Tommy Ryan: A Bloody Sunday Witness 192001 Aug 2017
Tommy Ryan: A Bloody Sunday Witness 1920
On the 21st November 1920 the most political Gaelic football match in Irish history began. In a time of growing unrest in Ireland, this was a decisive turning point in the military and political struggle between British forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) . Thirty players lined out on that Sunday afternoon to represent their counties but one player, Tommy Ryan, had been doing more than playing football in recent months.
The assassination of fourteen British Intelligence officers, by Michael Collins’ squad, influenced the British forces to interrupt the Gaelic football challenge match that was to be played in the next few hours between Tipperary and Dublin. In that game, Tipperary’s Tommy Ryan, was lining out at centre-field.
After hearing word of the morning’s executions the Leinster GAA Chairman, Dan McCarthy had to make a decision. The country was expecting a retaliation from the morning attacks and Croke Park would be the first target. However the GAA didn’t want the British forces to link the GAA and the IRA as the same organisation so the match was to go ahead. Ryan was also making the decision whether to return to Tipperary with Dan Breen to avoid trouble or go to the match.
Ryan was commanding a central position in the national movement in Tipperary. His family were part of the Nationalist movement. He resented British control and fell out with his best friend, O Brien from Ballylooby, when he fought for the British army in WW1. At seventeen he was elected ‘Company Captain’ of Tubrid. After receiving a dispatch from Seán Treacy, a highly involved nationalist from Tipperary, they teamed up to show their support for the movement. Ryan climbed to the top floor of the local Protestant church and hung an Irish Tricolour on the topmost pinnicle of the highest steeple. After hanging the flag the top floor collapsed underneath him. It was a week later before the flag got shot down by the British garrison in Cahir. At just nineteen years old this was Ryan’s first showing of strong connections to the IRA.
After the Easter Rising many people condemned the leaders but some young people, including Ryan, held an admiration for the brave men. In April 1917, Treacy went to Tommy Ryan’s village to organise a volunteer unit there. He spent two days going between Tommy Ryan’s home and the home of Ned McGrath of Cahir to organise the sixth Battalion of the IRA. McGrath was appointed Battalion Commandent and Ryan was made Vice President of the third Tipperary Brigade. During this time he began to play football. Ryan didn’t know at the time the impact military action would have on the GAA at 3:15pm on the 21st of November.
McGrath and Ryan spent their time increasing support for their Companies. They went around local parishes encouraging them to set up Volunteer units. They had few arms, some well-wishers did donate shot guns and miscellaneous revolvers, but they needed more support for their organisation to have any influence. The conscription crisis of 1918 helped the men to gain support and their Companies grew from groups of 6-10 people to 60-80 people. The battalion area extended from Newcastle Co.Tipperary along the Galtees into Cahir. By the 1918 elections McGrath had been imprisoned and so Ryan was in charge of the sixth Battalion. It was clear Ryan’s position in the IRA was going from strength to strength.
Tommy Ryan was in contact with the Third Tipperary Brigade and he knew Dan Breen, Sean Treacy and Seamus Robinson well. He was in close contact with these men around the time of Soloheadbeg in 1919. His involvement with the Volunteers was growing and despite suspicions that his house was under surveillence, Ryan continued to live there before he was arrested. He was tried in Clogheen Court and sentenced to three months in prison for his involvement with the Volunteers. In April 1919 he was released and he headed straight to Dungarven where the Tipperary footballers were training. Martial law had been declared in Tipperary so they werent allowed to hold any assemblies in their home county. The British were beginning to link IRA and GAA activity together.
Tommy was commanding officer of the sixth Battalion for the next few years. Whenever Ned McGrath was in jail, Ryan took charge. Ryan was involved in many raids. He was in charge of raids including the ‘Raids on the Mails’, as they were called. At Gormanstown, Tommy and two others held up the local mail car and took all the letters which were meant for the local RIC or other officials. This was to gain information on their activities and to make sure there were no spies in the area. Seán Treacy’s death in October 1920 led to Tommy growing even more involved in the IRA and it was then that Ryan decided he would be willing to die for his country. ‘I felt forced to make the serious and solemn decision that I would die; I said to myself, and to myself only, “For God and Ireland!” and, as I have stated already, when I had registered this solemn vow to myself, I felt extremely happy about it. ‘ S1
Ryan was very involved in the Volunteer movement leading up to Bloody Sunday.The day before the match, the Tipperary team travelled by train to Dublin. On the train there was trouble between the footballers and the RIC. Ryan and his teammates bet the men up and the group of RIC men quickly got off on the next stop. Tommy and his teammates were worried about who would be waiting for them but when they reached their destination nobody was there to arrest them. They scraped their original plan to stay in Barry’s Hotel and scattered among several hotels. Tommy Ryan and Mick Hogan were the two volunteer officers on the Tipperary team and they stayed at Phil Shanahan’s home. There they learned of the plans to execute the British intelligence officers . While they were at Shanahan’s, D.P Walsh came with information about the morning’s mission. He asked Ryan to accompany him down to Shanahan’s cellar where there were revolvers and .45 ammunition held in porter bottles. Ryan helped Walsh carry ammunition to Fleming’s Hotel in Gardiner place. When Ryan returned back to Shanahans after dropping off the guns he volunteered to take part in the mission the next morning. However, somebody had felt nervous about him knowing so much about it and for reasons unknown, he was told the mission had been postponed.
At 11am the next morning Dan Breen sent a message to Ryan saying that he was leaving for Tipperary and he advised Tommy not to go to Croke Park as it wasn’t safe for him. Tommy wouldn’t let his team down and headed to Croke Park.
In an interview years after Bloody Sunday Tommy Ryan gave an account of what he remembered:
‘I was about to take the freekick when a burst of machine-gun and rifle fire occured’ S1
‘The crowd of spectators immediately stampeded. The players also fled from the field in among the sideline spectators, except six of us who threw ourselves down on the ground’ S1
‘The six of us who remained- Hogan and I and four of the Dublin team – were I think all volunteers’ S1
‘It was while Hogan was running from the field to the paling that he got hit by a bullet’ S1
‘Going across to Hogan, I tried to lift him but the blood was spurting from a wound in his back and I knew he was very badly injured’ S1
After leaving Hogan, Ryan ran towards the paling where he narrowly missed being shot. ‘As I reached the paling, I saw one Auxie loading a round into the breech of his rifle and who appeared to be looking in my direction. I dropped to the ground, and a youngster near me fell, which I took to be from the shot that was intended for me.’S1
When Tommy Ryan finally escaped Croke Park he ran to a house in Clonliffe where he thought he was safe but soon after, Black and Tans and Auxilaries surrounded the house. Tommy was knocked to the ground and stripped naked. One Black and Tan was about to shoot him before an officer intervened. He was ordered to bring him back to Croke Park to be shot with the rest of them. Tommy was marched back to Croke Park completely naked and anyone who tried to help him was quickly hit by the RIC ‘A man who was standing with his girl friend, with his hands up, taking pity of my nakedness, threw me a coat, but his thanks for this was a blow from 37. the butt end of a rifle from one of the Auxiliaries’S1 When they reached Croke Park he was lined up against a wall with all the other remaining players. A firing squad stood in front of them. Much to their relief the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans let them go.
Following Bloody Sunday, Tommy Ryan involvement with the Irish Volunteers grew. Tommy returned to Tipperary for Michael Hogans funeral but never returned to his own home. Ryan became a full time Volunteer and joined a flying column. Tommy Ryan was appointed Chief Scout as he knew the countryside the best out of all them and led them in all their missions. He was a part of this flying column right up until the Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921. After this Ryan took the Pro-treaty side and joined the New National Army of the Irish Free State. Declining an appointment of Chief Superintendent of the New Garda Síochána, Lieutenent Colonel Ryan served in the army until the end of World War 2.
Tommy Ryan’s full statement with the Bureau of Military History can be accessed here.
Click here for a video interview with Bill Ryan who played for Tipperary that day.
If you would like to learn more about Bloody Sunday we recommend that you read Michael Foley’s brilliant book on the subject, The Bloodied Field. This can be purchased here.
- Ryan, T. (1953). Bureau of Military History.Statement by Witness. 783 (1), 1-38.
- Michael Foley (2014).The Bloodied Field. Ireland: O’Brien Press. 5-20.
The people behind the superb Twitter account @sportingtipp have just sent us in the match programme from the 1965 commemoration game between Tipperary and Dublin in Croke Park. We wish to thank them for their generosity and would encourage anyone with an interest in Tipperary’s sporting history to follow this fantastic Twitter account.