On Friday the 26th of November 1920, Patrick Loughnane, aged twenty-nine, and his younger brother, Harry, aged twenty-two, were labouring in the fields near their mother’s home in Shanaglish, County Galway, carrying out the arduous work of threshing corn for the autumn harvest. With them were a dozen or so neighbours, families working together as a cooperative during the late farming season, gathering and feeding corn into a hired, steam-driven threshing machine. While their siblings had left the region to find employment elsewhere, some emigrating to the United States and Britain, the Loughnane boys had stayed with their widowed parent to tend the family’s small patch of land in the west of Ireland. Patrick, a fine athlete and hurler, was the elected head of the local cumann or party branch of Sinn Féin while his studious, bookworm brother functioned as it’s secretary. Both men were also serving volunteers or citizen-soldiers of the insurgent Irish Republican Army, the older brother becoming a company commander in the local parish of Beagh. Though their unit had seen relatively little action in the proceeding two years of resistance against the United Kingdom’s military and civil forces on the island, Patrick had participated in the Castledaly Ambush near the town of Gort on the 30th of October 1920, when one member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the UK’s omnipresent gendarmerie, was killed and four others were taken temporary prisoner. In response the RIC had murdered a local woman, twenty-three year old Ellen Quinn, who was heavily pregnant at the time, in the area of Kiltartan and burned a number of houses and outbuildings.
Just after 3pm at least fifteen members of D Company of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary or ADRIC, a mercenary contingent of ex-British military officers attached to the RIC, raided the farm in an armoured truck. Unaware of the approaching vehicle due to the racket of the threshing machine the brothers, their mother, and several neighbours were seized at gunpoint by the “Auxies“, led by one Thomas Francis Burke, a platoon commander or “3rd Class District Inspector“. With the ex-soldiers was an officer of the regular RIC stationed at the police barracks in nearby Tubber, who identified the captive Loughnane boys as “Pat” and “Harry”. Patrick was taken by several of the uniformed gunmen to his family home to fetch fresh clothes, emerging some time later with a bloodied mouth while his cousin, with the surname of Healy, was instructed to run for it. When he did so the RIC officers opened fire but he managed to escape death despite the bullets whizzing pass his head, falling into the fields a short distance away.
The brothers were “arrested”, bundled into the back of the steel-plated lorry, where they were soon joined by another man, Michael Carroll, from a follow-up raid on a farm near Tubber, who was repeatedly pistol-whipped during his hurried interrogation. Eventually all three were taken to the substantial RIC barracks in Gort. While Carroll was to spend the next year in the notorious Ballykinlar Concentration Camp in County Down, the Loughnanes were doomed to a far grimmer fate. For the next few hours some fourteen RIC men took turns beating the brothers in the cells at Gort, the officers fastidiously stripped to the waste to protect their uniforms from the blood they were spilling. When they grew bored of this sport they carried Patrick and Harry outside and attached them by ropes to a truck filled with jeering constables, forcing the duo to run behind the vehicle as it drove away. When the brothers could no longer run they were dragged for eleven kilometres along the winding country roads to the paramilitary police base at Drumharsna Castle, a lonely 16th century towerhouse near Ardrahan, County Galway.
Their bodies already torn and mutilated, the Loughnanes were subject to hours of further abuse inside the cold stone walls of the Elizabethan fortification, their screams audible to veteran constables occupying the base with their Auxiliary colleagues. Around 11pm the siblings, barely alive, were taken from the castle to the nearby Moy O’Hynes wood, where they were executed. On Sunday morning, the Auxiliaries removed the bodies to Uamhain Bhriste (Owenbristy), an isolated spot closer to Ardrahan, where they were set on fire. Not content with that, the corpses were then thrown into a nearby muddy pond, used to water cattle, which they polluted with engine oil to discourage the animals rooting up the remains.
On the 5th of December 1920 the bodies of Patrick and Harry were discovered by Michael “Tally” Loughnane, a cousin, and his friends, Michael and William Hynes, in the pond. The RIC had claimed that the men had escaped from custody some time earlier but no-one believed the reports, and locals had organised their own searches for the pair, certain that they had been murdered by the police. Eyewitness accounts, supported by a doctor’s examination, reported that the corpses of both men were unrecognisable, their limbs broken, fingers missing, flesh flayed off, and partially burned. The doctor stated that to him it looked like “…hand grenades had been put into their mouths and exploded“.
Following the discovery at Uamhain Bhriste the mutilated remains of the Loughnane boys were moved to Dungora, near Kinvara. Photographs were taken of the bodies in their coffins, traumatised relatives and neighbours standing around them in a tight, almost protective huddle. The corpses were later transferred to the parish church of St. Anne`s, in Shanaglish. There the coffins were draped with the Irish tricolour as hundreds of mourners gathered from local parishes, defying the threats of the British authorities. However, even then the small rural community was denied any respect or dignity as the RIC raided the funeral, opening the coffins and examining the contents before leaving.
I was reminded of the above tale of brutality and murder while reading this astonishing defence of Britain’s colonial police force in Ireland, of the regular and irregular officers of the RIC, featured in a report by thejournal.ie promoting a new book by a member of An Garda Síochána:
“[Gilbert Potter] …was an Irishman, born and reared in county Leitrim. He had four children and he worked as a district inspector for the Royal Irish Constabulary in Tipperary.
In 1921, he was captured by the IRA and executed. He is one of 46 policemen killed in Tipperary during the War of Independence. In four bloody years of conflict, almost 500 RIC officers were killed and hundreds more injured.
In a new book, written by an acting garda sergeant, tribute is paid to some of these men who, before now, were forgotten, confined to the footnotes of the history books.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Sergeant John Reynolds, who is based at the Garda College in Templemore, said Potter was a “very nice man by all accounts”.
“He was an Irishman, and the vast majority of RIC officers were Irishmen,” Reynolds said.
The Soloheadbeg Ambush in 1919 is generally considered to be the start of the guerilla war, but little is ever said about the lives of the two men who died that day.
Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, both Irishmen, were escorting a horsedrawn carriage from the military barracks in Tipperary when they were attacked.
O’Connell was 30 years old and was engaged to be married. McDonnell was a 50-year-old widower with seven children, all orphaned when he was murdered.”
Let us be clear. The Royal Irish Constabulary, in whatever form and at whatever time, was the enforcer of the UK’s administrative rule over the entirety of this island nation and its people. From the 19th century to the early 20th century, it was the domestic equivalent of the Milice française, the police force of Vichy France in the 1940s. Regardless of the nationality of its officers or their motivations, the RIC was a key component of the British Occupation Forces in Ireland during the revolutionary period of 1913 to 1921 (and beyond). The killing of its members was not “murder”, however much the modern negationists, the apologists for British rule in this country, may wish it were so.
Furthermore, the Garda Síochána, our unarmed, civilian police service, has no association and shares no lineage with the RIC. That line passes down through the infamous RUC and its reformed replacement, the PSNI. The Gardaí are the legacy of the volunteers of the Irish Republican Police and Army, not the bloody-handed killers of Pat and Harry Loughnane.
Note (with thanks to Éamon Ó hÉilidhe): Harry Loughnane was baptised “Henry” but seems to have been universally known as “Harry“.