Royal Irish Constabulary - The Irish War of Independence

The Irish War of Independence

For more details on this topic, see Irish War of Independence.

The Sinn Féin triumph in the general election of 1918 (the coupon election), winning 73 out of the 105 Irish seats, was followed by the Sinn Féin members' decision to convene themselves as the First Dáil, a new parliament. This body first met at the Mansion House, Dublin, on 21 January 1919, and announced a unilateral declaration of independence. This created a dramatically new political reality in Ireland.

On the day the new parliament first met, two RIC policemen, Constables Patrick MacDonnell and James O'Connell, were killed at Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary, by an IRA raiding party, while on duty guarding dynamite in transit to the local mines. This event marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. The Irish Republican Army under the leadership of Michael Collins began systematic attacks on British government forces. While the British Army controlled the cities of Ireland, the RIC bore the brunt of such assaults in the provinces. The RIC were especially targeted because of their intelligence value to the British administration.

From the autumn of 1919 onwards, the RIC was forced to abandon its barracks in isolated areas. A national personal boycott of members of the force was declared by the IRA. The Dáil Courts and alternative legal enforcement units were set up by republicans. RIC members were threatened, and many were assassinated. Many members of the force resigned or began co-operating with the IRA. In October 1920, RIC wages were increased to compensate for increased hardship and cost of living increases. In rural areas, many small shopkeepers refused to serve the RIC, forcing them to obtain their food and other necessities miles away.

By October 1920, according to UK government sources, 117 RIC members had been killed and 185 wounded. Over a three month period during the same year, 600 RIC men resigned from the force of 9,500. In the first quarter of 1920, 500 police barracks and huts in outlying areas were evacuated. The IRA had destroyed over 400 of these by the end of June to prevent their subsequent reuse.

The consequence of this was the removal of RIC authority in many outlying areas. This allowed the IRA to assert political control over these areas. Large houses were burned, often to punish their owners for allowing them to be used for policing or military purposes or as revenge for the government-backed burning of republican homes. Much of the country's rich architectural heritage was destroyed.

To reinforce the much reduced and demoralised police the United Kingdom government recruited returned World War I veterans from English and Scottish cities. They were sent to Ireland in 1920, to form a police reserve unit which became known as the "Black and Tans" and the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Paddy O'Shea, the son of a regular RIC sergeant, described these reinforcements as being "both a plague and a Godsend. They brought help but frightened even those they had come to help". Some regular RIC men resigned in protest at the often brutal and undisciplined behaviour of the new recruits.

Some RIC officers co-operated with the IRA, either out of political conviction, fear for their lives and welfare, or a combination of both. A raid on an RIC barracks in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in June 1920, was carried out with the help of sympathetic RIC men. The barracks in Schull, County Cork, was captured with similar inside aid. The IRA even had spies within the upper echelon at Dublin Castle.

In December 1920, the Government of Ireland Act was proclaimed amid the fighting. The Parliament of Northern Ireland convened. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved by Dáil Éireann, the Irish Free State was formed, from which the northeast immediately removed itself, and Northern Ireland remained in the UK. The Irish Free State became an independent Dominion within the Empire.

In January 1922 the British and Irish delegations agreed to disband the RIC. Phased disbandments began within a few weeks with RIC personnel both regular and auxiliary being withdrawn to six centres in southern Ireland. On 2 April 1922 the force formally ceased to exist, although the actual process was not completed until August that year. The RIC was replaced by the Civic Guard (renamed the Garda Síochána the following year) in the Irish Free State and by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland.

Over eight hundred ex-RIC men joined the new RUC in Northern Ireland. This initially resulted in an RUC force that was over forty percent Roman Catholic at its inception.

Some RIC men joined the Garda Síochána. Many of these men had assisted IRA operations in various ways. Some retired and the Irish Free State paid their pensions as provided for in the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty agreement. Others, still faced with threats of violent reprisals, emigrated with their families to Great Britain or other parts of the Empire, most often to police forces in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. A number of these men joined the Palestine Gendarmerie, which was recruiting in the UK at this time.

The celebrated stage and film actor Stanley Holloway joined the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920, but left a year later shortly before its disbandment in 1922 in the midst of the Anglo-Irish War.

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