A historical account of an incident in which the RIC opened fire on a crowd of hungry Ennis people as local food produce was being exported by landlords. By Dean Ruxton (for the Irish Times).
That a band of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policemen fired at a crowd of civilians in Ennis was not disputed. Less clear-cut in the aftermath was who, if anyone, gave the order.
On June 6th, 1842, a group of constables attempting to contain a “tumultuous” gathering in Ennis began shooting into the crowd. The events leading up to the “wanton massacre”, as it was later described, were not unusual for the place and time; a section of a hungry population had stolen grain from vessels tasked with exporting provisions abroad from Clarecastle. Some of the grain was tracked down and it was decided it would be returned to the stores of its owners, Messrs Bannatyne, for safekeeping.
The RIC, in turn, were deployed to protect the stores. About 40 constables and officers were lined out and a crowd numbering about 100 - including women and children - promptly showed up to “plunder” the grain. Something of a stand-off ensued, ending in bloodshed.
The decades preceding that night saw cycles of famine impact a growing, poverty-stricken population in Co Clare. The county, along with others, had suffered decimation at the hands of disease in the early 19th century; first with typhus and later cholera. Historian Timothy O’Neill, writing in Studia Hibernica in 1974, said Co Clare took “centre stage” during a potato famine in 1842; the evidence shows famine “was a regular occurrence in Clare and other counties and something which was well understood. Many indeed feared that a great famine would come.”
One newspaper report at the time said entire families were found to be subsisting exclusively on wild rape, or brassicas. In short, June 6th was not the first food “riot” in the district. It wasn’t even the first one that year.
Those in charge of the police on the night were county inspector Brown and sub-inspector Fitzsimon. Two magistrates were at the scene; Laurence Smyth, who had organised the police, and Captain De Ruvynes.
By all accounts, the scene was tense. However, the threat posed by the crowd and the exact sequence of events that led to bloodied bodies on the streets of Ennis differed from witness to witness.
It was established that 16 constables armed with carbines opened fire on the crowd, reports indicate they killed three people: Catherine Sheehan, Michael McNamara and a man with the surname Davey. In all, more than a dozen were reported injured. One policeman had an eye “knocked out” after being hit with a stone, according to the London Illustrated News.
Outrage followed and an investigation began. Witnesses from the crowd and the officials involved gave evidence over three days of inquest hearings.
From the outset, it appeared there was confusion among the ranks. Amid the agitation, Mr Smyth, the magistrate in charge, swiftly went missing while trying to get the crowd to retreat. Witnesses swore they heard Captain De Ruvynes, who insisted on the night that he had no authority to direct the police, say that the men must shoot if the crowd did not back down. Whether he was talking to the police or the crowd was not fully clear.
Evidence was heard that Mr Brown, the inspector, distinctly said “fire”, which he denied. He told the hearing: “I appeal to your feelings; no man deplores it more than I do, it was done without my sanction or approbation...”
Mr Smyth was heavily criticised. He had failed to read the riot act to the mob and was not present to direct the police when it mattered. According to a Nenagh Guardian report, he said: “I induced them (the crowd) to retire and went back with them about 30 yards, when I heard several shots fired. I then turned back and saw flashes from five or six pans. I was amazed, and in as much danger as anybody else.” The mob was loud, certainly, but had posed no physical threat to the police, he said.
The sub-inspector, Fitzsimon, was heard telling the constabulary to fire over the heads of the mob; another witness said Fitzsimon ordered the shooting to stop once it began.
Captain De Ruvynes, for his part, declared: “So help me God, I never ordered the police to fire, I swear I am not guilty of the charge, and trust I shall be able to rebut it.”
The jury concluded that “the people were in the act of retiring when said shot was fired, and that no necessity existed for firing. We further find that the word ‘Fire!’ was given to the police by Mr Brown and Mr Fitzsimon, immediately after Captain De Ruvynes said ‘If you don’t disperse the men must fire’: but we consider his saying so no justification for the order so given.”
Mr Brown, Mr Fitzsimon and a group of constables were eventually conveyed to jail, but nobody was convicted for the killings, according to reports. When the case was brought up, a grand jury failed to find a true bill against the officers, meaning it did not go to trial at the assizes.
The episode occurred just short of 17 years before the first issue of The Irish Times. But, the archives of this newspaper do contribute to the history of the case. In 1886, more than four decades after the incident, The Irish Times ran a series on the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police, written by members of the force.
One story, told first-hand by an unnamed policeman, was titled the Clare Grain Riots.
“It is difficult nowadays, when the mighty power of steam has worked its miracles in cheapening the food of poor people by the import of corn and meat from America and elsewhere, to realise the feelings of the wretched peasantry of over-populated districts in old times, who saw the oats and wheat reared around them sold to factors who carried it off and transported it wholesale to feed foreign countries, while they at home hungered in vain for a decent meal,” began the piece, setting the scene for the evening of June 6th, 1842 - which was incorrectly recalled as June 4th.
The policemen lined out and stones were thrown overhead at those inside the stores. Gradually, the piece says, stones were aimed at the police.
“The force was drawn up four deep; and, as a man got struck, he naturally tried to fall back, and the ranks became unsteady. The head constable on duty, seeing one man make a sudden lurch forward ran at him and pushed him back saying: ‘Keep steady, man, don’t leave the ranks.’ The poor fellow had his hands on his face, and cried: ‘Oh sir, my eye’s out!’ and sure enough, his eye was hanging clean out of his head, as the result of a blow from a paving stone.
“Just then, the police began to fire, and a quick discharge ran down the ranks, each man loading and firing independently. The night was dark, and the effect of the rapid discharge of shots, the blaze, the smell of gunpowder and the noise was overpowering. The people at once turned and ran for their lives.
“The firing ceased; and in an instant a dead silence succeeded to the horrible din which had been going on: the police were alone in the street, but in front, in the fair light; could be discerned several indistinct dark masses on the ground. These were the killed and wounded, to the number of about fifteen. A sense of the awful result of their fire weighed on all the police; and no man moved for a while. A few women issuing from the side streets ran over to the prostrate bodies and raised in the silence the wild and mournful ‘keen’ which added to the horror of the situation.”
The piece goes on to summarise the legal proceedings, ending with nobody being charged and constables being sent, after one month in jail, to the newly-formed depot at the Phoenix Park. The account does not name any particularly official who gave the order - nor does it say that a specific order was given.
The piece does provide the fate of the policeman who lost his eye: “The poor man who lost his eye lingered for some time after his discharge on pension, but eventually died from the effects of the injury. While this poor fellow lay suffering at the infirmary, other patients in sympathy with the rioters used to come to his bed, remove the bandages from his face and otherwise ill treat and abuse him.”