Sunday 19 January 2020

John Downing: 'Some of my family were in the RIC - they were just as much a part of our history as the rebels'


On parade: Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1913
On parade: Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1913
John Downing

John Downing

A man called Denis Downing was on my mind when I accepted an invitation to go to that ill-starred commemorative event for the "Auld Inglish Polis" which had been fixed for Dublin Castle tomorrow week.

On the plus side, I can park my anxiety about whether my elderly battered suit will survive another trip to the dry cleaners. And let's not mention whether or not it fits after another season of indulging not wisely but too well.

The negatives are far less personal to me. But what has gone on in this country in recent days makes me shudder about our continued devotion to bad history and its implications for our continuing inability to live together.

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But let's quicken up and explain what we're at here. Denis Downing was my great-grandfather, the son who did not get tenancy of the small farm outside Kenmare in the 1870s, and instead joined the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Lámha suas, I am in that age zone of planning to plot the family tree. Alas, I am only in the early stages.

By the 1901 Census, Denis was living on a pension in the shadow of St Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork city aged 51. One of his sons cited in that Census, Maurice, also later joined the RIC, pointing up the force's family tradition.

Tens of thousands of other Irish families today have comparable stories. Some of them are juxtaposed with stories of other close relatives who chose the Fenian or IRA path. And some of those who swiftly draped themselves this week in rebel green should beware the genealogists.

Keeping body and soul together is not always easy - but it was undoubtedly vastly tougher in those times. History tells us the RIC pay was poor, the job demands were often harsh, but it brought regular income, and pensions were not abundant in those times.

Reflecting on my great-grandfather and my grand-uncle Maurice in recent days, I have been wearied and dismayed. I am no fan of revisionist history - I revere the selflessness and bravery of many of those who bore arms in the War of Independence for their raw courage at times when it did not look like they could prevail.

I am one of the minority who each day speaks the Irish language with pride - something many of those strident critics of the RIC-DMP commemoration do not. But I am also far too old for a one-dimensional view of history which excludes things which do not fit. The RIC and DMP were part of life for a century and the first truly organised legitimate police forces. It's time to visit varying shades of historical grey.

Yes, some RIC members did criminal things during the War of Independence. The murder of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás MacCurtain, jumps out on this.

But other RIC members tried to act honourably and independently of the two infamous police support forces, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.

Some RIC members actively criticised the auxiliary police forces' behaviour and were sacked for their efforts. Other RIC officers helped the rebel cause by not acting against them or by quietly passing on information. Others quite blatantly took an IRA hand by spying for the rebels.

Let's also remember that some IRA members did some very morally questionable things during a very dirty conflict. Where will our brave rebels of this week be when we broach that one?

The great John Hume of Derry, voted 'Ireland's Greatest' by popular acclaim in 2010, never tired of insisting that Ireland remains divided because the people are divided. The country's greatest peace-maker was thinking mainly of Orange versus Green in the north east.

Alas, the past week tells us he was also talking about many people in this jurisdiction and their failure to broach reality.

Irish Independent

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