Friday 17 January 2020

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'Finding out we had relatives in the RIC was like ice in the veins, not for us, but for our dead grandmother' The RIC controversy has woken people up to being patronised, dismissed, ignored by the entitled and out of touch

The controversy stirred memories and emotions, and has had three powerful political effects, writes Miriam O'Callaghan

History: British soldiers watch a member of the Black and Tans reload his .45 revolver after the burning of the Custom House in Dublin in 1921. Photo: Walshe/Getty Images
History: British soldiers watch a member of the Black and Tans reload his .45 revolver after the burning of the Custom House in Dublin in 1921. Photo: Walshe/Getty Images

Miriam O'Callaghan

The news was shocking: our recently discovered cousins' announcement that we had relatives in the RIC. It was like ice in the veins, not for ourselves, but for our dead grandmother. For her, RIC relatives would be as welcome as flaming coals in the gullet.

Her marriage was steeped in Republicanism, my grandfather holding codes, doing secret court reports for the IRA, granduncles losing their health from all the sleeping in outhouses, their nerves shattered from all the tottering on high window-ledges. Much like the half-a-million rebels in the GPO, there isn't a high window-ledge in Ireland without the sweat and footprint of a man on active service or the run.

Not surprisingly in our house Tomas Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney were venerated not like saints, but gods. As children, every time we passed the Mac Curtains' shop in Blackpool, we blessed ourselves.

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Bravery: The Listowel Mutiny, led by RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee, was an act of audacious patriotism
Bravery: The Listowel Mutiny, led by RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee, was an act of audacious patriotism

My father's crowd were as ardent. Fianna Fail founding members, his own father "never the same" after hearing the sounds from the lorry bearing away the glistening offal of the Ballycannon Boys. In his wider family, there were whispers of cool heads, steady hands, heading for England and America, sorting out a few matters. RIC? They were both unspeakable and untouchable. Up to her death at 87, my grandmother's greatest insult was: "Well, wasn't their father an RIC man."

Last week, I could hear again her low voice with the resisting vocabulary of my childhood, the fire slacked and hissing between us: informer, traitor, papers, interrogation, torture, reprisal, searches, wagons to the Bridewell, boats to Brixton Prison, the terror of missing the curfew, mothers attacked doing the messages, fathers murdered on their way home from work.

The Black and Tans? They were "British filth". For years as a child, I took the RIC supplementary militia to be the Blackened Hands, until the monochrome of a school-book text revealed their colours.

Our RIC men were Protestants, Anglo descent, loyal to the Crown. In the Civil War, they left for the Antipodes, one on a borrowed identity. They became decorated police officers, one honoured by the Queen, noted for hauling young men out of trouble. Clearly, he knew what it meant to get out, start again, carry a secret. In the photos, they are beautiful men, uncannily like my grandmother. Given the resemblance, the new cousins were all the more mystified by our reaction. Good men? Decorated officers? Eminent public servants? Is there any pleasing ye? No, we assured them, we're thrilled to have found them. It's just, you know. We explained about Tomas Mac Curtain and the shock was on them.

Last week, an obviously peeved Minister for Justice described the broad-church rejection of his RIC/DMP commemoration, as an attempt to "airbrush" them from our history. This is nonsense. The forces are acknowledged nationally. They can and will never be forgotten. Moreover, the public is mature enough to recognise the good men within their ranks, Ned Broy being the exemplar. Family accounts show RIC brothers passing information to other brothers who were volunteers. The Listowel Mutiny, led by RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee, was an act of audacious patriotism. It should be marked with full state honours. Should the crown forces themselves, with their violent repression, be commemorated? No. For too many, the idea was a step too far.

I was surprised by the depth of my reaction to the RIC commemoration, one clearly replicated in a broad swathe of political moderates, even milksops, way beyond the usual suspects or Flanagan's "sinister fringe". It made me see how, in my adulthood, the "airbrushing" has been of the Republicanism of my ancestry, the need to confront the terror of the new IRA, excising the nobility and legitimacy of the Old from consideration, conversation.

In one sense, it all died with my grandmother. Outside the family, it wasn't really something you spoke about. The 1970s and 1980s were too violent, volatile for even a peep; I'd moved to London, with a Cork accent, at the time of the Brighton bombings.

In the 1990s, my father came up to Dublin the day the city exploded with the news, 'ceasefire at midnight'. A proud Republican, who abhorred violence, he wept with joy. That night we had our tea out, raised a glass to his insurgent relatives and to the people of Northern Ireland - whose children would grow up in peace.

Yes, most people are eminently capable of "maturity", "nuance" and "understanding" and at the level of the requisite objectivity, not the Anno Domini proprietorial and 'proper' sensibility of FG, creators of the State and of the Heavens and the Earth. Until on the seventh day, they rested.

When it came to the RIC, if only they had.

Ironically, the sniffiness at the public rejection of their clearly party-political ceremony, has a distinct whiff of the Superior, Know Better Guardians of Respectability of the broad era we are commemorating.

In the case of my grandmother, that Superior, Know Better Respectability saw her family sentenced to industrial schools for their social 'crime' of poverty. If the genealogists are right, to illustrate our infinite complexity as a nation, and our being able to accommodate that beautifully, without the political instruction to 'grow up', these destitute children were descendants of the Big House, generational dysfunction, disinheritance and disease combining to exclude, victimise and beggar them.

They survived their history, incarceration. But they were scarred. It's the same with countries, nations. When we examine our life, we try to fill the gap, exorcise the ghosts, heal the wound. Yes, we can stitch up the wound, patch it, dab it with alcohol, treat it with powerful antiseptics, analgesics even the first-class narcotics of GDP, GNP, of 'No thanks Apple, keep your hand in your pocket', of glam-rocking with Bono, whoo-hoo look at us, for a seat on the UN Security Council. Dazzled by our modernity, sometimes we imagine we have achieved an invisible mend. Until, that is, we are reminded. Then we explore the site and find, yes, it's there. The old white scar that's getting hot, raised, red, livid. But we see, too, that we are okay with that. We can run our finger along it, test it, trace its ancestral length, because it will not reopen. We bear the scars of the wound that was. In the case of the RIC wound, we are happy to recognise, acknowledge, less happy to commemorate. Because we are citizens of the Republic of Ireland and not the Republic of Elsewhere, we forgive, freely. But not, as FG desire and demand, forget.

The commemoration controversy has three powerful political effects.

Firstly, it's making us think about our history as lived locally; how we want to know more, say more, share more, be consulted more, on state actions concerning it.

Secondly, it's extracting us from the torpor of political marketing and PR, the polled slogans, the headlines without continuity, context, consequence. The kind of headlines where Minister Harris can declare himself "proud" of his record in health, while our A&E consultants call conditions third world, GPs and consultants are in crisis, 760 sick people are marooned on trolleys. The kind of headlines where the Taoiseach can declare himself "not ashamed" of his record in housing, while 3,700 children are growing up without a home, vulnerable families are siloed out of public sight and government mind in hubs/hotels, unable to make their dinner or sit down together to eat it. In FG ideology old and new, the poor must take what they get. Since they are not core voters, they do not deserve the basics or norms of family living.

Thirdly, it has made us question the Know Better, Nuance and Understanding brigade, the Safe Pairs of Hands. Because with this weird judgment, what do they know? What Nuance and Understanding do they mean? That patriotism, respect for our nationalist past is bad? That privatisation, neoliberalism is good? As to the safe pairs of hands, when people look at the crisis in housing, health, homelessness, they wonder safe for whom, exactly? And whether the government's aversion is to res publica - public matters - well beyond Republicanism's Irish iteration?

Aged nine, my grandmother's youngest brother was transferred from Passage West industrial school to join his big brother at Greenmount. His transfer report was a single line.

"A good obedient boy."

What did he endure in four years to become so?

The RIC controversy has woken people up to being patronised, dismissed, ignored by the entitled and out of touch.

How long more will we be our good, obedient selves?

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