The Sack of Balbriggan: The burning of a town that shocked the world 100 years ago

Actions by Crown forces brought renewed focus on Ireland’s struggle for independence

On the night of September 20th and 21st, 1920 events happened in Balbriggan which brought the Irish War of Independence to world attention and proved to be a disastrous setback for Britain’s image abroad.

It began in Smyth's pub in the centre of Balbriggan around 9pm. An altercation occurred between Royal Irish Constabulary Head Constable Peter Burke, from Glenamaddy, Co Galway who was drinking with his brother Sergeant William Burke and some locals in the pub.

The exact circumstances have never been determined, but at some stage around 11pm they left the pub and were shot dead by an IRA volunteer Michael Rock, the officer commanding the Fingal Brigade.

Balbriggan is situated about three kilometres from the nearby British army camp in Gormanstown just over the border in County Meath.


Shortly before midnight three lorry loads of Crown forces comprising of Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and RIC entered the town and began burning and looting premises.

They burned four pubs to the ground including Smyths, the Gladstone Inn, which was owned by the grandfather of former Fianna Fail TD Jim Glennon, and Derham's Pub which was owned by John Derham, a local Sinn Féin representative.

They then proceeded to Clonard Street where they destroyed more than 20 houses and shot them up while terrified residents fled into the fields.


They burned the Deeds and Templar hosiery factory which was the biggest employer in the town. It left 200 people out of work.

During the night they picked up many known Republican activists from the town and beat and tortured them before leaving the bodies of two of them, John Gibbons and Seamus Lawless, on the street.

In 1981 members of the local Balbriggan and District Historical Society interviewed eyewitnesses to the sack who had been children at the time.

"I remember waking up with the terrible noise and shouting and doors getting banged in. We were crossing the fields at the back of the house as the smoke was coming up," remembered Michael Hammond who was eight at the time.

“I remember everybody screaming,” Kathleen McGillivary recalled. “Two men have been shot in Smyth’s pub. There is going to be trouble tonight. Clonard Street was good and well in flames. The Black and Tans burned whatever they could get”.

John Lawless said his grandfather Seamus Lawless was beaten with the butt of a rifle, bayoneted and then shot before his body and that of Gibbons were dumped on the street. "It was such an horrific thing to do to these two men," he said.

There was dozens of such reprisals across Ireland during the War of Independence giving rise to a phrase which entered the lexicon for gratuitous violence by State forces "black and tannery".

Unfortunately for the British government, Balbriggan was immediately accessible to the international press which had gathered in Dublin to cover the war.

Images and video footage of the burned out houses and homeless civilians were circulated around the world.


They provoked outrage in Britain too among more liberal-minded people including the former British prime minister Herbert Asquith who compared the sack of Balbriggan to the acts of violence carried out by the German army on French and Belgian civilians at the beginning of the first World War.

Was not the sacrifice of the lives of 800,000 British soldiers who died in the Great War supposed to stop this sort of thing every happening again? Asquith pointedly asked.

In marking the centenary, President Michael D Higgins called attention to the history of British reprisals across its Empire.

The British used similar tactics in India and in suppressing 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.

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”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times