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Shoot on sight Smyth

James Durney

One of the most dramatic stories of the War of Independence was the mutiny in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in June 1920. Many RIC men, from County Inspectors to Constables, had resigned in protest against the tasks assigned, when into Listowel police barracks on 19 June 1920, came a cavalcade of top-ranking crown officers. Leading them was Lieutenant-Colonel Gerard Bryce Ferguson Smyth, Divisional Commander for all Munster, a one-armed veteran of the Great War. With him was General Tudor, soon to become leader of the Auxiliary Cadets, County Inspector O’Shee, Captain Chadwick, of the British Staff, Resident Magistrate Leatham, Assistant County Inspector Dobbyn, and a number of others. It was an imposing group for the eighteen constables who lined up in front of them in the day-room of the barracks. Divisional Commissioner Smyth addressed them:

Well, men, I have something of interest to tell you; something I am sure you would not wish your wives to hear. Sinn Féin has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England …
Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout ‘Hand up.’ Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down … We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Féin.

The assembled constables stared at him. Commissioner Smyth turned to the first man in the ranks: ‘Are you prepared to co-operate?’ However, the men had already chosen a leader, Constable Jeremiah Mee, and it was indicated he would speak for all of them. ‘By you accent,’ he said, ‘I take it you are an Englishman; and in your ignorance you forget you are addressing Irishman.’
 As the rows of startled officers faced the rows of determined policemen, the men’s leader, in a gesture of contempt, took off his cap, belt and sidearm, and laying them on a table said: ‘These too, are English. Take them!’
Commissioner Smyth and Inspector O’Shee shouted that Constable Mee be immediately arrested, but an angry murmur filled the day-room, and it was clear that any attempt to do so would lead to violence. After a moment of bafflement and amazement, the group of high-ranking officers withdrew.
A little later, there was a similar scene in Killarney RIC barracks. Commissioner Smyth informed the constables there of a new freedom. Hitherto, facilities had been given for an inquiry when the RIC killed a man, he said.

Henceforward no such facilities would be provided and no such policemen would be held up to public odium by being pilloried before a Coroner’s jury. Further, when a police patrol saw coming along a road a Sinn Féiner whom they suspected of intent to attack them they were to get in the first shot and there would be no further questions asked.

Then Commissioner Smyth chalked a line on the floor of the day-room and asked any man not prepared to carry out these instructions to step out and he would be paid off. Five men promptly stepped out, and after a pause, the rest cheered them.
 Smyth’s words caused great controversy and there were awkward questions for the Chief Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, in the House of Commons. Greenwood denied that Commissioner Smyth had ever used such words. What he had said had been twisted entirely out of its true meaning. The Munster IRA were sure of what Smyth had said, and made plans to assassinate him.
Smyth was summoned to England in the second week of July and attended the Irish Office where he was questioned on newspaper reports of his speeches made in Listowel and Killarney. On his return to Ireland he went to Kerry on business connected with the holding of the Assizes, and returned to Cork on 16 July in connection with the same duty at the Cork City Assizes, to be held that Monday.
On the night of Saturday, 17 July 1920, at least six IRA volunteers entered the exclusive County Club, Cork, where on the first floor smoke room Commissioner Smyth was sipping a glass with County Inspector George Craig. Three volunteers guarded the entrance, while three others went upstairs. They entered the room where Smyth and Craig were chatting together on a lounge. Two others were also in the room, Mr. Barker, Secretary of the Club, and another member. The three volunteers walked into the room and one, who obviously knew the target, pointed out Smyth. The volunteers were not masked and one walking over to Smyth, asked: ‘Were not your orders to shoot at sight? Well, you are in sight now, so prepare.’ The Commissioner jumped up and reached for his gun. He was dead as his hand closed on the butt. Two bullets struck Smyth in the head killing him instantly. He was also hit in the body. Several more bullets missed, one hitting Inspector Craig in the leg. Without even a glance to the other occupants of the room, who were stunned at what they witnessed, the volunteers pocketed their weapons, rejoined their companions downstairs and the whole party mingled with the crowd that was leaving a neighbouring picture palace.
A hurried examination of the Divisional Commissioner showed that he was beyond aid. Inspector Craig was wounded in the leg, though not seriously. The police and military were quickly on the scene and a doctor was summoned. Craig was administered to by the Rev. Father Nunan, of the South Presbytery, and Dr. Dalton. An ambulance brought Smyth’s body to the Cork Central Military Hospital, where an inquest was to be held the following day.
Later that night soldiers and Black and Tans raced through the streets of Cork City, firing in all directions as they went. An IRA volunteer, James Bourke, who was an ex-British soldier, was shot dead, and over twenty other local citizens were injured. Eighteen jurors were called to the inquest the next day, but only nine appeared. After several hours delay and unable to swear in a jury the inquest was abandoned by the Coroner.
Commissioner Smyth's companion on that fateful night was a Co. Kildare native - George Fitzgerald William Craig was born in Naas on 17 June 1869. Craig’s first wife was Emily Hayes and he was married secondly in 1899 to Isabel Roche, a native of Co. Dublin. He became 3rd District Inspector in 1895 and County Inspector on 15 June 1920. The Irish Times reported on 20 July 1920:
Condition of County Inspector Craig
On inquiry at the Military Hospital it was ascertained that County Inspector Craig, who was wounded during the murder of Brigadier-General Smyth, was progressing as well as could be expected. The bullet is embedded in his left leg, and Dr. Shanahan has arranged to perform an operation to-day for its extraction.
Gerard Bryce Ferguson Smyth was a native of Banbridge, Co. Down. He joined the British Army at the outbreak of the Great War, and served with distinction in the Royal Engineers. He was severely wounded at Le Cateau in 1914 and lost his left-arm. He gained the DSO and several other distinctions, and attained the rank of Brigadier-General, although he was only thirty-eight years of age. He had only been recently appointed to the office of Divisional Commissioner of the RIC, and several counties in the South were placed in his charge. His remains were brought by train to Dublin and then on to Belfast and conveyed to the residence of a relative at Clonaslee, Banbridge. Commissioner Smyth’s funeral on 21 July was of a most impressive character, with the Union Jack draped coffin conveyed on a gun carriage, preceded by a military firing party. A detachment of 100 men of the Norfolk Regiment, with band, and over 100 police, with their band, took part. Later that evening loyalists attacked a nationalist owned premise and proceeded to the local linen factories where they demanded the expulsion of Sinn Féin workers, stating that they would not work with them. Rioting also erupted in Belfast which resulted in the deaths of seven civilians with nearly 100 wounded.
Isabel Craig died at 42 Landsdowne Road, Dublin in 1918. County Inspector Craig was awarded the King’s Police Medal in 1922 and pensioned of fon 31 August 1922. George Craig died in 1956.


A Kildare connection to the killing of Divisional Commander Smyth in Cork in July 1920

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