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New book argues RIC was not a 'colonial oppressive police force'

The book, written by a serving garda sergeant, pays tribute to the 46 Irish RIC men who were killed during the War of Independence.

You did what no one ever did for me before, you gave me a pure and devoted love – a home and our children. You tried in every way to help me and save me, but we know there is only one who can do that perfectly. He will let us meet again.

THESE WERE SOME of the last words Gilbert Potter wrote to his wife.

He was an Irishman, born and reared in county Leitrim. He had four children and he worked as a district inspector for the Royal Irish Constabulary in Tipperary.

In 1921, he was captured by the IRA and executed. He is one of 46 policemen killed in Tipperary during the War of Independence. In four bloody years of conflict, almost 500 RIC officers were killed and hundreds more injured.

P5.1 Black and Tans 1920 RIC constables at the RIC Depot, Phoenix Park, 1920. Source: The Collins Press

In a new book, written by an acting garda sergeant, tribute is paid to some of these men who, before now, were forgotten, confined to the footnotes of the history books.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Sergeant John Reynolds, who is based at the Garda College in Templemore, said Potter was a “very nice man by all accounts”.

“The IRA really got to like him,” he explained. “At one stage, they said he could escape because they liked him. They wanted him to commit to resigning from the police, but he said he wasn’t willing to do it.”

When they were executing him, one of the guys shot himself in the leg and Gilbert Potter helped treat him and then climb back into the grave to be shot.

‘Devoted love’

In letters written to his wife and friends during his period of captivity, the police officer said the IRA members were treating him well and were “kind hearted”.

To his wife Lily, he wrote of his love for her and their four children. He asked the local bishop to take care of them in their time of distress:

How awful that I should have brought her this trouble. If you see Lily soon tell her that her goodness to me and devoted love are felt by me and are a treasure in my affliction.

His diary, personal effects and these letters were later returned anonymously to Lily after his death and were the first confirmation she had that he had been killed.

“He was an Irishman, and the vast majority of RIC officers were Irishmen,” Reynolds said.

P2.1 RIC Constable 1920-1 An RIC constable at the RIC Depot, Phoenix Park, 1920. Source: The Collins Press

The beginning

The Soloheadbeg Ambush in 1919 is generally considered to be the start of the guerilla war, but little is ever said about the lives of the two men who died that day.

Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, both Irishmen, were escorting a horsedrawn carriage from the military barracks in Tipperary when they were attacked.

O’Connell was 30 years old and was engaged to be married. McDonnell was a 50-year-old widower with seven children, all orphaned when he was murdered. They were well-liked men in their community.

Source: RUC Museum

IRA volunteer Dan Breen, who was involved in the ambush, later commented: “Six dead policemen would have impressed the country more than a mere two.”

“There is a perception that the RIC were just a paramilitary, colonial, oppressive police force, but that’s not the case,” Reynolds said.

I’ve often made the analogy that it seems a bit like an old cowboy movie where the bad guy is in the black hat and the good guy is in the white one. That’s never the reality in any conflict.

Source: The Collins Press.

Most of the Irishmen who joined did so because it was a secure job with prospect of a pension at the end of their service.

The author pointed out that when the conflict ended, the RIC was disbanded, not at the insistence of the provisional government, but of its own members.

p142 RIC Disbandment parade of the RIC at the RIC Depot, Phoenix Park, 4 April 1922. The parade is being cheered by their comrades while a detachment of the Royal Artillery present arms. Source: The Collins Press

“One of the good things about this whole decade, about the Rising commemoration, is that it’s making people look at things like this. All the other people are being recognised as being victims, and there’s no taking sides,” Reynolds said.

“Commemorating the War of Independence and particularly the Civil War, we’ll have to look at what we did to ourselves – that’s going to be hard. These are the facts of who died and I think that’s a worthwhile experiment, to commemorate everyone.”

John Reynolds’ book, 46 Men Dead, focuses on the conflict in Tipperary and the RIC men who lost their lives. It is available in book stores across the country. 

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