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100 Years After: How we Remember the Perpetrators of Bloody Sunday

This is what the RIC looked like.
Waterford 1917, R.I.C. group with County Inspector Hetreed, National Library of Ireland, https://www.flickr.com/photos/47290943@N03/26931112476, CCO

Bloody Sunday, which occurred in Dublin in 1920, was one of the most violent events in the Irish War of Independence, leaving more than 30 people dead. To this day, this period of Irish history still sparks furious national as well as private debates in Ireland. Neasa from Ireland describes how researching these events made her discover that the picture of the perpetrator is less black and white than she expected.

Bloody Sunday: A Turning Point in Irish History

The 21st November 1920 is remembered for being one of the most violent events in the Irish War of Independence, leaving more than 30 people dead. On that fateful morning, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) carried out an operation, organised by Michael Collins, to assassinate British intelligence agents known as the ‘Cairo Gang’. Fourteen agents were shot and killed all across Dublin on that Sunday morning, some in their own homes and in front of their families. As news of the killings spread, there were heavy fears that a reprisal could take place.

Then later that day, a Gaelic football match was taking place between Tipperary and Dublin in Croke Park. Around 5,000 spectators attended the match. Due to suspicion that there were IRA members in the crowd, a force made up of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Black and Tans opened fire on the crowd of spectators, killing 14 people, including children, and wounding between 60 and 70 people. Victims were shot, impaled and crushed as they attempted to flee the scene. One of the football players, Michael Hogan, was fatally wounded. The Hogan Stand in Croke Park was later named in his honour. That day became known as Bloody Sunday, an event that was later portrayed in a scene in the 1996 film ‘Michael Collins’.

Worldwide Attention

The events at Croke Park received worldwide attention, and the British authorities were heavily criticised by the US government. Some newspaper outlets even pointed out similarities between the shootings and the Amritsar massacre in India which had taken place in 1919. However, the IRA killings earlier that day received more attention in Britain than the events at Croke Park. When Joseph Devlin, an Irish Parliamentary Party MP, attempted to bring up the Croke Park massacre in the Westminster parliament, he was shouted down and even physically assaulted.

The Impact of Bloody Sunday on the War of Independence

It’s no secret that the events of Bloody Sunday were a turning point in the War of Independence, as not only was British intelligence severely crippled by the IRA killings, but the reprisals later that day also served to boost support for the IRA and led to increased hostility towards British rule in Ireland.

Even now, 100 years later, there are still very strong feelings in Ireland about this dark period of Irish history. Those feelings erupted in early January 2020, when the then-Irish Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, announced to the public that he was planning a commemoration service for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), the police forces who served in Ireland between 1836 and 1922. The minister stressed that most of these ordinary men were just doing their job like policemen everywhere and that history had treated them unfairly. This proposal was met with complete uproar by the majority of the Irish public, who maintained that both police forces were acting for the British in opposing the IRA during the War of Independence. Furthermore, to this day, the British constabulary has generally also been associated with the infamous military groups known as the ‘Black and Tans’ and the Auxiliaries, tasked by the British government to assist the British police forces in crushing the IRA.

Controversy and Backlash: Unraveling the Commemoration Debate

It is an authentic photo of the Black and Tans.

Black and Tans and Auxiliaries outside the London and North Western Hotel, in North Wall, Dublin surveying the damage done to their quarters after an I.R.A. attack, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/6492236861/, CCO

Those opposed to this year’s commemoration maintained that the actions of the police and the Black and Tans during the War of Independence could not be separated as they were all trying to prevent Irish independence. Both the Black and Tans and the RIC have been held responsible for the events at Croke Park in November 1920, and countless other bloody happenings that took place during those turbulent years between 1919 and 1922.

Social Media Storm and Musical Resistance

This proposed commemoration received national attention and was trending on social media, with debates raging between both sides of the argument. The famous rebel song ‘Come Out, Ye Black And Tans’ reached No. 1 in the UK and Irish iTunes charts, as part of widespread criticism of the planned commemoration. Eventually, the event was cancelled, much to the relief of those who were passionately against it.

Like most Irish people, I opposed this commemoration and was rather pleased when public pressure led to its cancellation. However, as this topic was of great interest to me, I decided to do some research. To my surprise, I found that the circumstances surrounding the British forces policing Ireland at the time wasn’t as black and white as I had previously thought.

Family Ties and the Shades of Complicity

In no way will I be attempting to defend the actions of British authorities in Ireland, as none of that can ever truly be justified by anyone. Instead I will discuss who the RIC were, as well as some discoveries I have made about my own ancestors and their involvement with the RIC. I will also deliberate over the question of whether I consider my family members to be among the perpetrators.

My Family History

During this past year, I have become fascinated with my own family history and tracking down my ancestors. Therefore, I was rather shocked to discover over time that at least seven members of my own family, three of whom were my direct ancestors, were themselves members of the RIC.

Conflicting Heritage

When I think of the RIC, I think about that disturbing eviction scene in the film ‘Black 47’, which takes place during the Great Famine. At first, I felt a deep shame that my ancestors may have partaken in such horrific events, but I was also curious. What made them decide to join a force that served the British Crown, while knowing that what they were doing was traitorous in the eyes of many fellow Irish people, who suffered under persecution and poverty brought on by British colonialism?

Unraveling Motivations: Understanding Irish Society

In order to understand their motivations for joining this force, I also had to understand Irish society and the general system that existed in rural Ireland during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Ireland was an extremely poor country and had been for centuries while under British rule. One of the only ways for an Irishman to earn a decent living was to serve the Crown in one way or another, either in the army or as a police officer.

A Family Tradition: The Case of Looney

Both seem to apply to my great-great uncle, James “Jim” Looney, who was killed while serving in the British army during World War 1. Until recently, I had always believed that he was an ordinary young countryman who, for some unknown reason, had decided to go to France to fight for Britain. Therefore, I was rather surprised when I accidentally discovered his name on an online list of RIC members who had “answered the call” for army volunteers during World War 1. Intrigued, I decided to dig a little deeper into this uncle of mine, even managing to find online copies of original documents.

Like most RIC men, Jim came from a Catholic farming family. Being a part of this force ran in the family, as his father and grandfather before him were RIC pensioners. He was initially appointed to the RIC on 17th August 1914 but was discharged two days later as the surgeon deemed him unfit for service. He was then reappointed in October 1914, and served as a constable in Counties Clare, Roscommon, Dublin and Cork.

A Unique Story

Jim’s story interests me more than all of my other relatives because his story is more unique than theirs. In November 1915, he was selected for service in the British army for World War I. In fact, he was among the 752 RIC men who were called up by the inspector general at the time to go and fight in France between 1914 and 1918. He served in the Irish Guards regiment for about three years, during which they took part in a major German military offensive known as Operation Michael. They fought in the Battle of St. Quentin, the First Battle of Bapaume and the First Battle of Arras. He was killed in action by unknown causes on the 2nd June 1918, in France & Flanders, just before the Battle of Albert. He is buried in a village called Bienvillers-au-Bois, Arras, near the French-Belgian border. I hope to visit his resting place someday soon.

Irish WW1 memorial in Ennis, which includes Jim's name

A memorial for 500 local men who served in World War 1, Ennis, Co. Clare (Photo: Private)

It’s possible that Jim was under a lot of pressure from his RIC colleagues and superiors to join in the war effort. But perhaps there was another reason too. I recently spoke to my great-aunt Mary and great-uncle John, and although they didn’t have any particular insight with regard to their uncle Jim, they did mention that many Irishmen fought in World War I because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars, meaning freedom for all nations. Therefore, a significant number of Irishmen may have made the decision to fight in the British army because they believed that in so doing, they were helping Ireland to finally become a free nation.

If that was the case, then it is very ironic that Jim’s name is included in the book The Royal Irish Constabulary: A short history and genealogical guide…by Jim Herlihy, which lists RIC men who were honoured for their contribution towards the British Crown, when in fact his possible motivation was to ultimately free Ireland from the Crown.


During my research, I deliberated a lot about how I feel personally about my RIC relatives, and what I would have done in their place. I have come to the conclusion that I do not consider my ancestors to be among the perpetrators. I realise now that joining the RIC or the British army was likely not an easy choice for any of my relatives, because they probably felt as though they had no choice. I’m not sure what I would have done in their place, but I do know that these men had their own families to think about. They would have sacrificed the respect of many of their relatives, friends and neighbours just so they could secure permanent and pensionable employment.

As I have said before, I am absolutely not trying to justify all the atrocities that the RIC committed against Irish civilians. It cannot be ruled out that my relatives may have partaken in these terrible events while serving in the RIC, because that was part of their job. All I’m saying is that I feel great sympathy for them, because no matter what reasons they had for becoming RIC members or indeed British soldiers, and despite the fact that the latter were on the side that won the Great War, all these men ended up on the wrong side of Irish history. Unlike the Irish revolutionaries of the 1916 Rising and the 1798 rebellion, the Irishmen who joined the RIC and the British Army have tended to be ignored and often despised by subsequent Irish generations because they were working for the Irish enemy, i.e. the British Crown. Because of that, it is very likely that for the most part, they may continue to be airbrushed from Irish history.


Herlihy, J. (1997), The Royal Irish Constabulary : A Short History and Genealogical Guide with a Select List of Medal Awards and Casualties, Reprint, Four Courts Press, 2016

Leeson, D. (2011), The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920–1921, Illustrated edition, OUP Oxford

Info box: Who were the RIC?

This is what the RIC looked like.

Waterford 1917, R.I.C. group with County Inspector Hetreed, National Library of Ireland, https://www.flickr.com/photos/47290943@N03/26931112476, CCO

The Royal Irish Constabulary, or the RIC, was the British armed police force in Ireland, and was first established in 1836. The uniform was in the military style and bottle green in colour, and the men were armed with short-barrelled carbines and sword bayonets. An estimated 90,000 Irish men served in the RIC up until 1922, when it was disbanded after Ireland achieved independence.

Most RIC members were Catholic Irishmen from predominantly poor farming families. Rural populations were made up of large families, therefore it was very common for the eldest son to inherit the farm, one son to enter the priesthood, a few children to emigrate to America and one or more sons to join the Constabulary.

Being a policeman was not only a high-standing position with good wages, but it was a job for life that also came with a pension, which was a very rare privilege for Irish people during this time. On joining the Constabulary, recruits had to take an oath of loyalty to the British crown. They were discouraged from marrying and were also not permitted to be stationed in their counties of birth, or if they were married, their wives’ counties of birth. Generally constables had to wait several years until they could get permission to marry.

Soon after the failed 1916 Rising, the Irish public gradually lost respect for the RIC and began to see them as traitors and enemies to Ireland. Local campaigns against the RIC began as early as 1917, with organised boycotts taking place and speeches denouncing them. They were essentially ostracised by the public, with people refusing to interact, salute or do business with them, and members were also barred from social events such as dances and sports. Even intermarriage with them was discouraged. In April 1919, the government in Ireland officially declared that RIC members were to be “treated as persons, who having been adjudged guilty of treason to their country, are regarded unworthy to enjoy any of the privileges or comforts which arise from cordial relations with the public”.

Thus, RIC members became local pariahs. Eamon De Valera himself regarded the Constabulary with distaste, stating that they were “doing the dirty work of the enemy” and encouraged the public to boycott them. Their numbers began to dwindle, as the numbers of yearly recruits decreased. Soon, there was a serious lack of young men in the Constabulary. Worse still, their headquarters were seen by the Nationalists and later the IRA, as one of the main symbols of British imperialism, and so they became the primary target of IRA attacks at the beginning of the War of Independence.

Because the British prime minister at the time, David Lloyd George, was unwilling to declare an official war on the IRA, the RIC, who were unprepared and unequipped for guerrilla warfare, were forced to fight on the frontlines. However, the RIC inspector general at the time declared that the police force was “not strong enough to cope but for the assistance of the military.”

In order to make up for the sharp decrease in the RIC ranks, and to assist the British police forces in dealing with the Irish rebels during the War of Independence, the British government decided to recruit former soldiers who had served in the First World War. An advertisement seeking recruits was placed in British newspapers, with the slogan “DO YOU WANT A JOB? YOU CAN JOIN THE RIC: THE FINEST CONSTABULARY FORCE IN THE WORLD”. Thousands of former soldiers signed up, mainly because they were left unemployed after the end of the war.

These ex-soldiers were recruited hastily, without being given a proper psychological evaluation, and, according to David Lesson’s book, ‘The Black and Tans’, were encouraged to treat the Irish rebels any way they wanted. Thus these same ex-soldiers who were seen as unfit to be allowed to live and work in normal society were deemed appropriate by the British government to serve in the Irish police force.

Altogether, 2,200 ex-army officers were employed by the government to replace the dwindling RIC numbers, in order to deal with the strong guerrilla campaigns that were being carried out by the IRA against the British law-enforcement. When they first arrived in Ireland, they were dressed in khaki uniforms with black belts and caps. A shortage of uniforms meant they were forced to wear a mixture of police and military clothing, thus the name Black and Tans was born. And unlike the RIC, the Black and Tans had poor discipline and were prone to violence. Another elite group of former British officers known as the Auxiliaries were also recruited to suppress the IRA.

The Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries quickly began a reign of terror in Ireland that lasted from 1920 to 1921, leaving permanent scars that can still be felt in Irish society today. Their job was to launch counterattacks on the IRA, but soon these ex-soldiers soon became known throughout Ireland and Britain for their unreserved brutality towards Irish civilians. As well as the massacre in Croke Park on 21st November 1920, they were responsible for many atrocities in Ireland, such as reprisals, extra-judicial killings, destruction of homes, businesses and even villages.

One such attack was the reprisal for the Rineen Ambush, which took place in County Clare on the 22nd November 1920, a day after the events of Bloody Sunday. The IRA ambushed three lorry loads of British military, killing six men and wounding others, before fleeing into the hills. In reprisal the same day, RIC Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans raided three villages in the area, including Miltown Malbay, where several members of my family were living at the time. As it was the closest town to the ambush, it was seen as the most guilty by the Crown forces. Sixteen houses and shops in the area were burned to the ground and five civilians were brutally killed. These actions were condemned by the Irish, British and international press, and like Bloody Sunday, also further increased Irish hostility against the British government.

The Black and Tans were particularly notorious for their behaviour towards women and girls during the War of Independence, inflicting both physical and psychological suffering on females throughout the country. Women at home were easy targets for them, and there are dozens of stories of women who were beaten, raped and forced to undergo public hair-shearing incidents. The latter is known as a weapon of war used to cause shame and degradation and was the most commonly reported incident inflicted on women by the Black and Tans. Both local and national newspapers between 1920 and 1921 reported incidents of violent hair-cutting assaults inflicted on women.

All of this caused outrage within the RIC, with many members openly protesting against the Black and Tans and refusing to be associated with them. Some men even resigned from their positions.

Due to the notoriety of the Black and Tans, the War of Independence was often referred to as the ‘tan war.’ It was only during the year following Irish partition from Britain that the Black and Tans were finally disbanded and sent back to Britain. Some maintain to this very day that the name ‘Black and Tans’ is a symbol of terrorism.

~ Here is a scene from the film Michael Collins (starring Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman) that depicts the killings that occurred in Croke Park in 1920.


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