INTERESTING to see The Irish Times flying the flag on behalf of a readership that continues to have a fondness for the good old days when Britannia ruled the world and its garrisoned agents in this country, the Royal Irish Constabulary, kept tabs on the people.
Interesting too the pressure being put on the government to have the ‘sacrifices’ of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) formally acknowledged by the State, and about which The Irish Times reported. (The controversy is different to the one in West Cork where attempts were made to ‘Walt Disney-fy’ the Kilmichael Ambush site).
An Irish Times columnist wrote of the current hoop-la: ‘It is bizarre that the State which has rightly honoured the Irishmen who fought in the British army during the First World War, and even the British soldiers who died suppressing the rebels in 1916, cannot bring itself to honour the memory of Irish policemen killed in the line of duty … RIC men who conducted themselves with forbearance and dignity in the face of a ruthless terror campaign directed against them by Michael Collins.’
Fair point, and no doubt some people believe that the RIC, since its formation in the 1830s, was a grand bunch of lads who by serving their King and country ensured the maintenance of peace and harmony throughout the land!
Of course the fact that the RIC evicted people during the Famine and Land wars and robustly dealt with ‘subversives’ who threatened the institutions of the State, such as Fenians and the IRA, is neither here nor there. It was their duty to do so, even when having to co-operate with an imported police force, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries!
As well as seeking proper recognition for the achievements of the RIC, the Garda Sióchána Retired Members Association wants a special monument erected by the State to the memory of those RIC members killed between 1919 and 1922.
They point out that Gardaí are well qualified ‘to understand the trauma suffered by policemen caught in the middle of a violent political struggle not of their making.’
So far, the response of nationalist Ireland has been indifference. ‘Asking the State to celebrate the RIC is like asking the State to repudiate its own origins. It is asking for history to be depoliticised,’ said one writer.
Another commented: ‘If members of the Gardaí and relatives of the RIC wish to commemorate them, that’s fine. But expecting the State to do so officially is a disingenuous attempt to sow a dispiriting division in our national discourse. The achievement of Irish independence lies at the core of modern Irish identity. Do they now want us to be a society without a core?’
Dr Brian Hanley made this interesting point: ‘Remembrance is one thing but the idea of a state “honouring” men who fought against its formation is another. It should be possible to remember individual policemen’s sacrifice and acknowledge the complexity of their motivations while still recognising that their primary function between 1919 and 1921 was to defend the British government’s denial of self-determination to the Irish people.’
Mutiny in Listowel
Others are of the opinion that there is no evidence the RIC ever enjoyed widespread public support and, in fact, were not ordinary policemen but the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle.
It was a role carried out with such relish that even Brigadier-General Crozier, sent to Ireland at the height of War of Independence to command the Auxiliary Division of the RIC, was shocked at the marauding activities of his men.
Indeed some of the ordinary policemen handed in their resignations, out of a sense of shame; others to save their skins.
Listowel, where the police mutinied, was a case in point. A psychopathic Divisional Police Commissioner, Colonel Smyth, ordered the RIC to shoot all persons that they saw with their hands in their pockets or who looked in any way suspicious.
The constabulary was horrified at the prospect of killing fellow Irishmen ‘on sight’ and by Smyth’s argument that it was acceptable if mistakes were made and innocent people shot.
The Police Commissioner told them they were bound to plug the right parties sometime: ‘The more you shoot, the better I will like you,’ he said.
He also advised them that in the event of the IRA burning a police barracks – a common practice at the time – the best house in the locality was to be commandeered and the occupants thrown into the gutter. ‘Let them die there – the more the merrier,’ he proclaimed.
Murder of Lord Mayor
A month later. Daniel ‘Sandow’ O’Donovan and an IRA unit assassinated Smyth, the monster, in the Cork County Club on the Mall, just as he was about to pour himself a large glass of brandy and amuse his cronies with his successes in Kerry.
Against such a background, it is hard to square the ‘commemoration’ comments of the ex-gardaí with the brutal murder of Cork’s Lord Mayor, Tomás Mac Curtain. The Sinn Féin man was asleep in his house in Blackpool when a group of men with blackened faces burst in the front door, rushed upstairs and shot him dead.
A jury decided that the Lord Mayor had been ‘wilfully murdered under circumstances of the most callous brutality’ and that ‘the murder was organised and carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary, officially directed by the British Government.’ (In charge of the operation was an RIC Detective called Swanzy. The IRA later killed him).
Crucial to the verdict was the evidence of John McCarthy of 16 Spangle Hill, who was stopped by two policemen, searched, threatened and ordered to take a roundabout way home. McCarthy told the jury that he was certain his interrogators were policemen because of the coats they were wearing, their low helmets and the revolvers they were carrying.
Which all points to the difficulties the retired members of the Gardai will face in their attempt to rehabilitate the RIC. What’s more, should they continue with their project, a disservice could be done to the reputation of our unarmed, civilian Garda Force who may not want to be associated it with a despised, colonial police force.
Burning of Cork
The fact of the matter is that the RIC was never perceived as a benign law enforcement agency that had the support of the people – a point reinforced by the drink-sodden British soldiers, aided by Auxiliary cadets attached to the RIC who set fire to the centre of Cork city.
Or that, in one month, a force comprising the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British Army and the Auxiliaries shot up and partially destroyed 24 towns.