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Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-1922

Richard Abbott
Mercier Press


Should we have sympathy for the five-hundred-plus policemen killed during the War of Independence? For some, perhaps most, the answer is easy: Why not, weren’t they all human beings? This is a reasonable feeling but if you have sympathy with the RIC dead as individual human beings does that imply that you have sympathy with what they were up during the War of Independence? No, of course not will be the answer of many who decidedly approve the war to establish an independent state and if pushed will readily acknowledge that war is never a pretty business. Fellow feeling is normal and commonplace. There is even evidence that many who engaged in military attacks on the RIC and their Black and Tan helpers regretted the loss of life which occurred.

But perhaps there is a little more to be said. One problem, as anyone even half-awake in recent years will confirm, is that the history wars have not ceased or even eased up in this country. Some of the minority who believe the War of Independence was a bad thing are suspected by some of trying to muddy the central historical narrative and undermine the democratic morality of the war by retrospectively playing the “human sympathy” card in the service of promoting a new interpretation based on an all-round moral equivalence. Those who feel this danger exists will be sure to qualify their expression of human sympathy for dead policemen with a pointed statement asserting the political and moral superiority of those fighting for national autonomy.

In a recent letter to The Irish Times Dr Brian Murphy wrote that in May 1918 Lloyd George determined that Lord French was to set up “a quasi-military government” in Ireland. This decision was in response to the general rejection of conscription across numerous political and social lines, a non-unionist unanimity which prefigured the 1918 election result. Murphy’s point was that the RIC were no ordinary police force, that they enforced martial law edicts and that they “sustained a military dictatorship”.

Today, happily, we live in a culture which does not demand choices around physical violence, and the general impulse is to recoil from it. Dimphne Brennan, whose grandfather led the Soloheadbeg operation in 1919 and who has been an enthusiastic supporter of the relatives of the dead policemen participating in the centenary commemoration said: “I often thought about how you can kill people that you don’t even know. I don’t know how I would behave if I was back then.”

Richard Abbott’s new book, Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-1922, offers a fascinating account of all known police deaths during the war, including not only those of RIC men but those brought in to assist them in their activities, such as the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans. It is, of its nature, an act of sympathy with the dead policemen. The detailed accounts which Abbott provides are a useful and instructive contribution to the military history of the war. The author’s own political sympathies are not to the fore in what is a disciplined treatment of his subject. His approach is that of the disinterested scholar and for the most part this holds up with excellent results. Sometimes an attitude may be gleaned from the language he uses, such as describing those nationalists in whom the RIC is interested as “known troublemakers”.

A tone of sympathy for individual policemen which is suggestive of a wider political sympathy is evident in the late Peter Hart’s foreword, written when Richard Abbott commenced his research project eighteen years ago:

What of the young ‘Tans’, the victorious and often decorated survivors of the Great War? Now they found themselves fighting a vicious, doomed campaign within their own country, yet in a foreign land where they could trust no one and were despised. Sharing a lonely, fierce comradeship, they felt these deaths with the sting of betrayal and with a rage that was driven against other men, other families, other victims.

Some may find it difficult to share Hart’s emotional sympathy with that collection of thugs.