Michael Foley ripercorre fatti e antefatti che hanno caratterizzato il tragico evento di Croke Park, fondamentale per la successiva indipendenza dell’Irlanda. Ne abbiamo parlato con l’autore.
What is the reason which has pushed you to write this wonderful and heart-felt book?
Thanks Giovanni, it was an idea that was on my mind for some years before I started work on it. In 2007 Ireland played England in a Six Nations rugby game that was played at Croke Park because the Aviva Stadium – Ireland’s home stadium for rugby – was being redeveloped. It had taken years for the GAA to agree to open Croke Park to other sports, previously it was only used for gaelic games, and England coming to Croke Park with the flag and anthem given the atrocity that occurred on Bloody Sunday 1920 was a very emotive topic for many people. Yet much of the media coverage showed how little we seemed to know about the very basic facts of Bloody Sunday – the number of people killed, their names, who did the firing, why it happened at all. It stuck with me that even though Bloody Sunday was this huge event in modern Irish history, we really didn’t know much about it. Even though I was interested in history, I was also conscious that I wasn’t a history professor, so I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to take on the project. But eventually I thought if I can tell this story as a story – rather than an academic analysis of a tragic event – maybe I can try, at least.
Your research has been very deep and precise: how much did it last?
My research for the book began around 2011 and the finished book was published in autumn 2014. Since the original book was released more and more families and sources of information became known to me, so I was able to develop the story even more ahead of the centenary in 2020 when the book was re-released again with extra information. It was very painstaking and often resulted in me spending a lot of time going nowhere – following stories that ended up not working out. I spent some time in London visiting the UK National Archive at Kew, various newspaper libraries, the National Library in Ireland and many Irish sources. I interviewed family members and just trawled wherever I could to find even the smallest detail. I remember being given a box in Kew that contained everything they had on Bloody Sunday from the British side. There was the original map from one of the inquiries after the massacre, the original order to send troops and police to Croke Park, some letters to families. It was a powerful thing to see and hold. I’m a great believer in the power of small details, items, incidents to tell and illustrate big stories.
What the tragical event of the Croke Park is generally underrated?
I think Bloody Sunday has always been part of our memory as a nation, but the natural passing of time and the fact that many of the people (8) were left in unmarked graves till recently meant the story got reshaped and different myths grew around the reality of what happened. One of the great satisfactions in this project has been the GAA’s Bloody Sunday Graves Project which has erected 7 gravestones for those people previously lost in unmarked graves. That has given families great closure, offered great insight into the lives of those who died, and played a role in reshaping this story for a new 21st century generation of people – focusing the story on those who died rather than the politics of why they died. That was always my motivation – this is not a political book, this is a book about people who went to see a sports match and never came home.
Could policy foresee the retaliation and prepare some measures to avoid or contain it? Maybe did they want to have a revenge anyway?
From the IRA perspective, who carried out the killing of 15 alleged agents that morning, their leadership would have expected some kind of retaliation. Indeed, anyone in Dublin who saw the news that morning on the newspaper billboards would have known the British would strike somewhere in some form. But no one seriously thought Croke Park would be a target. The police were sent there to perform a search operation on the crowd, but I have always said that once the police were in those trucks on the way to Croke Park, they were the ones dictating what happened next, regardless of their orders. If even one of them sought revenge, one shot fired was all it would take to cause the massacre that unfolded. So I don’t believe the authorities ordered a reprisal, but the plan they put in motion made it easier for anyone seeking revenge to take that anger out on the crowd at Croke Park.
For this reason I ask you if the match could be suspended in advance.
The GAA were certainly warned by IRA sources that a force of army and police were on the way to Croke Park and asked to call the game off, but the GAA were in a difficult position. As a sporting organisation they didn’t want to be seen as being influenced by the killings that morning. There was also an enormous crowd at the match, so the authorities were concerned that moving such a big crowd safely out of the ground might be more dangerous than whatever threat the police might pose.And also, this was in the middle of the Irish War of Independence, police and military trucks were commonplace. Disruptions like this were part of daily life at this stage. And again, no one seriously thought the police would open fire on the crowd.
What was the value of a life in a society where murders and attempts were daily?
There was certainly a brutality to the Irish War of Independence that is replicated in many conflicts of its nature. It was a guerrilla war where the IRA hid among the people in plain sight. Police were targeted, any civilians with any connections to the British in Ireland were also targets. In turn, when the Irish police (RIC) were reinforced by new recruits from the UK (Black and Tans and Auxiliaries), the viciousness went to a new level. I’m 46 now but I remember as a boy being told stories by my grandaunt of the Black and Tans coming to their farm and performing searches. They terrified, killed and intimidated people to the point that they remain part of our story to this day. The rules of war – insofar as they exist at all – were only loosely followed in a conflict like this. And that left a terrible mark on the country.
The book confirms a narrow rapport between Ireland populations and Gaelic sports: is it still true now?
Absolutely, but it is true now in a different way. Since the GAA was formed and gaelic sports properly organised in 1884 the local team has often been the strongest form of identity and pride for the local community. GAA clubs and communities built pitches and facilities, they gave places their identity, particularly in rural Ireland. In 1920 gaelic sports meant many things to people – to some they were a statement of independence from Britain, a sporting expression of their nationalism. To many people the sports had nothing to do with politics at all. It was simply gaelic football or hurling or camogie or ladies gaelic football in the years that followed. On Bloody Sunday soldiers mixed in the crowd with IRA volunteers, women, children, people from every walk of life and social class. Being there wasn’t necessarily a political statement, or an extension of their political identity. For most people they simply wanted to see a match. The GAA in Northern Ireland has always had a particular identity – given that the games are almost exclusively played by Catholics and would have a strong sense of nationalism. But they would also share the sense that the GAA is the centre of any community, going far beyond the games. GAA clubs now play a role in promoting healthy living, good mental health, they were crucial in providing test centres during the covid crisis. They have played a role in helping accommodate and integrate refugees down the years. The GAA’s role in Irish life goes far beyond the games. It’s often said if you want to understand Ireland, you need to understand something of the GAA and I think that’s very true. And part of that sense of itself is rooted in Bloody Sunday. Once those killings happened at Croke Park, that became a place the GAA could never leave. It is now an 82,500 capacity stadium that compares with the best in Europe. From where the GAA was in 1920 to where it is now in 2023, there is something of the Irish story contained in that as well.