The War of Independence in County Wicklow: The war against the police by Brendan Flynn

Bray R.I.C. Barracks 1922
Source: Wicklow County Archives
Baltinglass circa 1904.
Photo: Eason Collection, National Library of Ireland - NLI Ref: EAS_3856 -
A cavalry patrol in the village of Enniskerry in Co. Wicklow.
Photo: By kind premission of National Library of Ireland - Irish Life magazine, 28 May 1920 - Full collection available at the National Library of Ireland.

Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Deaths and injuries in County Wicklow, and of Wicklow RIC-men elsewhere.

Many discussions about the War of Independence (WOI) overlook the fact that the British Army (BA) was never directly involved in it. At the time, the BA in Ireland were legally restricted from taking offensive military action against the IRA. The reason for this was that King George V had, in October 1914, officially sanctioned Ireland becoming an independent Commonwealth country. This situation vis-à-vis the military could only change with the introduction of martial law.  Although Ireland’s constitutional status was not officially enacted until 1922, its de-facto political status nevertheless restricted the actions of the British Army in Ireland during the period under discussion. John Redmond and his associates in the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) must be given credit for achieving that particular coup in 1914, as without it, Ireland would probably have been savagely suppressed by the military during the WOI.

Between 1919-1922 the BA in Ireland were confined to what would today be described as Aid to the Civil Power (ACP). In simple terms this means that when the police were carrying out actions that placed them in danger of armed attack by militants, the army accompanied them to give them military protection. On these occasions, the senior policeman present was effectively in charge of the entire party, so if he wanted the military to take action, he had to officially request the accompanying army officer to take that action.  At all times the police were in charge of the army, not the reverse.

The different stages of the War of Independence

The WOI itself can effectively be divided into three stages. The first of these stages was the Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. At the time, Government would have considered that action a failure, as they had brutally stamped out the rebellion; executed its leaders; and had scattered and/or imprisoned most of its rank-and-file.  Typically, however, British politicians grossly over-rated their success and failed to anticipate the long-term reaction of the Irish people. Instead of stamping out support for the movement, the reverse happened; and public opinion and the sympathies of the Irish people swung away from British policies, and towards radical nationalism.

The second stage began when the IRA re-focused its actions. Having failed in its military campaign, it now turned its attention to a new campaign of intimidation against the RIC. The aims of this second stage were two-fold. In the first instance it wanted to crush the rule of law and order throughout Ireland, particularly in rural areas, where the police knew everything that was happening in their locality. This was a result of rural policemen living cheek-to-jowl with local members of the IRA, who consequently knew everything about their actions. Monthly Reports for their district were submitted by County Inspectors to Headquarters which gave precise details of every aspect of security in their district. Between 1914-1918 the Monthly Reports submitted by the County Inspector for County Wicklow listed the activities of every member the IRA in County Wicklow by name with details of all of their movements.

An example of this is the monthly report for August 1915 which gives full details of an Irish Volunteer (IV) training camp that moved around the county during the month. Between the 4th and 14th August this camp was based initially in Glencree, before moving on to Roundwood, then on to Newcastle; and finally, to Enniskerry.  The report noted that most of the men were Dubliners, and that they were led by a man named O’Duffy who was assisted by a training sergeant named J.J. O’Connell. It further noted that the suspect Desmond Fitzgerald of Enniskerry had attended the camp. A second example of this intelligence is the report of May 1916 which stated that there were 68 Irish Volunteers in County Wicklow in two branches; one of which was in Bray and the other in Baltinglass. In contrast to this the National Volunteers had 1612 members in twenty-five branches. However, following the Rebellion this pattern began to change and by June 1916 the report noted that a great number of young men were wearing Sinn Fein badges or buttons. The Inspector added that this did not necessarily imply anything more than natural sympathy, saying that it was probably mere bravado! However, the later closure of rural RIC Barracks greatly helped the operations of the IRA in the county, as it reduced the quantity and quality of police intelligence.

The Third Stage: The Black and Tan War

In 1919 the IRA began issuing death threats to policemen and their families throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. This was followed by a long campaign of attacks on police barracks and patrols, and the murder of individual policemen who were temporarily isolated from their comrades.  The Government responded to this campaign by closing all rural Police Barracks that were isolated and difficult to defend. In a tit-for-tat response, The IRA burned these abandoned buildings under the cover of darkness. When the Government closed Newtownmountkennedy Police Barracks in 1919, it became the tenth rural police station in County Wicklow to be closed.  Any dispassionate analysis of this move surely indicates that the British Government were no longer trying to win a war in Ireland; it was merely trying to get out of the country as painlessly as possible. The nett result of this spiralling campaign saw the deaths of 15 policemen in Ireland during 1919. The campaign then intensified and the following year the number of policemen killed rose to 178; rising still further to 241 in 1921. 1922 saw a further 59 policemen killed. A total of 493 Irish policemen were murdered by the IRA during this Third-phase campaign. At this point it is worth remembering that within what is now the Republic of Ireland almost all rank-and-file RIC policemen were Roman Catholic Irishmen, and very large numbers of them were the sons of small-farmers.

The effects on ordinary Irish policemen was profound. Unsettled by the political position in which they had been placed, large numbers of policemen began to resign, while recruiting into the force also dwindled dramatically.

English recruits

Disturbed by this trend, Government decided to replace them with English recruits.  The reasons for making this decision were two-fold. Firstly, it would provide a short-term solution to the manpower problem in the Irish police force. This problem was, after all, only temporary, as the responsibility for providing a police-force would soon lie with the new Irish Government. Secondly, the post-war slump in the British economy saw millions of out-of-work Britons, most of whom were veterans of the Great War. Many of these men were literally starving for want of paid employment, and made the perfect recruits to temporarily bolster the police force in Ireland.

In order to distinguish between existing RIC policemen who were permanent, pensionable employees, and the new temporary force, who were not; an Auxiliary Division of the RIC was formed. Two different types of ex-soldier were recruited. 2,200 ex-officers were recruited at a wage of one pound per day; and many thousands of ex-enlisted men were also recruited at a half that wage. Initially not enough RIC uniforms could be supplied to everyone, so the first of the new recruits were allowed wear their old army uniforms, with just the black cap and belt of the RIC to show they were policemen. Later recruits were issued with full RIC uniforms. In typical Irish fashion, the earlier recruits were nick-named Black-and-Tans, because of the mixed uniforms. The nickname stuck, and went on to become synonymous with the entire Auxiliary Division.

The Auxiliaries were not popular with either the native Irish policemen, or the general public. This distrust/dislike could even be seen in County Wicklow, which Government regarded as very peaceful county. The reality is that many of these men did not have the communication skills necessary to deal with rural Irish people. Ultimately this flaw stripped them of the support of the ordinary Wicklow man and woman. Denied legitimacy by the people they were here to protect, the Auxiliaries ultimately behaved badly and acted like bullies.


In December 1921 a Dunlavin Justice of the Peace (JP) named R.G. Dixon was shot dead in his home during an attempted robbery by two Auxiliaries named William Mitchell and Arthur Hardie. Both men were detained in the local police station, where Hardie wrote a confession admitting his guilt before shooting himself dead. In his confession he claimed that Mitchell was innocent of the murder. This did not save Mitchell, who was later hanged in Mountjoy Jail in for his part in the crime.


Other incidents involving Auxiliaries include the death of 75845 Constable Frederick Cormer, which took place in Rathdrum, County Wicklow. On July 8th 1921 three policemen were shopping at Fair Green, when they were ambushed by three armed men. All three Auxiliaries were wounded and were later taken to Rathdrum RIC Barracks, where Cormer died from his wounds. He was a native of Middlesex, and was just twenty years of age.  76402 Constable Thomas F. Iken was another Auxiliary to die in Wicklow. He was born in Essex and committed suicide in August 1921.


Three other Auxiliaries were shot during an attack on Baltinglass Police Barracks on January 24th 1920. Constables McGlynn and McPartlin were both wounded, but survived. 67903 Constable James Malynn, originally from Cork, was also wounded, but later died from his wounds in Mercers Hospital in Dublin. He had previously been a policeman in Hull in England, and was afterwards buried in Sheffield. The procedure for such attacks at the time was for somebody to knock on the barracks door, and when it opened, all the gunmen outside would open fire through the door at the same time. This is what happened in Baltinglass. Unfortunately for Malynn, he was the man who opened the door.

Policemen who were natives of County Wicklow who died or were injured (eight killed and three wounded)

Traditionally, many natives of County Wicklow served in the RIC, as indeed did others from every county in Ireland. Unfortunately, some of these were either killed or injured during this campaign. These include the following:

  • Brady, John Edward, 55744 RIC Sergeant, age 50. He was wounded while defending Rush RIC Barracks,
  • County Dublin on May 5th 1920 and died of his wounds the same day. He was born in Bray, County Wicklow, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, County Dublin.
  • Dowling, Michael James, 67499 RIC Constable, aged 30. Killed in an ambush at Blackwood, County Roscommon on April 11th 1921.  A second constable was also killed and their sergeant wounded. Dowling was a 30-year old single man from Arklow Co. Wicklow. His brother, who was also an ex-policeman, had been shot dead in Arklow the previous year.
  • Doyle, Garret, 66768 RIC Constable, age 34. Wounded at Rathkeale, County Limerick on March 10th 1920. He was born in County Wicklow.
  • Gunn, John, 52404 RIC ex-Sergeant, was shot dead at his home in Ennis, County Clare on April 23rd 1922. Prior to retiring, he had served with the RIC in Ennis for 33 years. He was aged 52, and was a native of Arklow, County Wicklow.
  • Holmes, RIC Sergeant, Rathdrum. His son Constable Holmes RIC, Rathdrum was WIA at Kilmallock, County Cork. A second son was also a policeman based in Rathdrum.
  • Miller, John, 71096, RIC Constable, aged 22. He was part of a RIC patrol ambushed at Inches Cross, County Tipperary, on November 13th 1920. Four of the constables were killed, including Miller, who died of his wounds the following day. He was a native of County Wicklow.
  • Redmond, Robert, 78135 RIC Constable, aged 43. He was shot and wounded in Killarney Street, Dublin on May 14th 1921. He died while being taken to hospital and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. He was a native of County Wicklow.
  • Roberts, RIC Constable Joshua, a native of Rathdrum, was WIA in an attack on Ballylanders RIC Barracks, County Limerick in May 1920. He had served in the war and had been wounded twice. His brother and father were also serving in the RIC. All lived in Rathdrum.
  • Shea, Ambrose, 57356 RIC Sergeant, aged 46. Killed in an attack on Rosscarbery RIC Barracks, County Cork on March 31st 1921. One other constable was killed in the attack, with a further nine constables wounded. He was a native of County Wicklow.
  • Smyth, Anthony (Frederick Gordon), 63998 RIC Constable, born in County Carlow. He lived in Rathdrum with his parents Edward H. and Mrs. Smyth, of Grove Hall, Rathdrum, County Wicklow. Anthony was killed whilst on duty in a traffic accident at Gormanstown Camp on January 9th 1921, aged 22.
  • Wymes, John, 49792 RIC Constable. Killed in an ambush at Loughlynn, County Roscommon on April 7th 1921. He was a native of County Wicklow.

A total of eight policemen died who were natives of County Wicklow, with another three wounded.

RIC and military killed and wounded in County Wicklow

At this period of our history, policemen were not allowed to serve in their native counties. Thus all the policemen who were killed or injured in County Wicklow hailed from other counties. These include the following:

  • Doherty, Daniel, RIC Constable, wounded at Rathdrum on February 13th 1920.
  • Fitzgerald, John, 76431 RIC Constable, murdered on the Murrough, Wicklow Town on July 31st 1921.
  • He was sitting, off duty, talking to some girls when he was approached by some gunmen and shot dead. He reportedly told his killers he was unarmed just before he was shot. He was a native of Millstreet, County Galway, and was just 18 years-old when he was murdered.
  • Malynn, Constable RIC, WIA in an attack on Baltinglass RIC Barracks in January 1920. He was shot in the arm.
  • McDowell, Robert, Special Constable RIC, murdered by gunmen outside the home of a relative at Windgates, Greystones. He was recovering from a serious illness in his cousin’s house, when gunmen called, took him out into the lane, and shot him dead on May 25th 1922.
  • McFarland, Constable RIC, WIA in an attack of Baltinglass RIC Barracks in January 1920. He was shot in the hand.
  • Mulligan, RIC Constable. Wounded at Rathdrum, County Wicklow February 13th 1920.
  • Murphy, RIC Constable, Baltinglass Police Station. He enlisted in the army, was wounded in 1915, and was discharged back to the police station in Baltinglass.
  • Barnes, Private James A., Welch Regiment, British Army. He was accidently shot dead by a comrade while on guard duty at Kynocks Munitions Factory, Arklow. The accident took place in February 1920 as a result of an accidental discharge.

Totals: Two dead and four wounded.

Civilians from Wicklow who were killed or wounded during this period

Stephen Clarke, who was an ex-soldier, was shot dead in Brunswick Street, Dublin during an IRA ambush of Auxiliaries, one of whom was killed, with another five wounded. Three civilians were also killed, with several more wounded. Clarke apparently went to the aid of an elderly woman named Mrs. Morgan, who had just been shot.  He was himself shot in the neck and died shortly afterwards. He had married a girl named Hanlon from Castle Street, Wicklow several years before and had one infant child.

In June 1922 a vicious murder occurred at the farm of Colonel D’Oyley Battley at Windgates, Bray, where the young man worked. The victim was Robert McDowell aged 25, of Templecarrig, Greystones. A number of men called to his house at 3 a.m., took him away from his wife and shot him outside on the road. The apparent excuse for this barbaric murder was the accusation that he was a police officer with the RUC. This was seemingly based on his accent and little else.  His father worked for Colonel D’oyley Battley and lived at Templecarrig. The young man had been living with his father for the previous seventeen years and had got married just six weeks before his death.

The British Army in County Wicklow 1915-1922

During the war, the British War Office declared all munition works to be vital installations. This automatically meant that they had to be permanently protected by the military. At Kynocks Munition Works in Arklow that protection was provided throughout the war by a garrison battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. However, from 1919 onwards Government began replacing these Irish units with British regiments, and small elements of the Lancashire Regiment was stationed there between 1919-1920.    This unit also had small groups of soldiers in Wicklow Jail and Avondale in Rathdrum in May 1920. These were later replaced by the Welch Regiment, and a soldier of this unit named Private James A. Barnes was accidently killed by a comrade while on sentry duty in Arklow in February 1920. His weapon accidentally discharged. The Lancashire’s were in turn replaced by the Berkshire Regiment, who occupied Avondale in Rathdrum. Within a month of this posting, Martial Law was introduced into County Wicklow and a new occupation scheme was introduced into Ireland in which each county would be occupied by just one regiment. County Wicklow was allocated the Cheshire Regiment.

This new arrangement didn’t start off very well, as the soldiers seemed poorly led and appeared to lack discipline. Within a week, clashes occurred between these soldiers and residents of Newtownmountkennedy. It supposedly began with an argument between some of the troops and some ex-soldiers from Newtown (probably about the war), and the local men won the argument by a clear margin. The following Friday whilst a patrol drove through the town, some of the English soldiers responded to their defeat by promiscuously firing about 30 shots in the air without hitting anything. While they were clearly making a point at the time, they were also demonstrating an incredible lack of leadership and discipline.  This was followed that same week by an incident with Wilsons Circus. As it left Wicklow Town one of their caravan’s was flying a Sinn Fein flag.  The caravans met some military in a motor at Rathmore near Ashford, where some of the soldiers became offended by the flag and fired a number of shots at it, apparently without success. A week later Private Perry of the same regiment was accidently shot in the hand by a comrade with a pistol in Wicklow Goal. He later lost a finger. This accident can’t have been a surprise to anyone, given the poor leadership and discipline shown by these troops during the previous week.

A soldier of the Cheshire Regiment named Lance Corporal Williams committed suicide by shooting himself at Avondale House in April, and within a week 21-year-old Laurence O’Brien, of School Lane, Bray was shot outside his own house by these same troops. Later Memorials indicate that he was connected to IRA groups in Bray, and was killed on May 14th 1921. Contrary to earlier information, it also indicated that he lived in Cassel’s Lane, Bray.

In January 1922 a second soldier of the Cheshire Regiment died in County Wicklow when Private J. Smith was crushed to death in Arklow. Just a week later these troops left Wicklow for good when they were recalled to England.

Crime and the unspeakable in County Wicklow during the War of Independence

By comparison to other counties, County Wicklow got off rather lightly during the War of Independence. Many reasons contributed to this, but the most important of these related to its abiding affection for the Nationalist leader John Redmond, his brother Willie and his son William, particularly among older people.  All three of these MP’s were nationalist heroes, and there can be no doubt of the warm feeling that County Wicklow had for the two older brothers. For thirty years these two men had provided stalwart leadership for nationalists in County Wicklow, and nationalist Wicklow loved them for it.

In the vacuum brought about by the deaths of these two giants of nationalism in 1918, radicalism began to take hold in County Wicklow and as a result County Wicklow was Proclaimed on February 25th 1920. This had the effect of giving the military many of the ordinary powers of the police, and accounts for their more visible presence in County Wicklow over the next few months. An indication of the extent of this change was a report in the Irish Times of October 7th 1920 that announced a dramatic increase in crime by 600 % in County Wicklow. Among the many crimes committed were an arson attack on Glendalough House in May 1920 which completely destroyed the house; the theft of £200 from Synnott’s shop in Newtownmountkennedy in December 1919, and a raid for arms at the home of Robert Wingfield in which a rook rifle, shotgun, pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition were taken. Reginald Royse, who was an ex-District Inspector of police was attacked when he answered a knock on the door of his uncle’s house in Wicklow. A bullet was fired at him which went through his jacket.  Elsewhere the Dublin-Wicklow train was robbed and half-a-ton on gelignite and a number of motor cars were stolen from Kynocks Ammunition Works in Arklow. Looking at this list, I think it’s is fair to say that Wicklow was better managed by the police, than it was by the army!

While this type of crime was previously unheard of, the seismic-shock that it included the desecration of two Christian Churches in the county utterly appalled the people of Wicklow. The two buildings concerned were the Church of Ireland Church in Greystones and the Presbyterian Church in Wicklow Town. The latter outrage was particularly bitter, as it involved the complete destruction of the building. What made it even more shameful was that the very popular Reverend Matthews, Rector in Wicklow, had lost his only daughter to illness immediately before the war, and his two sons during the war. All of these were very popular members of Wicklow Golf Club, and were well respected throughout the area. Now he had also lost his church!

The nationalist leaders of the town all joined in decrying the attacks, but unfortunately none of them went so far as to identify the perpetrators.

Copyright Brendan Flynn June 2020.

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