Former RIC members had varying experiences in the newly formed Irish Free State, historian tells conference

Some former members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were attacked or ostracised, others encountered little or no hostility

The experiences of men disbanded from the Royal Irish Constabulary in the early years of the Irish Free State were very varied, with some being forced to leave Ireland under threat of death by the IRA while others remained in the country, a historian of the period has revealed.

Dr Brian Hughes of the Dept of History at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick said that all serving members of the RIC were placed in a position of uncertainty about their futures when it was announced in January 1922 that the force of 13,000 was being disbanded.

“The regular RIC in the 26 counties that became the Irish Free State ... which included Black and Tans, were first transferred to larger centres before being released in groups in a staggered fashion – British-born recruits generally went first, and all were reported to have left Ireland by mid-March.

“The disbandment of all remaining Irish-born members was due to be completed at the end of March 1922 but ultimately took several months longer ... By May 11th, 1922, it was reported that there were just 2,000 men remaining in four centres in southern Ireland,” he said.


Speaking at a conference in Mitchelstown in Co Cork entitled After the Revolution, Dr Hughes said that many of those who were disbanded did not feel safe in the new Free State and many left to go to England, with some warned by the IRA in their area that they faced execution if they remained.

In April 1922, RIC deputy inspector general CA Walsh advised that “the vast majority of men enlisted in Ireland will not be allowed on disbandment to remain in Ireland. They will be compelled to leave the country and it is anticipated that most of them will remove to Great Britain.”

Dr Hughes said a group of RIC men wrote to the secretary of the state for colonies, Winston Churchill, in April 1922 claiming RIC men in every county of Munster, Leinster and Connacht had been warned by the IRA they would be shot, and their wives and families ordered to leave if they returned home.

“While the claim may have been exaggerated in scale, there was nonetheless some truth to it, with 82 recorded attacks on the RIC between December 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, and February 1922, after it was ratified by the Dáil, resulting in 12 deaths and 27 seven serious injuries.”

“A pamphlet produced by the representative bodies of the RIC listed incidents resulting in the deaths of 10 serving policemen, a policemen’s wife and a retired policemen and the wounding of six others while also recording 73 non-fatal attacks on policemen and their families and one kidnapping.”

According to Dr Hughes, at least 15 ex-RIC men were killed in southern Ireland in 1922, including three in Cork – a retired sergeant in Cork City in March 1922, a disbanded policeman near Kinsale in May 1922 and a third ex-policeman, kidnapped and shot in Mallow in June 1922.

The RIC Tribunal set up in 1922 to deal with exceptional cases of hardship among disbanded RIC men had by 1924 dealt with “some 7,000 accounts for disturbance allowances”. It also awarded 1,263 grants for “the re-establishment of men forced to leave their homes”.

“Disbandment could also have a traumatic impact on police wives. Hurried flight from Ireland usually meant a period of separation from wives and children and as men travelled abroad and searched for new lodgings and work, it fell to wives to sell up property and settle affairs,” said Dr Hughes.

The majority of Irish-born disbanded policemen stayed in the Free State after retirement or disbandment and while others left, many felt safe enough to return after the Civil War but they received mixed receptions depending on the individual and the locality to which they returned.

The level of social ostracism could vary but a letter from prominent anti-Treatyite Austin Stack to a Kerry policeman seeking permission to return to his wife and family in Tralee was revealing, with Stack saying there was “no general policy” on former policemen returning home,

“The people in various parts of [the] country very naturally look upon men who served in the British forces up to the last moment as having been our enemies during the war,” said Stack in a file uncovered by Dr Hughes.

“But for every man threatened, beaten or shunned, there were more who experienced little or no hostility in their own communities. Patrick Shea, the son of a policeman stationed in Clones, Co Monaghan on disbandment, for example, was blind to any antagonism to former members.

“The disbanded members of the RIC were not made to feel unwanted in the Irish Free State. I think we could have gone to live anywhere in the country without fear of molestation,” wrote Shea in a note that, Dr Hughes said, highlighted the great variety of experiences of ex-RIC men in the new state.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times