Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc: RIC legacy burns a century on

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc: RIC legacy burns a century on
Crowds of onlookers throng St Patrick St the day after the burning of Cork city centre by British forces in December 1920.

The RIC’s role in Ireland was one of eviction,brutality and murder, writes Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc.

There has been uproar at the Government’s decision to hold, as part of its Decade of Centenaries programme, an event in Dublin later this month commemorating the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

The ceremony will be the first time the State has held an official commemoration for the controversial police force whose membership included the infamous Black and Tans.

So far the Lord Mayor of Cork, John Sheehan, Clare mayor Cathal Crowe, Galway mayor Mike Cubbard, and Kerry mayor Niall Kelleher and his deputy, Norma Moriarty, have said outright they will not attend.

Sheehan said it would “not be appropriate to attend wearing the same chain Tomás MacCurtain once wore, especially when he was killed by RIC officers”.

The Lord Mayor of Dublin has also said he will not attend as he is otherwise engaged, while a number of Dublin city councillors have voted to boycott the ceremony.

However, the Government has been adamant it should go ahead. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted yesterday:

The RIC/DMP commemoration is not a celebration. It’s about remembering our history, not condoning what happened. We will also remember the terrible burning of Cork, Balbriggan, partition, and the atrocities of the Civil War.

He also tweeted: “We should respect all traditions on our island and be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past.”

Speaking at a recent private religious service honouring members of the RIC killed during the War of Independence, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said RIC constables were “doing their job”.

“They were murdered in the line of duty,” he said. “They were protecting communities from harm, maintaining the rule of law. These are fundamental to police services everywhere.”

However, the RIC was no ordinary police force. Its character and role in political policing were exceptional, even by contemporary standards.

When it was founded, the Irish Constabulary was modelled not on existing British police forces but on British army rifle brigades.

Unlike the unarmed British police, the RIC was an armed and aggressive paramilitary force.

The structure of the RIC reflected the sectarian social order British rule imposed upon Irish society.

While the majority of RIC constables were working-class Irish Catholics, senior ranks within the force were reserved almost exclusively for members of the local Protestant-Unionist ascendency and officers imported from England.

Home of Tomás MacCurtain, taken shortly after his death, March 1920 (Image called MacCurtain House) The Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain, was shot dead in this house. Although MacCurtain's assassination is often attributed to English members of the Black and Tans, it was actually carried out by Irish members of the RIC. Mercier Archives.
Home of Tomás MacCurtain, taken shortly after his death, March 1920 (Image called MacCurtain House) The Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain, was shot dead in this house. Although MacCurtain's assassination is often attributed to English members of the Black and Tans, it was actually carried out by Irish members of the RIC. Mercier Archives.

Consequently, the RIC played a key role in enforcing the evictions of local tenants at the whim of British absentee landlords.

Aside from the detection of crime, the RIC’s main duties were political. As well as the suppression of Irish separatists, the RIC was also charged with impeding any movement which sought to challenge the status quo. Trade unionists seeking better working conditions, suffragettes campaigning for the vote, and Irish language activists all suffered harassment, intimidation,arrest, and violent assault at the hands of the RIC.

Undoubtedly the most controversial period of the RIC’s history occurred during the War of Independence, when members of the force assassinated politicians, tortured republican prisoners, and murdered civilians. Those defending the RIC’s legacy often attribute such atrocities to Black and Tans and RIC auxiliaries recruited in Britain.

The reality is that many of the RIC’s worst atrocities, including the assassination of MacCurtain, the murder of postmaster Thomas Hodgett in Navan, the sexual assault of Kate Kelly in Clare, and the massacre of innocent civilians such as the O’Donovan brothers from Limerick, were the work of Irish members of the RIC and not English Tans.

Flanagan’s suggestion that members of the RIC killed during the War of Independence were doing their job, protecting communities, and upholding the law is difficult to reconcile with the fate of Patrick and Harry Loughnane.

The Loughnane brothers, who were both active IRA volunteers, were abducted from their home in November 1920 by members of the RIC’s auxiliary division. Their mutilated bodies were found dumped in a pond 10 days later.

Harry’s head had been blown away by a hand grenade and two of his fingers had been taken as grim souvenirs by his murderers. Patrick’s face had been beaten until his skull collapsed. His killers mutilated his body, marking it as a ‘trophy kill’ by cutting diamond patterns from the skin on his chest, mimicking the unit insignia of the RIC auxiliary division.

The same month that the Loughnane brothers were ‘disappeared’, the RIC in Galway murdered a priest, Fr Michael Griffin, and killed Eileen Quinn, a mother of three who was seven months pregnant. The RIC’s catalogue of murders throughout 1920 and 1921 belies any suggestion that those serving in the force during the War of Independence were merely policemen protecting their communities.

In any democracy it is right that the public is free to honour any historical group they wish but it is an entirely different matter for the Irish State to spend taxpayers’ money commemorating those who fought to crush the democratic ideals upon which the state was founded.

State commemoration is not a neutral process — recent State commemorations have been entirely partisan in only honouring those who fought for the ideals Irish society still holds and which are consistent with our Constitution.

For example, the Government organised State commemorations honouring the suffragettes who fought for women’s rights — no such commemorations were held for the Irish Women’s Anti-Suffrage League who campaigned to prevent women voting.

Cork mayor Tomás MacCurtain lies in state at Cork City Hall after he was murdered by RIC forces in March 1920.
Cork mayor Tomás MacCurtain lies in state at Cork City Hall after he was murdered by RIC forces in March 1920.

Likewise State commemorations were held honouring those who participated in the 1913 Lockout in support of the rights of workers to join a trade union — no such state commemorations were held honouring William Martin Murphy and those who sought to deny Irish workers their rights.

The current Government seems intent on honouring members of the RIC killed in Ireland fighting to deny the Irish people their rights regardless of the inherent contradictions this involves. This sycophantic attitude to our colonial history is not shared by the governments of other former British colonies.

The US government does not mourn the colonists who joined the British army to suppress the American Revolution. Nor do the government and people of Kenya honour the Kenyans who fought for the British Askari-Home Guard in the 1950s to prevent Kenyan independence.

Finally, and most significantly, Flanagan’s proposal that the Government should commemorate the members of the British forces killed during the War of Independence will not be reciprocated by the British government.

In March last year, the British government’s digital culture committee, which oversaw Britain’s First World War centenary celebrations, overruled the advice of the professional historians appointed to its advisory board who recommended that the commemorations be extended to commemorate the post-war period, including the role of the RIC and Black and Tans in Ireland.

Since the British have already decided not to commemorate or acknowledge the members of the RIC and Black and Tans killed during the Irish War of Independence, the question remains: Why should the Irish Government expect the Irish people to commemorate them?

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc has a PhD in history and has published several books on the Irish War of Independence.

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