26. The last post or the last straw? Commemorating the RIC in the Ireland of 2020.
In this essay, I put forward my own views regarding the divisive question of the R.I.C. commemoration that was proposed earlier this year. I’m aware that not everyone will agree with the sentiments, but I’m sure we can all agree to differ if need be! Enjoy, and go easy on the comments…
I first experienced it when I was a young man visiting the village of Maurach in the Austrian Alps. It was a vague feeling of unease – a sense that something wasn’t quite right. We were admiring the scenic and pristine village when we chanced upon the beautifully-kept war memorial, dedicated to locals who had fallen during World War One. I’d seen many war memorials before, but this was the first one where the statue of the lone soldier sported the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the even more instantly recognisable coal scuttle helmet which was also worn by their allies, the Germans. Though initially a little uneasy, when I thought about it, I realised that it was entirely natural for a local community to honour its war dead, and the list of names carved beneath the statue was very poignant. In hindsight, this was one of the first events that set me thinking about how we commemorate those deemed to be ‘on the wrong side’ of a history that is largely written by winners; a version of history where the losers often lose out again in the historiography that inevitably follows all conflicts.
Sixteen years later I experienced the same feeling while exploring the small town of Athens, Alabama. This time the lone soldier on the monument was proudly resplendent in the uniform of the Confederacy, but the list of names underneath was none the less poignant. Here, in the Heart of Dixie, these Confederate war casualties were honoured, and ‘the Stars and the Bars’ – the flag of the old South – was overtly flown. The vague unease was back as I walked around the town centre of Athens, thinking about the little I knew about the American Civil War. Indeed, I was not the only one to experience vague unease it would seem, as both statues to Confederate leaders and the flag as an emblem were to become huge bones of contention some sixteen years later, most notably during the racism-based furore surrounding the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Such episodes demonstrate that history – or at least the emotive reaction to history – is not altogether a thing of the past!
This has been shown to be true once again in the Ireland of 2020, where the proposal to hold an RIC commemoration has been met with open hostility. Ireland is an interesting case when it comes to history, perceptions of history and emotive reactions to history. Statues, monuments and memorials to the rebels who died in the failed rebellions of the past are dispersed throughout the land. United Irishman Michael Dwyer keeps watch over the Glen of Imaal in County Wicklow, Fenian John Devoy is placed on a plinth at the centre of Naas, County Kildare and 1916 leader James Connolly stands near Liberty Hall in Dublin. Militarily, the causes of all three leaders were failures. Dwyer was transported, Devoy was exiled and Connolly was executed. However, given the history of an Ireland independent since 1921, it was perhaps understandable that the new state would erect such memorials to people who were seen as its fallen martyrs – patriots who dedicated much of their lives (albeit unsuccessfully) to achieving that hard-won independence. In independent Ireland the statues of military losers were actually those of the real winners in the new state’s longue durée view of Irish history.
That longue durée view of Irish history was reinforced by the education system and by the teaching of history in the Irish Free State and later the Irish Republic. A simplistic version of Irish history where noble Gaels were outwitted by cunning ‘base Saxons’ appeared in many old textbooks. The ‘Troubles’ of 1919-23 were not addressed in classrooms until the new history syllabus was introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by which time new ‘Troubles’ had flared up in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the more balanced teaching of history was introduced a little too late. These new ‘Troubles’ would last some thirty years or so, and given the events north of the border during that time, the simplistic version of Irish history which had been instilled into Ireland’s older generation was very seductive. Television brought the actions of many participants, including the police, into people’s sitting rooms. Ominously for the present controversy, the acronym RUC made it easy for many people to equate the Northern Ireland police force with the old RIC. They even had Special Constables like their predecessors. A monochrome lens made it easier for people to come to terms with contemporary events and inherited biases were reinforced by violent episodes, principally but not totally confined to the Six Counties.
‘Decade of Centenaries’
Despite many hiccups along the way, the opening decades of the twenty-first century have seen more peaceful times in Northern Ireland. In 2013 the Republic of Ireland embarked on its so-called ‘Decade of Centenaries’. This began with the commemoration of the events surrounding the Dublin Lockout. The violent role of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, bolstered by RIC reinforcements from many other places, in helping to break the strike and protecting substitute labourers (‘scabs’ in the eyes of many people) came into focus during these commemorations. The later role of the police in opposing the rebels was also revealed during the centenary commemoration of the 1916 Rising. Indeed, one of the first, if not the first casualty of the Rising on Easter Monday was Constable James O’Brien of the DMP. As the country entered the current phase of the Decade of Centenaries, the centenary of the War of Independence of 1919-21, in which the IRA participated (another acronymic parallel with the Northern Ireland Troubles in many monochrome minds), it was inevitable that any proposed commemoration of the RIC would be closely scrutinised. Though they were Irishmen, the RIC represented the policies of the old British-governed state rather than the new Irish-governed one. Many RIC men may have been very honourable individuals, but in the eyes of many people they were on the British rather than the Irish side in a conflict also known as the Anglo-Irish War.
Of course, the real fly in the ointment for the majority of people in this controversy is the role of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans during this war. The Auxies and the Tans, whose ranks contained both Englishmen and Irishmen, were recruited into the RIC as temporary constables. They have a reputation for ferocity and atrocity rivalled by few groups in Irish history. Their deeds are up there (or perhaps ‘down there’ would be a better description) with Cromwell’s soldiers, the North Cork Militia and the Ancient Britons. Whether the proposed commemoration would exclude the Auxies and the Tans became a moot point. In the public’s perception, they were still RIC men and their ignoble deeds made them unworthy of commemoration. Temporary constables were still RIC constables in the same way that locum doctors were hospital doctors or substitute teachers were school teachers. Indeed, it is very difficult to argue with the logic of this argument, and rushed, belated statements to specify the exclusion of the temporary constables from the proposed commemoration seemed lame, weak and a little contrived to many people, whose outrage and indignation was plain to be seen. Social media was abuzz, much ink was used in newspapers and magazines and Irish television screens were full of the controversy. The plot thickened when historian, Professor Diarmuid Ferriter, staunchly maintained that neither he nor the expert advisory group of which he was a member never recommended or sanctioned such a commemorative event for the RIC. Meanwhile, the Wolfe Tones’ song Come out you black and tans climbed to number one in the Irish music charts and made the top three in the British ones.
The politicisation of the commemoration
The result was inevitable. As dignitary after dignitary announced that they would not attend the proposed event and the full fury of the storm broke on social and official media, the postponement of the event was announced. Minister Charlie Flanagan spoke on the television news, outlining his disappointment and his determination that the event would be held at some future date. Reaction among academics and history and heritage professionals has been mixed. One friend of mine, a well-known historian – we’ll call him Dr. Alistair – has gone on record to welcome the decision to postpone the event, and hopes that it will never be held. Another friend, whom we will call Dr. Bede, is also well known as a historian and author, and he has taken Dr. Alistair to task for inciting often volatile ‘amateur historians’. Dr. Bede argues for an inclusive approach to commemorations and reminds us that the RIC men were every bit as much a part of Irish history as the IRA men. Yesterday’s Irish Times carried a piece by John Downing, some of whose family were in the RIC, in which he stated ‘What has gone on in this country in recent days makes me shudder about our continued devotion to bad history’. Today’s Irish Times has Eamon Ó Cuív stating that the proposed commemoration will not be held if Fianna Fáil are in the next government. It seems that everyone has an opinion and the issue of commemoration has become acutely politicised.
Evan Comerford, in his excellent Master’s thesis on the RIC in County Kildare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (held in the library of Maynooth University), has found that ‘the RIC were the closest thing to an everyday, civil police force that would ever exist in an Ireland still tied to the Union’. In other words, for the most part, the RIC were ordinary Irishmen carrying out ordinary police work. The key phrase here is ‘for the most part’. During times of political turmoil, the RIC were involved in work that was could not be described as ‘ordinary’. Thus, the image of the RIC man catching the local poacher or jailing the local drunkard for the night has been superseded in many people’s minds by the image of the RIC man guarding grain-laden boats leaving the country during the Famine or enforcing evictions during the Land War. Perhaps the Irish state’s approach to the teaching of history has made this supersession easier. In addition, extant police reports from the period covered in the Decade of Centenaries makes it clear that the RIC were the eyes and ears of the British authorities at all kinds of nationalist and republican events, meetings and gatherings. This was one reason why the IRA deliberately targeted them during the War of Independence. Then, of course, the advent of the Auxies and Tans blackened the name of force in popular perceptions. Their misdeeds became part of twentieth-century Irish folklore. Given all of these factors, the uproar surrounding the proposed commemoration was perhaps more predictable than many of those in authority, whose aim was evidently to have an inclusive event, seemed to have anticipated.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the whole debacle, I think it is simply this: inclusivity cannot be imposed on people. For it to work, inclusivity must be accepted and welcomed by everyone. As mentioned already, history – or at least the emotive reaction to history – is not altogether a thing of the past. In Ireland, emotions are running high at present, particularly among people who grew up in a newly-independent state, where the teaching of history and the tales passed down via family members reinforced the image of the treacherous RIC and the dastardly Auxies and Tans. There is a view that many Irish people are not ready to commemorate the RIC, but I think many people do not want to do so and perhaps will never be ready for such a commemoration. It is difficult to draw historical comparisons without being accused of being emotive oneself. Social media has carried phrases such as ‘Brit’, ‘West Brit’, ‘Blueshirt’ and even ‘Nazi’ in recent days. These are unhelpful, but one must understand that people have strongly-held, often entrenched views on the subject. Irish history can be very divisive.
Firstly, one must remember that the RIC men lived and worked in the same communities as Irish nationalists. Indeed, many of them were nationalists themselves. They also lived side by side with Irish republicans. Some possibly even sympathised with republican aspirations. The close community links of the RIC and their opponents make commemoration very sensitive. Thus, the war memorial in Maurach cannot be taken as a parallel. The Austrian soldiers died fighting foreign foes. The war memorial in Athens is also dissimilar – the American Civil War is also referred to, with good reason, as ‘The War between the States’. The Athens Confederates died at the hands of other Americans, but Alabama is far from any Northern state, so the Union soldiers who killed them were strangers. This was not the case in Ireland. One hesitates to suggest a parallel from World War Two, particularly with the term ‘Nazi floating around so freely on social media, but I will venture to do so. One could try to draw parallels to the Milice (paramilitaries who fought against the Resistance in Vichy France) but perhaps even the ordinary police force of Vichy France could illuminate the situation somewhat. These unremarkable Frenchmen were keeping law and order in their part of the country – but ultimately it was at the behest of their German masters. They were perceived as collaborators after the fall of the Vichy government. The point here is nothing to do with the Nazi credentials of either the Germans or the police; it is simply that the Vichy police carried out the policies of an occupying force and were disliked by many, in much the same way as Jewish tax collectors in the gospel were evidently despised because they served the Roman conquerors. Similarly, in the eyes of many, the Irish RIC carried out a British agenda: I think ultimately this is why the proposed event met with so much hostility at a time when Ireland is commemorating its birth as an independent nation.
Commemoration and the narrative of our past
The whole debacle serves as a timely reminder of the power of historical perceptions. Unlike Dr. Bede, I do not dismiss ‘amateur historians’; I actually respect them for trying to make sense of our past. It is almost impossible to un-learn history, and inherited biases will always lurk beneath the surface. The challenge is to open the minds of all historians, whether ‘amateur’ or ‘professional’. ‘Revisionism’ and ‘post-revisionism’ are terms much bandied about in relation to Irish history – but neither can throw the baby out with the bathwater. Balanced and nuanced views of the fine brush strokes of our history are vital and progressive, but one cannot overlook the broad brush strokes of the overall narrative of our past. Our government has possibly learned this fact from the current controversy. One thing is certain – they ignore this debacle and its lessons at their peril. Personally, I am ambivalent in my attitude to the proposed commemoration. Many events and causes with which I disagree are celebrated and commemorated by the Irish state, but I choose not to attend these events. People who object to the RIC commemoration need not attend it either and, in the final analysis, perhaps a paucity of attendees would actually speak more eloquently regarding their objections than the present unseemly situation does. However, when feelings run high, emotions are stirred and positions are extremely entrenched, many people want to have their say and discord and division may ensue. I think this is self-evident in the case of the proposed RIC commemoration and the fallout that it has engendered.
Perhaps the RIC commemoration will eventually take place. Commemoratively, perhaps the last post will be sounded for the RIC men. Governmentally, perhaps the controversy will be the last straw for the frail Fine Gael-Independents coalition arrangement. Politically, perhaps the event will be the last waltz for the current Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil Confidence and Supply arrangement. Personally, perhaps someday I will visit a monument somewhere in Ireland to the RIC men who died in the line of duty. It remains to be seen whether the familiar vague feeling of unease returns!