When Mary English thinks of his gruesome death, she feels sadness, not rancour. On the night of September 20, 1920, her paternal grandfather, James Lawless, was murdered by the Black and Tans in one of the most notorious episodes of the War of Independence.
The 40-year-old IRA lieutenant, who was a barber in the north Co Dublin town of Balbriggan, was hauled from his home late at night and subjected to the most horrific death. It was a fate that also fell on another local man, John Gibbons, who had been suspected of being a Republican rebel.
It is thought that they were beaten and stabbed with rifle bayonets before their bodies were dumped on the street. Their killings had been in reprisal for the killing of an RIC head constable, Peter Burke, earlier in the day. Burke, a Catholic policeman from Galway, had been shot dead after an altercation in Smyth's pub in the town. His brother William, also an RIC officer, was seriously wounded, but would escape with his life.
"I look back on what happened with great sadness," Mary English says today. "My grandfather was 40 years old and he had eight children ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years old. In the course of one night, all of those children lost a father."
One of them was her own father, Stephen. "He was just three years old when James died," she says. "The only memory he used to say he had of him was walking with him alongside the sea. But when you're that young, it's really hard to remember anything."
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of what became known as the Sack of Balbriggan and an event that helped instil fear and hatred of the Black and Tans - the reserve force recruited mainly from unemployed soldiers who had fought in World War I. With guerilla warfare becoming a key tactic among rebel insurgents, the Black and Tans - named after the uniforms they initially wore - were charged with helping the RIC to bring Ireland under control. Recruitment had begun in January 1920, and there was a notable take-up in July when increased wages were offered.
Not only were two men savagely murdered in Balbriggan, but the Black and Tans laid waste to much of the town. They arrived in lorries from the nearby Gormanston Army Base at around 11pm that autumn night and looted shops, set fire to local businesses and torched the homes of civilians. Hundreds of townspeople were forced to sleep in fields for days afterwards, so fearful were they that there would be a return of the mayhem.
The incident was widely reported both in Ireland and overseas. The Irish Independent report captured much of the horror. "The lorries pulled up close to the police barracks," it read, "and their occupants dismounted and proceeded through the streets, firing shots, shouting, smashing windows and setting fire to houses.
"A regular reign of terror, lasting for some hours, followed and numbers of unfortunate people had to fly for safety from their homes in their night attire. Many terrified women and children sought refuge in the fields."
The newspaper's account of the injuries sustained by the victims of the Black and Tans is gruesome: "Both Gibbons and Lawless were killed at dawn and the bodies, lying within a few yards of each other, were discovered at 8am and removed to an outhouse nearby where they lay unguarded during the day.
"They presented a shocking appearance... they were covered with blood and appeared to have been bayoneted in several places. Their heads were also severely cut. In Mr Gibbons there was a large hole which may have been caused by a bayonet being twisted round in it."
For local amateur historian, the retired librarian Jim Walsh, the Sack of Balbriggan is a harrowing aspect of Ireland's past, but one that should not be forgotten, especially in the coastal town where it happened.
Plaque and memorial
"To be perfectly honest, a lot of people in the town today wouldn't know much about it," he says. "There is a plaque on Bridge Street, that was erected in 1941, and there's a memorial in Balscadden cemetery [a few kilometres from Balbriggan] where the men are buried, but other than that, it's something that newcomers to the town just wouldn't be aware of."
Walsh became interested in the events of 1920 several decades ago, and over the years he interviewed several people who had been eyewitnesses on that fateful September night. All, of course, are now long dead. "We put together a video of them speaking about it and that gave us a real sense of what happened," he recalls. "We are fortunate, too, that there were so many media reports on it. It was a story that was big news outside of Ireland."
Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern History at University College Dublin, says the international coverage was significant. "One way I would look at it is, 'What did it reveal about the failure of the British strategy towards Ireland at that time?' They disputed the idea that there was a war in Ireland at the time. Their argument was that it was a policeman's job. The difficulty for Britain is that when you have an event like Balbriggan, the images that are projected internationally make a mockery of the idea that Britain is containing its Irish problem because it's a picture of deplorable brutality.
"The Republicans won the propaganda war - they were very effective in getting their message out. They would have said, 'This is a Britain that fought a war to protect the rights of small nations. This is a small nation. Look at what they're doing to Balbriggan - it's been razed to the ground."
Balbriggan was one of several towns and villages to experience the savagery of the Black and Tans as the weeks wore on. Kilkee in Co Clare, Tubbercurry in Co Sligo and Trim, Co Meath, also suffered at their hands. And the remainder of the year would see large-scale aggressions that would turn many firmly against the British.
"You had Bloody Sunday [November 21, in Dublin, when more than 30 people were killed in a day of unrest] and the Burning of Cork [December 11] which demonstrated clearly how grave the British discipline and policing problems were. And the question that you keep coming back to is, 'Who is in charge? Do they have any unified command when it comes to controlling what the Crown Forces are doing in Ireland?'"
Ultimately, Ferriter says the Sack of Balbriggan offers a reminder about the suffering that civilians experienced during the tumultuous early years of the 1920s. "Civilians bore the brunt of so many of those atrocities, not least in Balbriggan."
Retired Garda Jim Herlihy is an authority in the history of both the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and has spent years researching the War of Independence. "The story of the Sack of Balbriggan is not complete without looking at the RIC man who was killed, Peter Burke," he says.
"Sometimes, in the past, it has been all too easy not to see all aspects of history and one of those aspects are the Irish men who served in the RIC. And, not just that, but you had hundreds of Irish who were recruited to the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries [another reserve force that became indistinguishable from the Black and Tans in the eyes of many].
"Peter Burke was born in Tuam, Co Galway in 1884, and had served in Antrim, Kerry, Tipperary and Clare. He had been promoted to head constable the year before. He is buried in Graiguenamanagh [on the Kilkenny-Carlow border].
"His brother William had served with the Irish Guards in World War I and had been wounded. He had been stationed in Balbriggan a matter of weeks. He was lucky enough to survive the attack."
Jim Herlihy's view that commemorations should seek to look at all sides is not shared by some. At the beginning of the year, there was widespread controversy when it was announced that there would be an event to remember Irish men who had served in the RIC and DMP. Objecting to the RIC's "intolerable record of barbarism", Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called it "crass Fine Gael revisionism gone too far". The event, which was to be hosted by then justice minister Charlie Flanagan was called off. "The lesson is learned," then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said at the time, although he added that the commemoration was "never about the Black and Tans".
Brian Howley, chairman of the Balbriggan and District Historical Society, is determined that all those who died and suffered loss on September 20, 2020 should be remembered. The society had organised several events for both today and tomorrow, but the pandemic has ensured they can't go ahead as originally planned.
"All the talks that we had organised will be broadcast online on our Facebook page," he says. "It is important that Balbriggan remembers what happened 100 years ago."
A commemorative Mass is due to be held tomorrow, but by Thursday of this week there was uncertainty over who would be allowed to attend as restrictions tighten. The event will be broadcast online.
Among those speaking at the webinar will be Diarmaid Ferriter and Jim Herlihy. "There's nothing political about this commemoration," Howley says. "We want to look at what happened in Balbriggan from all sides."
Howley became interested in his town's most notorious event while still at school. "I remember going into the offices of the Irish Independent in the mid-1970s to look at microfiche files of the newspaper coverage from the time. I still have them and they are precious to me."
Mary English has also spent considerable time researching her family tree. "It just wasn't something that was talked about. My grandmother - James's widow - lived until 1965, but she never mentioned it, especially to us children. I think that was the way then. People just had to get on with it. Here was a woman with eight children trying to fend for herself and her family. It must have been a tough time."
Unusually for early 20th century Ireland, her grandparents were of mixed religion. James Lawless was Catholic; his wife, Maryanne Woodhead, was Church of Ireland. "She was baptised Catholic before they married," she says. "She had been from Ringsend in Dublin. I don't know why they ended up in Balbriggan, maybe because there was a lot of employment in the town back then."
Before the infamous rampage of the Black and Tans, Balbriggan was most famous for its clothing factories, especially in hosiery. So renowned were the town's craftspeople, that a type of ladies' 19th century stocking was widely known as a 'Balbriggan'.
Smiths, the chief hosiery factory in the area, would not escape the attack of September 1920. It was badly damaged by the looters, although it and other businesses in the town tended to fare better than civilians when it came to reparation payments once the conflict had ended.
"It's hard to think of the sort of suffering that my grandmother and other people in the town must have experienced," Mary English says, "especially when you look at it from today. And yet, while 100 years seems like a long time ago, it's only a few generations back. We should not forget."