State still cannot bring itself to honour the memory of RIC men
No formal acknowledgement of sacrifice made by RIC and DMP men
“A majority of RIC men were Catholics like their fellow countrymen and they probably had the same range of political opinions.”
‘To be forgotten is to die twice,” wrote the the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
Earlier this month a moving interdenominational service was held at Mount Argus church in Dublin to commemorate more than 550 policemen who lost their lives during the struggle for Irish independence a century ago.
It was the sixth year in a row that the ceremony, organised by retired gardaí, has taken place, but so far the Government has refused to make any formal acknowledgement of the sacrifice made by policemen who died during those terrible years.
It is bizarre that the State which has rightly honoured the Irishmen who fought in the British army during the first World War and even the British soldiers who died suppressing the rebels in 1916 cannot bring itself to honour the memory of Irish policemen killed in the line of duty.
To be fair the Garda Commissioner, the Policing Authority and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission were all represented at the ceremony. Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, whose great-grandfather was a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), was also there and Dublin MEP Brian Hayes has attended in previous years.
However, the State has failed to make any formal gesture in memory of the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) or the DMP killed often in appalling circumstances such as lying in a hospital bed, or coming from church with their families.
Some of them left a name behind them so that their praises are still sung while others left no memory and disappeared as though they had not existed
The usual objection to honouring the RIC is that a small number of its members engaged in brutal actions during the Black and Tan period. That is undoubtedly true but so too is the fact that some members of the Old IRA committed savage murders without any political justification. That does not invalidate all of the ceremonies that will take place in the coming years to commemorate the struggle for independence.
Forbearance and dignity
Conor Brady, one of the most knowledgeable historians of Irish policing, has pointed out that the RIC men generally conducted themselves with forbearance and dignity in the face of a ruthless terror campaign directed against them by Michael Collins. It was their unwillingness to respond in kind that prompted the British government to import the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to wage a counter-terror campaign.
A majority of RIC men were Catholics like their fellow countrymen and they probably had the same range of political opinions. Their primary loyalty was to their job of keeping the peace and serving the community rather than any political party or ideology.
An insight into the courage and sacrifice made by members of the RIC and the DMP can be found in Richard Abbott’s book Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-1922. Published over a decade ago it dispassionately chronicled the circumstances surrounding the death of almost every policeman killed during the struggle. It is an eye-opening work.
The apt first reading at the recent ceremony in Mount Argus was from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which begins with the words “let us praise illustrious people, our ancestors and their successive generations.” It goes on: “Some of them left a name behind them so that their praises are still sung while others left no memory and disappeared as though they had not existed. They are now as though they had never been, and so too their children after them.”
Retired gardaí Patrick McCarthy and Gerard Lovett have ensured over the past six years that the RIC and DMP men who died between 1916 and 1922 have not been erased entirely from the national memory.
Back in 1966 Jesuit priest Fr Francis Shaw, who was professor of early and medieval Irish at UCD, maintained that the dominant nationalist interpretation of history required the Irish people to disown their past and censure as unpatriotic the majority of their grandparents’ generation who were not attracted by new revolutionary ideas in 1916.
Men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot as traitors to their country – so be it
He pointed out that far more Irish people probably had ancestors in the RIC than in the volunteers during the years leading up to Irish independence period but their existence had been obliterated not just from the national memory, but in many cases from the memories of their descendants.
It is no coincidence that the only people who seem to care about honouring this crucial aspect of our past are retired members of the gardaí. They more than anybody else obviously understand the trauma suffered by policemen caught in the middle of a violent political struggle not of their making.
There is still time for the State to rectify its neglect. There indications that the committee overseeing the decade of centenaries is considering a way to commemorate all policemen, including the RIC and DMP, who have died serving the people of Ireland but decisions need to be made soon.
The last word is probably best left with Seán Ó Faoláin, one the greatest Irish writers of the 20th century and an IRA volunteer in the War of Independence whose father was RIC Constable Denis Whelan.
“Men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot as traitors to their country – so be it. Shot for cruel necessity – so be it. Shot to inspire necessary terror – so be it. But they were not traitors. They had their loyalties and stuck to them.”