Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

The War against the R.I.C., 1919-21

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

The War against the R.I.C., 1919-21

Article excerpt

I

THE period from Easter Week in 1916 through the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923 continues to attract intense popular and scholarly interest, as reflected in a growing literature of historical treatments, local studies, and personal memoirs. The armed campaign that resulted in the eclipse of British administration in twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties occurred over thirty months during 1919-21, and in this conflict the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) was a principal target of the republican movement. The Irish war for independence, at the very least, was a struggle to remove any meaningful British presence from the daily lives of Irish citizens. The R.I.C. was the manifestation of British authority that Irish people encountered most regularly. (1) By 1919 the R.I.C. represented a century-old police tradition (2) that had recruited generations of young Irishmen to its ranks and had achieved substantial acceptance in Irish communities. (3) The local R.I.C. presence, usually in station parties of four or five men, enabled constables to develop an unrivalled local knowledge that became a direct threat to local Sinn Fein clubs and Volunteer bodies. (4) The independence movement challenged the R.I.C. by force and through an elaborate campaign to isolate policemen from the communities of which they had become part. Between March 1920 and December 1921 a separate category of R.I.C. statistics documented the determined republican campaign against the police. (5) This previously unanalyzed source adds depth to our understanding of how Irish nationalists accomplished the neutralization of the R.I.C., and it provides multiple insights into the day-to-day experiences of policemen during the low-intensity struggle that ended in the exhausted stalemate of July 1921.

II

Paramilitary organizing had been raising tensions in Ireland ever since the Ulster unionist movement of 1912, and by 1914 volunteers of all stripes were drilling with weapons. World War I and attendant emergency restrictions such as the Defence of the Realm Act (D.O.R.A.) further militarized the atmosphere. The 1916 Rising brought armed conflict between Irish nationalists and the R.I.C. for the first time in a half-century and helped to prepare Irish opinion for an armed campaign for independence. (6) Before the spring of 1916 members of the R.I.C. rarely faced armed resistance of any sort (7) and usually found it a practical inconvenience and a hindrance to good community relations to carry their carbines while on duty. But attacks on the police became more common during the years 1916-18. (8)

The pattern of police responses to the nationalist challenge was established in the wake of the Easter Rising. Aggressive actions against nationalist political activity by armed members of the R.I.C. contributed to a more violent environment. D.O.R.A. empowered the police to search for arms, arrest suspects, break up local meetings, and pull down nationalist flags and posters. These were striking departures from accustomed relations with communities that were increasingly nationalist and opposed to British war demands, especially conscription. (9) An R.I.C. officer, John Regan, who was posted to Bantry in 1919, found himself immediately "pressed to engage in searches, etc. I resented it, as there had been no activity of that kind prior to my arrival.... I thought then, and I think so still, that it was much easier to get information if neither side appeared to be particularly active...." (10) The police also relied increasingly on military assistance to suppress political activity. (11) The R.I.C. had been founded and organized as a rural police force to control agrarian crime, but the transition to confronting political organizations such as Sinn Fein and the Volunteers was pursued through emergency regulations and military-style tactics. The police were becoming alienated from their communities, even before violence accelerated in 1919. …

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