President Higgins says British must face up to their history of reprisals

President says sack of Balbriggan 100 years ago was rooted in ideas of superiority

Reprisal-based violence was a key element of the military imperialist strategy throughout the British Empire, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Writing on the centenary of the sack of Balbriggan, which occurred 100 years ago this weekend, President Higgins said reprisals by British forces were not unique to Ireland.

The British used similar tactics in India and in supressing the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952 and in 1956 in Cyprus. It was also a policy carried out by the United States during the Vietnam war, the president pointed out.

On the night of September 20th and 21st, Crown forces based in nearby Gormanston, Co Meath went on the rampage in Balbriggan.


Their actions were in response to the shooting dead of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) District Inspector Peter Burke and the wounding of his brother Sergeant William Burke in Smyth's bar (now the Millrace) in the town.

The Black and Tans burned a whole street of houses, four pubs and the Deeds and Templar hosiery factory which was the biggest employer in the town. It left 200 people out of work.

They also shot dead two Republican activists, Seán Gibbons and Séamus Lawless and left their bodies on the steet.

Balbriggan’s proximity to Dublin meant that many foreign correspondents were quickly on the scene and the sack made international headlines.

Recalling the violence, President Higgins said British reprisals were rooted in “ideological assumptions, of superiority and inferiority in terms of race, culture or capacity, in the notion of the collective as a disloyal, hopeless or threatening version of the ‘other’.”

The president quoted from the Scottish philosopher David Hume who wrote in his History of England: "The Irish from the beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarianism and ignorance; and as they were never conquered, even, indeed, by the Romans from whom all the Western world derives its culture, they continued still in the most rude state of society and were distinguished by those vices to which human nature, not tamed by education, nor restrained by laws, is for ever subject."

The president continued: "Indeed, a century later, Winston Churchill would write, 'We have always found the Irish to be a bit odd. They refuse to be English'. The 'othering' of Irish people and their culture was undeniably ingrained at all levels of British society."

The president described the Sack of Balbriggan as an “act of collective punishment, a reprisal, a term that would become the mark of a policy aimed at subjugation, installation of fear in a public that had in its midst those that sought independence”.

He said even the former British prime minister Herbert Asquith deplored the violence and compared it to what had happened in France and Belgium during the First World War.

President Higgins said it was important that the British recognised these facts about their previous relationship to Ireland.

“If we are to be serious about ethical remembrance and the creation of diverse, complex, shared memory at peace with the past in the interest of a present or future understanding, it is important to recognise these facts. It constitutes a prerequisite for any meaningful healing.”

“We must all acknowledge that such acts of violence would be judged illegal by today’s international standards of war and conflict.”

He said that it is only through “forms of ethical remembering that we can avoid retreating to the blinding categories of censure or denunciation, or indeed revenge and bitterness, that blighted this island for so long.

"Let us all continue with, indeed embrace, the new beginning that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement represented as we continue to carve out our peaceful co-existence on the island of Ireland."

The continuing restrictions in Dublin means that all plans to commemorate the centenary by the Balbriggan and District Historical Society have been cancelled, including a mass scheduled for Sunday.

Instead Professor Diarmaid Ferriter and local historians Frank Whearity and Jim Walsh recorded a commemorative seminar which will be broadcast on YouTube at a later date.

The Rineen ambush, the largest of the War of Independence to date, and the reprisals that followed will be marked on Tuesday with the unveiling of a plaque at Flanagan's Bar in Lahinch, Co Clare on September 22nd, the centenary of the ambush.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times