THE BEGINNING OF THE END
by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
When Sir Robert Peel introduced the Irish Constabulary in 1822 he never expected the colloquial terms “Bobby” and “Peeler” to derive from his name, nor did he expect that though well intended, it would become the most hated force in modern Irish history. A Constabulary was set in each province with constables and inspectors under British administration in Dublin Castle. Separate from the ministry of war, it was only for civilian policing. For most of its history, it was about 75% Irish Catholic, who joined needing employment, and 25% Protestant, though most senior officers were Protestant. Queen Victoria added the prefix Royal to their name for their service during the Fenian rising of 1867; thus was born the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).
Unlike police elsewhere in Britain, the RIC were armed and billeted in barracks. A few of its Irish members were sympathetic to the nationalist cause after 1916 and even worked with Michael Collins on clandestine activities allowing him to infiltrate the administration with the help of men like Ned Broy, David Neligan, Joseph Kavanagh and James McNamara. Some also co-operated with the IRA out of fear for their lives and welfare of their families. A raid on an RIC barracks in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in June 1920, was carried out with the help of sympathetic RIC men. The barracks in Schull, County Cork, was captured with similar inside aid. Collins even had RIC spies within the upper echelon at Dublin Castle. However after the start of the War of Independence in January 1919, the RIC were markedly British and a civilian campaign of intimidation began against them. They were subjected to threats, attacks and their families were ostracized by the local community. By June 1920, RIC casualties rose to 55 killed and 74 wounded. Barracks were attacked and recruitment suffered as RIC morale declined. Barracks were abandoned and ranks were consolidated as pressure on their families, friends and shopkeepers resulted in resignations and early retirements. Several also left rather than fight their countrymen over an issue with which they agreed. However that was soon to change.
In late 1919, the Brits decided to counter the reduction in force by equipping the remaining RIC with military trucks, rockets, bombs and shotguns. Finding a more powerful RIC still insufficient to defeat Collins, PM Lloyd George, for political reasons, still refused to recognize the IRA as a military force. He insisted that controlling them was a policeman’s task and called for more, better-prepared men in police uniforms. Thus began the recruitment of jobless returning WW1 veterans. Hurried into RIC service in January 1920 with a combination of dark green RIC jackets and khaki British Army pants, they were dubbed the Black and Tans. They had been recruited into and were under the control of RIC officers, but their lack of police training soon showed in their heavy-handed tactics. Still unable to stop Collins’ IRA, a drastic move was made as a new force made up of returning military Officers were recruited in June. These turned out to be mostly battlefield commissions and a lower class of men than Sandhurst quality officers. They were sent as an Auxiliary unit of the RIC but were, in fact, a counter-insurgency force operating independently under their own officers to open an offensive against the IRA. They became notorious for their brutality and attacks on civilian instead of military targets.
On Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 21 November 1920, after 14 British intelligence agents were shot, the new RIC, with their Tans and Auxies, claiming that the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was in league with the IRA, retaliated by firing on an innocent crowd at a GAA football match, killing 14 civilians and wounding 65. In December, the Brits declared martial law in southern Ireland and the civilian center of Cork city was burnt out by the new RIC in reprisal for an ambush on a military convoy. Brian Hanley, historian at National University of Ireland, noted that: the Brits were wrong that the GAA was a front for the IRA. While some of its members were in the IRA and the GAA was for independence, it was divided on the wisdom of armed rebellion. They even refused to let the IRA use Croke Park for drills. Collins wanted the 21 November Croke Park match called off, fearing a reprisal for the shooting of the British spies that morning, but GAA officials refused since the day’s proceeds were for the families of imprisoned Irish republicans. Hanley said that the GAA massacre was the tipping point in the war. It was then, in January 1921, 100 years ago, that the RIC, their Black and Tans and Auxiliary units all became special targets by order of Michael Collins marking the beginning of their end.
On 1 January the IRA ambushed an RIC patrol in Ballybay, County Monaghan, killing one officer and wounding others, the next day two RIC men were executed in a Belfast hotel. On 4 January, an RIC Sergeant was fatally wounded in an IRA grenade attack in Armagh. A Waterford IRA column ambushed an RIC patrol outside Cappoquin on 5 January and on 7 January, ambushed another at Pickardstown. On 12 January, the IRA ambushed a British troop train carrying 150 soldiers at Barnesmore Gap, County Donegal and on 20 January the IRA in Clare ambushed an RIC truck at Glenwood, between Sixmilebridge and Broadford in which six RIC were killed, two were wounded but escaped and the IRA took their weapons and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition before burning the truck. On 22 January, three RIC officers were killed near their County Monaghan barracks and an IRA ambush was mounted in County Armagh where two RIC men were killed and others injured. In Dublin, IRA Third Battalion ambushed a number of RIC trucks at the Merrion Square/Mount Street intersection and a standing fight developed until the Brits withdrew with high casualties and no IRA losses. By the end of January 1921, the RIC began carrying republican prisoners in their trucks when on patrol to stop grenade attacks on them, with signs saying “Bomb us now“. This was discontinued when foreign journalists in the city reported it. They later covered the open back of their trucks with a mesh to prevent grenades from entering the vehicles, to which the IRA responded by attaching hooks to the grenades!
It soon became obvious that Collins’ IRA could not be defeated and the attacks on civilians in retaliation for attacks on the RIC had done little more than increase civilian support for the Republicans fighting for the independence of their country. The end was near as a treaty in less than a year’s time would disband the RIC during a debate over whether they were just an armed police unit or a paramilitary force. Either way, Peel’s Constabulary formed in 1822 was no more by 1922. But some don’t know their history.
Unbelievably, in January 2020, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar asked the Irish people to pay homage by attending special commemorations to honor the Royal Irish Constabulary! The request not only sparked major controversy, it resulted in the Wolfe Tones 1972 recording of Come Out Ye Black and Tans returning to the number one spot on the Irish charts. Thankfully the people remembered their history and the commemoration was cancelled. While it is worth remembering that the RIC had a few resignations after the heavy-handed crushing of the 1916 Rising, with some leaving the force as independence agitation increased and some even working as double agents on behalf of the IRA, there was also the fact that the overwhelming majority of the RIC were British tools of repression. They had tumbled thousands of homes, evicting men women and children into starvation and exile during the Great Hunger; they helped defeat the Fenian brotherhood and the 1916 patriots and supported the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries during their murderous campaigns during the War of Independence. Their disbandment, shortly after a truce in July 1921 sent more than 6,000 officers and men back to England where they belonged and the only commemorations that should ever be held are prayers for those who died at their hands.