RIC—the north–south dimension

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

Sir,—Recent discussions about the role of the RIC in the War of Independence have often failed to take in both the local and the broader context, especially the north–south dimension. This can be seen clearly in the case of the murder of Tomás MacCurtain, lord mayor of Cork, at the hands of police on 20 March 1920.

Why did these members of the RIC murder MacCurtain? In a pastoral letter, read out in Cork churches in late December 1920, Bishop Daniel Cohalan spoke out against the crimes committed in the Cork diocese not just by ‘agents of the government’ but also by ‘the people’. He specifically referred to the death of Lord Mayor MacCurtain as a ‘terrible reprisal murder’. He was ‘certain’ that it was the murder of RIC Constable Murtagh earlier that night on Pope’s Quay that ‘gave occasion to’ or ‘brought on’ the murder of MacCurtain. He warned that ‘the killing of police was, morally, murder’. The bishop reiterated his decree of excommunication and its condemnation of ‘murder, attempted murder, ambushes and kidnapping, which all violated God’s law’.

What started in Cork in March 1920 did not end in Cork. District Inspector Oswald Swanzy was blamed for MacCurtain’s death. He was then transferred to Lisburn, Co. Antrim. On Sunday 22 August 1920, as Swanzy left Lisburn cathedral after morning service, he was murdered by four IRA members. Those responsible for this reprisal murder came from Cork for the purpose. At the time, however, it was believed that it was the work of local or Belfast IRA. What happened next was that reprisals were then taken by local Protestants against local Catholics in Lisburn. Many Catholic homes and businesses were destroyed. Later days witnessed sectarian riots in Belfast, with dire consequences for many Catholics.

One murder caused another murder which caused another murder which caused violence against many. What started at Pope’s Quay in Cork ended in the streets of Lisburn and East Belfast. The War of Independence has been seen as a war against the British Empire. It was also a war of Irish against Irish. We should remember all the victims of this tragedy.—Yours etc.,

Professor Emeritus BRIAN M. WALKER
Ballylesson, Co. Down

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