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Mutiny in Kildare … the troubled birth of the Garda force

A chase through the streets of Kildare town is just one of the dramatic episodes portrayed in a new book which describes the crisis-ridden attempts to establish a police force in the early weeks of the Irish Free State.  Kildare town is central to the events described in the book titled “The Civic Guard Mutiny” by Dunboyne teacher Brian McCarthy who has studied the formative years of the Garda to doctoral level. Applying first-rate investigatory skills Brian McCarthy pieces together the fast-moving story of how the first attempt at creating a police force was riven by political splits and personality clashes. Shambolic as it was the Kildare Civic Guard mutiny did Irish society a service in the long run in that the Government, alarmed at the thought of armed dissension in its police force, decided that at its second attempt at creating a force it would make sure that the its members would be unarmed. 

The story began in February 1922 when Michael Collins as Minister for Finance in the Provisional Government and his cabinet colleague Eamonn Duggan, Ministe for Home Affairs, established a committee to set about recruiting a police force to replace the armed Royal Irish Constabulary who were withdrawing from barracks throughout the country as a consequence of the Treaty of December 1921.  The RIC had become associated with the worst of the British excesses of the war of independence (1919-21). Although most of its members were Irish and Catholic and saw themselves as doing a normal public service job their repute among the nationalist public was less benign. Their role at evictions in the days of the Land Wars had not been entirely forgotten. And, fairly or not, the association of the RIC  with the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans did nothing to endear them to an Irish public anxious to shake off the trappings of colonial rule.

However the attempt by Collins and company to ensure that the policing vacuum left by the departing RIC would be filled was compromised from the start. They were faced with the classic dilemma of any newly independent state.  They wanted to create a new police force in sympathy with the aspirations of an independent republic. But idealism was not enough to establish a disciplined and competent police force. The only source of such expertise lay in the RIC -- the opponents of the IRA up to a few months previously. Of course many RIC men had resigned their positions and had come over to the IRA during the war of independence. Others had, at personal risk, remained in the RIC but fed information and tip-offs to the IRA. One such agent portrayed in “The Civic Guard Mutiny” is Constable Jeremiah Maher, who in December 1916 was appointed as clerk in the RIC County Inspector’s office at  Naas constabulary barracks. From such a privileged position he is reputed to have fed valuable information to Michael Collins about RIC operations and plans. In July 1920 he resigned his constabulary position and came over to the other side joining the IRA where he was appointed as intelligence officer to Colonel-Commandant Sean Boylan of the Meath IRA. Such was his standing in nationalist circles that Collins invited him to join the organising committee for the Civic Guard and he was appointed secretary to Michael Staines, the first commissioner of the force. 

Despite Maher’s strong record of acting in the nationalist cause the mere fact of having been a member of the RIC was enough to engender hostility among a strongly nationalist cohort of the new police force which began to recruit at a depot in the Royal Dublin Society halls at Ballsbridge from February 1922. Maher was not alone in this regard and as the post-Treaty split deepened the hostility towards ex-RIC men, no matter what their contribution to the nationalist cause, was enough to trigger dissension in the infant Irish police force.  Brian McCarthy enumerates that of the first twelve senior officers appointed to lead the force, no less than eight had served in the RIC.  The dissension came to a head when the 1,100 recruits to the new force were transferred in late April 1922 from the RDS to the Kildare artillery barracks which had been vacated by the British Army.  What followed forms the core of the book with stories of mutiny breaking out on the parade ground to the extent that it took a personal visit from Michael Collins to Kildare Barracks in mid-May 1922 to broker an uneasy peace among the ranks of trainee Civic Guards.

By then a further layer was added to the turbulent situation in that the recruits were beginning to split in line with the political cleavage over the Treaty settlement. Two officers, Superintendent Byrne and  Sergeant McAvinia, who were perceived as being close to Collins were barred from entering the depot at Kildare by anti-treaty recruits. Byrne and McAvinia then turned towards Kildare town in the hope of catching a train escaping the hostile crowd of recruits who had pursued them down town. Unfortunately for them there was no train and they had to double back towards the town and face down their pursuers. Both sides drew revolvers and amid a hail of bullets and stones the pair escaped through a private house, lay low in an old man’s cottage, and eventually found refuge in the Carmelite church at the White Abbey.

This is just one of the dramatic episodes played out in Kildare town (and also on the streets of Newbridge)  depicted in “ The Civic Guard Mutiny” which is published by Mercier Press and has the high quality look and feel which is a Mercier hallmark.

Book reviewed: “ The Civic Guard Mutiny” by Brian McCarthy, published by Mercier, and available in bookshops or by contacting the publishers on 021 4614456. Series no: 306.

In series 306 of his Looking Back column Liam Kenny writes that the first attempt at creating a new Irish police force was riven by political splits and personality clashes

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