone, some time. The city was shut down. The brutal unfolding of the Irish War of Independence over the previous 22 months had revealed one simple truth: atrocity would be met by reprisal. It was never of a question of what might happen next, but where.
By the end of the afternoon, 14 people lay dead and mortally wounded on the field and banks around Croke Park, and on the street outside. Police sent to the ground to perform a search operation had taken positions on a bridge outside the ground and poured over the walls, firing at will.
The shooting lasted 90 seconds. William Robinson was shot from a tree. Jerome O’Leary was struck in the head while sitting on a wall. Jane Boyle’s hand slipped from her fiance’s arm as they tried to escape the firing. She was lost beneath the stampeding crowd, shot in the back.
Tom Hogan was struck in the shoulder and died five days later. John William Scott was killed by a ricocheting bullet. James Teehan and James Burke died near an exit. James Mathews died trying to climb a wall to safety. Patrick O’Dowd was shot helping others over the wall.
Daniel Carroll was shot on the street outside Croke Park. Michael Feery bled to death on the bridge. Joseph Traynor slumped over a wall, shot twice in the back. Michael Hogan, the Tipperary player, died while crawling towards the edge of the field, seeking to hide among the crowd. Tom Ryan was shot whispering a prayer in his ear. Years later Monsignor Maurice Browne, a childhood friend of Michael Hogan’s reached back to Virgil’s account of the sacking of Troy when recalling the scene he witnessed at Croke Park. “Everywhere is relentless grief,” he wrote. “Everywhere panic and countless shapes of death.”
The Croke Park dead were buried the following week, their stories lost with them. The events of Bloody Sunday in Dublin were distilled down the years to numbers and dates and street names and places. But the killings that day dropped into people’s lives like stones in a pond, rippling through generations for a century.
Families were broken by Bloody Sunday. Lives were changed irrevocably. The impact of Bloody Sunday on a young nation was also significant. Bloody Sunday gave the GAA a place in the story of the struggle for independence that could be parlayed into emotional and political power in the new Free State. As a result, the Bloody Sunday killings were often reduced to a political tool. The stories of the 14 were sandpapered out and forgotten in place of a simpler narrative. Even the blood and bones of Michael Hogan’s life, the massacre’s single image for nearly a century, was overtaken by the bricks and steel of a stand in his honour.
Burying those stories was equivalent to burying a national trauma. The stories of the victims act now like social parables, liberating us from the old loose, black-and-white telling of what happened at Croke Park and granting us access to shades of grey ignored for too long. Revisiting Bloody Sunday a hundred years later through the fresh prism of their lives is a profound moment in our understanding of what happened, and why this tragic event still resonates so strongly for the GAA and the wider nation itself.
The union of the Abbey Theatre and the GAA in this project to deepen that understanding also represents a special moment in their parallel histories. The same energy that fuelled the founding of the GAA in 1884 as part of a landmark cultural revival drove playwrights and authors to crystallise Ireland’s ancient and evolving modern identity through their writing in the following decade. Twenty years after the GAA’s formation, the Abbey Theatre gave those ideas a new home.
Now they join together to tell 14 stories, harnessing the fundamental power of theatre and the performing arts to create avenues to a new truth about the events of Bloody Sunday. Bringing the lives of the dead to the stage through Fourteen Voices from the Bloodied Field gives voice to people left silent for too long, amplifying what is important and what has been forgotten.
Knowing that among the 14 died lay three children and a woman due to be married, an ex-British army serviceman and four IRA volunteers, business people, labourers and others still figuring their way in life illustrates the complex tangle of historical politics and normal daily life that brought everyone to Croke Park that day. It makes them real. It makes Bloody Sunday real.
We are all joined to the victims across a hundred years by the simplest, most fundamental things: love of people and places, the same thrill of going to an event that lifts us away from the mundanity of ordinary life. We know their grief. We feel compassion for those left behind. These people are us. We are them. Their gift to us a century later is their story.
Our duty of care to them now is to watch and listen, and always remember.
Author of The Bloodied Field