Opinion: what were the experiences of the Royal Irish Constabulary's Irish-born members during the War of Independence and beyond?

By Brian HughesMary Immaculate College

When the centenary of the Soloheadbeg ambush was recently marked, the Royal Irish Constabulary victims received much more attention than they had for many years after their deaths. Moreover, a point was often made of noting James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell's nationality (Irish), religion (Roman Catholic) and the fact that McDonnell was a native Irish speaker.

This might prompt us to think a little more about the experiences of the RIC’s Irish-born members during the War of Independence and beyond. Signs of a localised campaign against the RIC were visible as early as 1917, but it was not until April 1919 that Dáil Éireann officially declared that members were to be "treated as persons, who having been adjudged guilty of treason to their country, are regarded unworthy to enjoy any of the privileges or comforts which arise from cordial relations with the public".

This was decreed from above, but locally driven and therefore sporadic and uneven in its application. It did, though, take place alongside shooting. Over 500 policemen were killed between 1919 and 1922. Many were Irish Catholics and some were off duty, walking or cycling to or from work, Sunday service or the local shop.

Many of the "old RIC", as they were often called, remained in the force, the result of little more than canny pragmatism

That the campaign against the RIC was so uneven was at least partly down to the personal popularity of individuals, who were often (if not always) respected members of their communities before revolution got in the way. But British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s refusal to declare war on rebels meant that the RIC remained at the front line in defeating Irish insurgency, even though it was totally unprepared for the task in 1919.

This was unpalatable for some with nationalist sympathies, or those who feared for their personal safety or the safety of their families. Numbers declined by almost 1,300 between July and September 1920 (from about 9,500 at the beginning of the year) and the gaps were filled by recruits from Britain. The now-infamous moniker Black and Tans was soon attached to these temporary constables (a separate Auxiliary Division, comprised of men who had held a commission in the First World War, was also formed).

Nevertheless, many of the "old RIC", as they were often called, remained in the force. This was often the result of little more than canny pragmatism. Untrained or unsuitable for other work, it made sense for some to stay put, to do so while keeping heads down and avoiding trouble – as far as possible – until retirement and a full pension.

Ó RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta An Saol ó Dheas, Céad bliain a dtaca seo dhein Óglaigh Mhúscraí ionsaí ar fhórsaí an RIC i mBéal an Ghleanna. Tharla an t-ionsaí toisc go raibh bac curtha ar mhuintir na h-áite bailiú le chéile ag lá aeríochta i gCúil Aodha. Maíonn stairithe Mhúscraí go chuir an gníomh seo tús le Cogadh na Saoirse.

This was summed up by Patrick Shea, the second Catholic permanent secretary of a government department in Northern Ireland. He speculated that if his father, a policeman who supported Home Rule but not physical-force nationalism, had contemplated resignation, any decision was influenced as much by the "practical problems of a middle-aged, kindly man with a young family and no occupation" as any "ideological considerations".

Others, though, had their resolve hardened by violence and intimidation inflicted on colleagues. IRA veteran Martin Fallon later reflected that boycotting the RIC may have been "a doubtful gain". "‘I am afraid we antagonised some of them who would be good friends of ours. We forgot they were Irishmen, and there is an old saying that you can lead an Irishman, but you can’t drive him." 

Indeed, historian David Leeson has suggested that Irish-born policemen were just as likely as their British counterparts to become involved in the sort of violence associated with the Black and Tans: "when British police and Auxiliaries took reprisals, they were following the bad example set by their Irish comrades." These were isolated, angry, frustrated men responding, if often unjustifiably or counterproductively, to the kind of guerrilla war with which they were faced.

One soon-to-be-ex-policeman hoped for favourable treatment from both the "Imperial parliament" and the "Irish people", but seemed unconvinced

When the force was disbanded in 1922, Chief Secretary of Ireland Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief of Police Henry Tudor and RIC Deputy Inspector General C. A. Walsh all expressed concern for the safety of members remaining in the new Irish Free State. In May 1922, Punch published a striking cartoon of an upright RIC man, his family, and their boxed-up worldly possessions over the title "Exiled". This came amid a growing number of reports of disbanded policemen fleeing homes following the receipt of threatening notices.

Writing to the last issue of the Constabulary Gazzette, one soon-to-be-ex-policeman hoped for favourable treatment from both the "Imperial parliament" and the "Irish people", but seemed unconvinced. "There should be no delusions about our future", he wrote, "as all may take it for certain, however small our pensions be, there will be no chance of other employment in this country for ex-RIC men."

Something like 160 joined An Garda Síochána in 1922, but most of those who wished to continue policing had to go elsewhere; the new Royal Ulster Constabulary attracted some (mainly non-Catholics). Over 250 Irish-born ex-RIC joined the Palestinian gendarmerie, while more joined other colonial forces.

From RTÉ Archives, Pádraig Ó Fathaigh describes his arrest by the RIC while he was on his way to Kinvara during Easter Week 1916

Migration did not necessarily guarantee better prospects. In 1926, an ex-constable who moved to England wrote of "walking around looking for work, nobody knows me to assist me, the result is that I get so fed-up, it is enough to make a man commit suicide. I find I am not able to get on here, not wanted in my own country, what am I to do?" 

In the end, however, the worst predictions proved unfounded for the majority of the disbanded men. While some may have experienced, or perceived, discrimination in the Irish Free State, others resettled happily and successfully. More research is needed on the lives of these men and their families in independent Ireland. Whatever your views on remembrance as commemoration or celebration, it is certain that wide brushstrokes will not do justice to the complexity of their experiences before or after revolution.

Dr Brian Hughes is a lecturer in the Department of History at Mary Immaculate College. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ