Seán Culhane stood across the street from the Cork & County Club Hotel, an Anglo-Irish social club in Cork City. Culhane, the Intelligence Officer, Cork 1 Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, was watching the door, waiting for a sign from his informer, waiter Ned “Bally” Fitzgerald. It was a little after 10 PM on that warm July 17, 1920 evening when “Bally” stepped out the door and looked across the street, and nodded to Culhane.
(Below: the building that used to be Cork & County Club Hotel.)
Telling his comrades, Sando Donovan, Corney Sullivan, J.J. O'Connell, Danny Healy, and Seán O'Donoghue to wait for a signal from him to follow, he crossed the street to “Bally.” Fitzgerald. “Bally” gave him the news he was hoping for. Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Divisional Commissioner for Munster Province, was inside drinking at a table in the smoking-room with one other man. Culhane removed his cap and ran his fingers through his hair, his signal to the men across the street that the Smyth was inside.
As the five men crossed the street and gathered with Culhane at the door, Fitzgerald was put in front of them as if he had a pistol at his back to cover for his assistance. The group moved quickly to Smyth’s table, where he sat with RIC County Inspector Craig. Reaching the table, they all drew their pistols. Some later claimed one of them addressed Smyth, saying, "Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well, you are in sight now, so prepare." Others said no words were spoken. The taunt, based on words Smyth had addressed to RIC constables at Listowel a month earlier, may have been added to the story later for propaganda purposes. Either way, events set in motion in Listowel in June were about to reach a bloody climax in Cork City.
The Irish War of Independence was a difficult time for every segment of the Irish population, but none more so than the constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary. From the beginning, they were seen as the face of the British occupation of the island. This was especially true in the countryside, where there were few symbols of the British occupation other than them. Many constables may have been sympathetic with the Republican cause, but resigning would cause severe economic hardship for their families. This was especially true for those veterans who would lose a pension
An attempt to free your country from one of the greatest military powers on earth was deadly serious business, however. And so, fair or not, the members of the RIC began to be ostracized from Irish society from 1917 on. Sinn Féin declared that constables were to be, “treated as persons, who having been adjudged guilty of treason to their country, are regarded unworthy to enjoy any of the privileges or comforts which arise from cordial relations with the public”. Eamon de Valera said that they were, “doing the dirty work of the enemy.” In many areas, they began to find it hard to find shops that would sell to them.
This quickly began to cut into the RIC’s recruitment numbers but deciding not to join a now ostracized organization was an easier decision than it was for a veteran member to resign. When the shooting war began in 1919, the constables and their barracks, especially in isolated small towns and villages, became the targets of many attacks. From the fall of 1919 through 1920 there were nearly a hundred attacks on RIC barracks around Ireland. The government began to abandon many of the rural RIC barracks, where there were often small numbers of constables far from any assistance. Most of those abandoned barracks were immediately burned by the Volunteers.
Resignations and retirements began to increase to the point where the British realized they had to enhance the RIC with men from outside the island. In January, they began recruiting the RIC replacements who would become known, infamously, as the Black & Tans in Great Britain. By late spring, these recruits began to be spread around to various RIC barracks around the island. While the arrival of these recruits may have helped to alleviate the problem of filling the ranks, it made the RIC even easier for the general population to look at them as now partially “foreign” and ostracize them. Serving side by side with these hated new arrivals damaged RIC morale further. As 1920 went on, resignations increased. There were 500 between May and July. One of the driving forces of that wave of resignations took place in Listowel, Co. Kerry on June 19, 1920, instigated by RIC Divisional Commander Gerald Smyth.
By 1920 the British realized the RIC alone could not suppress the rebellion. Army regiments were sent into Ireland to reinforce them, often split up into small units out in the country. One such unit was stationed in Ballinruddery, near Listowel, under the command of a captain named Chadwick. On June 16th, the constables at the Listowel barracks were informed that Chadwick’s unit would be moving to Listowel and occupying their barracks. Fourteen of the constables would be spread out in other posts and the ones remaining in Listowel were to serve as “guides” for the military. And to make matters worse, they had to vacate by noontime the following day.
For the already demoralized constables in Listowel, this was the last straw. They immediately held a meeting at which Constable Jeremiah Mee pointed out to them what a no-win position they were being put in if they assisted the military in their war on the Irish people. If we “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.” There was even excited talk of armed resistance to hold onto the barracks.
The meeting ended with the constables agreeing to refuse to leave their barracks and be transferred and appointing Mee to be their spokesman. The events that follow are known in Irish history as the Listowel Mutiny.
(Right: Jeremiah Mee)
Mee was born in Glenamaddy, Co. Galway in 1889 and grew up on his father’s farm there. He joined the RIC in August 1910. His first post was at Kesh, Co. Sligo. He was assigned to Listowel in July 1919 after incurring the ire of the RIC brass by becoming involved in the police union. The fact that the constables choose him as their spokesman after less than a year stationed there speaks well of the respect they had for him.
The following day, the constables were told to assemble for a meeting with County Inspector Poer O’Shee. He probably thought that he could apply a little pressure and get them to relent. After warning them how serious their refusal was, he told them that the order had come directly from the Divisional Commissioner. This had them looking around at each other, as they had no idea such a position existed. It was a position just recently reinstated, with army officer Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth appointed to it.
When O’Shee was done he expected to hear that the constables were ready to follow orders. Mee stepped up to speak for them, but O’Shee insisted he say whether he refused to obey the order. When Mee said he did refuse, O’Shee told him in that case he should resign. “Accept my resignation now,” said Mee, probably not what O’Shee expected to hear. Shaken up by Mee’s reply, he asked if anyone else intended to resign. When all thirteen of them raised their hands, O’Shee knew they had a very serious problem.
(Below: The building that was the RIC barracks in Listowel, now the Garda Station.)
Now O’Shee was angry and probably exasperated. And stalked out of the barracks, shouting, “You shall hear more about this!” Their local commander, District Inspector Thomas Flanagan, spoke kindly to the constables after O’Shee left, but now they were not sure what their situation was. They had offered their resignations, but O’Shee had not said they were accepted. They had now reached the time when the military was to move in, but they did not show up.
Throughout the rest of that day and most of the next, the constables were in a sort of limbo. Finally, around 10 pm on the 18th. they got a call from the county inspector’s office in Tralee telling them to assemble at the barracks at 10 am the following day.
Perhaps to make the constables get more nervous than they already were, the RIC command group kept them waiting in the hot, stuffy barracks for 30 minutes. When they arrived it was a grand show of high-ranking officers and force to attempt to intimidate them. When they finally heard engine noises approaching, the first to arrive were 15 fully armed constables in their helmets in a Crossley tender. Then came three officers, none of whom they recognized at the time. The first, with a feather in his helmet, was General Henry Tudor, police advisor to the viceroy of Ireland and later to be the leader of the Auxiliary Cadets. Next was Colonel Leatham recently appointed divisional commissioner of Dublin and the third was County Inspector Heard.
(Right: General Henry Tudor)
The show of force was not over, however. Another Crossley tender arrived with Captain Chadwick aboard along with another group of armed constables. Then another arrived with County Inspector Poer O’Shee and finally one more carrying a full complement of armed soldiers. By now there were over 80 armed constables and soldiers outside the barracks. Any thought of armed resistance the “mutineers” may have still had vanished. Mee was sure they were all about to be arrested and court-martialed and eventually were likely to be shot.
Emerging from that last Crossley tender was the man who would be the “star” of this day. Colonel Smyth, looking tall and thin in the bright June sunshine, he strode toward the barracks with the stiff, formal bearing of a military veteran. The WWI veteran was also sporting a chest full of medals and an empty left sleeve thanks to that war. The RIC leadership was leaving no stone unturned in their effort to overawe these recalcitrant constables.
When all these leaders had filed into the barracks dayroom and linked up along one wall, they got their first indication that the constables might not be as intimidated as they hoped. As Smyth began to speak, Mee rose up to interrupt him, telling him this was an RIC issue and they objected to the presence of the military officers. Amazingly, the military officer’s agreed to leave the room. Smyth then started in again. He was surely an impressive figure to all those constables, who were well versed in the idea of obedience to a rank system.
Gerald Smyth was born in Punjab, India while his father was the British High Commissioner there. His mother had roots in Banbridge, County Down. After being educated in British schools he enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1905. He served with them during the first part of WWI. At the Battle of the Aisne at Givenchy he was severely wounded, losing his left arm at the elbow while rescuing a wounded comrade under fire. He remained in the army, however.
After 1916 he served with the King’s Own Scottish Borderer and was again severely wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder. By the end of the war, he had been breveted to brigadier general commanding the 93rd Infantry Brigade of the 31st Division. On June 3rd, 1920 he was appointed to the new position of divisional commissioner for the province of Munster. His war service demonstrated that he was a brave and very competent officer.
Smyth may have been an outstanding military commander, but the RIC was not the military, and the Irish Volunteers were not a foreign enemy. They were the friends and neighbors of the constables. He did not “read the room” correctly, as he seemed to think these constables had the same “do whatever we have to do to beat the enemy” as the men in his command had while fighting the Germans.
Though Smyth would deny what he was reported to have said later, Mee wrote up his recollections of Smyth’s speech shortly after it. His comrades Thomas Hughes, Michael Fitzgerald, and John Donovan all signed it as well and the other constables who were there also verified it. Here is part of Mee’s recollection of the speech.
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 make across the country, lie in ambush, take cover behind fences near roads, and when civilians are seen approaching shout: 'Hands up!' Should the order be not 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 that 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 and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.
(Right: An RIC cap.)
When Smyth was done he asked, “Are you prepared to co-operate?” Mee was pointed out as the spokesman for the group and told Smyth, “By your accent, I take it you are an Englishman. You seem to forget you are addressing Irishmen.” Smyth interrupted to claim to be an Irishman through his mother’s Co. Down roots, but Mee pressed on.
(Below: An RIC gun belt, holster and pistol.)
Removing his cap and belt, he told Smyth, “These too are English. You may have them, and to hell with you, you murderer.” The shocked Smyth immediately had Mee placed under arrest. Mee was led out to another room but within minutes his fellow constables had broken up the meeting and rushed to the room to let him out. When they went back into the day room the officers were all gone into another part of the barracks.
Soon they were asked to let General Tudor speak to them. They agreed and Tudor returned, oddly now dressed in civilian clothes. This was part of trying a different, softer tone with the men. This also failed, even after he told them how much he “liked Irishmen.” The men filed out of the day room singing “A Nation Once Again.”
The RIC officers then left in such haste that Smyth left his hat behind. Their plan to sweet talk the constables had failed as did the attempt to coerce the constables with a show of force. But they had no idea what a spectacular failure it would all soon turn out to be.
Though it would be some time before all of Ireland knew of the incident, Mee and his comrades made calls to other Kerry barracks telling them of Smyth’s address to them. Smyth tried to address the RIC at Tralee after this but they refused to meet him. He tried to speak to the men at Killarney where he was met with shouts of "Up Listowel" from the police assembled there. Smyth’s group finally canceled their tour and. went to Dublin Castle, convinced that they were up against organized R.I.C resistance.
(Below: Constable Patrick Sheeran.)
Eventually, only five of the Listowel constables left, Mee along with Thomas Hughes, Patrick Sheeran, Michael Fitzgerald, and John Donovan. Mee’s report of the speech would be published in “The Freeman’s Journal” on July 10th. It would cause a sensation in both Ireland and the UK. Later the "Freeman's Journal" was shut down by the British forces and the owner and editor were arrested. The British quickly announced an inquiry into the incident. The Irish Labour Party sent every member of Parliament a copy of the speech, now having the signatures of all 14 constables swearing it was the truth. Meanwhile, Smyth and all the RIC officers who were there swore it was not.
Mee and Donovan eventually decided they should join the Volunteers if only for their own protection and traveled together to Dublin, not knowing if they might be arrested at any moment if recognized. They were able to complete the trip and on July 15th they meet with a group of Republican leaders including Mick Collins, Erskine Childers, and Countess Markievicz. As might be expected, they were interested in wringing every possible bit of anti-British propaganda out of the event. News of the episode flashed around the world, incensing the Irish communities in the US, Canada, and Australia.
Before the inquiry could be completed, however, events in Cork would change the circumstances. Smyth, after spending two days in London being interviewed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George returned to Cork. There he took up residence in the Cork & County Club Hotel. Why neither he nor anyone in the British government or RIC thought he might need some added security or any security at all, for that matter, is hard to say. It would seem rather ignorant, but perhaps it was more arrogant contempt for the Irish.
Since the news of events at Listowel barracks had become public, members of Cork #1 Brigade of the Volunteers, which included Cork City, had been discussing ways to “deal with” Smyth according to Sean Culhane, the brigade intelligence officer. One of Culhane’s informers in the city was a waiter at Smyth’s hotel named Ned Fitzgerald, known as “Bally,” a native of Ballyhooly, Co. Cork. On July 18th, Bally sent a message that Smyth was there, but then shortly left again before any operation could be put in place. The following day Bally sent word that Smyth was back.
(Left: Seán O'Hegarty)
Culhane immediately contacted Seán O’Hegarty, who was then acting Brigade commander, as Terry MacSwiney was in Brixton Prison. O’Hegarty approved an operation to operation to kill Smyth at the hotel. They contacted Sando Donovan, Corney Sullivan, J.J. O'Connell, Danny Healy, Seán O'Donoghue who then accompanied Culhane to the vicinity of the hotel.
As Culhane lead the Volunteers up to Smyth’s table, they all drew their revolvers and opened fire before Smyth had any chance to draw his own. In spite of being hit several times, he was able to nearly exit the room but then fell, mortally wounded. As they began firing, Culhane noticed that the man with Smyth was County Inspector George Craig. Seeing that Smyth was likely finished, Culhane took one shot at Craig. The quickly aimed shot as they ran out only wounded Craig in the leg.
With no extra security inside or outside the building, the Volunteers easily made their escape. The British made a number of arrests in the days following the killing but none of them were the men involved. There would be other ramifications from the killing, however.
(Below: Smyth's funeral in Banbridge)
Smyth was buried in Banbridge, Co. Down and his funeral was followed by a pogrom against the Catholics and known Republicans in the town by the Loyalist population. The riots went on for three days in Banbridge, and nearby Dromore, Co. Tyrone with many Catholic homes and businesses being burned. Many Catholic workers were also forced out of their jobs in some local factories.
Gerald Smyth’s brother was also in the British Army. Major George Osbert Smyth was stationed in Egypt with the 33rd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery when he heard of the killing of his brother. He immediately put in for and was granted a transfer to Ireland and joined a British intelligence group in Dublin, unfortunately for his family. Apparently, there were rumors that Dan Breen had been involved in the killing of Gerald, and George had vowed to avenge him.
On October 12th, he was part of a raid on the home of Professor John Carolan in Drumcondra. Sleeping there that night were two of the most wanted rebels in Ireland, Seán Treacy and the aforementioned Dan Breen, the man Smyth believed had killed his brother. Like the climax of some movie where the two enemies come face to face to face with guns blazing, Smyth and Breen confronted each other in the dark 2nd-floor hallway. The brutal close-range firefight at the home resulted in the death of Smyth while Breen suffered numerous bullet wounds but miraculously survived. Treacy would be killed in a shoot-out on Talbot Street in Dublin two days later.
On the night of July 21st, armed, masked men entered the home of Jeremiah Mee’s parents. They demanded to know where Jeremiah was, information his parents did not even have at the time. When they could not answer that question, they were forced out of the house, which was then burned to the ground along with their barn. They killed several pigs, some chickens, and a horse. When the family’s little fox terrier attempted to defend its family, they killed it as well.
This gave the outraged Mee more incentive to accept a position that Countess Markievicz offered him in the Ministry of Labour that involved both encouraging RIC constables to resign and helping to find work for those who did. It was a successful campaign, as proven by the fact that over 1000 constables had resigned by November 1920.
(Dublin Metropolitan Police emblem.)
In October 1920, Mee helped to negotiate an agreement with the Dublin Metropolitan Police in which they refused to carry arms and also refused to accompany and guide any Crown Forces in any operation in the city. In return, the Volunteers agreed to never target a member of the DMP again. Because the entire force stuck together on that decision, there was little the British could do about it. From that point on, no DMP constables were killed by the Volunteers.
For the Irish people, the Listowel Mutiny could be seen as a turning point in their attitude regarding the RIC. From that point on, many more Irish were willing to look at any constables who remained in the RIC as “the enemy.” Though few know their names today, Jeremiah Mee and his Listowel RIC mutineer comrades made an extremely important contribution to the revolutionary cause.
"The Memoirs of Constable Jeremiah Mee, RIC" by Antony Gaughan
"Defying Terror Jeremiah Mee, Glenamaddy and the Listowel Mutiny" by Conor McNamara
Listowel Mutiny (podcast)
More on the Irish War of Independence
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