‘A fine body of men …’?

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Volume 28

editor The recent death of Monty Python’s Terry Jones (a published historian, incidentally) calls to mind one of the greatest satires ever to appear on film, The life of Brian (which Jones directed). In the light of the recent débâcle concerning the aborted official State commemoration of the RIC, one scene in particular stands out. While Brian awaits crucifixion, he shares a cell with a heavily manacled prisoner (played by Jones) who, oblivious of his own obvious oppression, nevertheless observes, ‘A fine body of men, the Roman Army’.

And in a further Pythonesque twist, this controversy erupted just as we were about to mark the centenery of the deployment in March 1920 of the Black and Tans (‘100 Years Ago’, p. 70), who were to be augmented the following September by the Auxiliaries and in October by the Ulster Special Constabulary. All were members of the RIC. Nor is it possible to draw a distinction between the ‘good’ locally recruited regular RIC and the ‘bad’ non-Irish Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. A goodly proportion of the latter two formations were Irish-born, while many of the most notorious atrocities were perpetrated by regular Irish-born members of the RIC, such as District Inspector Oswald Swancy from Castleblaney, who ordered the killing of the lord mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain (‘Letters’, p.10), or District Inspector John William Nixon from County Cavan, who led an unofficial murder gang in Belfast, reponsible for the MacMahon family murders in March 1922.

Even if we accept such cases as exceptions, the RIC was always primarily a counter-insurgency force. It was awarded the prefix ‘Royal’ for its role in suppressing the Fenian rising of 1867; it was not in the unarmed police tradition of these islands but a heavily armed (Artefacts, p. 45) colonial gendarmerie—a model, indeed, replicated in other parts of the Empire. It is significant that in popular usage police stations in Ireland are still often referred to as ‘barracks’.

It has been argued that the RIC were simply ‘doing their duty’ (a close relative of the ‘Nuremberg defence’, surely?) but so too were the Volunteers who fought them (and, unlike the Black and Tans and Auxies, were not in receipt of 10/- or £1 per day), and did so against overwhelming military odds (‘Museum Eye’, pp 54–5). Any loss of life in a conflict is a tragedy (‘The targeting of DI Hunt—a template for the subsequent conflict?’, pp 34–7), both for the individuals concerned and for their families thereafter, but that should not blind us to the context or, as citizens, to the wider moral issues.

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