Bloody Sunday or Belfast’s Bloody Sunday was a day of violence in Belfast on 10 July 1921, during the Irish War of Independence. In retaliation for an IRA ambush of a police raiding party, Protestant loyalists attacked Catholic enclaves, burning homes and businesses. This sparked gun battles between republican and loyalist paramilitaries, and street fighting between Catholics and Protestants. There was also shooting between republicans and police, and it is claimed that some police patrols fired indiscriminately at Catholic civilians. Seventeen people were killed on 10 July, and a further eleven were killed or fatally wounded over the following week. At least 100 people were injured. About 200 houses were badly damaged or destroyed, leaving 1,000 people homeless. The violence took place just before a truce came into effect, which ended the war in most of Ireland.
Belfast saw almost 500 people die in political violence from 1920–22. Violence in the city broke out in the summer of 1920, when — in response to the IRA shooting dead RIC Detective Oswald Swanzy after Sunday services outside a Protestant church in nearby Lisburn — 7,000 Catholics and some Protestant trade unionists—were driven from their jobs in the Belfast shipyards and more than 50 people were killed in rioting between Catholics and Protestants.
However, violence in Belfast waned until the following summer of 1921. At the time, Irish republican and British authorities were negotiating a Truce to end the war, but fighting flared up in Belfast. On 10 June, an IRA gunman, Jack Donaghy, ambushed three RIC constables on the Falls Road, fatally wounding one, Thomas Conlon, a Roman Catholic from Co Roscommon, who, ironically, was viewed as “sympathetic” to the local nationalists. Over the following three days, at least 14 people lost their lives and 14 wounded in fighting in the city, including three Catholics who were taken from their homes and killed by uniformed police.
Low-level attacks continued in the city over the next month until another major outbreak of violence that led to “Bloody Sunday”. On 8 July, the RIC attempted to carry out searches in the mainly Catholic and republican enclave around Union and Stanhope streets. However, they were confronted by about 15 IRA volunteers in an hour-long firefight.
On 9 July a truce to suspend the war was agreed in Dublin between representatives of the Irish Republic and the British government, to come into effect at noon on 11 July. Many Protestants/Unionists condemned the truce as a ‘sell-out’ to republicans.
On the night of 9/10 July, hours after the truce was announced, the RIC attempted to launch a raid in the Lower Falls district of west Belfast. Scouts alerted the IRA of the raid by blowing whistles, banging bin lids and flashing a red light. On Raglan Street, a unit of about 14 IRA volunteers ambushed an armoured police truck, killing one officer and wounding at least two others.
This sparked an outbreak of ferocious fighting between Catholics and Protestants in west Belfast the following day, Sunday 10 July, in which 16 civilians (11 Catholics and 5 Protestants) lost their lives and between 161 and 200 houses were destroyed. Of the houses destroyed, 150 were owned by Catholics. Most of the dead were civilians and at least four of the Catholic victims were ex-WWI servicemen.
Protestants, “fearful of absorption into a Green, Catholic Ireland and blindly angered by the presence of heresy and treason in their midst, struck at the Catholic community” while “vengeful Catholics struck back with counter-terror”. Gun battles raged all day along the sectarian ‘boundary’ between the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill districts and rival gunmen used rifles, machine guns and hand grenades in the clashes. Gunmen were seen firing from windows, rooftops and street corners. A “loyalist mob, several thousand strong” attempted to storm the Falls district, carrying petrol and other flammable materials.
A tram travelling from the Falls into the city centre was struck by snipers’ bullets, and the service had to be suspended. The Irish News reported that the Falls district was “in a state of siege”. The New York Times characterised the clashes as “a three-fold fight between Sinn Féin and Unionist snipers and Crown forces”. It added, “In the extent of material damage to property, Sunday’s rioting can be compared to the Dublin Rising in 1916”.
Catholics and republicans claimed that police—mostly from the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC)—drove through Catholic enclaves in armoured cars firing indiscriminately at houses and bystanders. A 13-year-old Catholic girl was shot dead by USC officers firing from an armoured car. The inquest into her death concluded that they had “deliberately” shot the girl and added: “In the interests of peace, Special Constabulary should not be allowed into localities of people of opposite denominations”. William Baxter (a 12-year-old Protestant boy) and Ernest Park (a 16-year-old) were shot dead by nationalist snipers. The police returned to their barracks late on Sunday night, allegedly after a ceasefire had been agreed by telephone between a senior RIC officer and the commander of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, Roger McCorley.
The truce was due to come into effect at midday on Monday 11 July, but violence resumed that morning. Three people were shot dead that day, including an IRA volunteer who was shot minutes before midday. In the north the official truce did not end the fighting. IRA members later recalled, “The Truce was not observed by either side in the north”, while McCorley said the truce in Belfast “lasted six hours only”. While the IRA was involved in the violence, it did not control the actions of the Catholic community. An IRA officer reported that “the Catholic mob is almost beyond control”. Tuesday 12 July saw the Orange Order’s yearly Twelfth marches pass off peacefully and there were no serious disturbances in the city. However, sporadic violence resumed on Wednesday, and by the end of the week 28 people in all had been killed or fatally wounded in Belfast.
At the time the day was referred to as “Belfast’s Bloody Sunday”. However the title of “Bloody Sunday”, is now more commonly given in Ireland to events in Dublin in November 1920 or Derry in January 1972.
A strict curfew was enforced in Belfast after the violence, to try to ensure the Orange Order’s 12 July marches passed off peacefully. Directly after the violence, on 11 July, the Commandant of the IRA’s 2nd Northern Division, Eoin O’Duffy, was sent to Belfast by the organization’s leadership in Dublin to liaise with the British authorities there and try to maintain the truce. He said, “I found the city in a veritable state of war. The peal of rifles could be heard on all sides, frenzied mobs at every street corner, terror-stricken people rushing for their lives, and ambulances carrying the dead and dying to hospitals.”
O’Duffy set up headquarters in St Mary’s Hall in Belfast city centre and made contact with British forces and the press. With the tacit consent of the RIC, he organized IRA patrols to try to restore order in Catholic areas and announced that IRA action would cease except in self-defence. Both Protestants and Catholics saw the truce as a victory for republicans. Protestant unionists “were particularly appalled by the sight of policemen and soldiers meeting IRA officers on a semi-official basis”. However, in Belfast this temporary ceasefire only lasted until the end of August.
The violence of the period in Belfast was cyclical, and the events of July 1921 were followed by a lull until a three-day period starting on 29 August, when another 20 lives were lost in the west and north of the city. The conflict in Belfast between the IRA and Crown forces and between Catholics and Protestants continued until the following summer, when the northern IRA was left isolated by the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in the south and weakened by the rigorous enforcement of internment in Northern Ireland.