| 3°C Belfast

Family ties revealed in search for truth about 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre

Karina Leeson had set out to learn more about the death of the 11-year-old great-grand-uncle she never knew.

Close

(Family handout/PA)

(Family handout/PA)

(Family handout/PA)

A search for the truth about the death of the 11-year-old great-grand-uncle she never knew led one woman to reconnect with family all over the world.

The death of William Robinson was known about in Karina Leeson’s family, but rarely discussed.

Her father Mark was raised by his grandfather Patrick Robinson, who was nine when his older brother William was shot outside Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, November 21 1920.

Ms Leeson told the PA news agency: “The whole family, everyone knew that this happened. But nobody really knew the full story of it.

“It was never spoken of, really. It was known, but never spoken about in the family.”

Close

Michael Collins (PA)

Michael Collins (PA)

PA

Michael Collins (PA)

A few years ago, with the centenary of Bloody Sunday approaching, Ms Leeson decided to find out the real story behind William’s death.

“When my dad was talking to me about it, I had to go and find out more. I had to piece it all together” she said.

This weekend marks the centenary of Bloody Sunday, one of the darkest chapters in the violent birth of the Irish Republic.

On the morning of November 21 1920, revolutionary leader Michael Collins directed an assassination unit known as “The Squad” to take out the core of the British government’s intelligence operations in Ireland.

The shootings took place in Dublin’s south inner-city and resulted in 14 deaths, including six intelligence agents and two members of the British Auxiliary Force, or the Black and Tans, as they were known.

Some of those killed were shot in front of their wives and children. The IRA expected reprisals, but nobody could have foreseen what unfolded.

A crowd of 10,000 spectators had gathered that day to watch a Gaelic football challenge match between Tipperary and Dublin at Croke Park, the home of the GAA.

Close

Croke Park in 2020 (Damien Eagers/PA)

Croke Park in 2020 (Damien Eagers/PA)

PA

Croke Park in 2020 (Damien Eagers/PA)

The British forces, believing IRA men to be in the ground, set up a cordon and planned a stop-and-search operation.

As the game got under way, police trucks crossed the bridge over the canal and made their way towards the ground.

Five minutes after the match began, with the game still scoreless, shots began to ring out in the stadium. The 90 seconds of gunfire claimed 14 victims – Tipperary footballer Michael Hogan and 13 spectators.

Close

Michael Hogan, for whom the Hogan Stand at Croke Park was named, was killed on the pitch on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

Michael Hogan, for whom the Hogan Stand at Croke Park was named, was killed on the pitch on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

Michael Hogan, for whom the Hogan Stand at Croke Park was named, was killed on the pitch on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

The first to be killed was 11-year-old William Robinson, perched on a tree outside, trying to catch a glimpse of the game.

Ms Leeson said: “From the records in the military inquiry, he was actually shot in the front. He was shot in the chest and out through the back of his shoulder.

“It looks like the positioning where he would have been, he was probably turning to look back towards the canal bridge where the trucks had come up along that way.”

The records from the military inquiry were sealed until 1999.

Ms Leeson began tracking down every bit of information she could find about William, aided by groundbreaking work done by journalist Michael Foley in his book The Bloody Field.

Her search led her to long-lost relatives in places as far apart as Canada and London, until eventually she found a picture of her great-grand-uncle.

Close

Family photo of William Robinson (Family handout/PA)

Family photo of William Robinson (Family handout/PA)

PA

Family photo of William Robinson (Family handout/PA)

At the time of her search, her own son was 10, just a year younger than William.

“I found it quite difficult. There was many tears reading through things. I had spent the last few years trying to track down different extended family members that I wouldn’t know to see if anybody had a photo of William, we were never able to find any.

“But just a few months ago we managed to make contact with a relative in London. He had a photo. I can’t explain the feelings when I saw the photo. I burst into tears.

“I had given up, I never thought we’d find one. Especially this year, to find it this year with the commemoration coming up was amazing.”

Close

Karina Leeson, from Midleton in Cork, has revealed her search for answers about her great-granduncle William Robinson, the first person killed on Bloody Sunday 1920, aged 11.

Karina Leeson, from Midleton in Cork, has revealed her search for answers about her great-granduncle William Robinson, the first person killed on Bloody Sunday 1920, aged 11.

Karina Leeson, from Midleton in Cork, has revealed her search for answers about her great-granduncle William Robinson, the first person killed on Bloody Sunday 1920, aged 11.

She believes her family has found the issue so difficult to discuss partly because it was compounded by other family tragedies, all tied to the fight for Irish freedom.

Four weeks before Bloody Sunday, William’s uncle was shot and killed in the streets of Dublin by men identifying themselves as Republican police.

A year later, in the first week of the Civil War, another uncle, who was 16, was shot and killed while walking home from his job as a labourer.

But Ms Leeson believes her search for answers has had a healing effect, and brought her family closer together.

We have a group chat there now of relatives that we haven't even met in person yet, but we have gotten in contact with through all thisKarina Leeson

She said: “It’s great to see an account being made of what happened so that this can be passed on to future generations. That the victims have been given a name and given their story, rather that it being kept quiet and never spoken of.

“It’s also brought a lot of our family members together, relatives that we didn’t know we had.

“We have a group chat there now of relatives that we haven’t even met in person yet, but we have gotten in contact with through all this.”

The centenary is also an important moment for the GAA. For many years, the Hogan stand at Croke Park has been the only memorial to the victims of Bloody Sunday.

The GAA’s Cian Murphy said: “The problem with Bloody Sunday in Croke Park is that it had become a footnote in history.”

The association has spent the last five years putting that right, starting with eight of the victims who were buried in unmarked graves.

Close

The GAA unveiled headstones on the unmarked graves of three of the victims of the Bloody Sunday shootings at Croke Park in 1920 (Brian Lawless/PA)

The GAA unveiled headstones on the unmarked graves of three of the victims of the Bloody Sunday shootings at Croke Park in 1920 (Brian Lawless/PA)

PA

The GAA unveiled headstones on the unmarked graves of three of the victims of the Bloody Sunday shootings at Croke Park in 1920 (Brian Lawless/PA)

Working with Mr Foley, families and relatives have been identified, and proper gravestones have been erected in their memory.

“Their details got lost. That definitely wasn’t something that happened by design. We had an opportunity to go back and address that and that’s what we’ve done,” Mr Murphy said.

Close

The Dublin GAA football team who took to the pitch at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

The Dublin GAA football team who took to the pitch at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

The Dublin GAA football team who took to the pitch at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920.

On Saturday President Michael D Higgins will lay a wreath at Croke Park and torches will be lit to commemorate the victims ahead of the Leinster Final.

Although events have been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Murphy believes the real objective will have been achieved.

“The real key objective of all this has happened, to a large extent. People know about a little boy sitting in a tree. They know about a boy on someone’s back.

“They know about Patrick O’Dowd, who was a heroic figure, who when the shooting started and people ran for their life, he climbed the wall. People know about this man now who straddled the wall in Croke Park, and pulled other people up until he himself was shot fatally in the head.

“We can always play a match. We can always light torches. But the real duty of care is to make sure people aren’t forgotten.”

He paid tribute to Mr Foley, saying: “He deserves enormous credit, and there’s a debt there to him. Because these people needed a champion, and they got one in Michael Foley.”

PA


Privacy