When discussing the activities of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the War of Independence, the picture painted has been a simple enough one at times. The RIC appears to be a badly run, demoralised and ultimately very passive force, that struggled to enact the will of the British government, and ultimately did very little to actively oppose it or seek to change it. But this is not uniformly true. We have already mentioned that plenty of the the RIC’s membership turned a blind eye to the activities of the IRA, or aided them outright. But there were also members of the RIC who, while not outright on the side of the Republic, resisted the more stringent measures that were being introduced to Ireland, a situation that led to one of the more unique events of the period.
The location for the coming drama was the town of Listowel, located in North Kerry, not far from the western border with Limerick. Listowel, being a large enough urban area and a market town was a focal point for the RIC presence that remained in the area, that had been severely curtailed since the start of the war through resignations, ambushes and barracks burnings. The RIC based in Listowel and around were much like the rest of the country: under-resourced, under pressure from the very people they were nominally enforcing the law on and suffering from a steep drop in morale. The sudden influx of the Black and Tan reservists was not a catalyst for the latter to change, as their often violent and undisciplined behavior only exacerbated dissatisfaction.
It was in response to the ongoing violence that a new Police Commissioner for Munster had been recently appointed, coming, as many such appointments now came, from the military. Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth was born in India to well-to-do British parents, with family ties to County Down. A member of the Royal Engineers, he had risen through the ranks and served in World War One, where he was injured several times and noted in dispatches more than once. Like many in the higher ranks of the British military officer class, he found himself a soldier without a command in the aftermath of the war, until the situation in Ireland allowed for the opportunity to mix the military with the constabulary.
Smyth was a harsh man, and he was committed to a stern strategy to enforce law and order in the area of Munster. This strategy called for military regulars to take the lead, with the existing RIC to be used more as a force multiplier for their soldierly brethren. This was a reversal of the initial use of British troops in the conflict, and was not at all to the liking of the local RIC, who found themselves ordered out of their Listowel barracks so they could be spread around the smaller and more isolated posts in the county, there to be used mostly as scouts. The military would move into the barracks.
These orders were given in mid-June 1920, and the RIC in Listowel, showing a degree of backbone that not every section of the RIC would show in the war, refused to obey them. When a more local superior appeared before the men to try and get them to relent, 14 of the constables present in Listowel threatened to resign. They had already expressed concerns with the actions and ill-discipline of the Black and Tans in the area, and this was a step too far.
On the morning of the 19th June, Smyth paid a visit to Listowel, accompanied by a large bunch of important figures – local military O/C’s RIC commanders and, most important, General Henry Tudor, the recently appointed overarching police commissioner. Smyth’s goal that day was to stamp out any insubordination, actual or perceived, and probably to make a good show for his own commanding officer. The problem was critical enough: to allow members of the “Crown Forces” to refuse orders and to not be pulled up on it would be a publicity nightmare at the very least. As we have seen, the British were prepared to take more and more of a hardline with the likes of hunger strikers, and the mutiny at Listowel was not all that far removed in terms of how much the British were willing to tolerate, even if their actions became self-defeating.
In terms of what happened next, our only first hand source is that of Jeremiah Mee, a constable in Listowel at the time. As an openly avowed republican sympathiser who would later aid the IRA directly (albeit never apparently becoming an outright member) we have to take his account with a grain of salt, but what he recorded is not all that unbelievable. He states that Smyth gave a fire and brimstone speech where he outlined plans to declare martial law, and merge the military and the police together into a single, strong counter-insurgency force, which would immediately go on the offensive against the IRA. They were to do this through swift and unrelenting sweeps of the countryside, and use of the same tactics as the IRA, such as ambushes.
Mee alleged that Smyth called for the RIC to essentially hold any civilians that they saw in the countryside at gunpoint until their identities were confirmed, and to shoot them down if they ran or if they “looked suspicious”. He promised that, while innocent deaths were inevitable from such a course, this was a necessary evil and that no member of the RIC would ever be punished or named at an inquest for such actions. We will never know if this is a completely accurate account of what Smyth said – formally written orders at the time stated that suspects could be shot if they failed to surrender when ordered to do so, but Mee insists that Smyth said this could be done “on sight” – and it is undeniable that it rings a bit of IRA propaganda (especially Smyth’s reported insistence that “The more you shoot the better I will like you”). But Smyth must have said something outrageous regardless, and badly misread the room in terms of his actual audience. He assumed RIC unhappiness was to do with the restraints placed upon them when it came to fighting the IRA, when in reality the “us” and “them” mentality was increasingly more “Ireland” and “England” instead of “RIC” and “IRA”.
Mee outlined his own dramatic response: to take his gun, place it on the desk in front of Smyth, and refer to the commissioner as a “murderer”. Smyth ordered Mee arrested, but the RIC present, who had accepted Mee as an erstwhile spokesperson, refused, and similarly refused to allow Mee to be taken into custody by the military. 14 of the men subsequently handed in their resignations, including Mee, who wasted little time in trying to get an account of what had happened printed. Despite British attempts at suppression, pro-republican outlets did so, provoking public outrage.
As for Mee and his compatriots, they were forced to flee Listowel to avoid more official repercussions, amid threats of prosecution in either a court martial or a civil trial. Mee’s family home and farm were ransacked by Black and Tans, as were the Town and Dance Hall he had been know to frequent. Mee got his own back in making contact with Michael Collins in Dublin, and using this contact to advise the IRA how to deal with less than committed RIC throughout the country who it would be easier to persuade into resigning than shoot, while also aiding then Minister for Labour Constance Markievicz in finding work for RIC men who had left the force. He would later help to organise a small spy ring among the RIC in Kerry with republican sympathy, and would travel abroad to report details of the Listowel Mutiny to an international audience.
A firmer consequence of what had happened followed a month after the mutiny. Smyth had called in RIC reinforcements from Limerick to supplement the badly depleted garrison in North Kerry, but this was not enough to make his own position secure. Acutely aware of the negative attention he was receiving due to his reported comments, and with the IRA marking him as a high value target, he moved to Cork City in an effort to avoid retribution. His actions were not enough. On the 17th July, not even a month since the Listowel incident, he was tracked down to the Cork & County social club. There, a squad of IRA men cornered and shot him dead, with their leader, Daniel O’Donovan, allegedly parroting Smyth’s infamous order to “shoot on sight” before he did just that.
The drama didn’t stop there. Smyth’s body was brought to his family home in Banbridge, County Down for burial, but nationalist workers on the railway line complicated matters by refusing to carry the body. This action proved outrage among Ulster loyalists, and sparked a brief spate of sectarian violence in the Banbridge area, as well as contributing to the riots that wracked Belfast that summer: a story I will cover in time.
It is important to note that Mee and his compatriots were the exception rather than the rule – plenty of the men in the RIC would have been delighted with Smyth’s alleged comments – but the incident is still notable nonetheless. It showed that, in parts of the country at least, British authority was now slipping from their own forces, and that the actions of the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries could have a very negative effect on the regular RIC, to the point of provoking outright insubordination. It showed that the IRA had now become an effective, and ruthless, organisation when it came to exterminating their enemy, with Smyth eliminated less than a month after first appearing on Dublin’s radar. And it showed that the war was becoming a more complicated conflict by the day, one where loyalties were becoming increasingly confused, and where the British counter-insurgency strategy was as liable to create unexpected enemies as it was to eradicate the identified ones.
There was one last connection that the incident shared with the rest of the war that is worth discussing. Smyth’s brother George was also a member of the military, and would later become part of a key counter-intelligence unit based in Dublin, tasked with undertaking an aggressive approach against key figures of the IRA. This unit, the so-called “Cairo Gang”, would be the focal point for one of the most famous incidents of the war, and one of its bloodiest days.
For now we will stay in the province of Munster. In the next entry, we will discuss one of the more unique IRA operations of the war, when the Cork-based Volunteers enacted a plan not to disarm or kill a key enemy operative, but to capture him instead.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.