100 YEARS AGO: The Listowel mutiny

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Volume 28

By Joseph E.A. Connell

Above: RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee. (Mercier Press)

The Irish Bulletin, a Dublin newspaper edited by Desmond FitzGerald, was one of the most effective propaganda arms for the IRA/Volunteers during the War of Independence. It was published daily from 11 November 1919 until the Truce. On 19 June 1920, it reported the words of Lt. Col. Gerald Brice Ferguson Smyth DSO, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Divisional Commander for Munster, who addressed RIC members at their barracks in Listowel:

‘Well, Men, I have something to tell you. Something I am sure you would not want your wives to hear. Sinn Féin has had all the sport up to the present, and we are going to have the sport now. The police have done splendid work, considering the odds against them … This is not enough, for as long as we remain on the defensive, so long will Sinn Féin have the whip hand. We must take the offensive and beat Sinn Féin with its own tactics. Martial law, applying to all Ireland, is coming into operation shortly, and our scheme of amalgamation must be complete by June 21st. If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there, the more the better. Police and military will patrol the country … They are not to confine themselves to the main roads, but make across the country, lie in ambush and, when civilians are seen approaching, shout “Hands up!” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties sometime. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man. In the past, policemen have got into trouble for giving evidence at coroners’ inquests. As a matter of fact coroners’ inquests are to be made illegal so that in future no policeman will be asked to give evidence at inquests. We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Féin. Are you men prepared to cooperate?’

Col. Smyth denied giving this speech in this form, but many RIC men remembered his words. A member of his audience, Constable Jeremiah Mee, replied: ‘By your accent, I take it you are an Englishman, and in your ignorance you forget you are addressing Irishmen. These, too, are English [taking off his cap, belt, and arms]. Take them too.’

Two days later the Irish Bulletin published lists of RIC men who had resigned. On 17 July it reported that Lt. Col. Smyth had been killed in the Cork City and County Club. On 11 October 1920, the Cairo Gang, a group of British intelligence officers, surprised Dan Breen and Seán Treacy outside the Drumcondra house of an IRA sympathiser, Prof. Carolan. Breen and Treacy escaped but killed two, including Major George O.S. Smyth, brother of Lt. Col. Gerald Smyth. Upon Lt. Col. Smyth’s death, Major Smyth had requested a transfer from Egypt to Ireland and to go after Breen and Treacy, whom he mistakenly blamed for his brother’s death. Breen was wounded several times and badly cut on a broken windowpane in making his escape. Prof. Carolan was put up against a wall and shot. Before he died, he was able to give a full account of what happened. Treacy was followed to Prof. Carolan’s funeral and was killed in a street shoot-out. After he left the RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee went to work for Countess Markievicz in the Dáil Ministry for Labour.

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of The shadow war: Michael Collins and the politics of violence (Wordwell Books).

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