When chiefs are strong in war, then does the song arise!
But if their swords are stretched over the feeble: if the blood of the weak has stained their arms;
the bard shall forget them in the song, and their tombs shall not be known.
The stranger shall come and build there,
   and remove the heaped-up earth.
An half-worn sword shall rise before him;
   bending above it, he will say,
"These are the arms of the chiefs of old,
   but their names are not in song."
                     -Poems of Ossian

Sunday Bloody Sunday

This year will mark an important anniversary of Bloody Sunday, on which day British soldiers fired on a group of unarmed Irish civilians, killing many. There were two Bloody Sundays. The first was in November of 1921, five years after the formation of the IRA from the combined Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army in 1916. The second took place in January of 1972, a year after the emergence of the Provisional IRA based in Belfast. The two occasions happened close to fifty years apart, the first one about a hundred years ago.

Anybody exposed to classic rock, or who listened to the radio in the eighties or nineties, is familiar with the U2 song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was a top-ten song worldwide and helped U2 achieve supergroup status. The song brought awareness to many for the first time of the events of Bloody Sunday, even as the lyrics, and the white flag carried by Bono during live shows, were strong statements against the ongoing violence. The song has the same title of a film released in 1971–the year before the second Bloody Sunday–that was nominated for four Academy Awards. The film centered around Sunday dinners and sexual intrigue, with the word “Bloody” in its title due to its being a British curse. The song’s title however, and the song itself, mirror the echo of recurring violence suffered by the innocents in Ireland.

The song was released on U2’s third album, War. It was the second album by U2 to express unabashed Christian themes. as their debut album had no such religious references. To anybody familiar with Irish history, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” resonates with the strong political significance of Easter Sunday. It was the Easter Rising of 1916 when Ireland began its path to repudiating the political sway of Britain over the island. The repetition of “Sunday” throughout the song not only echoes the relentlessness of the decades-long strife, but also refers to the promise of redemption in store, the resurrection of Easter–but before Sunday the word “Night” is echoed along with a call for union. The themes in these parts of the song play as an Easter vigil mass, while the militaristic snare drum and dissonant guitar parts rave on. When Sunday Bloody Sunday finally comes in the song, the drumming ceases and the lead guitarist (The Edge) switches to harmonic notes–constrained to vibrate at 5th and 3rd musical intervals which are the basis for Western choral music. “Bloody” in the song also carries the sense of the British curse, which probably comes down from the Elizabethan curse, “God’s blood!” found in abbreviated form in Shakespeare’s plays.

The Fenians

The quote that opens this blog post is from a book of Highland bardic lore published by Robert MacPherson in the mid-1700’s. In the original Scottish Gaelic the passage reads:

'Nuair sheasas na gaisgich san strì,
Eiridh neart nan dàn gun mhùig;
Mu shìneas iad laig s'an cruaidh
Is fuil nan truagh màn cuairt do'n lainn
Cha togar le bàird an duan,
Cha 'n fhaicear an uaigh no 'n carn.
Thig coigrich a thogail tùir
Is cuiridh iad an ùir thar làimh
Chithear claidheamh meirg san smùir,
Fear ag aomadh a chùl ag radh
"Bhuin h-airm de sheoid, tha fuar;
Cha chualas an luaidh 'sna dàin."

In the saga the words are spoken by Fionnghal, son of Comhal; a hero that the Highland bard relates is a Scottish king, engaging in wars with the Roman legions, but also fighting the strangers from Scandinavia. Fionnghal is the Scottish version of Finn MacCool, whom Irish sources describe as a 3rd century warlord, leading a band of champions–the Fenians, or Fianna; hand-picked for their extraordinary skill. Of the Fian It was said that he could run through the forest, bounding over branches the height of his forehead, and stooping under others the height of his knee, without leaving a trembling branch behind.

In order to understand the first Bloody Sunday it’s necessary to understand the character of Michael Collins. In order to understand Collins, one has to learn something about the organization he belonged to and would ultimately lead, the Fenians, also known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or IRB.

The IRB arose shortly after the political movement in Ireland to repeal the Act of Union was derailed by the potato famine of the 1840’s. The Act of Union dissolved the institution of parliament in Dublin in 1800, not long after the centuries-long ban on Catholics in Ireland was lifted. From 1800 on until the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Irish legislators would sit in the British parliament in Westminster. What few concessions could be won for Ireland were wrung by allying with one or another of the mainstream British political parties.

The name Fenian for the IRB was coined by John O’Mahony, a schoolteacher and poet who was also an IRB member in the US. The organization, led by Charles Kickham, staged a rebellion in Ireland, coordinated with an invasion of Canada from the US, in 1866. The Irish rebellion was quickly foiled. The invasion of Canada saw two battles take place. One resulted in the takeover of Fort Erie by the Fenians. The next saw the Canadian army routed as the Fenians approached Ottawa. At this point the US, under then-President Johnson, geared into action, securing and decommissioning the Fenians supply line at a base in New York, and arresting the fighters on technical violations. The aftermath of the rebellion in Ireland resulted in the arrest of O’Donovan Rossa, a Fenian leader. The oration at Rossa’s funeral in 1915 by Patrick Pearse galvanized support for the coming rising, which Pearse would go on to lead.

Nationalist movements leading up to 1916 were participated in to a great extent by the IRB, which itself was a secret society. These nationalist movements included Sinn Fein, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army. Sinn Fein got its start in 1905 as a weekly newspaper, published by a national council that called upon Irish MP’s to abstain from the parliament at Westminster and instead form the basis of a new Irish parliament based in Dublin. The Irish Volunteers were formed by Gaelic League president Eoin MacNeill in 1913, in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster covenant against Irish Home Rule. The Irish Citizen Army was formed by labor leader James Connolly after the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when police brutally beat down a strike by Dublin’s workers.

Driven largely by the IRB’s stated goal of forming a democratic republic in Ireland, the Volunteers and Citizen Army formed a secret pact in 1916, and a rebellion took place on Easter Monday of that year. On that day in Dublin’s civic center, Patrick Pearse proclaimed an Irish republic.

Michael Collins was a foot soldier in the rebellion, serving in Pearse’s battalion. Born in 1890, Collins came from what police later described as “a brainy Cork family.” His father was a member of the Fenians. Though his parents spoke Irish in the home, it was only when they didn’t want Michael to know what they were talking about. Michael was raised to speak English for success in an English-speaking world.

Michael’s father was already of advanced age when Michael was born, and died when Michael was still a child. After completing the Post Office examination, Michael was sent to London in 1906, at the age of fifteen, to work in the Post Office Savings Bank. Collins’ civics education was thoroughly Fenian, and he followed in his father’s footsteps: in 1911, at the age of twenty, Collins was sworn in as an IRB member.

The British, in 1916 engaged in the Great War in France, came down hard on the rebels, firing on Dublin from a gunship off the coast and leveling rebel positions. The government jailed and executed many. Prisoners of war were assigned felon status by authorities, but a hunger strike by the inmates was able to win a general amnesty in December of 1916. Collins was released from prison, and while active in the underground, became involved with electoral politics on the Sinn Fein platform.

In 1917 a round-up of Irish leaders was made under the Defense of the Realm Act. This Act forbid the drilling and carrying of arms by the Volunteers (now the IRA), but was expanded to outlaw manifestations of Irishism such as language classes, football matches, and dancing competitions. The leader of Sinn Fein, along with Collins and Eamonn DeValera (who was a battalion commander in the Rising) were arrested. Collins made bail and lived incognito in Dublin from then on. He planned and participated in the subsequent jailbreak of several IRB and Sinn Fein leaders, breaking out DeValera in a daring midnight raid in 1919.

The first Dáil, the new Irish parliament, was held on April 10th, 1919 to enunciate Sinn Fein policy, with DeValera as president, or Príomh Aire. Among the resolutions that is set forth were the Irish Declaration of Independence, and the Message to the Free Nations of the World, who were then deciding the peace of Paris at Versailles.

The Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police were the main agents of policy from London at the time. The DMP oath forbid its officers to be members of any secret society, but explicitly excepted the Society of Freemasons in this oath. The police force was divided into six divisions, A through F, with G Division being the political wing. G Division was directed at all national movements. Anyone suspected of being disloyal to the British connection had an S placed after their name. G Division operated with a firmly established, elaborate network of so-called G-men and their informants, in pubs, boats, rail stations, and society at large. A truism recognized by the G division was “that success in governing depends on well-contrived antagonisms in the economic and social structure of the state.”

At this time Collins was given the position of Director of Intelligence for the IRB. Though Charles Burgess (Cathal Brugha) was nominally head of the war effort for the fledgling Irish republican government, the fighting was carried out by the IRB. Collins soon developed an informant network of his own, which included many DMP officers disaffected with anti-Irish policy and also London’s balking at implementing the Irish Home Rule Act, passed prior to World War I. Operations were totally dependent upon Collins’ network, and the IRA and IRB were at this point one and the same, taking orders from Collins alone.

In 1919 he launched a new and deadly phase of the Irish war of independence, placing the G-men and the Royal Irish Constabulary in the crosshairs. The G-men were put on notice that actions against Irish nationalists would lead to reprisals. The first to fall was a Detective Smith. Others followed. The IRA found their .38 caliber handguns did not reliably end the life of their target on the first shot. Units were then equipped with .45 caliber weapons.

In December of that year the British cabinet met to deal with the question of Home Rule for Ireland. Because of the unresolved status of Ulster in the event of Home Rule, the implementation of the Home Rule act continued to be unworkable. Consensus was clear that the recent problems keeping order in Ireland had to be resolved. The forces known as the British Auxiliaries and Black & Tans were then introduced, and 1920 became known as the Year of Terror in Ireland.

The Black & Tans and Auxiliaries represented a return to the policies of frightfulness widely used during the Victorian era. Their actions were directed at the IRA whenever possible, but the IRA was usually impossible to engage unless it was on the attack.

Bloody Sunday I: November 20, 1921

As the British forces introduced into Ireland encountered ambushes, they would retaliate by shooting rampages through populated areas. Men taken into custody were subjected to gruesome torture and executed. The count of fatalities of unarmed people in 1920 is over 200.

In May of 1920 the British cabinet called for reprisals of an economic nature. Thus a campaign of wanton destruction of industrial facilities in Ireland began. Creameries, bacon factories, and mills were burned.

The spiral of escalating attack and reprisal became more monstrous as it progressed into 1921. IRA members who had been elected to the position of Lord Mayor were shot in the night by Auxiliaries. At this time the British moved to shore up their intelligence and paramilitary throughout Ireland, bringing in Secret Service agents who had distinguished themselves in the service during World War I. Collins got word that a British intelligence network working on “proper continental lines with a Central Headquarters and other houses forming minor centres scattered all throughout” was being formed in Dublin. In time, Collins collected the names and addresses of the officers. Door and room keys were obtained.

At a joint meeting of the Dáil cabinet and Army Council, Collins’ men submitted proof that each targeted man was an accredited Secret Service agent of the British government. On Bloody Sunday, shortly after 8:00 in the morning, all 19 agents were killed in their homes by gunfire from IRA units.

Football matches drawing great crowds in Croke Park in Dublin became a target for reprisals that day. Croke Park was surrounded by Black & Tans and Auxiliaries. Troops opened fire on both crowd and playing field with rifle and machine guns causing bloodshed and panic. Fourteen people died and hundreds became casualties.

The attacks continued. Having received instructions to carry out a clandestine killing of Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe; Brigadier General Crozier, Commander of the Auxiliaries, resigned his command.

King George V voiced displeasure at the escalating violence. During his invocation of the first Northern Ireland parliament in June, 1921; he spoke of hopes for peace.

In 1922 a treaty was signed bringing into being the Irish Free State. DeValera had distanced himself from the treaty process and was vocal about his opposition to it. Upon its ratification by the Dáil on January 7, DeValera and his supporters resigned taking a large portion of the IRA with them. This faction of the IRA would be active independent of the Irish Free State, and the subsequent Irish Republic, for decades to come.

Bloody Sunday II: January 27, 1972

Selma was the legendary seat of power of Fionnghal MacComhal in the Poems of Ossian. Ironically, Selma, Alabama was a major milestone in the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s philosophy of the nature of the struggle would play a seminal role in the chain of events leading to the second Bloody Sunday. In fact, the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 had its own Bloody Sunday. On that day scores of men, women, and children were brutally beaten by police. There were people killed on the march as well–two whites: a Unitarian minister and a mother of five from out of state, both by the KKK. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was himself assassinated.

The city of Derry is on the western border of Northern Ireland, on the banks of the River Foyle near Lough Foyle, a major inlet on Ireland’s north coast. Northern Ireland as part of the UK was carved out of part of the ancient province of Ulster. MP’s James Craig and Edward Carson drew up the border in the 1900’s with the intent of creating a region where the majority of the population were Protestant adherents to the British crown. Northern Ireland was thus structured with the Catholic population as a permanently oppressed class.

John Hume grew up in the poor section of Derry. He would eventually lead the civil rights movement in the region, found and lead the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and spearhead high-level reforms that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the IRA and their Unionist counterparts. In 1965 Hume helped to build the Derry Housing Association to deal with the problem of poor housing conditions and severe overcrowding in the Catholic districts. As Hume would later write, he read “a huge amount of the writings of Martin Luther King in those days.” Hume knew “to ask for justice was to question the whole philosophy of the state.” Still, like MLK, Hume was committed to non-violence and was determined to see the struggle through without resorting to force.

The IRA was still active in Ireland as they had been since their inception. The most recent campaign up to 1965 had involved assaults on the Northern Ireland border, which took place between 1960 and 1962. Though that campaign was stood down there was still sporadic violence year after year, notably the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966. Gains made by MLK in the United States, and the embrace of the civil rights movement by the Kennedy administration, made their impression on the IRA as well. Though some Republican leaders had their doubts, in 1966 and 1967 the North of Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed with behind-the-scenes IRA involvement.

In the spring and summer of 1968 acts of protest were held in the city that included sit-in’s and disruption of government proceedings. By October of 1968 community leader John Hume, and Protestant members of parliament Ivan Cooper and Eddie McAteer, became active, marching in the civil rights movement. A protest march planned for October 5, 1968 was banned by the city government (called the Derry Corporation) and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. When the civil rights coalition carried on the march as scheduled anyway, the RUC attacked them with clubs. Media coverage of the event led to international exposure of the strife and galvanized nationalist opinion throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland. Within weeks, the Unionist-dominated Derry Corporation was terminated and replaced with an independent commission.

Thousands gathered in Derry in the following months to demonstrate solidarity. These protests were without incident, but into 1969 elements of the police working off-duty, joined by other Unionists, began attacking in the homes of protesters and on the street. In response, civil rights groups set up barricades blocking access to Bogside, which is the main Catholic district of Derry, and organized vigilante patrols.

The Apprentice Boys march scheduled for August 12 was held yearly to celebrate the Siege of Derry, a battle by which William of Orange won the throne from James II in the 17th-century sectarian conflict. The parade route skirted the perimeter of Bogside and clashes between Catholics and Protestants occurred across the barricades. The police then moved to dismantle the barricades, after which Protestants stormed the district. Bogside vigilantes attacked police and Unionists with gasoline bombs; police discharged over 1000 canisters of tear gas (CS), disabling many of the rioters.

After a day of rioting, Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Jack Lynch ordered troops to the border near Derry. The following day Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister requested military support from Britain. British troops were soon dispatched to the Bogside to relieve the police and eventually restored order after 3 days of continuous rioting.

The pattern of acts of protest countered with mob violence continued. In November of 1969 Rev. Ian Paisley, a Protestant leader in Belfast, led a cavalcade of cars containing stones, sharpened piping, and cudgels with nails driven through them, against a civil rights march in Armagh.

The IRA, short of weapons and funds, continued to back the street protest strategy. As violence continued across the North though, some in the IRA broke with the leadership and decided to coordinate a new Northern campaign. In 1970 the Provisional Army Council based in Belfast was formed and launched its own newspaper, The Republic, or, as it is called in Irish, An Phoblacht.

The Provisional IRA’s aims and strategy were made clear in its Green Book, which it circulated internally. The ultimate goal of the organization was to set up an all-island Democratic Socialist Republic. The defensive vigilante strategy would be maintained and expanded. An offensive strategy was also put in place, one of “attrition against enemy personnel” as stated by the Green Book, “aimed at causing as many casualties and deaths as possible so as to create a demand from their people at home for their withdrawal.”

In February of 1971, one Gunner Curtis was the first British soldier to be shot and killed in the the conflict that became known as the Troubles. Government crackdowns and authoritarian measures were imposed. In December of 1971 Martin Meehan, Dutch Doherty, and Hugh McCann of the IRA escaped from Crumlin Road jail using knotted up bedsheets. They subsequently gave evidence of having been tortured. The same trio engaged the British Army in a four-hour cross-border gun battle on January 27th, 1972.

On January 30th, Bloody Sunday, a march planned by the North of Ireland Civil Rights Association was carried out in Derry to protest government crackdowns, in defiance of a ban imposed by the authorities. After clashes occurred between soldiers and protesters, a company of paratroopers was sent into the Bogside to arrest people seen to be making trouble fleeing into the area. In the resulting clashes, soldiers shot 26 people, killing 13. Six of the dead were 17 years of age. One person died four months later as a result of his injuries, bringing the total number killed to 14.

The sustained presence of British troops brought the Northern Ireland parliament’s authority into question. To resolve legal issues the British were forced in March of 1972 to suspend the Northern Ireland parliament, constitutionally a subsidiary parliament to that in Westminster, and impose direct rule from London. As John Hume would later write, once direct rule was imposed, the British government was forced to introduce fair play in public employment and housing.

Hume went on to lead the SDLP in 1979. He had a leadership role in crafting a succession of power-sharing agreements that would eventually bring an end to the Troubles. His insistence on bringing Sinn Fein into the peace process created a storm of controversy. His commitment to this however would lead to the IRA cease-fire in 1994, followed by the Good Friday Agreement, by which the IRA and unionist paramilitaries were decommissioned for good.

How Long to Sing this Song?

Winston Churchill in one of his many historical tracts, referred to his view of history being a branch of moral philosophy. In any story we look for the theme: how does the story end and why does it end that way?

Gaelic culture had enjoyed a revival in mainstream Irish society in the 19th century and into the 20th century. Gaelic technically describes the branch of Celtic languages that were spoken in Scotland and Ireland, but also covers the myriad of traditions, cultural expressions, and ways of life among natives of the Gaelic regions. Conquest, colonization, and assimilation of these regions led to active efforts by those who would rule Scotland and Ireland to obliterate the Gaelic culture, and these efforts were not without success. Still the strong appeal of Gaelic cultural forms influenced the morale of the nationalist movement and the morality of its leadership.

Michael Collins, who led the Irish war of independence, and John Hume, who led the reconciliation effort that would end the Troubles, both had a collaborative leadership style but were radically different in their philosophies and objectives. So different, the pair recall the doctrine of the two “Adams” in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. From the Message Bible:

There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ.

I Cor. 15:21


Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life!

Rom. 5:18

Of course though this kind of idealizing is good for pointing out the symmetry between the two Bloody Sundays, it can’t be relied upon to judge the actions of Collins and Hume.

Collins was president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood by the time of the treaty, and as a leader was a product of those he led. The organization having chosen the name Fenians, it identified with and strove to carry on the traditions and wisdom of the ancient Gaels. There is a theme of forbearance toward the weak all through the Poems of Ossian, and the passage quoted prefacing this blog post is one example. There is more evidence in other research on the Gaels of a customary respect by hunters for their quarry, with hunters ceasing to hunt during certain times of year and when they did hunt, taking care to not go out “to kill a heavy bag.” Whatever the roots of their values they knew the hearts and minds of the populace would not be won over by draconian fanaticism. Thus the line reads in the proclamation of the Irish Republic, “…we pray that no one who serves this cause will dishonor it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine.”

Collins himself was an accomplished athlete, with something of a sentimental sense of fair play. He targeted the political police, paramilitaries, and British agents who he saw as instruments of British domination. Never were uniformed patrolmen, ordinary police, a target of the IRA under Collins.

This is not to say that all in the Fenians rejected draconian measures. Cathal Brugha, head of the Army Council in the war of independence, advocated strongly for capturing and killing members of the British cabinet. Collins strongly opposed this and the course was never taken. Preparations however were made in staking out areas of London where such actions could be carried out. There is a story of two IRA men staking out London, chasing each other in horseplay at a tram station. One rounding a corner barreled into a British official waiting for the tram with two aides, and knocking the official to the platform. The IRA man, apologizing profusely, helped the man to his feet. The official’s aides, hearing the IRA man’s Irish accent, immediately held him and questioned him. The official told his aides to relax, saying, “If they wanted to kill me I’d be dead by now.” The official was Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the UK.

On the other hand we have the British Empire, which like many of the larger states in the world was not concerned with culture and tradition outside of what was needed for power for power’s sake. Although many of the individuals fighting against Irish independence were concerned with honor and conscience, these concerns diverged sharply with the increasingly terrorist tactics of the government. Thus the move to reconcile came from the British cabinet.

Bloody Sunday II saw British troops quickly reduced to using lethal force against youths throwing rocks. The taking of civilian lives is more the rule than the exception in modern warfare, but we can still look to those who conduct themselves honorably. This is the importance of remembrance, and in considering these events we hope to improve the prospects of human progress.

For Further Reading

The crowd-sourced Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation deserves your moral and financial support. Along with entries on the cardinal topics, the Battle of the Bogside entry contains good information.

The Story of the Irish Race by Seumus MacManus contains a great deal of information on the conquest by William of Orange, the ban on Catholics, the Act of Union and the repeal movement, the Great Famine, and the Fenians, new and old.

Information on the Irish war of independence comes mostly from the biography of Michael Collins by Irish Times editor Tim Pat Coogan. Information on the IRA comes mainly from Coogan’s 500-page, monumentally detailed IRA: A History. The biography of Roger Casement by Brian Inglis has excellent details and insight into the characters and attitudes leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916.

John Hume’s autobiographical manifesto, A New Ireland, which was published in 1997, clearly lays out his stands on the issues discussed.

The above titles, along with the Poems of Ossian in English, are available on loan for members of the Celtic Arts Center. Join today!