MULLINGAR AND THE DISBANDING OF THE ROYAL IRISH CONSTABULARY (5min read) by Jason McKevitt Historian
Over the past week or so (January 2020) there has been a lot of controversy regarding the proposed Government plan to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.). Irrespective of ones standpoint on this issue, it’s worth noting that Mullingar had its part to play in a very important aspect of RIC history. This important historical aspect was as one of main locations chosen for the disbanding of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
On Monday the 13th February 1922, the Army Barracks, Mullingar, was inadvertently handed over by the British Army’s Sussex Regiment to the Anti-treaty element of the IRA, led by Comdt James Maguire, Mullingar Brigade (Anti-treaty IRA) and Captain Todd Andrews. Earlier in the day, Captain Andrews had held up the Mullingar phone exchange and phoned the British officer in charge of the Army barracks pretending to be a pro-treaty officer working on behalf of the Provisional Government.
He requested the handing over of the Army barracks with immediate effect. The British officer willingly obliged. Both anti-treaty officers were acting on behalf of Comdt Gen Andy Cooney, Officer Commanding 1st Eastern Division Anti-treaty IRA, who saw the occupation of Mullingar Army barracks as a major coup for the Anti-Treaty position in the midlands and a challenge to both the pro-treaty political leadership and of course to Gen Seán Mac Eoin of the pro-treaty element of the IRA, who had taken over Athlone Army Barracks.
Point to note at this juncture:
Captain Todd Andrews later became a prominent figure in public life and helped to found Bord na Mona and was also chairman of both CIE and later RTE, notably, he is the Grandfather of RTE’s Ryan Tubridy.
However, not long after the anti-treaty IRA had taken control of this historic military facility, another contingent of uniformed personal arrived in the Barracks, this time under the direction of District Inspector Harrington of the Mullingar R.I.C. D.I. Harrington was on a very important mission and needed nothing to hamper the urgent task ahead.
This important task was the requisitioning of Mullingar Army barracks as a facility for the disbanding of the R.I.C. The Anti-treaty IRA commanders viewing D.I. Harrington’s mission as of utmost importance, evacuated the Army barracks almost immediately, moving to new locations in Mullingar, ironically, the recently vacated local RIC barracks and Courthouse!!!!
In early 1922, arrangements for the disbandment the RIC had been issued by Deputy Inspector General C.A. Walsh. Both regular RIC and also the hated reinforcements of the R.I.C. including the R.I.C. Special Reserve (Black & Tans) and Auxiliary Division R.I.C. (Auxies) were to be included as part of these general orders.
Mullingar, with its central location, main rail terminus and large army barracks which could accommodate up to 1,000 personal, was viewed as being ideal for the task ahead. Another major location that was also used for the disbandment of the RIC was Gormanstown Camp situated near Drogheda on the east coast which had previously been the main Irish base of the dreaded RIC reinforcements.
So it was on a dreary Monday evening in February 1922 that large numbers of Royal Irish Constabulary members from around Ireland arrived in Mullingar by train for disbanding. It was an amazing scene to behold, for while many other towns in Ireland including nearby Athlone were witnessing the evacuation of British forces from their localities, Mullingar as it appeared to the locals, was in reverse and becoming the centre of British imperial rule in Ireland.
Indeed, many locals in Mullingar on seeing these large numbers of policemen arriving, feared the worst with rumours spreading around the town and elsewhere that the treaty was dead and war with Britain was about to reignite.
However, this consternation and bewilderment along with the fears felt by many in the town regarding the events at the Army barracks was about to be put to rest. D.I. Harrington on hearing these concerns knew that this idle chat could lead to major political fallout; as such he issued a press release to the Irish Times.
In this press release, D.I. Harrington expressed with the greatest urgency that the media should make it as clear as possible to the public that the occupation of Mullingar Army barracks by the RIC was a temporary measure and would only be until RIC Barracks around Ireland had been evacuated, and the demobilisation of the RIC as a force had been complete.
D.I. Harrington was very highly respected by many in both Mullingar and in nearby localities. But no more so than by Gen Seán Mac Eoin, who remembered him for his sympathetic support, when being interviewed by the Irish Bureau of Military History in the 1950’s. In this interview, Gen Mac Eoin recalled being shot and seriously wounded at Scout Tail steps near Dominick Street, Mullingar by members of the R.I.C, having escaped capture at the railway station in March 1921.
Gen Mac Eoin went on to state, that a crowd of “savage black and tans” arrived into Mullingar RIC barracks and began to beat him as he leaned half standing against the cell wall, seriously injured. Upon witnessing this, D.I. Harrington moved in quickly to protect him and had him removed at once to the nearby Army barracks for his own safety.
Indeed, Gen Mac Eoin also stated that D.I. Harrington had previously been very sympathetic to the IRA cause and had in fact provided confidential RIC information to Michael Collins.
This is not as a surprising revelation as it might appear. During the early stages of the War of Independence in 1919; Michael Collins had issued a decree to all Irishmen to leave the regular RIC and allow the Dail and its Army to govern the country.
This of course, was unless the RIC members were involved with his intelligence network, providing vital information, thus in Collins eyes, serving the Irish Republic. While some within the RIC may not have welcomed Collins directive, it appears that D.I. Harrington did, and was one of the “Collins’s men” serving the Republic as requested.
By late August 1922 the Royal Irish Constabulary was consigned to the annuls of history with many of its members, especially those of the regular RIC returning to their family farms or joining the new Irish Civic Guard, later renamed An Garda Síochána. Others transferred to the R.U.C. in the recently created Northern Ireland.
And what was the outcome for the RIC Special Reserve (Black & Tans) and Auxiliary Division R.I.C. (Auxies) many of you may ponder??
The answer to this may not surprise many of you!!!
While some of these men returned to their families in mainland Britain many more were to once again follow the orders of Winston Churchill in his new appointment as Minister of State for the Colonies and travel to Palestine to become Constables of the Colonial Palestine Police.
The skills of death and destruction these men had fine-tuned in Ireland since 1920, was now to become even more perfected, if that is possible, as they dealt with the native population of Palestine.
The commander of the Auxiliaries in Ireland, General Henry Hugh Tudor was to never forget Ireland, for soon after the disbanding of his force, he fled to Canada and went into hiding, fearing an assassins bullet from either an Irish Government agent or indeed from members of the IRA, which almost became a reality on a number of occasions before he died in 1965 in Newfoundland.
Interestingly, while Mullingar was one of the locations chosen for the disbanding of the RIC it must be noted that Winston Churchill himself was no stranger to Mullingar. Churchill had spent a period of his childhood in the late 1870s, living in nearby Knockdrin Castle with his family, his parents, Randolph and Lady Churchill and his grandfather the Duke of Marlborough, who was then the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, all as guests of Sir Richard Levinge.
In conclusion, while this is just a brief article regarding Mullingar and its links to the disbanding of the RIC, it has to be stated that it was not the end of Mullingar’s or indeed that of the Army barracks involvement in matters of historical importance, during this period.
By late April 1922 with RIC demobilisation complete at the Army barracks, it was once again handed over, this time to the pro-treaty Irish Free State Army under the command of Lieutenant General Ginger O’Connell.
Shortly thereafter Mullingar was to become the centre of hostilities between both pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces, mere months before the official beginning of the Irish Civil War. Sadly more tragedies were to beset Mullingar with deaths and executions becoming part of the historical narrative before eventual peace and normality was to return to both Mullingar and her citizens after the Civil War had ended.
Article research and written by
Historian and military expert Jason McKevitt ©
**********. Picture ************
This group photograph of the disbanded RIC Force is from the family collection of Tom Wilkinson. It shows the remaining members at disbandment in Mullingar Barracks, February 1922.
Seated centre are the senior officers and (in civilian clothes) the Divisional Commissioner, Brigadier-General Netterville Guy Barron C.M.G., D.S.O.
The photograph, originally torn and damaged by children, was superbly restored by Christine Downes BA.