Ireland’s Wars: Bloody Sunday (1921)

The events of this entry, and the events of the next, crossover rather directly with the culmination of the truce negotiations, which form an important backdrop to both. I will come to the truce in a few weeks, but felt it better to cover some of those events happening in the rest of the country first, as the truce is the historically designated end of the conflict, and so should take its place as such in this series.

We move now back to the quagmire that was the north, and more specifically Belfast. We covered, to a degree of detail, the situation in Ulster throughout the first half of 1921, wherein the violence was ever increasing, along with the accompanying death toll. The conflict between the IRA and Crown Forces, the activities of the “Specials” in carrying out their role, and the more general sectarian violence between rival mobs in certain areas were all things in the mix. Belfast remained a hotbed of such tensions and, in the dying days of the War of Independence, that tension exploded, resulting in one of the bloodiest days of the conflict.

It was violence that was far from unprecedented, even when talking purely about the days and weeks leading up to it. The violence that began on the 10th of June and continued for several days was actually bad enough on its own. This saw its Genesis in that rare thing: a successful urban ambush of the Belfast IRA, a unit that remained somewhat passive in the eyes of GHQ, that operated more as a loose defensive organisation dedicated to protecting nationalist areas more than being an offensive force. On that day, a three-man group of RIC, patrolling in the heavily nationalist Falls Road area, were ambushed. One, a Constable James Glover who was suspected of being involved in extrajudicial sectarian killings, was fatally wounded.

Reprisals began very soon afterwards, leading to counter-reprisals soon after that. Numerous civilians were killed in rioting, house burnings and shootings, and and some of them were at the hands of RIC, essentially executing Catholic nationalists out of hand. After three days, the violence simmered down again, but 14 people were dead. For much of the next month, in the lead up to always volatile region of “the Twelfth”, shootings and killings continued in a tit-for-tat manner, with one gun battle between RIC and IRA Volunteers especially notable on the 8th July. The day after that, news from the south inflamed the situation once again.

On the 9th, the news broke that a truce had been agreed in Dublin between the Crown Forces and representatives of the Republic. It was due to come into effect at noon on the 11th. The news invoked horror in unionist circles, who saw the move as a sell-out of their cause. At the same time, it invoked an obvious sense of triumph in northern republican circles. The mixture of feelings could only be described as a powder keg. On the night of the 9th, a mobile RIC patrol was ambushed on Raglan Road, with one killed and two wounded. This patrol had been done from an armoured car, but the emboldened IRA group had certainly not been put off. However, the killing seems to have been the last straw, or the nearest excuse, for others, and was the final move ahead of the largest bout of sectarian violence to engulf the city in some time. A local GAA club was burned down that night, almost certainly by police.

The 10th was a Sunday, and it was then that things got completely out of control. As I have stated before, it is not really appropriate to call this a military event. IRA Volunteers were certainly involved of course, but the majority of people now fighting each other could not be described as military in any sense. For the most part it was just civilian groupings attacking others, though that should not be taken to mean that arms were not involved either. Border areas between unionists and republican communities were suddenly riddled with gunfire, with houses and shopfronts used as positions. Groups from either community advanced into others, burning houses and attacking anyone from the other “side” that they could find. Hand grenades were thrown, petrol was draped and there were even reports of machine gun fire. Public transport, like trams, were fired upon.

The area between the Falls Road and the Shankill was particularly brutal, with the Falls essentially blockaded for the duration of the violence. Members of the RIC and “Specials” were accused by numerous witnesses of contributing to the violence as opposed to stopping it, firing indiscriminately in Catholic areas. Children on both sides of the divide were among the victims, which eventually numbered 16 dead. Around 200 homes were destroyed. On both counts, Catholics were the victims disproportionately. Far more people were wounded, flooding local hospitals. In the absence of military intervention – apparently the locally based regulars had been explicitly ordered not to get involved, owing to the truce terms – chaos reigned. A brief local truce was agreed on Sunday night between leading elements of the RIC and the IRA Belfast Brigade, with the police returning to their barracks.

It was not to last. The larger truce came into effect on the 11th, but was ignored to a large extent in Belfast a very short time after its implementation. Three more people were killed in Belfast that day, one of them a Volunteer. But again most of the violence was not being carried out by the IRA, or seemingly orchestrated by them: IRA officers were among those to complain later about Catholic “mobs” that could not be controlled. In this, they were often referring to the old familiar enemy of the Hibernian order, who despised the IRA and took active part in looting and rioting at the time, to the extent that members of the order had to be forcibly exiled from the city by republicans. The situation was also, of course, even further complicated by the fact that regular RIC and the military were more pre-disposed to respect the truce and treat with the IRA, but the Specials were not: the Crown Forces left hand did not know, and often did not care to know, what its right hand was doing.

Remarkably, the annual “Twelfth” parades appear to have passed off relatively peaceably on the day in question. This was probably the result of both an enforced curfew, and also the actions of the larger IRA, with Eoin O’Duffy sent to the city to liaise with British authorities on means with which the truce could be maintained. He was able to hammer out a loose agreement whereby the IRA was permitted to maintain law and order in predominantly Catholic areas, and in return would only act in self-defence when it came to the aggression of outside forces. In many ways this was to be the apogee of the Belfast IRA, who would become very isolated the following year when the larger organisation split over the Treaty. In the moment, however much they may have tried to prevent it, violence resumed after the 12th, with O’Duffy struck by the accumulation o civilian gangs on numerous streets and the constant sound of gunfire. By the end of the week, a further nine people had been killed, for a total of 28.

It did not take long for the violence of the 10th to be dubbed as “Belfast’s Bloody Sunday”, media attempting to tie it in directly with the events in Dublin in November of the previous year. But in truth, while the extent of the violence on that particular day was significant, it was just the latest in a series of multi-day disturbances with fatal consequences, and it would also not be the last: for the rival communities of Belfast, as with many other parts of the north, the larger truce meant very little to their daily lives. Protestant fears of a nationalist takeover, and Catholic demands for better lives in line with what was perceived as a republican “victory” in the war, would produce continued conflict in the days, weeks and months after the truce.

A survey of 1921’s Bloody Sunday from a military perspective is largely pointless, other than to say that the weak and under-resourced Belfast IRA was hardly in a position to put a stop to what was happening, and that the police, whether they were RIC or Specials, at best were ineffective in the course of seeking the same goal, or at worst actively worked to stop it from happening. These factors would re-occur again and again throughout the next twelve months, but the death toll for July 1921 in Belfast was alarmingly high.

We are now in the final hours of the War of Independence. Before we go to the details of the truce and how it came to fruition, we must take one final break away from the larger national picture to focus in on one of the last engagements of the war while it still officially continued. This was to take place in County Kerry, where nine men from either side would live long enough to hear of the truce announced, but would not live long enough to see it come into existence.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Bloody Sunday (1921)

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Truce | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Road To The Irish Civil War | Never Felt Better

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