The uproar in early 2020 over Government plans to honour the legacy of the Royal Irish Constabulary was one of the last big prepandemic controversies. Within a few weeks it would feel like a half-memory from a different reality. Was this all we had to worry about in the time before mask-wearing, conversations through garden windows and repeat viewings of Tiger King?
But, as Covid subsides, the dreary steeples of Ireland’s historical legacy emerge again. Not that there is anything dreary about Tony Connelly: A Hidden History (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm). His curiosity stirred by the 2020 brouhaha, RTÉ’s Europe editor sets out to discover more about his grandfather Michael Connelly, a Galwayman who served with the RIC and then left the newly independent Republic to join the fledgling RUC north of the Border.
This is gripping personal history – one that will speak to the experiences of many Irish people. Connelly isn’t interested in passing judgment on his grandfather. He wants to learn more about his life in the tumultuous years either side of independence.
It’s a fascinating film that lays bare the many shades of grey that characterised Ireland’s relationship with Britain in the early 20th century. Histories of Irish independence can sometimes swing between two extremes. On one side is revisionism with a side serving of cultural cringe: the caricaturing of Patrick Pearse as a lunatic determined to forge a new Ireland from blood and gun smoke. On the other is raise-your-pint republicanism, which refuses to consider that there might be a moral distinction between fighting a guerrilla war in west Cork and Tipperary and blowing up pubs in 1970s Britain.
Connelly doesn’t want to get bogged down in any of that: the film he has made instead feels like a dark Irish take on the British genealogy blockbuster Who Do You Think You Are? He travels to Michael’s birthplace, in Kilconnell, Co Galway, and then to Castlegregory, in Co Kerry, where his ancestor was posted as a young officer.
“He wasn’t talked about that much – I left it at that,” says Connelly, who grew up in Derry. “My curiosity didn’t go any further. Only when the centenaries started to roll around did I think my grandfather’s story could shed some light on this controversy.”
Joining the RIC was a “respectable profession with opportunities for advancement”, says Dr Niamh Gallagher of Cambridge University. But that changed after 1916. In Carrick-on-Suir, along the Tipperary-Waterford border, Constable Connelly was regarded as a legitimate target – and was singled out least once by the local Volunteers.
“There was an attempt on my grandfather’s life in the shop on the main street,” Connelly says. He recalls that the gunman spared his life because he was with his four-year-old son – Tony Connelly’s uncle Matt.
He wasn’t the only one to have a lucky escape. The grandson of a Volunteer recalls Connelly saving his ancestor after the Black and Tans had decided that he should be executed. Both were lucky considering the violence sweeping the country. RIC men could be shot anywhere: coming out of Mass, in hospital; nowhere was safe. “Most of them were shot in the head,” one historian says. “It’s the knowledge ... That’s what they were killing.”
After independence Michael Connelly went north. The RIC had been disbanded, and he felt he had few prospects. Ironically, this Catholic from Connacht was seen as a potential fifth columnist in loyalist Larne.
“He was branded an IRA man,” Tony Connelly’s father says. “There were dozens and dozens of RUC men with Cork accents, Galway accents, Kerry accents, all in the same boat, who wouldn’t join the Garda Síochána. They became men apart.”
Connelly doesn’t wrap his journey up with a neat conclusion. He certainly doesn’t tell viewers how they should feel about the RIC or their relationship with the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, who soon became the instruments of British terror in Ireland. But he wants us to acknowledge that men like Michael Connelly existed and that, if they are part of his personal legacy, they are also part of the history of the country in which we live today.