The proposed inclusion of the Royal Irish Constabulary in commemorations of the War of Independence has provoked a bit of storm. The War of Independence still resonates in Ireland as the intersection of an array of themes that remain provocative and contested. Outrage over remembering the R.I.C., the police force of the British administration in Ireland, alongside those who fought for independence has seen people calling for the idea to be dropped immediately with talk of boycotts and the opening of petitions. Yet, as the history of the period begins to be revisited and explored over the next couple of years, people may be premature in their reaction to proposals around the R.I.C.. In fact, they may be missing the opportunity to make those advocating for inclusion of the R.I.C. take ownership of the actions and legacy of the R.I.C. as people begin to explore the events and history of the 1919-1922 period.
And don’t get me wrong – the history and legacy of the Royal Irish Constabulary is grim. To illustrate that I’m just going to recount one example, below. It’s an extreme case but it’s not an isolated example (you can check out contemporary publications like Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom, Who Burnt Cork City? and the work of the Irish White Cross among others – and that’s just for starters).
In November 1920 recruitment began for Special Constables to serve on either a full-time or part-time basis with the R.I.C., in the first instance to serve in Belfast and in Tyrone. Special Constables only served in Ulster (hence they became known as the Ulster Special Constabulary). A Reserve created for the R.I.C. in 1920 became known as the Black and Tans and its’ members too were posted to R.I.C. barracks. A third branch of the R.I.C. was also created for counter-insurgency operations and, as it’s members weren’t attached to a particular R.I.C. division (as the police districts were known), it became known as the ‘Auxiliary’ Division. I’m going to focus here on an episode involving the R.I.C. in Belfast in mid-February 1922.
The 13th February 1922 had already been a bloody day in Belfast city where the July 1921 truce had been largely ignored and the signing of the treaty had merely prompted further violence. Catherine McNeill lived at number 6 Weaver Street in the shadow of the Jennymount Mill and bracketed by York Road and the railway line on the northern foreshore of Belfast Lough (see map below). Weaver Street sat within one of the main ‘storm centres’ of violence in Belfast (the city had borne about 20-25% of the War of Independence fatalities since 1919). A large proportion of the residents in Weaver Street were Catholics, similar to some of the adjoining streets but unlike the streets beyond that.
Around 8:30 pm two R.I.C. Special Constables chased children from the Milewater Street corner of Weaver Street down to the other end of Weaver Street (Milewater Street is the unnamed street at the southern end of Weaver Street and Shore Street on the map below). One Special Constable was brandishing a revolver and the two reportedly told the children to go and ‘play with their own’. The children moved around the corner and up towards the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street. Around twenty children were in the street, the girls mostly jumping with a skipping rope (which was tied to a lamp-post) and the boys playing marbles on the footpath beside them. Prior to the intervention of the R.I.C. Special Constables, the children had been scattered across the two streets. They were now gathered in two groups in front of 20 and 22 Weaver Street.
A few minutes later, Agnes O’Neill left her house on Weaver Street to look for her younger children. She saw three uniformed R.I.C. men coming down North Derby Street from the direction of York Road where there was an R.I.C. barracks. At a small gateway on the right hand side of North Derby Street, the three R.I.C. men met two men in civilian clothing. They stood and talked for some minutes. Mrs McCaffrey, from Shore Street, was out at the corner of Shore Street and talking to two young men who were neighbours. The young men had been watching the two men who they thought were very suspicious looking. So when they saw the three R.I.C. men approach the two men they hoped they would stop and question them. Instead all five appeared to have a conversation. The R.I.C. had their backs to Mrs McCaffrey. When they left they went towards the Black Path at the other end of North Derby Street and they walked so fast Mrs McCaffrey didn’t get a good view of them. She thought nothing of seeing R.I.C. men walking around as there was the R.I.C. barracks on York Road. Despite the fact that there had been significant violence across Belfast already that day, it was later claimed that the local R.I.C. were confined to their barracks that evening.
The three R.I.C. men continued down the right hand side of North Derby Street to the end of the road and seemed to continue on towards the Black Path (which ran alongside the railway line, parallel to the back of the Weaver Street houses). Eyewitnesses reported that the two men in civilian clothes crossed over then continued down the left hand side of the road, passed the end of Weaver Street and went as far as Jennymount Mill (at the end of North Derby Street), turned and came back to the Weaver Street corner). John Pimley, who had been out in Weaver Street since 6 pm, also saw the movements of the five men. He said that two of the constables had long coats and capes, while the third had only a long coat. The tallest was about 5 foot 8 inches in height. Pimley saw the men walk up and down past the corner of Weaver Street.
Patrick Kennedy, who lived at 25 Weaver Street, had noticed the two men walking up and down past the end of Weaver Street. He thought they were acting suspiciously and so went in to tell Joseph Maguire. They both went to the door to observe the two men.
All this time, the large group of children were playing in two groups about 25 metres up from the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street, in front of numbers 20 and 22. Ellen Rafferty, who also lived in Weaver Street, saw one of the two men crouch down and throw something towards the group of children. Patrick Kennedy didn’t see the bomb being thrown but saw one of the men put his hand to his hip pocket. On hearing a huge explosion, he slammed the front door. The windows and furniture in Weaver Street shook with the force of the blast, as it did in many of the surrounding streets off the York Road. The sound of the bomb exploding was heard all across Belfast.
The bomb had landed in the middle of the group of girls playing with the skipping rope. The explosion threw out shrapnel in every direction. The girls took the main force of the blast, and almost all were wounded by shrapnel and flying metal. Many of the boys were injured too as were a number of adults who happened to be standing in doorways nearby. Immediately after the bomb exploded, heavy gunfire from revolvers was directed down Weaver Street from North Derby Street, pinning down the injured and preventing residents coming to the aid of those wounded by the blast. When the gunfire finally stopped, people rushed from their houses. Some residents claimed that at least two of the three R.I.C. men that had re-appeared and joined in opening fire with their revolvers down Weaver Street.
Patrick Kennedy’s sister Catherine had been hit in the head and body by large pieces of shrapnel. She was covered in blood and unconscious. She was carried into 22 Weaver Street. Their mother Mary Jane had gone out onto the street after the shooting stopped. Another one of her children, 13 year old Barney, had been wounded in the arm. She was then told Catherine was injured and was brought to her. Catherine was only 15 and worked in the nearby mill. Like the Kennedy’s, Jennie Johnston lived on the other side of Weaver Street to the blast. When the gunfire stopped she ran out onto the street and found her 11 year old sister Ellen lying on the footpath. A boy helped her carry Ellen into a house. She had also received horrific head, torso and limb injuries in the blast. Catherine McNeill had also rushed out onto the street after the firing stopped only to find her daughter Rose Ann lying in the middle of the street. Francis Pimley carried Rose Ann into his house (20 Weaver Street). Elizabeth O’Hanlon had been thrown across the street by the blast and was badly injured in the blast (as were two of her brothers, John and Murtie). She was carried into 21 Weaver Street, where her mother found her.
Annie Pimley, Mary Clinton, Mary Kerr, Suzanne Lavery and Kate O’Neill had been around the skipping rope with Catherine Kennedy, Rose Ann McNeill, Ellen Johnston and Elizabeth O’Hanlon. All were injured in the blast. The two O’Hanlon boys and Barney Kennedy had been playing with Willie John Dempsey, John McCluskey, George O’Connor, Joseph Conway, Patrick Maguire, Robert McBirney and William Connolly. They also received injuries in the blast. Three women who happened to be out on the street at the time were also critically injured, Grace Kelly, Mary Owens and Maggie Smith.
Two R.I.C. men from the York Road barracks, Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd, later stated that they came out onto the road after hearing the explosion and gunfire. After the gunfire ended they went down into Weaver Street and ambulances were called. When two ambulances arrived as many of the children as possible were squeezed in and rushed to the Mater Hospital. After the day’s violence elsewhere in Belfast, the hospital was already at full stretch as, in great distress, critically wounded children began to arrive on stretchers and in their parents’ arms. The ambulance men carried Catherine Kennedy straight into theatre and told the doctor and nurse in charge that they would need everyone. Quickly Dr Wright, Dr Morris, Dr Robinson, Dr Cavanagh and the nursing staff got to work. The hospital was so crowded that most of the nineteen children who were hospitalised by their injuries had to be put two to a bed (there were also the three women injured). Fr Clenaghan, President of St Malachy’s College, and Fr Black, from St Patricks, both arrived and gave last rites to those that were most seriously injured and tried to comfort the parents.
Catherine Kennedy couldn’t be saved and died from her injuries almost immediately. By 9.40 pm, Eliza O’Hanlon had also died, followed a couple of hours later by Ellen Johnston.
The next day, The Irish News described it as an ‘Awful Bomb Outrage on Belfast Children’ and said ‘…Last night’s shocking affair appears to have been a part of the plan of campaign carried out throughout the city for the extermination of the catholic population.’ James Craig’s gave statement on the bombing during the day saying that “…the indiscriminate throwing of bombs over a wall into Weaver Street, a Sinn Fein area, which resulted in the death of two children and the wounding of fourteen others.’ This was sufficiently vague that some press reported it as an attack on Protestants by the IRA. At 3.45 pm that afternoon, Rose Anne McNeill also died from her injuries.
The inquest, before a jury and the City Coroner, James Graham, was heard on the 3rd March (that inquest and press reports are the basis of this account). District Inspector Lynn observed on behalf of the R.I.C. while a solicitor, Bernard Campbell, represented the families. The two R.I.C. witnesses, Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd were also present. R.I.C. Constable Boyd implied that the gunfire after the blast was directed towards the police and came from the North Derby Street corner of Weaver Street. R.I.C. District Inspector Lynn then asked R.I.C. Sergeant Beattie if anyone had told him that there had been shots fired into Weaver Street after the bomb and he said no. Beattie brought along splinters and pieces of the bomb recovered from the scene and empty bullet cartridges from the corner of Weaver Street and North Derby Street. The empty bullet cartridges implied that the R.I.C. had found the position the guns were fired from (but not the bullets which would be found at the target) with the insinuation that it was the residents of Weaver Street who had been doing the shooting.
However, the victim’s solicitor, Bernard Campbell, then produced spent Webley revolver bullets (and more bomb fragments) recovered from the street and houses in Weaver Street, to prove they were the target. Campbell also stated, in response to a question from a juror, that the reason why the R.I.C. had no record of the actions of the three R.I.C. constables in North Derby Street was because they had refused to take statements from a number of the witnesses. The R.I.C. were unable to produce the three R.I.C. Constables never mind have them give evidence. At this point R.I.C. District Inspector Lynn denied that they could have been R.I.C. Constables as he revealed that the R.I.C. in York Road had been confined to barracks that evening. Why they were confined to barracks in proximity to a vulnerable district like Weaver Street during so much violence was not stated.
The jury brought in a verdict that the deaths had been caused by a bomb ‘…wilfully thrown by some person unknown.’ The City Coroner then adjourned the inquest for two weeks and requested that the Minister for Home Affairs in the northern government, Dawson Bates hold an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Catherine Kennedy, Ellen Johnston, Eliza O’Hanlon and Rose Ann McNeill.
The northern government didn’t even discuss it at its next cabinet meeting (although it did discuss the site for a Stormont egg-laying competition). In a telegram to Michael Collins, Churchill (then Colonial Secretary) called it “…the worst thing to have happened in Ireland in the last three years“. Edward Carson (bizarrely) wrote in his diary that there was no evidence the bomb was purposely thrown at the children. But his attitude was clear, as he wrote that even if it was it was only “…one among how many on the other side?“.
The only inquiry Dawson Bates called was into the shooting of a Special Constable by the military. By the next month, the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was passed allowing Dawson Bates almost unlimited powers. Margaret Smith had died from the injuries she sustained in the blast on the 23rd March. On 6th April, the day before Dawson Bates’ Special Powers Act came in to force, Mary Owens also died from her wounds. By the 21st May 1922 the Catholic residents of Weaver Street and the surrounding streets had been forcibly evicted from their homes.
The bombing of Weaver Street on 13th February 1922 marked a particular low in the violence in Belfast in 1920-22. What hasn’t been recognised, though, is the extent to which it resonates deeply with more recent cases. Eyewitness evidence clearly implicates the R.I.C. in colluding with the attackers (some even claim they directly participated in the attack), R.I.C. officers misrepresented forensic evidence at the inquest, the R.I.C. failed to secure key evidence at the scene, the R.I.C. refused to take witness statements, the R.I.C. failing to identify individuals of significance to the investigation (such as the R.I.C. members present before and possibly during the attack) and the R.I.C. gave misleading evidence to the inquest. Needless to say there is no evidence of the R.I.C. carrying out an investigation. The R.U.C. was formed from the R.I.C. later in 1922 but much of the methodology at Weaver Street will be familiar to more recent victims of violence. Nor has the passage of time seen the disclosure of files shedding any further light on what happened.
Having been burned out on 21st May 1922, the residents of Weaver Street, including the survivors and the victim’s families, were never able to return. Weaver Street itself was quietly obliterated from the streetscape of Belfast. The adjoining photo shows the location of where the bomb was thrown (the red dot) with the side of Weaver Street (where the bomb detonated) already demolished. The area was incorporated into a factory with the only remaining echo of Weaver Street itself being that the frontage of one of the buildings was erected over the front of the terrace of houses where the bomb exploded. The R.I.C. barracks on York Road continued in use by the R.U.C. until it was taken over by the P.S.N.I. (who ended operational use and put it up for sale in 2016).
Nowhere is there any form of memorial to the victims of the Weaver Street bombing. The Weaver Street community was scattered to the winds after 21st May 1922 and today there is not even a physical trace of Weaver Street itself. However, since the current factory building retains the alignment of the original Weaver Street frontage, you can still go and stand at the spot from where someone known to (possibly even a member of) the R.I.C., and with the R.I.C.’s connivance, ordered children into a dense group then threw a bomb into their midst, killing six people and injuring at least sixteen more. The photo to the left is taken from where the bomb was thrown, with the trees approximating where the children were gathered when the bomb detonated.
So, in some ways, passing up the opportunity for a greater spotlight to fall on the R.I.C. may actually be a bad thing. To be honest, though, I suspect all of this is more to do with contemporary politics and less to do with any meaningful interest in history (like the incoherence of much of the official 1916 centenary). The intentions behind calling for commemoration of the R.I.C. is to intentionally generate outrage and to perpetuate an illusion of distance between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil while the party leaders meet to strategise over agreed policies and goals and to work out electoral tactics to try and keep Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in power.
I’ve reconstructed the bombing from the evidence given to the inquest before the City Coroner held on 3rd March 1922. This was reported in most of the contemporary papers at some level of detail. I’ve supplemented this with reports from the local press in Belfast in the days after the bombing. Where the detail conflicts (particularly in the press of 14th February), I’ve used the version given to the inquest.