One hundred years ago today the unofficial but very real reprisal policy of the British government was articulated—in Listowel, Co. Kerry RIC Station—by one of its functionaries in what he presumed to be a sympathetic environment. Unfortunately for Smyth, and for an embarrassed British administration, many of the members of his audience were far from sympathetic and one in particular, the interventionist constable Jeremiah Mee, took action based on the highly disturbing message Smyth conveyed that day.
World War 1 veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, had recently been appointed to the divisional command of the Munster Royal Irish Constabulary, migrating from the military to the police. His nemesis, Jeremiah Mee, joined the RIC at the age of 19 in 1911. He served nine years in different parts of Co.Sligo. While in Grange, where he spent some of his time pursuing poitín makers with offshore still, he became active in moves to form a union of RIC constables. This did not go down well with his superiors and he was transferred, in 1919, to Listowel Co. Kerry.
In May 1920, as the War of Independece began to ramp up in Kerry, a military force was stationed in nearby Ballinruddery under the command of a Captain Chadwick. In June the Listowel RIC men were informed they were to vacate their barracks and make way for the Army.
In his Bureau of Military History Witness Statement #379 – (http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0379.pdf) – Mee takes up the story.
‘We held a meeting in the dining room. The men were all excited. Some were disappointed over the transfers; some were disappointed over various things. After a lot of discussion I personally addressed the men in the day-room. I pointed out that a war had been declared on the Irish people and that, looking at the case from the most selfish point of view, we had to consider our position. We were asked evidently to take part with the military in beating our own people. I might find myself shooting the mother of one of my comrades, while he would be shooting my mother in Galway. I pointed out that in a war one of two things must happen. We had either to win or lose. I assumed that we would win the war with the assistance of the British military. When we had defeated our own people, the British military would return to their own country and we would remain with our own people whom we had, with the assistance of the British government, crushed and defeated. That would be the best side of our case. If we lost the war the position would be still worse. I suggested that, instead of going on transfer, we would hold the barracks and refuse to hand over to the British military. We had bombs, rifles and revolvers, and any amount of ammunition; and there was no reason why we could not hold the barracks at least for a few days. To this I got a rousing cheer from each and every man. They immediately agreed that they would refuse to hand over the barracks. There was not one dissentient voice in it. The men were all there, including the Sergeant but not the District inspector or the Head Constable. It was then decided that I would represent the men who were about to be transferred from the barracks, and Constable Lillis would represent the four men who were to remain in the barracks …
At ten o’clock on the night of the 18th June a phone message came from the County Inspector to the District Inspector instructing him to have the men ready for parade with side arms (belt and sword) to meet Colonel Smyth* at ten o’clock next morning, 19th June. No details were given.
Colonel Smyth had been appointed Divisional Commissioner for Munster on 3rd June, just two weeks earlier. His appointment was direct from the British Cabinet and he was given complete charge of the military and police for the whole of Munster. Beyond the fact that he was appointed Commissioner, we knew nothing whatever about him, and neither did our District Inspector.’
RIC top brass began to arrive at 10.30 on the morning of 19 June. Accompanying Colonel Smyth was the RIC Inspector General, General Tudor, and a military and police escort of around fifty men.
‘This display of force was no doubt intended to terrorise and overawe our little garrison within, and I will admit that I never felt less cheerful in my life. Nevertheless, our men stood the test splendidly and, though there may have been nervous tension, there was no evidence whatever of fear.
After sometime the officers, both military and police, numbering ten or twelve, came into the dayroom where we were assembled. They lined up in front of us with their backs to the fireplace and facing us. Up to this moment we had not the least idea as to what was going to happen. Colonel Smyth, who had only one arm, having lost his other arm in the 1914-18 war, went straight to the point and processed to address us without making any reference to our previous insubordination and refusal to co-operate with the military. Immediately he commenced to speak I stepped out, saluted him, and told him that we understood that this conference was to be between the police and their authorities and that we objected to the presence of the military officers. Strange though it may seem, Colonel Smyth made no comment whatever on my action, while the military officers smiled at each other and quietly walked out of the room. Colonel Smyth then commenced his speech again and continued:-
“Well men, I have something of interest to tell you, something that I am sure you would not wish your wives to hear. I am going to lay all my cards on the table, but I must reserve one card for myself. Now men, Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to this; we are going to have the sport now. The police have done splendid work, considering the odds against them. They are not sufficiently strong to do anything but hold their barracks. This is not enough, for as long as we remain on the defensive so long will Sinn Fein have the whip hand. We must take the offensive and beat Sinn Fein with their own tactics. Martial Law, applying to all Ireland, is coming into operation shortly, and our scheme of amalgamation must be complete by 21st June. I am promised as many troops as I require from England; thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England.
Now men, what I wish to explain to you is that you are to strengthen your comrades in the outstations. The military are to take possession of the large centres where they will have control of the railways and lines of communication, and be able to move rapidly from place to place. Unlike police who can act as individuals on their own initiative, military must act in large numbers under a good officer; he must be a good officer or I shall have him removed. If a police barracks is burned, or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown out in the gutter. Let him die there, the more the merrier. You must go out six nights a week at least and get out of the barracks by the back door or skylight so that you will not be seen. Police patrols in uniform will go out the front door as a decoy. Police and military will patrol the country roads at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, take cover behind fences, near the roads, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “hands up”. Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but this cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you, and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man. In the past policemen have got into trouble for giving evidence at coroner’s inquests. As a matter of fact, inquests are to be made illegal so that in future no policeman will be asked to give evidence at inquests. Hunger strikers will be allowed to die in jail, the more the merrier. Some of them have died already and a damn bad job they were not all allowed to die. As a matter of fact, some of them have been dealt with in a manner that their friends will never hear about. A ship will be leaving an Irish port in the near future with lots of Sinn Feiners on board; I assure you men, it will never land.
That now is nearly all I have to say to you. We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Fein. Any man who is not prepared to do so is a hindrance rather than a help and he had better leave the job at once.”
Colonel Smyth then, pointing to the first man in the ranks, said, “Are you prepared to co-operate?’ The man, who happened to be an Englishman named Chuter, replied, “Constable Mee speaks for us”. Smyth pointed to each man in turn, asking the same question and getting the same reply, until he reached myself. I was about the seventh man he addressed, and by the time he reached me I was so horrified by his speech that all our plans of the previous night had completely evaporated and, in any case, would have been useless for a contingency that now confronted us. In desperation, I stepped forward and said, “By your accent, I take it you are an Englishman. You forget you are addressing Irishmen.” He checked me there and said he was a north of Ireland man from Banbridge in the County Down. I said, “I am an Irishman and very proud of it.” Taking off my uniform cap, I laid it on the table in front of Colonel Smyth and said, “This too is English; you may have it as a present from me”. Having done this I completely lost my temper and, taking off my belt and sword, clapped them down on the table, saying, “These too are English and you may have them. To Hell with you, you are a murderer.” At this, Colonel Smyth quietly said to District Inspector Flanagan, “Place that man under arrest”. District Inspector Flanagan and Head Constable Plover came forward and linked me out of the room down to the kitchen which was at the far end of the corridor, and remained there with me for a few minutes. In less than four or five minutes after going into the kitchen with the Head Constable and the District Inspector, I heard a wild stampede down the corridor and in rushed the whole crowd of my comrades whom I had left in the day-room. They were highly excited and half dragged and half pushed me back into the dayroom. When we got to the dayroom, which I had left five minutes earlier, the room was empty. Divisional Inspector Smyth, General Tudor and the other police officers were in the District Inspector’s office with the door closed. Colonel Smyth’s uniform cap was still on the dayroom table. District Inspector Flanagan and Head Constable Plover went into the District Inspector’s office and joined the other officers. In the dayroom then men were in an angry mood and all was excitement, some going so far as suggesting that Smyth deserved to be shot.’
Mee transcribed Smyth’s speech from memory and sent it to what he calls ‘Republican headquarters’. 6 July Mee and four other Listowel policemen, as he puts it himself, ‘left the force without either resigning or being dismissed’. They took revolvers and ammunition with them.
‘On 10th July the Smyth speech was published, fully, in the Freeman’s Journal, a daily newspaper published in Dublin. On the following day John Donovan and myself went to Dublin where we made contacts with members of the Dáil Cabinet, Michael Collins, Erskine Childers, Madame Markievicz, Alex McCabe T.D., as well as Thomas Johnson and William O’Brien of the Labour party and Martin Fitzgerald of the Freeman’s Journal in the offices of the Irish Labour Party. The object of the meeting was to get from us the full facts of the Listowel episode. It should be mentioned that the publication of the Smyth speech was one of the reasons for the breaking up of the Freeman’s Journal by the British forces and the subsequent arrest of the owner and editor, Messrs. Fitzgerald and Hooper.
During this interview it was plain to us that Michael Collins did not think that the British government was dastardly enough to conceive a scheme of the kind outlined by Colonel Smyth to the police at Listowel. Childers on the other hand, seemed to have no doubt whatever that the British government were capable of conceiving and carrying out the scheme; and for that reason justified his having published the case in the Irish Bulletin from which paper the Freeman’s Journal had published it.
Thomas Johnson and William O’Brien of the Labour Party went to London to attend an international Labour conference. They raised the question of Smyth’s speech and handed copies of the Freeman’s Journalcontaining Smyth’s speech to each delegate attending the conference. This caused uproar at the conference and the Irish delegates got the full backing of British Labour in demanding an investigation into Colonel Smyth’s speech. A Labour delegation later visited Ireland and reported fully on the Black and Tan atrocities.
On Wednesday 14th July, T. P. O’Connor raised the question in the British House of Commons. He asked and was refused leave to move the adjournment of the house to discuss the incident and the remarks attributed to Divisional Commissioner Smyth as calculated to produce serious bloodshed in Ireland. Sir Hamar Greenwood’s reply on that date is very interesting. He said that Divisional Commissioner Smyth had informed him that “the instructions given to the police in Listowel were those mentioned in a debate in this House on 22nd May last by the Attorney General for Ireland, and he did not exceed those instructions.” For once, Hamar Greenwood spoke the truth for, as I shall prove later, Smyth was the spokesman of the British Cabinet and the instructions given to us were the exact instructions sanctioned by the British Cabinet on 22nd May, 1920.
Colonel Smyth’s address to the police at Listowel got the widest publicity, both in Great Britain and America, and caused quite a sensation as it was taken that Smyth was acting as spokesman of the British government; and there was a general outcry and demand for a full investigation. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, finding himself in a tight corner, gave a promise of a full investigation but said that, before doing so, he would call Smyth to London to get the full details from Colonel Smyth personally
With things in this mess, Colonel Smyth was called to London to see the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Smyth did not, or could not, deny having incited the police to commit open murder, since those were his instructions from the Prime Minister himself. The fact that Colonel Smyth had lost an arm in the war and had at least a dozen medals for bravery in the field counted for little now that the British Cabinet had to be saved. After two days in London, Lloyd George sent him back to Cork, ostensibly to regulate police duty for the assizes but with full knowledge of the fact that this brave officer was going to his doom. Once Colonel Smyth’s instruction to “shoot at sight” was published, it must have been clear even to Lloyd George that Smyth was a marked man. Yet when he was shot dead in the Cork County Club a few days later, he had no bodyguard and not even a private soldier or policeman in the vicinity of the Club. This was a sad end to a great soldier betrayed by the treachery of the politician, Lloyd George. When Smyth’s wife heard the news of her husband’s death, she said, “My husband was a great soldier. It is a pity that he died in such a rotten cause. No doubt her natural womanly instinct told her of the great betrayal. It might be mentioned in this connection that, after the death of Smyth, his brother, Captain Smyth, who had an appointment in the War Office, volunteered for service in Ireland to avenge his brother’s death. He was shot dead while raiding Professor Carolan’s house in Drumcondra on the occasion when Dan Breen and Sean Treacy escaped.
When Colonel Smyth was dead, Lloyd George was then able to say, “I can’t now have an inquiry into the Listowel affair as our principal witness has been murdered.” In this way he shuffled shamelessly out of the inquiry which he never had the least intention of holding.
General Tudor, with other high-ranking officers, was present when Colonel Smyth delivered his infamous ultimatum to the RIC at Listowel. Why was General Tudor not summoned to London to give evidence of Smyth’s speech? The reason is that the British Cabinet were already committed to a policy of outrage and murder in Ireland. Investigation or inquiry was the last thing that the British Cabinet then desired. Colonel Smyth had been indiscreet enough to put their secret policy for bloodshed to the RIC at Listowel and for this he had to pay the extreme penalty. His death gave Lloyd George the breathing time he so much needed while he was being forced for an explanation and enquiry by an outraged public opinion even in Britain. It was only a chance that Listowel had been the scene of this explosion. Similar instructions had been issued to the officers of all other counties about. The police co-operated with the military but Listowel was the only barracks which had refused to co-operate. Hence Smyth’s visit and the display of force that accompanied it.
Immediately after Smyth was shot in Cork, I wrote to the daily press expressing regret at the death of Colonel Smyth and accusing the British government of connivance thereat. My letter was never published.’
Smyth’s speech had made him an obvious IRA target and on 17 July 1920 he was shot and killed in the smoking room of the Cork and County Club by a six-man IRA hit squad led by Dan O’Donovan. He was buried in Banbridge, Co. Down from where his mother’s family hailed. The funeral prompted a riot in which another man was killed.
Smyth’s brother, Osbert, also a World War 1 veteran, subsequently enlisted in the British struggle against the IRA and was himself killed in a shoot-out in Drumcondra during a failed attempt to capture or kill Dan Breen and Sean Treacy.
Jeremiah Mee himself became actively involved in organising resignations of RIC members under the aegis of the Labour department of Countess Markievicz. He later became an organiser of the boycott of goods coming from Belfast after the anti-nationalist pogroms in that city.
Listen to a re-enactment of the BMH-WS testimony of Jeremiah Mee (including details of his career after 6 July 1920 on https://soundcloud.com/military-archives – this is part of a collaborative project between the Military Archives and the History Show on RTE Radio 1
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