by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc (for the Irish Story)
Tens of thousands of people from Ireland and all over the world flock to Glasnevin Cemetary every year to visit the final resting place of Michael Collins. Although Collins’ grave attracts a steady stream of visitors all year round the numbers peak each August in order to mark the anniversary of Collin’s death. With the 22nd of August (2012) being the 90th Anniversary of that event the crowds were reportedly much larger than usual.
Five days after Collins’ anniversary a crowd of about 150 people went to Glasnevin Cemetary for a very different commemoration. They were there to attend a ceremony commemorating the men who had served the British Crown as policemen in Ireland - namely the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP).
The event was organised by two retired members of An Garda Síochana who stated that their aim was “to mark the ending of these police forces and to commemorate the over-500 other police officers who were murdered by the IRA during and after the War of Independence and in 1916” The organisers went on to assure people that they did not wish to denigrate the role of those who fought for Irish independence - however the fact that they had already denounced the republican veterans of the 1916 Rising and War of Independence as “murderers” effectively rendered this assurance null and void. A flurry of letters in favour of, and opposed to, the commemoration were written to local and national newspapers and several republican counter-demonstrations were organised to coincide with the event. The RIC commemoration received significant media attention and Gardaí were on duty for the occasion. So what was all the fuss about?
The idea for an RIC commemoration appears to have originated with Chris Ryder a journalist and author of a book on the RUC. Ryder wrote an opinion piece in The Irish Times last year. In Ryder’s opinion an RIC commemoration was long overdue; “In the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s ground breaking visit to the Republic and the equal recognition now so properly afforded to Irish citizens who fought for Irish freedom and those who chose to fight and die in two world wars in a British uniform …It would be unforgiveable if the memory of the RIC continues to be excluded from the process of reconciliation.” Ryder’s article was entitled: “Time to remember place of the RIC in the history of Ireland”. The problem for Ryder, and those who went on to organise the RIC Commemoration is that the RIC are widely remembered throughout Ireland, but for the wrong reasons - namely the activities of the ‘Black and Tans’.
The RIC had a long history stretching back to the Irish Constabulary Act of 1836 which amalgamated several different local policing bodies. For much of it’s history the force performed similar duties to any other police force; solving crimes, keeping the peace, protecting and serving the public - along with the specific Irish difficulties posed by poaching and the illicit distillation of poteen! What made the RIC different to other police forces was the political situation in Ireland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and in particular the RIC’s role as a political police force. The RIC was a paramilitary police force modeled on British army’s rifle brigades. It was in effect the mainstay of British rule in Ireland. The RIC’s rules, regulations and conditions differed significantly from those of other British police forces. The force had been granted the prefix “Royal” as a reward for its role in suppressing the 1867 Fenian Rising.
The makeup of the force mirrored closely the division of Irish society under British rule. Although the majority of the force’s recruits were Catholic, positions of power of authority within the RIC were very largely reserved almost exclusively for Protestant Unionists who made up a disproportionate number of RIC officers during the forces existence. Many of these officers were the sons of local landowners so it is unsurprising therefore that the RIC was frequently called upon to enforce the writ of the landlords. Long before the arrival of the ‘Black and Tans’ the RIC was already unpopular in many districts due to the role it had played in evictions and agrarian disputes. As well as its role in suppressing republican insurrection, the RIC were also tasked with reporting and countering any threat to the political and social status quo. They monitored the activities of the Suffragettes, Labour organisers and Trade Unionists throughout Ireland. The DMP in particular effectively served as an employer’s police force in Dublin during the ‘1913 Lock Out’ and were accused of using excessive force to break the strike. On 31st August 1913 - the first ‘Bloody Sunday’ (sadly Ireland has had several) the DMP baton charged a strike meeting in Sackville Street Dublin killing at least two people and wounding scores of others.
Many of those who joined the force were ignorant of its political role in suppressing rebellion, and preserving the sectarian and elitist social order. According to Thomas Fennell, a former RIC Head Constable who served in the force between 1875 and 1905; “Recruits generally were the sons of small farmers, with a sprinkling of policeman’s sons. … They had no knowledge whatsoever of Irish history nor had their parents, and they were absolutely in the dark as to the purpose of this force, beyond the preservation of peace and order, like every other police force ... Young men went on thoughtlessly year after year, having a much improved position in life carrying out what seemed to them the ordinary duties of a police force, … it was only after ten or twelve years that they began to see that this force was specially organised and equipped to sustain landlordism and keep the people in subjugation.”
Had the organisers of the recent RIC Commemoration sought to commemorate what was dubbed the “Old RIC” or “Regular RIC” (ie the men who served in the RIC before the Irish War of Independence) it is unlikely that the commemoration would have attracted such controversy. Most people who have studied Irish history will be aware that there was a huge difference between the type of police work carried out by the unarmed members of the DMP’s A to F Divisions whose members investigated burglaries, inspected pawnbrokers licences and checked vehicle registrations, and the armed secret police of the DMP’s G Division who monitored ‘political crime’ and identified, and picked out, the leaders of the 1916 Rising for execution.
The RIC Commemoration at Glasnevin however seemed to focus inordinately upon those members of the force, including the ‘Black and Tans’ and RIC Auxiliaries, killed during the War of Independence. Theses men were fighting to impose British rule in Ireland at a time when the Irish people had voted overwhelmingly for independence, and had established an independent Irish Government and state. The organisers of the RIC Commemoration told the media that they had gone to Glasnevin “to pray for the souls of the 549 members of the RIC and the 14 members of the DMP who were killed between Easter Monday 1916 and the disbandment of the RIC in August 1922.” Many of the RIC members killed during the War of Independence were ‘Black and Tans’ and RIC Auxiliaries who had been responsible for a campaign of torture, arson attacks and reprisal killings.
Perhaps the most grotesque example of a reprisal killing committed by either the ‘Black and Tans’ or Auxiliaries during the War of Independence were the killings of Patrick and Harry Loughnane, two IRA Volunteers who were killed by members of D Company of the RIC’s Auxiliary Division in November 1920. The Loughnane brothers were arrested in daylight at their family home at Shanaglish, Co. Galway on the 26th November 1920. Their partially burned and mutilated bodies were discovered in a pond near Ardrahan on 5th December that year. The two brothers had been tied to the back of an R.I.C. lorry and forced to run behind it until they collapsed from exhaustion and were dragged along the road. Both of Pat’s wrists, legs and arms were broken. His skull was fractured and there were diamond shaped wounds, resembling the cap badge worn by the RIC Auxiliaries, carved into his torso. Harry’s body was missing two fingers; his right arm was broken and nearly severed from his body. Nothing was left of Harry’s face except for his chin and lips. A doctor who examined the Loughnane’s bodies stated that the cause of death was “laceration of the skull and the brain.” The attached photographs of the brothers’ bodies at the time of their discovery show some of the horrific injuries they suffered. The same month that the Loughnane brothers were killed, members of the RIC in Galway also killed a pregnant woman and a Catholic priest. In light of these killings it is worth asking if a demarcation should have be drawn by the organisers of the RIC Commemoration between the perpetrators of these acts and others in the RIC who would have been disgusted by them?
Traditionally foreign members of the ‘Black and Tans’ were blamed for the odious reputation the RIC earned during the War of Independence. Whilst this narrative suited many nationalist historians and Irish veterans of the RIC it is not true. The reality is that whilst a very large number of Irish members of the RIC were abhorred by the actions of the British forces from 1916 onwards and resigned from the force in record numbers, some of the Irishmen who chose to remain in the RIC were responsible for some of the worst acts committed by the British forces. For example Thomas McCurtain the Mayor of Cork, was shot dead in front of his family on the 20th March 1920. Although Mc Curtain’s assassination is often attributed to English members of the ‘Black and Tans’ it was actually carried out by Irish members of the RIC. (It is worth noting that McCurtain was not the only public figure assassinated by the RIC during the conflict - The Mayor of Limerick Seoirse Clancy and his predecessor as Mayor, Michael O’Callaghan, were killed along with and a third republican, Joseph O’Donoghue, on the same night in March 1921 by members of the RIC.)
Sergeant James Horan, a native of Mayo was a notorious figure in Limerick City in the 1920’s. He had been involved in a number of controversial shootings in the city including the killings of five members of the IRA who were captured at Caherguillamore House on 27th December 1920. Horan also took part in the shooting of I.R.A. Volunteer Henry Clancy at Ballysimon in Limerick on 1st May 1921 and three days later shot another IRA Volunteer named Michael Downey whilst he attended Clancy’s funeral. In addition to shooting these members of the IRA Horan was also responsible for the killing of two teenage brothers, Cecil and Aidan O’Donovan who had no connections to the IRA or Sinn Féin and were searching for birds nests at Blackwater Mill in Clonlara when they were fired on, without warning, and killed by a detachment of ‘Black and Tans’ under Horan’s command.
The last member of the RIC killed during the War of Independence was Sergeant James King. According to local IRA Veterans, King, a native of Clare, was the leader of what had been dubbed the ‘Castlerea Murder Gang.’ The ‘Murder Gang’ first struck on 6 April 1921 when the RIC raided the home of IRA Volunteer Patrick Conroy. Conroy was arrested, taken to a field and shot dead. A few weeks later on 2 June two other IRA Volunteers, Michael Carty and Peter Shannon, were captured in Aughadrestan by an RIC raiding party. Carty was shot dead and Shannon, though wounded eight times, survived.11 Local republicans maintained that King was responsible for these shootings. 12 Three weeks later on 22 June a force of RIC led by Sergeant King raided the Vaughan family home at Cloonsuck surprising three IRA Volunteers who were inside. The three republicans managed to get out of the house, but two of them Ned Shanahan and John Vaughan were killed by the RIC whilst attempting to escape. The third, Martin Ganly, was taken prisoner.13 During the search of the house which followed Sergeant King beat Vaughan’s grieving mother unconscious with a rifle butt. Before leaving King stopped and shot the family’s dog dead. King was assassinated by two IRA Volunteers at Patrick’s Street in Castlerea at 10 a.m. on 11th July 1921, two hours before the conflict ended.
As we enter the “decade of centenaries” we need to ask ourselves serious questions about what aspects of our history are worth commemorating and celebrating. Is it appropriate to commemorate and celebrate any and all of the Irishmen who fought in uniform at that time, simply because they are Irishmen? - Or do we need to ask ourselves serious questions about what were they fighting for? Do we aspire to the same goals and values today, and should we promote and participate in their commemoration? I for one have no issue with those who want to commemorate their relatives who served in the RIC and DMP. However I feel that it is very important that a clear distinction should be drawn between those who served in the RIC as policemen as we understand that role today, protecting and serving society, and those who were involved in the very worst aspects of the British military campaign in Ireland between 1916 and 1921. Serious questions need to be asked about the rationale of former policemen who are in favor of commemorating a police state. This state was founded by those who fought for Irish Independence between 1919 and 1921 and it would be bizzare if this state were to commemorate those who fought to suppress it’s establishment. We should ask ourselves: Do Americans commemorate the Tories who fought to maintain colonial rule during the American Revolution? Do the Kenyans commemorate the ‘Askari’ and ‘Home Guard’ who fought for British rule during the Mau Mau rebellion? If not - why not?