Between January 1919 and July 1921 425 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed and another 725 members wounded in attacks by members of the Irish Republican Army. Fifteen R.I.C. men were killed in 1919, the first casualties being Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell who were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary on 21st January as they escorted three cases of gelignite carried in a horse and cart from Tipperary Military Barracks to Soloheadbeg quarry. McDonnell was a 57 year old married man from Belmullet, Co. Mayo, while O’Connell was a 39 year old single man from Coachford, Co. Cork.
178 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed by the I.R.A. during 1920 and the following year the I.R.A. killed 241 R.I.C. men of whom 235 had lost their lives by the time the truce came into effect on 11th July 1921. The disbandment of the R.I.C. commenced on 7th January 1922 and ended on 31st August of that year. Another 59 R.I.C. men would die before the violence came to an end.
Among those killed were Joseph Hughes and Edward Doran. Joseph Hughes of Wolfhill, an R.I.C. Sergeant based in Maynooth, was part of a patrol attacked as it approached the local church in Maynooth on 21st February 1921. He died the following day in Dr. Steeven’s Hospital, Dublin. Aged 34 years he had served in the R.I.C. for twelve years, having been previously employed as a postman. The Leinster Leader of 5th March 1921 carried this report, ‘The funeral of Sergeant Hughes to Wolfhill passed through Athy where all shops were closed ….. police with reversed arms marched behind the coffin. A mourning coach covered with wreaths covered the hearse. Fr. Byrne officiated. There was an immense crowd present at the funeral.’
Edward Doran of Athy was 24 years of age when he was killed with his colleague John Dunne as they served jurors summonses in Kinnity, Co. Offaly on 17th May 1921. He had worked as a gardener for Minches prior to joining the Royal Irish Constabulary.
While the disbandment of the R.I.C. which commenced on 7th January 1922 was still ongoing, the Civic Guards were formed on the 21st of February 1922 and were formally reconstituted as the Garda Siochana on 8th August 1923. Former members of the I.R.A. joined the new police force in large numbers and amongst those were several men who subsequently served in Athy as members of the Garda Siochana.
Garda James Kelly of 27 Offaly Street served as a member of the 5th Battalion West Mayo Brigade I.R.A.
Garda John McMahon of St. Patrick’s Avenue served as a member of the West Mayo Brigade.
Garda Michael Tuohy of Offaly Street served as a member of E. Company 4th Battalion Clare Brigade.
Garda John O’Connell of 18 St. Patrick’s Avenue served as a member of H. Company 8th Battalion 3rd Tipperary Brigade.
Garda Robert Hayes of 6 St. Michael’s Terrace served as a member of F. Company 1st Battalion 3rd Cork Brigade.
As a young lad growing up in Athy I knew Garda Kelly, Tuohy, McMahon and O’Connell. They were long serving members of the Garda Siochana, having been based in Athy for decades. I was not aware, nor I imagine were many others, of the part they played as young men in the War of Independence. While they all received service medals, otherwise known as Black and Tan medals, it is rather a pity that the community in which they lived did not recognise or appreciate the role they played in a turbulent period of Irish history.
For their part the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for the most part Irishmen who had joined the force in more peaceful times, bore the brunt of the Republican drive for independence. After the Sinn Fein election victory of 1918, Sinn Fein, and later the I.R.A., set out to isolate the R.I.C. members who up to then were highly respected within the communities they peaceably served. The upshot of the War of Independence was the virtual breakdown of law and order in Ireland. It marked a dark period in Irish history but happily in recent times members and ex members of the Garda Siochana arranged to honour the memory of deceased R.I.C. men. They too, like the I.R.A. men killed in action, are an honourable part of the story of Irish independence and its martyrs.
The killing and injuring of Irishmen serving as members of the R.I.C. by fellow Irishmen is one of the tragic elements of the Irish War of Independence. When we come to commemorate the War of Independence we should not only honour those who fought on the side of the republican movement, but also commemorate with respect those policemen who lost their lives in the same struggle.