Illuminations: The First Bloody Sunday

Illuminations: The First Bloody Sunday
By:  J. Michael Finn

There were four events related to Irish History known as “Bloody Sunday.”  The most recent one occurred on January 30, 1972, in Derry, where British soldiers killed fourteen civilian demonstrators. 

Prior to that, there was the Bloody Sunday that occurred in Belfast on July 10, 1921. Loyalist mobs attacked the Catholic area of Belfast, burning homes and businesses.  Nearly 200 homes were burned, seventeen were killed and over seventy were wounded.

The second Bloody Sunday occurred on November 21, 1920, when British troops opened fire on Irish football fans at Croke Park in Dublin, killing fourteen civilians and wounding sixty-five.

The First Bloody Sunday
The first Bloody Sunday related to Irish history occurred on November 13, 1887 and did not occur in Ireland, but in the center of London, England.

In 1887 the Land War had been raging in Ireland since about 1880. The Irish National Land League, founded by Michael Davitt, and presided over by Member of Parliament Charles Stewart Parnell, had been banned by the government, and its leaders, including Davitt and Parnell had been arrested. As a result, the movement made some progress in Parliament with land reform legislation, but the land reformers demanded more reform over excessive rents, a stoppage of evictions and, most importantly, Irish land ownership.

By 1886, Parnell and his eighty-five Irish members of Parliament had become a political force. They sided with the liberals in Parliament and were successful in defeating the conservatives. A liberal government was installed in England under Prime Minister William Gladstone. 

On April 8, 1886, Gladstone introduced legislation calling for a Home-Rule government for Ireland.  The bill was strongly opposed by conservatives and was defeated by a significant majority of conservatives. This loss by the liberals resulted in a new conservative government under Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister.

The Land League and the Irish members of Parliament issued the Plan of Campaign Manifesto in 1886, which spelled out their strategy for dealing with high rents and abusive landlords in Ireland.  This plan was not received favorably by the conservative government.

As a response to the manifesto, the new conservative Chief Secretary for Ireland, Arthur Balfour, secured approval of the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887, an Irish coercion bill aimed at preventing the practice of boycotting and intimidation of landlords. It outlawed unlawful assembly and outlawed the organization of conspiracies against the payment of agreed rents.

Trial by Jury Abolished
Trial by jury in Ireland was also abolished under the act. This resulted in the imprisonment without trial of hundreds of people, including over twenty Irish Members of Parliament. Also arrested was popular Irish Member of Parliament William O’Brien.

In England, the working class in British cities was composed of many people of Irish birth or origin.  London had a large Irish working class concentrated in the East End.

Trafalgar Square in central London was traditionally the place where Londoners could protest and air grievances. The square was seen as the point at which the working-class East End met the upper-class West End of London, a focus of class struggle and a flashpoint.  The tensions in the square were becoming more frequent, with clashes between police and protesters, and the Irish began to use the square to protest (something they were not allowed to do in Ireland).

To prevent these clashes, Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of London Police, banned all meetings and demonstrations in Trafalgar Square on November 8, 1887.  A protest was scheduled for the following Sunday, November 13, 1887 in Trafalgar Square. It was called initially by the Irish National League and the Irish Home Rule Union to protest Irish unemployment; the coercion act; and to demand the release of the Irish MP William O’Brien and others from prison.

The organizers of the march called for the demonstrators not to use violence. Unfortunately for the Irish protesters, the ban by the police on demonstrations and meetings caused the gathering to take on a wider and more violent context.

The controversy attracted the attention of the small but growing London socialist movement, which included the Marxists of the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League, and the reformist socialists of the Fabian Society.  Police and government attempts to suppress demonstrations also brought in the radical wing of the Liberal Party and free speech activists from the National Secular Society. These groups were not concerned with the conditions in Ireland, only with testing the gathering ban and the promotion of their Socialist/Marxist and anarchist agendas.

When Radicals Enter the Fray
On that Bloody Sunday in November, approximately 20,000 demonstrators marched to the square. Socialist radicals took over the demonstration and proceeded to provoke fights with police.  Some of the radicals had brought clubs and iron bars. The London Metropolitan Police and the British Army were called in to break up the protest. 

Two thousand police and 400 British Army troops were deployed to halt the demonstration.  The Riot Act was read by the police, who waded into the crowd with clubs and openly fought with the male and female demonstrators.

The army units played only a small role in the riot, as one protestor was bayoneted by the army. There were a large number of injuries on both sides. Two demonstrators died of their injuries, 150 were badly injured and over 400 were arrested.  

Some of the injuries were caused by the police mounted units. Two police officers were stabbed during the riot. Amazingly, the official report into the day’s events suggested only that the police should order stronger clubs, because so many had broken during the riot.

None of the authorities had any reservations about the level of force that was used. For activists, Bloody Sunday would be remembered as one of heavy-handed, violent repression.  While Londoners were shocked by the events, the Irish knew that repression was standard operating procedure in Ireland.

Despite the fact that many of the seriously injured demonstrators were Irish, the real message of the Irish was largely obscured by the participation of radical protesters with non-Irish agendas. The coercion act remained in place for many years and repression in Ireland continued. Tragically, there would be more Bloody Sundays to come.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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