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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
National Library of Ireland on the Commons The Burning of Cork. NLI ref: HOGW 153

The RIC commemoration was dropped - but here's what else is scheduled for this 'challenging' centenary year

The government has said commemorating the period will be “challenging” but how did that lead to the RIC controversy?

1920 WAS ONE of the most significant years in Irish history, and its events served to shape the struggle for independence and what was to follow in subsequent years.

In a press release on 2 January, Minister Josepha Madigan said she wanted to mark the centenary of events this year in a “measured and non-partisan manner that promotes respectful remembrance and reconciliation”. 

Just a week later, the government already has a major headache as a result of (now shelved) plans to hold a commemoration for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) in Dublin Castle. 

The government was heavily criticised – first for holding the event in the first place, and then its doubling down on why it was holding the ceremony

Historian Diarmaid Ferriter – a member of the Expert Advisory Group set up by the government for its Decade of Centenaries – told yesterday that the group did not recommend the planned Dublin Castle commemoration.

A few hours later, the government performed a u-turn and cancelled the event until further notice

So what events will be commemorated this year? What advice was the government given on them? And why are is the plan to hold such events regarded as ‘challenging’?


Since 2012, a programme of events has taken place each year to mark the centenary of an important historical event in Ireland under the umbrella of the Decade of Centenaries.

This has encompassed events to mark the 1913 Lockout and the 1916 Easter Rising.

However, with the 100 year anniversaries of events related to the War of Independence and Civil War approaching, the government has said marking particular events is becoming “challenging”.

As we approached the new year, opposition politicians expressed frustration that a programme of events for 2020 hadn’t yet been finalised. 

“Given we are now in December 2019 it is important this happens quickly,” Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said. 

On 1 January 2020, the Irish Times reported details of the RIC event in Dublin Castle, which triggered a slew of reactions – mostly negative – to the news. 

One of those was Fianna Fáil Mayor of Clare Cathal Crowe. 

He said: “I do [...] think it’s wrong to celebrate and eulogise (I consider “commemorate” to be a verb with positive connotations) an organisation that was the strong-arm of the British state in Ireland. 

The RIC joined army and auxiliaries (Black & Tans) in search parties and raids that resulted in our country-people being killed / tortured or having their homes torched.

Crowe added that he felt it was “historical revisionism” too far. Criticism along the lines of Crowe’s began to gather pace resulting in the government cancelling the RIC commemoration for now.

‘Broad scope’ of events

But there are still plenty of events that will go ahead this year. 

The details of many of these events are not yet finalised but both the government and local authorities have confirmed something to mark the centenaries will take place.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last week, Minister Madigan said there would be a “significant Cork focus” to events held in 2020.

It will include events to mark two Lord Mayors of Cork who died in 1920.

Tomás MacCurtain was elected Lord Mayor of Cork in January 1920. He was shot dead in March 1920, sparking public outrage. An official inquest into his death found RIC members responsible for the killing.

His successor Terence MacSwiney was arrested later that year and died in Brixton Prison in London following a hunger strike in October 1920.

The Kilmichael Ambush that saw IRA volunteers attack and kill over a dozen auxiliaries in November will also be marked.

Another Cork-focused event will see the Black and Tans’ catastrophic burning of the city in December 1920 marked towards the end of this year.

The programme of events throughout the year in Cork will see a State commemoration, a community participation event and a series of civil events including exhibitions and support for communities and schools.

Community, social and voluntary groups as well as schools can apply for funding under the open Cork 2020 Commemorations Fund. 

Outside of Cork, a number of other events will also take place to mark significant dates in Irish history such as Bloody Sunday. 

On 21 November 1920, members of the auxiliaries and the RIC opened fire during a gaelic match at Croke Park which resulted in over a dozen civilian deaths. This followed an attack earlier that day by the IRA that killed a number of British soldiers, along with a couple of civilians. 

Madigan told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland last week that work was also ongoing “closely with the GAA” around a commemoration of Bloody Sunday this year.

A number of events in Kilkenny have also been confirmed, including a memorial field trip and memorial hike for Pat Walsh – an IRA volunteer captured by British forces who died in 1921.

A public symposium is due to to take place at DCU on 25 January, featuring contributors to the Irish Revolution series which is published by Four Courts Press. It will consider the various experiences of the Irish Revolution at a county level as well explaining the challenges involved in researching and writing from this perspective.

Free admission is available to a lecture on Tuesday 21 January at the National Library on Kildare Street in Dublin by Lorcan Collins on “Ireland’s War of Independence: An Introduction to the IRA’s Guerrilla campaign 1919-21″.

Over eight events have been announced from the Irish Historical Society with its programme featuring academics giving talks on various aspects of the War of Independence. More details are available here.

An exhibition called “From Turmoil to Truce: Photographs of the War of Independence” is being showcased by the National Library of Ireland at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar until May 2020. It’s free to visit and is open seven days a week

‘Recurring themes’

In its advice to the government, the Expert Advisory Group said that public feedback it had received emphasised “the importance of adopting a respectful and sensitive approach to the remembrance of the historical events of this period, which focuses on reconciliation and the remembrance of all who suffered and lost their lives”.

Its advice suggested a “limited number of formal State-led commemorations, complemented by State-supported activities and events, led both at local authority and community level”. 

An example of this local-led commemoration came last year with the marking of the centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush – which is widely seen as the beginning of the War of Independence. 

Speaking to an Oireachtas Committee last month, the group’s chair Dr Maurice Manning said that the remembrance for Soloheadbeg in January 2019 “worked effectively in a complex and sensitive local context”.

“The group recommends that the State should continue to support local and county commemorative exercises to widen and deepen a historical understanding of the significance of the events being commemorated among the public at large,” he said.

When it came to the War of Independence, the group advised: “Many of the events of this period have great local significance; it is therefore appropriate for local authorities and local community organisations to be encouraged to lead the commemorative process.

The Advisory Group recommends that a formal commemoration for all of those who lost their lives during the War of Independence be held on 11 July 2021 or a suitable date close to the centenary of the coming into effect of the Truce.

When it came to the RIC, the group said that “consideration should also be given to the organisation of specific initiatives to commemorate the RIC and DMP and to acknowledge their place in history”. 

The government pointed to this advice in its initial defence of holding the RIC event. 

However, Ferriter said the group “did not recommend or endorse the idea of a formal state commemoration for the RIC in the manner proposed”.

He said what they had in mind “was an academic event – a conference or seminar – that would look at the issue of policing in Ireland during the revolutionary period, including the role of and disbandment of the RIC and the foundation of the Civic Guard, which became An Garda Síochána”.

Such symposiums and conferences already populate this year’s programme of events. 

Further details of events that will take place this year will be announced on the Decade of Centenaries website

With reporting from Cónal Thomas, Aoife Barry

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