20 September 1920
On 20 September 1920, Head Constable Peter Burke, a Royal Irish Constabulary officer, was brutally gunned down outside a public house in the small Irish town of Balbriggan. He was the commander of a British ‘Black and Tan’ auxiliary police force unit which was stationed nearby. There was no evidence as to who was responsible for the murder, and by some accounts it had been the result of a quarrel. However, that evening a large force of 150 Black and Tans descended on the community, determined to inflict a vengeance that would not be forgotten.
They burned down 54 houses and a hosiery factory, looted four public houses, battered to death two tradesmen, Séamus Lawless and Sean Gibbons, and attacked many other residents who were entirely innocent of any involvement in the earlier murder. One traumatised witness testified how he had seen ‘in a shed (the) two dead civilians, one in a nightshirt and one in a shirt and trousers, and neither with boots and socks on, looking as if they had been killed, not by human beings, but by animals.’1
A journalist, quoted in the left leaning Daily Herald, was convinced that such crimes could not have been the work of the typical British soldier. Under the sub headline ‘Red Indian Fury of Attackers,’ he described how coming across the victims he noted that ‘their faces were purple with bruises and their bodies battered almost beyond recognition.’ He felt sure that, ‘no ordinary English soldier would have done such work. The prisons must have been swept for degraded criminals to do such work.’2
When the truth was finally exposed, much of the press adopted a more sympathetic view of the murderous violence of the auxiliary police force, which was comprised mostly of British army veterans. ‘The (original) crime not unnaturally aroused their anger,’ explained an Associated Press reporter, adding that ‘while the wholesale reprisals taken by them are condemned, their desire to avenge the death of their former chief will be more easily understood.’3 Another journalist commented that ‘the discipline of the force as a whole has been splendidly maintained… (but) these recruits were much attached to their district inspector, who had himself trained the majority of them, and his murder provoked them to a state of anger in which all discipline was for the time being forgotten.’4
The Chief Secretary of State for Ireland, Hamar Greenwood, informed parliament on 20 October that it was ‘impossible’ to find anyone of the Black and Tans who was responsible, adding ‘I have yet to find one authenticated case of a member of this Auxiliary Division being accused of anything but the highest conduct characteristic of them.’ A few of the more sober and skeptical must have felt quietly surprised as to how the ‘highest conduct’ and ‘splendid discipline’ had left 400 men and women homeless and two families bereaving the savage killing of their loved ones.5
- Balbriggan,” The Freeman’s Journal, 22 September 1920, p. 2, “Echo of Balbriggan,” the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 24 September 1920, p. 5 and Diarmaid Ferriter, A Nation and Not a Rabble, Profile Books, London, 2015, p. 197.
- “Balbriggan Horror – Red Indian Fury of Attackers,” the Daily Herald, 23 September 1920, p. 1.
- “The Balbriggan Outbreak,” The Yorkshire Post, 28 September 1920, p. 7
- “Balbriggan Affair,” The Midland Daily Telegraph, 29 September 1920
- Hansard HC Deb 20 October 1920 vol 133 cc925-1039 accessed online at https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1920/oct/20/vote-of-censure-proposed and “Balbriggan – the Homeless and the Destitute,” The Freeman’s Journal, 30 September 1920, p. 1.
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