The memoirs of John M. Regan, a Catholic officer in the RIC and RUC, 1909–48

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 16

The memoirs of John M. Regan, a Catholic officer in the RIC and RUC, 1909–48
Joost Augusteijn (ed.)
(Four Courts Press, e55)
ISBN 9781846820694

Editor Joost Augusteijn has made accessible a ‘warts-and-all’ memoir that provides a unique insight into the 1914–22 period in Irish history and into what it was like to be a Catholic serving in the RUC in the early years of the northern state. John M. Regan was born in Belfast in 1889, the son of an RIC inspector who rose through the ranks. In 1908 Regan junior joined the RIC as an officer cadet. Following time as a district inspector, third class, in counties Clare and Fermanagh, Regan volunteered for service in the British Army in World War I. He joined the Royal Irish Rifles in October 1915 with the rank of captain. (This was in sharp contrast to many fellow RIC officers who, when requested to make themselves available for military service in January 1916 by Inspector General Joseph Byrne, found all manner of excuses to avoid doing so.)
Judging by his actions, Regan was a physically brave and resolute man. When his service was completed, he rejoined the RIC in Cork in 1919. In April 1920 he was appointed staff officer to Brigadier General Cyril Prescott-Decies, RIC divisional commissioner, and was transferred to Limerick with the rank of district inspector. In September 1920 he was promoted to the rank of acting county inspector. His tenure in Limerick has given rise to serious questions about his attitude to disciplining his subordinates and to revenge killings, and this attitude is reflected in his writing.
On page 139, on the subject of avenging dead comrades, he writes:

‘It is a fact that those police quickest to avenge the death of a comrade were Irishmen and men of an excellent type. Black and Tans, having drink taken, might fire out of lorries indiscriminately, loot public houses, or terrorise a village but the Irishman would avenge his comrade when absolutely stone cold sober and on the right person. It required a great deal of courage to do so as if detected he ran a serious risk of being hanged.’

While Regan’s use of cover names limits the appeal of his memoirs, context can fill in some of the blanks. On page 162 he refers to a Black and Tan whom he names as ‘Wellarly’ and describes as ‘a public school type of fine physique and excellent manners’. Wellarly was a cover name for RIC constable Thomas Huckerby, who was originally stationed at Foynes. In August 1920 Huckerby accompanied a Constable Hall to see a doctor in the nearby village of Shanagolden. When they emerged from the doctor’s house they were held up by an IRA party, under Captain Timothy Madigan, who were hoping to relieve them of their weapons. When it emerged that Huckerby and Hall were unarmed, the IRA forced them to remove their uniforms and boots and they were allowed to return to Foynes in their bare feet and underclothes. The IRA burned the uniforms and boots in frustration at finding no weapons. That evening the RIC and Black and Tans returned to Shanagolden and exacted revenge for the indignities that had been heaped on Huckerby and Hall. The creamery, along with some shops and houses, was burned down. A number of men found playing cards in a house were driven some miles out of the village, stripped of their boots and clothing and forced to walk home in a manner similar to the policemen that morning. Additionally, a 60-year-old man, John Hynes, was fired on and killed. The shooting of John Hynes was blamed on Thomas Huckerby, who was immediately transferred to Abbeyfeale.
On Saturday 19 September 1920 the IRA set an ambush for the curfew patrol on the outskirts of Abbeyfeale. The purpose of the ambush was to shoot Thomas Huckerby. Two policemen, Constables O’Donoghue and O’Mahoney, were killed in the ambush; Huckerby, the target of the action, escaped because he had not been rostered for the patrol. On the following Monday evening Huckerby stalked two young men, named Healy and Hartnett, on their way home from work. He shot and killed both men on the outskirts of the town. Neither of them had any involvement with the IRA. Significantly, when the death certificates were issued by a military court of inquiry, the cause of death was put down as ‘Shot by revolver shots fired by T. D. Huckerby’ instead of the usual terms used to justify police shootings: ‘justifiable homicide’, ‘shot while trying to escape’, etc. It was obvious that the court of inquiry considered Huckerby to have murdered the young men. Regan’s reaction was to transfer Huckerby to Limerick City ‘in order that he would be under our eye’.
On Saturday 27 November two ex-British soldiers named Michael Blake and James O’Neill were stopped and shot dead while travelling from Dublin to Limerick. James O’Neill and Patrick Blake, Michael Blake’s brother, had earlier been found not guilty of the shooting of Constable Walter Oakley at a court martial in Dublin. They had been released following their trial but they were stopped and murdered at the Cross of Grange about six miles from Limerick City. Again, neither Blake nor O’Neill had any involvement with the IRA. They came from families that, between them, had contributed ten sons to the Munster Fusiliers. Both men had ‘recognised the court’ and they had stayed apart from IRA prisoners while on remand. From the evidence at the court of inquiry, much of it given by British soldiers, it emerged that a group of about eight masked men had carried out the killings. The leader of the party was a very tall man who spoke with a distinctly English accent. While there is no definite evidence to tie Huckerby to the shootings at the Cross of Grange, it is surely significant that it was on the Thursday following these shootings that Regan saw fit to transfer Huckerby to Limerick City. Regan does not refer to these shootings in his memoirs but he was the RIC county inspector for Limerick at the time. He refers to Huckerby, or ‘Wellarly’ as he calls him, as ‘undoubtedly the most extraordinary man I had met’, very laudatory terms for describing a man who was in reality a cold-blooded killer. (Constable Thomas Huckerby resigned from the RIC on 26 December 1920 because disciplinary charges were pending against him. The record does not state the nature of these charges.)
On page 159 Regan refers to shootings at a dance at Caherguillamore House, near Bruff, where one Black and Tan and five IRA men were killed. This dance, which was run by the IRA to raise funds, was held on St Stephen’s night, 26 December 1920. The raid was organised by the RIC under County Inspector Regan. Here again serious questions arise about Regan’s attitude to discipline and a policy of ‘shoot to kill’ by subordinates. In relation to IRA sentries he says, ‘meanwhile the armed sentries outside had been shot at sight’. He refers to one of the IRA men who

‘. . . saved the situation for me. With what I thought was brazen effrontery he demanded to know our authority for being there. This was the last straw, with one of my men shot dead. He was hit and there was a rough house for some time, several of the IRA being injured.’

His last observation is an understatement. In an interview given in February 1994 Major Ged O’Dwyer stated that every male attendee at the dance was beaten up. Ged O’Dwyer and his brother Nicholas were among the very few IRA members to escape from Caherguillamore House. Some were so severely beaten that they never recovered their health. This was in addition to the five IRA men who were killed. Four members of the IRA, including three sentries, had been killed before one of them, Ned Moloney, shot dead Constable Alfred Hogsden. Moloney was immediately shot dead by Hogsden’s comrades. Yet in his memoirs Regan used the shooting of Hogsden as a pretext for all the killings and assaults at Caherguillamore.
Regan’s attitude to discipline and killings by his subordinates was in sharp contrast to that of the then British Army commander in Limerick, Brigadier R. P. Cameron. In the case of the shooting dead of a school attendance officer, Richard Leonard, at Ballybrood in December 1920, the three officers involved were placed under arrest when Cameron heard of the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Although the three officers involved were eventually exonerated by a military court of inquiry, Cameron indicated by his actions that he was not prepared to tolerate or condone the involvement of his subordinates in random or retaliatory killings. It is doubtful whether the same could be said for Captain John Morton Regan.

Tom Toomey is currently researching a history of Limerick in the War of Independence, 1912–21.

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