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'An act of collective punishment': Commemorations to mark the centenary of the Sack of Balbriggan

100 years ago today more than 100 Black and Tans ransacked the north Dublin town and two men were beaten to death.

The destruction of Clonard Street.
The destruction of Clonard Street.
Image: Fingal Local Studies and Archives

COMMEMORATIONS ARE TAKING place to mark the centenary of the Sack of Balbriggan, a night 100 years ago that saw homes and businesses burned down and two men in the town beaten to death.

On the night of 20 September 1920, between 100 and 150 Black and Tans ransacked the town of Balbriggan in revenge for the killing of RIC head constable Peter Burke and the shooting of his brother Sergeant Michael Burke, who was badly wounded.

The two men had been shot by the IRA while in Smyth’s pub in Ballbriggan earlier that day.

In retaliation, a factory, 49 houses and four pubs were burned down and there was widespread looting in Balbriggan. Two men, Seán Gibbons and Séamus Lawles, were also beaten to death.

The event later led to debate in the British Parliament, with HH Asquith, then leader of the opposition, comparing the sack of Balbriggan with the actions of the Imperial German Army during the Rape of Belgium.

A subsequent inquiry put the blame for the loss of lives, destruction of property and livelihoods on the British forces. It awarded compensation to the families of Lawless and Gibbons of £1,750 each. Damages were also awarded to the owners of the burned-down factory and numerous other claims were settled for destroyed businesses and homes.

The main commemoration event, which was due to take place this afternoon in Saints Peter & Paul’s Church with President Michael D Higgins in attendance, has been postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions in Dublin.

President Higgins today described the incident as “an act of collective punishment, a reprisal, a term that would become the mark of a policy aimed at subjugation, installation of fear in a public that had in its midst those that sought independence”.

That September night in Balbriggan, on which we reflect today, was a day of rampant violence and carnage that, along with other key acts of reprisal during Ireland’s War of Independence, its ferocity and reports of it resulted in the galvanising of support for the military struggle that would ultimately lead to the establishment of our independent State.

“The atrocity that was the sack of Balbriggan has characteristics that are similar in many respects to so many other acts of reprisal violence and collective punishments that were administered by British armed forces during the War of Independence,” he said.

“They marked an escalation in terms of their ferocity and were calculated to have a strategic impact on the local community, which Dublin Castle were anxious to claim was having an effect.”

Although some planned events have had to be scaled back due to the Covid-19 restrictions in Dublin, many organised by local groups and the council are still taking place.

These include exhibitions, talks and the painting of murals in the town.

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The Sack of Balbriggan was the main theme for the fourth annual Fingal Festival of History festival which took place online between September 12 and 19. All the talks and presentations associated with the Festival are available online on the Fingal Libraries YouTube channel and social media platforms.

An exhibition of the Sack of Balbriggan is ready to go on display in The Atrium at County Hall, Swords, and a virtual exhibition can be viewed on the council’s website.

A mural commemorating the Sack of Balbriggan has been commissioned by Fingal County Council’s Arts Office and work is nearing completion at Bridge Street.

The council is also making a documentary to mark the commemoration of the Centenary of the Sack of Balbriggan.

Mayor of Fingal Councillor David Healy said it is important to mark the centenary of this event.

“In remembering the collective punishment visited on the civilian population of Balbriggan by the Black and Tans, we also express our solidarity with civilian populations elsewhere in the world who, in modern times, continue to face such punishment,” he said.

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