The local IRA kidnapped three members of the Crown police in two separate incidents, and the response of the Black and Tans received more international coverage than anything that ever happened in the town.
In late September 1920 the IRA in Tralee kidnapped a Black and Tan and held him for five weeks. On the night of October 29, 1920, the IRA took him out to Banna Beach and shot him, burying him in the sand hills. No historian has ever recorded his death. He is just remembered as “Japer”.
Two days later, on the eve of Kevin Barry’s execution, the IRA in Tralee tried to mark the occasion by killing some Black and Tans. Paddy Paul Fitzgerald and seven men took up positions to ambush a police patrol that evening. “I received word from one of the Fianna that two Tans were standing at the corner of New Road,” Fitzgerald recalled. “Patrick O’Connor and I approached the two Tans with revolvers drawn. I called on them to put up their hands; they complied at once. We took them prisoner and handed them over to a section of our men located near the Dingle-Tralee railway tracks.”
One of the so-called Tans was actually Constable Patrick Waters, 23, a four-year RIC veteran from Loughanbeg, near Spiddal, Co Galway. The other was Constable Ernest Bright, a Londoner in his early 30s. Paddy Cahill, the local IRA brigadier, ordered the “execution” of the two men that night. Their bodies were never recovered.
During the early hours of the next morning, the Black and Tans swept through the streets of Tralee shooting indiscriminately, often into houses. They burned down the County Hall as well as the “1916 Shop” on the main street.
Assuming the IRA was holding their colleagues, the Black and Tans unleashed a reign of terror on Tralee over the next nine days. Monday, November 1, was All Saints’ Day, a holy day of obligation, and all the churches were busy. The Black and Tans drove up and down the streets in lorries, discharging rifle shots.
“Volley after volley resounded to the terror of the people,” according to one witness. Shots were fired as people emerged from 12 o’clock mass at St John’s Parish Church. There was a panic as people stampeded back into the church. For decades afterwards bullet marks could be seen on the pillars at the church gates. That evening they shot dead a painter, John Conway, 57 and a father of six, as he was returning from evening devotions.
The House of Commons was told Conway died of a heart attack and was injured in falling. The London Times reported, however, that its correspondent saw a bullet hole in Conway’s temple.
A group of foreign journalists — who had attended the funeral of Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney in Cork on the Sunday — came to Tralee the next day. They included reporters from Associated Press of the United States, Le Journal (Paris), the London Times, Daily News, Manchester Guardian and London Evening News. The group reached Tralee about 9pm on Monday and checked into the Grand Hotel. They witnessed Black and Tans posting a warning: “Unless the two Tralee policemen in Sinn Féin custody are returned before 10am on the 2nd inst. reprisal of a nature not yet heard of in Ireland will take place in Tralee and surroundings.”
“I do not remember, even during the war, having seen a people so profoundly terrified as those of this little town, Tralee,” M de Marsillac of Le Journal reported. “The violence of the reprisals undertaken by representative of authority, so to speak, everywhere, has made everybody beside himself, even before facts justified such a state of mind.”
SHOPKEEPERS were warned to close. All schools were shut. The Black and Tans stalked the deserted streets firing shots into the air, or shooting blindly into windows.
Shortly after noon on Tuesday, Tommy Wall, 24, an ex-soldier who had fought in France during World War I, was standing at a corner on the main street. As a former soldier who had fought for the Crown, he may have thought he would be safe. One of the Tans hit him in the face with a rifle butt and told him to get out of the place. As he left, they shot and fatally wounded him, claiming he was shot trying to escape.
“All the afternoon, except for soldiers, the town was as deserted and doleful as if the Angel of Death has passed through it,” the French journalist continued. “Not a living soul in the streets. All the shops shut and the bolts hastily fastened. All work was suspended, even the local newspapers.”
Publication of the town’s three newspapers — Liberator, Kerryman and Kerry People — was suspended for the duration of the siege. But the international press focused on the town as never before or since. During the nine-day siege, events in Tralee made the front pages of the Montreal Gazette four times and the New York Times three times.
Saturday, market day, was normally the busiest day of the week in Tralee, but people were not allowed into town. “Police persist in taking measures to cut off the necessities of life from the people,” the Freeman’s Journal reported. “Black and Tans take up positions outside bakeries and provision stores where they suspect food could be secured, and at the bayonet’s point send famishing women and children from the doors. Outside one baker’s establishment a Black and Tan, brandishing a revolver, told women and children to clear off, adding: ‘You wanted to starve us, but we will starve you.’”
The front page report in the Montreal Gazette began: “The town of Tralee, Ireland, is fast approaching starvation in consequence of recent police orders forbidding the carrying on of business — until two missing policemen are returned by the townspeople. Trade is paralysed, the banks, and bakeries even being closed, and the condition of the people is becoming desperate.”
In an editorial, the Montreal Gazette lamented: “Men in high places, who should understand the danger of irregular methods of lynch law order, do not show a serious appreciation of the gravity of the situation. Some give veiled excuses for the violence that almost amount to encouragement.”
Hugh Martin of the Daily News reported: “During the past few days Tralee has been in the public eye more than any other town in Ireland and the reprisals there have been given worldwide publicity. Women and children, in addition to the men who may have been guilty of the kidnappings, were going hungry and may soon be faced with the prospect of starvation. How can the Government clear itself of the charge of waging war on women and children?”
Of course, I am not suggesting the Israelis are behaving like the Black and Tans: what the Black and Tans did is insignificant when compared with the Israeli bombings. Where is the voice of sanity? Have we, as a nation, been struck dumb?