In the midst of all the hype about the recent plans to “commemorate” the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), important facets of the overall story have been grossly overlooked.
“Commemorate” really means to honour and celebrate, and all of the RIC should certainly not be celebrated. We should recall our history as it really was, not in the simplistic black and white terms that actually contributed to so much controversy and conflict over the years.
It is worth remembering that, when the Irish people insisted on their democratic right to rule themselves in 1919, the British did not feel they could rely on the RIC. Hence they recruited the Black and Tans to boost their rule in Ireland.
Maybe the Irish people would have rejected the British anyway, but the reprehensible behaviour of the Black and Tans undoubtedly helped to drive the vast majority of the Irish people into the arms of the Irish Republicans.
There were grounds for suggesting that many of the RIC played a major role in exposing the Black and Tans, but this has always been grossly underestimated.
In June 1920 Gerald Smyth, the Divisional Commissioner of the RIC and Black and Tans, told the RIC in Listowel that they should have some fun by shooting any suspicious looking people without bothering to ask any questions. Constable Jeremiah Mee, a native of County Galway, promptly denounced him and dramatically announced that he was quitting the RIC.
Smyth ordered Mee’s arrest, but none of Mee’s colleagues was prepared to arrest him. This incident has been remembered as the RIC’s “Listowel Mutiny".
When the Irish Volunteers morphed into the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in early 1919, Tadhg Kennedy became the Intelligence chief of the IRA’s Kerry No.1 Brigade, which was centred in the northern half of the county, stretching from Killorglin and the Dingle Peninsula as far as the River Shannon.
Kennedy’s first real break was in 1919 on becoming friendly with Sergeant Michael O’Rourke, the Crime Special Sergeant in charge of intelligence at the RIC’s county headquarters in Tralee. They shared a love of the Irish language, and O’Rourke was anxious to practice his Irish by engaging in conversation with a fluent Irish speaker like Kennedy.
As a result, Kennedy learned a considerable amount about the local RIC from O’Rourke, who actually complained that he had great difficulty getting information to IRA’s brigade headquarters, as he had no contact that he could trust. He was possibly sounding out Kennedy, who duly reported this to Michael Collins. The latter advised Kennedy to keep in close touch with O’Rourke, and try to get from him the key to the code that the RIC was using in its telegrams.
Kennedy brought up the issue carefully with O’Rourke, who promptly agreed. “I had it that night, and the following day went off to Dublin with it to Mick,” Kennedy noted.
O’Rourke promised to provide the new key every time it was changed. He also passed on word to Kennedy of any RIC raids being planned and word of Republicans that the RIC suspected.
Between April and late October, 1920, Kennedy was transferred to Dublin as part of his job. While in Dublin he forged closer contacts with Michael Collins.
On being moved back to Tralee in late October 1920, he brought with him an order for the Kerry No. 1 Brigade to kill as many of the crown forces as possible over the last weekend of the month, to mark the planned execution of the teenage Kevin Barry in Dublin on Monday, November 1, 1920. Fearing that it might undermine efforts to secure young Barry’s reprieve, however, IRA headquarters called off the operations.
No written order had been sent to Kerry, so no countermanding order was sent, and Kennedy was not informed. Hence the planned operations went ahead in Kerry, and 18 crown servicemen and police were shot that weekend.
While Kennedy was in Dublin, the Black and Tans had been introduced in Kerry, and they reacted to the latest killings with ferocity. They shut down Tralee for the first nine days of November 1920, refusing to allow shops, businesses, or even schools to open. This outrage received extensive coverage on front pages around the world.
At least 27 different American newspapers carried front page reports of the events in Tralee during those nine days. Some of those accused the Black and Tans of trying to starve the people of Tralee. This revived memories of the horrors of the Great Irish Famine, which was considered particularly poignant in the United States.
This, in turn, greatly prepared the way for the explosive American coverage of the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in Dublin three weeks later, especially the reprisal killings of the 16 innocent spectators at a football game in Croke Park.
That, and other Black and Tans outrages around the country, arguably did more than anything else to drive the Irish people into the arms of the Irish Republicans.
Following his return to Tralee, Tadhg Kennedy found significant changes in the RIC. Sergeant O’Rourke had retired and was replaced by Sergeant Michael Costello, a native of Glin, County Limerick. He had already shown sympathy for the IRA, and Kennedy had no problem in getting him to provide the same kind of information as O’Rourke.
There was also a new County Inspector in charge of the RIC in Kerry — James Duffy, who had served with distinction in the British Army during World War I. Duffy was born in Tralee, the son of an RIC sergeant. So Kennedy could rely on help from two of the most important RIC men in the country — the County Inspector and the Crime Special Sergeant at the country headquarters.
Unfortunately, O’Duffy’s health took a turn for the worse in 1921, and he soon died. But before dying, he lined up his replacement, County Inspector William Blaney, to continue to provide help. In addition, the RIC District Inspector in charge of Dingle, Bernard O’Connor, also provided Kennedy with vital information. In fact, before the War of Independence ended with the Truce in July 1921, Kennedy would conclude that “practically all” of the RIC in Kerry were onside with the local IRA.
Arthur Griffith described Michael Collins as “the man who won the war” of independence, and we should never forget that Collins was largely dependent on his police spies within the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), such as Eamon Broy, Joe Kavanagh, James McNamara and David Nelligan.
Surely, the invaluable help of the police within both the DMP and RIC should now be commemorated and indeed, celebrated!