Seán Moncrieff: A republican daughter of an RIC man? History is messy

My mother was contradictory. Just like the history she lived through

Members of the Auxiliary division, founded in July 1920.  Photograph: Bettmann

Members of the Auxiliary division, founded in July 1920. Photograph: Bettmann

 

My mother was quite the armchair republican. Not an IRA supporter – she wouldn’t go that far – but certainly of the entrenched view that the British hated the Irish and always would. She was particularly fond of quoting that notorious sign “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”: she had moved to London just after the second World War and probably saw many versions of it.

As to whether she personally experienced any degree of prejudice during her many years in England is less clear. Before marrying my father, she was a teacher in a rather posh Catholic school in Somerset, which would have been far from the typical Irish immigrant experience of the time.

I never met my grandfather – he died before I was born – so I can’t tell you whether he joined up out of a love of empire or, more likely, because it was one of the few job opportunities available

Nonetheless, while barely a woman, she had arrived from a village in Mayo and into a massive city where most of the Irish lived in ghettos and were routinely regarded as less than fully human. She never got over that shock.

When we were kids living in London, the idea was pounded into us – sometimes literally – that we were outsiders in a mostly hostile land, due to our Irishness and Catholicism. She would occasionally accept that there were some “good living” ones, but mostly, the British would all end up in hell.

But inevitably, it was more complicated than that. She ended up marrying a Scotsman, and a Protestant to boot, (though she made sure he converted) and when we moved back to Ireland, she didn’t seem relieved to return home. Temperamentally, she didn’t lean towards happiness anyway. But it seemed as if her feeling of being an outsider came with her; though now it was informed by her family background because her father had been a member of the RIC.

Memory is highly unreliable, particularly mine, but I think I only became aware of this when I was a teenager, when my mother discovered that the mother of a friend of mine was also the daughter of an RIC man. It seemed to create a bond between the women: part of their family biographies that they both felt they had to be circumspect about. Not because they were ashamed; more because of a feeling that Ireland didn’t understand that life back then wasn’t quite so black and white.

I never met my grandfather – he died before I was born – so I can’t tell you whether he joined up out of a love of empire or, more likely, because it was one of the few job opportunities available. Family lore has it that he retired early due to an injury from an IRA attack; an injury that eventually killed him. That he was also fond of a drink was quietly ignored. What I can tell you is that my mother always defended him and always maintained that he and the men he worked with in the RIC had been unfairly vilified by history.

This is not to argue that the RIC wasn’t involved in atrocities or evictions or wasn’t used as an arm of British oppression. Of course it was. But it was also staffed exclusively by thousands of Irish people

And she saw no contradiction between this and her other republican views because she wasn’t singularly defined by the choices her father made, or by her experiences in England. She saw no contradiction because there isn’t one. History, as people live through it, is messy and shaded. Life always is.

As you may know, an RIC commemoration event was abandoned last year. It was poorly timed and prompted considerable political revolt. The comfortingly reductive, good-guys-bad-guys view of history won out. This is not to argue that the RIC wasn’t involved in atrocities or evictions or wasn’t used as an arm of British oppression. Of course it was. But it was also staffed exclusively by thousands of Irish people, each with their own reason for joining up; each of whom made daily choices as to how they would act.  

Now the event will take place this April in London, which is historically consistent. Like so many other of the messy problems we have had had to deal with in this country, here’s another one we’ve exported to Britain.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.