"'I have paid them back in their own coin.' Meanwhile, the British authorities raged through Dublin, looking for 'the murderer' Michael Collins. It was the fury of the impotent." Ulick O'Connor
A group of Britain's finest intelligence agents said to be handpicked by Winston Churchill himself came to Ireland for the express purpose of snuffing out Collins and his Twelve Apostles. Terry Golway makes an interesting observation regarding Lloyd George's confidence in Britain's ability to stop Collins:
"Lloyd George had commented shortly before Bloody Sunday that Britain had 'murder by the throat' in Ireland. It was a premature assessment, for on Sunday morning, November 21, Michael Collins sent his team of killers into action. Within a matter of hours, a horrified Dublin Castle realized that its counter-intelligence operation no longer existed. Murder, in fact, had Britain by the throat. Twelve British intelligence officers were executed, some of them shot in front of their wives while in bed. It was brutal, ruthless, and classic Michael Collins. He was rewriting the rules of warfare, anticipating the day when information was as important as territory and armament. He was also rewriting history, avenging long-dead Fenians done in by Britain's spies and informers. In the British press, the mysterious Michael Collins was condemned as a murderous gangster and a vicious terrorist― the sort of man one does not invite to the negotiating table. Churchill contended that Britain would never 'surrender to a miserable gang of cowardly assassins' likening them to 'the human leopards of West Africa.' When the extent of the horror became apparent that Sunday afternoon, a troop of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans made their way to Croke Park, a sports stadium in Dublin and the site of an Irish football match... The troops opened fire on the crowd, spraying bullets at random. Fourteen people, including one player, were killed. Hundreds more were wounded."
The Black and Tans were also sent to instate a kind of martial law in Ireland as a means of squelching the rebellions. As fighting and brutality continued, both sides lost men and Collins was faced with the task of exterminating Churchill's elite. Before they could find Collins, the group of spies had already been placed on Michael's hit-list. He sent out his boys to shoot each of the agents before they accumulated too much data. With help from his own double agent G-men, Collins had the names, addresses, and favorite spots of the targets. On November 21, 1920, Michael's Apostles were to go out around dawn and strike from the crowd. They did just that and rather successfully. The British operatives were expunged and, in retaliation, the Black and Tans spent hours shooting at spectators who had been innocently taking in a game at Croke Park. This day would be known as Bloody Sunday.
"The hit-men were all young, just out of their teens, and probably regarded their assignment as a great adventure, though Michael controlled them rigorously. They were sworn to abjure alcohol and had to keep at the peak of physical fitness. Very strict rules were laid down for the shootings, both in the way they were carried out and in the care to avoid injury to innocent civilians. Michael regarded assassination as a last resort, and only after repeated warnings was a policeman targeted. … Michael was at pains to explain that the execution of policemen was a political act and must at all times be seen to be so. It was very important that the Squad should regard themselves as an elite force, a band of knights fighting a just war by the only method open to them" (James MacKay).
The significance of this event goes far beyond its pivotal role in the Irish struggle for independence; it served as a catalyst for the fall of Britain's mighty empire. Author Ulick O'Connor comments on this phenomenon:
"Not only was Bloody Sunday to mark the end of Britain's rule in the greater part of Ireland, it was to be the beginning of the break-up of British rule throughout the Empire..."
In the film Michael Collins, Neil Jordan was faced with the task of depicting Bloody Sunday in a brief, but effective, thirty-second increment. How could he accurately show the intensity of the situation, the horror of the spectators at Croke Park, and the inflated reaction of the Black and Tan troops in such a short time? Condensing any full day's events into a half-minute block would be tough, but Bloody Sunday? A true challenge. Jordan comments that his version of the events, poignant though it is, is not even close to the terror of reality:
"What they (the Black and Tans) did in many ways was kind of worse in a way― they scaled the walls and, you know, locked all the exits, closed all the exits and kept the people in there for the best part of a day, you know, firing and picking them off for an entire day. So, it would have been, the reality would have been probably more terrifying (than the film's quick depiction)."
Collins relied on the exaggerated reactions of the British. He knew that the harder the British forces pushed, the more Irish support the IRA would gain. Michael's own reaction to Bloody Sunday is perhaps most telling:
"Collins himself had no doubt that he had done the right thing. Later he was to write: 'My one intention was the destruction of the undesirables who had continued to make miserable the lives of ordinary, decent citizens. I have proof enough to assure myself of the atrocities which this gang of spies and informers have committed. Perjury and torture are words too easily known to them. If I had a second motive, it was no more than a feeling such as I would have for a dangerous reptile. By their destruction the very air is made sweeter. That should be the future's judgment on this particular event. For myself, my conscience is clear. There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and the informer. I have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.' Meanwhile, the British authorities raged through Dublin, looking for 'the murderer' Michael Collins. It was the fury of the impotent" (Ulick O'Connor).