Ireland's silent assassinations


When I was a schoolboy - perhaps eight or nine years old - Brother Creed, the gentle and learned man who was the superior of St Columba's Christian Brothers school in Tullamore, came into our classroom to tell us about an important event which was due to take place very soon. Archbishop Patrick Cronin, who had grown up in our town (indeed, he had attended as a pupil in the very rooms in which we sat) was returning from the missions for an extended visit. It would be a great triumph for the town and a proud moment for St Columba's. Archbishop Cronin had led the Columban Fathers into spiritually uncharted territories in the Philippines, winning countless souls for the faith.

On the appointed evening of the Archbishop's return, large crowds assembled at the urban boundary to cheer his arrival. I have a recollection of a rather spare figure in the back of a dark saloon, raising his hand to bestow a blessing on the crowd as he passed along the Arden Road. Over the weeks of his visit, as I recall it, Archbishop Cronin did not go about much, using his precious leave to rest at his family's home. But his Masses were celebrity events and those who heard him preach considered themselves privileged.

In our classrooms at St Columba's, maps of the Philippines were hung on the walls and teachers read articles from The Far East, that we might better appreciate the tasks faced by Irish missionaries and the great achievments of Archbishop Cronin and his fellow Columbans. Older people knew about it, of course. But nobody explained about Archbishop Cronin's background or family. The adults of the town - or a good many of them - would have known well enough. What nobody told us - and what I only learned when reading Mr Abbott's book - was that Archbishop Cronin's father, RIC Sergeant Henry Cronin, had been shot dead in October 1920 in the very street through which his son processed to the cheers of the townspeople, almost 40 years later.

The narrative of Sergeant Cronin's death, in Mr Abbott's book, is spare but sufficient.

31st October 1920, Tullamore, King's County.

Henry Cronin Sgt 56371.

The sergeant was shot and wounded three times near his home in Henry Street, Tullamore, as he was leaving to go to the RIC barracks. He died on the 1st November 1920 at 7.45 pm in the County Infirmary. After the shooting the Sergeant's wife ran out into the street and met her husband who fell into her arms, saying, `I'm shot, I'm shot'. It was later found that he had been shot at very close range as his clothing showed signs of having been singed.

Sergeant Cronin was 47 and from Co Cork. Young Patrick would have been eight when his father was murdered outside the family home at Henry Street, later re-named O'Carroll Street. My friends and I walked or cycled past the spot four times a day going to and coming from school. No plaque or marker indicated the spot. None of us ever knew that such a thing had happened. The murder of Sergeant Henry Cronin was simply not spoken of. It was if he had never existed.

It must have been a difficult existence for young Patrick. It is a cruel blow to a young boy to lose his father. But one can only imagine the pain of a violent loss which is then wiped aside by the tide of history. Many grieving spouses and children in Northern Ireland would empathise, no doubt. I like to think that young Patrick must have had an extraordinarily strong mother and family. Some have spoken to me in admiring terms of his mother's great humanity, forgiveness and determination that her young family would hold together and survive. And I know the Cronins had good and supportive neighbours, as one often had in Ireland at that time, who put aside considerations of politics and alignments to help them adjust to the circumstances in which they now found themselves.

The murder of Sergeant Cronin was but one of the 493 fatal police casualties recorded by Mr Abbott in the period January 1919 to June 1922 across the island of Ireland. The author, himself a serving RUC inspector, presents his painstaking survey chronologically, starting with the shootings at Soloheadbeg, in Co Tipperary, of Constables McDonnell and O'Connell by members of the South Tipperary Brigade of the IRA. He defines the scope of his survey very precisely. It does not include men who were shot accidentally, either by themselves or their comrades. Nor does it include the 18 men who were kidnapped, believed killed and whose remains have never been located. The style is spare, unemotional and without any trace of judgment or political partisanship.

Nowhere in Ireland is there any memorial or roll of honour for the police casualties of Ireland's troubles of the 1919-1922 period. In spite of early affirmations by Westminster politicians that proposals for such a memorial would be looked on with approval, the only public mark of appreciation comprises two small plaques, one at Westminster Cathedral, the other in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, London.

Differing views of modern Irish history will cause readers to take varied interpretations of Mr Abbott's bare-bones narrative. Some of the deaths recorded undoubtedly qualify as casualties of action, in a straightforward military sense. The IRA, often numerically stronger but poorly equipped, took on sometimes quite considerable forces in the field. Thus, some of Mr Abbott's reports include accounts of ambushes in which many policemen died together. At Carrowkennedy, Co Mayo, for example, seven policemen were killed in a three-and-a-half-hour engagement on June 2nd 1921. Those who died included District Inspector Stevenson, aged 21, three veteran RIC constables with more than 20 years' service each and three new recruits brought in as part of the "auxiliary" reinforcement of the police.

But the great majority of casualties appear to have been inflicted in circumstances which reflected little of courage or strategic genius on the part of their attackers. Mr Abbott's book is largely a chronicle of assassination; men shot down singly or in pairs, as they left their homes, or at church, or having a drink in a public house.

Some were shot down as part of the campaign for national independence. Others were targeted in a visceral surge which combined elements of land-hunger, envy and score-settling. Sergeant Cronin, according to some local sources, was shot for "making notes". One may only speculate on the motives for the murder, in June 1921, of former Constable Tom Hannon, 61547, whose body was found in a bog near Philipstown, now Daingean, just eight miles from Tullamore. He was 38 and he had resigned from the RIC in 1913 to take over the management of the family farm. He had been shot in the right temple and his hands were tied together with a rope.

There is no memorial yet at Tullamore to Sergeant Cronin, although - perhaps significantly - his killing is recorded in the exhibits at the town's fine new Heritage Centre. Nor, as the author points out, is there any memorial to Tom Hannon or the 493 police casualties of the period. Mr Abbott's book is perhaps not a substitute. But it is more than a respectable start. And it is an immensely useful historical source and reference.

Conor Brady is editor of The Irish Times. His Guardians of the Peace (1974), a history of the Garda Siochana, has just been republished by Prendiville Books