It’s relative: family history and Ireland’s original Bloody Sunday

Words: Niamh Carroll

Tracing family history is increasingly popular. The digitisation of records and the emergence of dozens of websites designed to help people find out about their ancestors have changed the way many of us look at our heritage, and as a result, at ourselves. 

We’ve all seen shows like Who do you think you are?, in which celebrities trace their ancestry back to royalty – shows which hold up a connection to some great historical figure as the ideal of lineage. But most of us don’t go on that kind of journey. Instead, most family history is passed down by word-of-mouth. A mother tells a story to her son, who tells his daughter, and so on. This type of family history is characterised by anecdotal evidence rather than written documents. 

My family’s history was never written, and there’s nothing to suggest I have any royal blood. Instead, we have a story which was passed down through the generations, tying us personally to the story of Ireland itself and the struggles of the people who live and have lived there. 

One hundred years ago, the island saw one of its darkest days. The violence which took place on Sunday, 21st November 1920 was such that it would be referred to as ‘Bloody Sunday’ for years to come. 

Ireland was in the midst of the War of Independence, which consisted of guerrilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British state forces. Early that Sunday morning, a section of the IRA led by Michael Collins and known as the ‘squad’ assassinated 14 members of the British state forces in their homes in Dublin. The coordinated attacks targeted British intelligence officers, particularly a group called the Cairo Gang (for their meetings in Cafe Cairo in Dublin), who conducted operations against IRA officers with their own intentions of assassination. 

For the British, the assassinations demonstrated that the IRA had significantly stepped up their own intelligence capability: they knew who these officers were, and where they could be found vulnerable. The response had to be immediate. 

For me, the telling of histories like this one isn’t about hatred: it’s about survival, which is far more powerful.

Across the city, thousands of fans were flocking to a Sunday afternoon Gaelic football game between Dublin and Tipperary in Croke Park. One of them was my great-grandfather, Christopher ‘Yarra’ Duffy, who arrived at the field with his brother, Dan. He was 15 years old. 

The beginning of the match was delayed due to the chaos which had taken place earlier in the day. Unknown to those watching the match, British forces – including the notorious auxiliary group known as ‘the Black and Tans’ – had been ordered to Croke Park to search the crowd for IRA sympathisers. 

What exactly happened next is not entirely clear. British forces would later claim that someone in the crowd fired at them; other eyewitnesses said the troops were firing shots even before they entered the sportsground.  The orders from senior British officers had been to search the crowd, but most feel that those present were more interested in revenge. (British forces had staged recriminations before, notably when the town of Balbriggan was looted and burned.)

While the trigger for the shooting at Croke Park is debated, the fact that it resulted in the British forces firing indiscriminately at the crowd is not. Panic ensued, with people rushing to escape the stadium. Some were trampled underfoot. 

My great-grandfather was among those shot – at the bottom of his neck, near the top of his spine. He was seriously injured, but after being pulled out of the crowd and rushed to hospital, he miraculously survived. 

14 other men, women and children did not. 14 were killed or fatally injured in the 90 seconds of shooting.  

Yarra went on to become a renowned Dublin footballer, winning provincial titles for his club. He would play numerous times in Croke Park, where he almost lost his life as a 15-year-old. 

My dad, who lived with his grandfather for 12 years, heard the story of Bloody Sunday a lot as a kid. He grew up with the knowledge that things could have very easily turned out differently. There are 89 people who would never have been born if Yarra had been killed: nine children, 28 grandchildren, 48 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. 

Once grown, and once Yarra had died, my dad began looking for word-of-mouth retellings of the events of Bloody Sunday. The thing about this kind of oral family history is that it can be hard to know how much is fact, and how much is misremembered or exaggerated for dramatic effect.

For example, my dad remembers being told that when his grandfather was taken to Jervis Street hospital, a press photographer arrived. The anecdote goes that the photographer had propped Christopher up on several pillows to get a better picture for the story, for which he was reprimanded by the doctor who later turned up, given how irresponsible it was to move someone who had been injured very close to his spine. 

My dad also searched the National Archives. There, he stumbled on a picture of his 15-year-old grandfather propped up on pillows – just as the story had gone. I remember my dad telling me the same story when I was a kid, by which time he had found the photo and used it to illustrate his words and his own memory. For those of us who never met Yarra, the retelling brings to life people we never knew and a historical moment that could otherwise feel like fiction.

It was only as I grew older than I realised the political significance of this part of my family history. On a youth group trip to Dublin, I recounted it to my peers, and the responses I got were politically loaded – as Irish history itself is, by force. But for me, the telling of histories like this one isn’t about hatred: it’s about survival, which is far more powerful.

As oral histories are passed down, so are feelings and beliefs. As much as any history, this means it should be treated with caution: people on all sides of politics use the emotions of history – particularly hatred – to justify violence against each other. One hundred years on from Bloody Sunday, though, Yarra’s family remembers not with bitterness, but with hope and optimism. Our family continues to thrive because Christopher Duffy lived that day. 

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Niamh Carroll is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.