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Dublin: 10°C Sunday 16 May 2021

'I watched the Brendan Gleeson piece and it hit home' - the making of the 1920 commemoration

Michael Foley and Robert Smith look back at what was a stunning tribute to Bloody Sunday at the weekend.

THERE WERE A few things that inspired the stunning 1920 Bloody Sunday commemoration that took place at Croke Park over the weekend.

brendan-gleeson-speaking-at-the-gaa-bloody-sunday-commemoration-at-croke-park Brendan Gleeson reading out the names of the Bloody Sunday victims at Croke Park. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The pink match ticket which admitted spectators in to watch the fateful challenge match between Tipperary and Dublin was one such example. The tragic events surrounding the Hillsborough disaster were also explored; a similar event where fans went to watch a game of football and 96 of them never came home.

The jerseys that were worn that day 100 years ago in Croke Park were considered too. You may have seen replica versions of Tipperary’s green and white kit this weekend, as the Premier County ended an 85-year wait to win the Munster SFC title.

Michael Foley’s book ‘The Bloodied Field’ was of course, a key research text.

All relevant source material that helped bring about a sensitive, powerful and tasteful recounting of a dark day in GAA history.

But for Robert Smith, who was the producer of the Bloody Sunday tribute on Saturday night, light was at heart of his vision for the spectacle. It became a major theme across the country as GAA people paid their respects to the 14 people who were needlessly killed.

“We’re great at lighting our candles in our windows at Christmas time,” Smith tells The42 as he discusses the making of the commemoration. 

“I was looking at the stadium like a cathedral and a Colosseum. It’s like our worship or church and in a church, there’s a very private place where you can lay a candle or light some incense. And there’s always one of those places where you can have reflect and pray.

“That’s why the quadrant was that little corner. It’s not a shrine but it was near Michael Hogan and wasn’t far from Jane Boyle. who died at the halfway line.

“I suppose it’s my Catholic background, light a candle.”

Crowds are prohibited from attending events at the moment, but ‘The Bloodied Field’ author Foley was among the few who watched the commemoration in Croke Park.

Telling the story of what happened when British paramilitary forces stormed Jones’ Road and murdered 14 innocent people has been a big project for Foley since around 2011. That’s when he first started putting the pieces in place that would eventually lead to a published book.

On the day of the commemoration, Foley found himself strolling around Dublin city with his wife, Karen, before heading to GAA headquarters for the main event. The ceremony was being televised by RTÉ and Foley was on co-commentary duty with Darragh Moloney.

Foley passed by some locations that featured on Bloody Sunday, including Barry’s Hotel where the Tipperary team started their journey to Croke Park for the game.

john-horan-places-a-wreath-during-the-gaa-bloody-sunday-commemoration-at-croke-park GAA president John Horan placing a wreath at Croke Park. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

When asked for his highlight moment from the evening, the subject of light comes up again.

“I saw a picture from outside the ground of the lights shooting up into the sky, and they were incredible. It looked amazing, just these columns of light going into the sky.

“Just listening to Brendan Gleeson read out the stories. I was sitting beside Darragh Maloney and I could sense Darragh looking over at me, and my head was down in my hands a little bit for one or two of the stories. I wasn’t crying, but it was like, ‘Wow, the power of these stories.’”

Hollywood actor Brendan Glesson spoke beautifully at the foot of Hill 16 as he read out the names of all of the victims, along with some information about how they died that day. Croke Park was bathed in darkness throughout, with a flame emerging for each individual.

All 14 flames remained lit for the Leinster SFC final between Dublin and Meath that followed the commemoration. It was a powerful sight, almost as if the 14 were there watching the Dubs march to victory from the front row.

Smith says he was intent on booking the “national treasure” Gleeson for the night. Gleeson was honoured to accept the invitation.

He treated the night with the utmost care and delivered a stirring performance with the nation watching on. It was all a bit surreal for Foley.

“The fact that we can speak to the families through the television almost to say, ‘We’re here with you,’ Foley says eloquently. 

That was what was on my mind when Brendan Gleeson was reading. I found that almost unreal. It was like, ‘I’m watching this but I’m not really sure what I’m feeling.’ I got the train down to Cork and I watched the Brendan Gleeson piece, and then it really hit home.

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“Just the way it looked, the way it felt. People have been really nice about the script and said really nice things, but I think it was a culmination of so much effort of so many people. The amount of schools, individuals and clubs who have either sent on pictures or got in touch about doing projects or putting the lights on – that just blew me.

“It was way beyond what I expected.”

The production work for the Bloody Sunday tribute began two years ago, according to Smith. It’s been a long time in the making but the eventual product that beamed through our TV sets is close to what they originally envisaged for the night.

Of course, some segments couldn’t be retained until the end. Smith wanted to fire a flare into the sky at the start of the ceremony, to recreate a moment from 1920 when a plane flew over Croke Park. It was, he says, an unusual sight for that time.

They also wanted to play a re-imagined version of the Dublin v Tipperary game 100 years ago.

We were going to finish the challenge game from 1920,” Smith explains. “We were going to start it 10 minutes into the game. We were going to start with a free kick where Michael [Hogan] was shot, towards the Davin stand. And we were going to continue from that point.

“None of that happened. The whole retro strips were all designed and ready to be printed.

“It was going to be two 30 minutes aside, 10 minutes break and then all those players were going to come down to the quadrant area of the hill and create a guard of honour for the piece we actually saw. Most of it happened except that game.

“Alan Brogan and Declan Browne represented that game.”

a-view-of-the-bloody-sunday-commemorative-jersey-being-worn-by-tipperary The Tipperary players wearing commemorative jerseys for their Munster final against Cork. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Everything slotted into place on Saturday night. Wreaths were laid to pay respect to those who paid the ultimate price for the simple desire to go and watch a game of football.

A touching video was played to honour them as well, while an exquisite choice of music left Smith feeling emotional about it all.

“When I listen to the music now, I just start crying. To me, if you listen to that music, it’s so brilliant. Just the way it lifts and builds and then there’s real sorrow in it. It’s just sad.

“And then I come back to the thing where someone’s at a bloody game, a cultural event and the guys come in and start shooting them.”

You’ve probably heard by now how things remarkably came full circle this weekend in the football championship. Tipperary honoured those who played in that game 100 years ago by stunning Cork to capture the Munster crown.

Up north, Cavan defied the odds as well to become Ulster football champions for the first time since 1997. They now progress to the All-Ireland semi-finals alongside Dublin and Mayo.

Incredibly, it’s the same line-up of teams who reached the final four in the 1920 championship.

The final word goes to Foley to sum up what was a historic weekend for the GAA.

“It’s mad, just mad. I’ve had a lot of contact with Tipperary football over the last 20 odd years through work and I’ve always found that Tipperary people have kept that thing going. It’s a generational thing. David Power was born into Tipp football.

“Bloody Sunday, the centenary, the white and green jersey – it’s hugely significant. I think Conor Sweeney put it absolutely right, it’s something they can cherish now.

The madness of the four 100 years later. I’m looking forward to the Dublin v Cavan game, as it was in 1920, being called off at very short notice and then being reconvened at about two days notice,” he laughs.


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