Remembering journalist killed on Bloody Sunday, 1920

Irish journalist Austin F. Cowley was shot dead by a military sentry on the evening of Nov. 21, 1920, at Navan, Co. Meath, hours after the “Bloody Sunday” killings in Dublin. The victim was deaf and did not hear three orders to halt from the sentry put “on the alert and on edge” by the earlier events.1

Cowley is the only journalist among 270 Irish citizens killed by British forces from Jan. 1, 1920 to Feb. 28, 1921, as listed in “The Struggles of the Irish People”, a plea for help presented by Dail Eireann to the U.S. Congress.2 Journalists in Ireland were certainly targets of intimidation and violence during the War of Independence period, 1919 to 1921, whether from British military and police authorities, or the IRA; but no others appear to have been killed.

Cowley was a “well-known sporting journalist … [whose] special forte was hunting and cricket.”3 His profession was noted on both the 1901 and 1911 census household returns. Those records also show he was slightly older than the 62-67 year range given in 1920 news reports and military records. A bachelor, he was “a splendid musician” and “popular with all classes, including the military.”4 [I have not been able to find a photo of Cowley.]

The Workhouse site on 1912 map.

The victim was the son of John Cowley, master of the Union Workhouse and Infirmary at Navan, where he continued to live after his father’s death in 1911. The South Wales Borderers stationed there in November 1920. As Ultan Courtney writes:

Earlier that day the Guard Commander had warned the sentry to keep an eye on the gate in consequence of a report of trouble in Dublin. This involved the shooting of 13 British Intelligence agents and the reprisal killings of 16 civilians at Croke Park and three IRA prisoners in Dublin Castle. The sentry would have been both on the alert and on edge as military patrols and checkpoints were set up in Navan and Dunshaughlin. … A Sergeant Major of the SWBs gave evidence that the sentry was perfectly calm and did not seem to have lost his head.5

Official notation of Austin Francis Cowley’s Nov. 21, 1920, shooting death for “failing to halt.” Courts of Inquiry In Lieu of Inquest, Register of Cases. Army of Ireland Records, Easter Rising & Ireland Under Martial Law 1916-1921. WO 35/162. The National Archives, Kew.

Cowley’s death was reported in dozens of U.S. newspapers, including the Boston Globe, New York Herald, Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. The brief accounts emphasized both his deafness and his role as a journalist. There might have been heightened sensitivity about his profession from a police threat to kill Hugh Martin of the Daily News, London, a few weeks earlier in Tralee, Co. Kerry. The episode drew international press attention, such as this Nov. 6, 1920, special cable:

Despite all efforts that have been made in and out of Parliament to create the impression that there has been a marked improvement in condition in Ireland … the majority of the newspapers insist that the situation there was never worse. … The threat against the life of Hugh Martin, English newspaper correspondent, who has been writing highly critical articles regarding the actions of the Black and Tans, has kept attention focused on Ireland that might otherwise have dwindled after [Terence] MacSwiney’s death. Now comes a striking editorial article in the New Statesman appealing to the American press to send over an army of its most trusted correspondents large enough to cover every county in Ireland.6

Parliament debated the press’s role in Ireland a few days after Cowley’s death and the more notorious events of “Bloody Sunday.” Liberal Party leader and former Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and others praised Martin and the international press for its reporting from the troubled island. Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood sought to undermine Martin’s reporting, but also insisted “he or any other pressman will be welcome to Ireland.”7

Headline from Nov. 22, 1920.

The digital Newseum’s Journalists Memorial pays tribute to 2,344 reporters, photographers, and broadcasters from around the world who have died while reporting the news. Lyra McKee’s 2019 death in Derry is the most recent of 11 Irish journalists in the searchable database.

The accidental nature of Cowley’s death and the fact that he was not actively reporting on the war probably excludes him from this listing. I have inquired about adding his name and details. The physical museum closed Dec. 31, 2019, and it is unclear whether emails are being answered.

  1. Courtney, Ultan. The Tin Hats, The South Wales Borderers in County Meath 1920-22, Published by Ultan Courtney, 2018, pp 172-73. Accessed via Academia.edu, Oct. 24, 2020; and “Death of Mr. Cowley”, Freeman’s Journal, Nov. 23, 1920.
  2. “The Struggles of the Irish People”, Address to Congress of the United States, Adopted January 1921 Session of Dail Eireann, See “List of 270 Irish Citizens Murdered By English Forces in Ireland … Jan. 1, 1920-Feb. 28, 1921” , p. 25. Presented in the U.S. Senate on May 2, 1921, and recorded in Senate Documents, Vol. 9, 67th Congress, First Session, April 11-Nov. 23, 1921, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1921.
  3. “Failed To Hear Challenge”, Freeman’s Journal, Nov. 22, 1920.
  4. FJ, Nov. 23, 1920, Note 1.
  5. Courtney, Tin Hats, pp 172-73.
  6. “Erin Situation Worse British Press Asserts”, Baltimore Sun, Nov. 7, 1920.
  7. Walsh, Maurice, The News From Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008, pp.74-75, and 87-90.

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