Statement by President Michael D. Higgins on the Centenary Anniversary of the Sack of Balbriggan
20 September 2020
Today, exactly 100 years ago, an event occurred that would become a defining and exemplary episode in the Irish War of Independence. The sack of Balbriggan, which occurred on the night of the 20th September 1920 and continued into the morning of the 21st, was an act of collective punishment, a "reprisal", a term that would become the mark of a policy aimed at subjugation, installation of fear in a public that had in its midst those that sought independence.
That September night in Balbriggan, on which we reflect today, was a day of rampant violence and carnage that, along with other key acts of reprisal during Ireland’s War of Independence, its ferocity and reports of it resulted in the galvanising of support for the military struggle that would ultimately lead to the establishment of our independent State.
The atrocity that was the sack of Balbriggan has characteristics that are similar in many respects to so many other acts of reprisal violence and collective punishments that were administered by British armed forces during the War of Independence. They marked an escalation in terms of their ferocity and were calculated to have a strategic impact on the local community, which Dublin Castle were anxious to claim was having an effect.
On the night in question, between 100 and 150 ‘Black and Tans’ ransacked the North County Dublin town of Balbriggan in revenge for the shooting of RIC District Inspector Burke and his brother Sergeant Burke, who were shot by the IRA while in Smyth’s pub, Balbriggan, earlier in the day.
The Black and Tan activities were often preceded by heavy drinking, but behind it was a policy that believed that no restraint of a military or civilian kind should stand in the way of, as Winston Churchill might put it, “having terrorism by the throat”.
A large factory, 49 houses and four pubs were burnt down, widespread looting occurred, including the business of John Derham, a local Town Commissioner, while two men, Seán Gibbons and Séamus Lawless, were taken to Quay Street and viciously beaten to death, despite protesting their innocence.
The event led to debate in the British Parliament, with H.H. Asquith, the former Prime Minister and then leader of the opposition, comparing the sack of Balbriggan with the actions of the Imperial German Army during the Rape of Belgium.
A subsequent inquiry put the blame for the loss of lives, destruction of property and livelihoods firmly at the doorstep of the British forces. It awarded compensation to the families of Lawless and Gibbons of £1,750 each. Also levied to the county were damages totalling over £80,000, with costs for Deeds and Templar Hosiers, the burned-down factory, which an inquiry heard had left 200 unemployed and would take two-and-a-half years to rebuild. Numerous other claims were settled for destroyed businesses, homes and damages to other property incurred.
The targeting of local businesses and factories that were completely destroyed in the sack was a policy that included strategic acts of violence. Deeds and Templar Hosiers factory had employed as many as 200 workers directly, with an additional 180 indirectly employed. Its destruction decimated the livelihoods of a significant proportion of the local population, at least temporarily, resulting in significant hardship in a time when poverty was already high and social welfare minimal. There is little doubt that the infliction of such economic damage by both the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans was a key strategic tool, a response of empire, employed in an attempt to quash support for Republicanism.
The move by the British forces towards attacks on business and co-operatives, including rural creameries – which were major employers and sources of essential foodstuffs – marked an escalation in both the wider socio-economic impacts and the sophistication of reprisal tactics. From the summer of 1920 onwards, British forces consistently responded to IRA activities by attacking factories and co-operative creameries. For example, by the time a truce between the IRA and the Crown forces came into effect, 40 co-operative creameries had been destroyed, with another 35 rendered unfit for work. The destruction of each creamery put an estimated 800 farmers out of business.
The violence unleashed by the War of Independence, therefore, possessed a decidedly economic dimension. Guerrilla warfare and reprisals saw the loss of life and widespread destruction of property. As historian Patrick Doyle has noted, the targeting of businesses and co-operatives caused maximum economic damage and became a key tactic in the security forces’ war against the IRA. Such arson attacks punished the civilian population by destroying a cherished public utility or key employer in many communities.
Violence of Empire
Reprisal-based violence was a key element of the British military imperialist strategy in the Irish War of Independence. However, it was not unique to the Irish struggle, and had been used effectively by the British ruling forces in India in the previous century.
"Reprisals" were a key aspect of empire rule and its imposition of colonial power, laws, attributes and ideologies, though such acts are not unique to empires, at least not in the typical definition of ‘empire’. The United States, for example, used the policy of reprisals, allied to ‘villagisation’, explicitly during the Vietnam War, as the Pentagon Papers have revealed.
Collective punishments – that is to say, retaliation in which a suspected perpetrator’s family members, friends, acquaintances, neighbours or entire ethnic group is targeted – were used extensively by ruling British forces throughout the Irish War of Independence. The punished individual or group often had no direct association with the other individuals or groups, or direct control over their actions. We see this in Balbriggan where there is virtually no evidence that either of the two men who were slain, Lawless and Gibbons, had any role in the killings of the RIC officers.
Collective punishments were used again some decades later by the British as an official policy to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952. In 1956, Britain officially used collective punishment in Cyprus in the form of evicting families from their homes and closing shops anywhere British soldiers and police had been murdered, with the stated aim of obtaining information about the identities of the attackers.
There can be little doubt that collective punishments were already an established strategic tool of imperialist military strategy by the time they occurred in Ireland during the War of Independence. Their use is rooted in ideological assumptions, of superiority and inferiority in terms of race, culture or capacity, in the notion of the collective as a disloyal, hopeless or threatening version of the ‘Other’. The othering of particular cultures, particular nationalities, particular attributes and particular ideologies served as an insidious rationalisation of, and distorted logic behind, acts of violence such as collective punishments and reprisals.
Standing behind this was a supportive intellectual tradition. Pejorative attitudes towards the Irish by the British are well-documented, and had been well-formed by this period. Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote in his History of England:
“The Irish from the beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarianism (sic) and ignorance; and as they were never conquered, even, indeed, by the Romans from whom all the Western world derives its culture, they continued still in the most rude state of society and were distinguished by those vices to which human nature, not tamed by education, nor restrained by laws, is for ever subject”.
Indeed, a century later, Winston Churchill would write, “We have always found the Irish to be a bit odd. They refuse to be English”. The ‘othering’ of Irish people and their culture was undeniably ingrained at all levels of British society.
If we are to be serious about ethical remembrance and the creation of diverse, complex, shared memory at peace with the past in the interest of a present or future understanding, it is important to recognise these facts. It constitutes a prerequisite for any meaningful healing. We must all acknowledge that such acts of violence would be judged illegal by today’s international standards of war and conflict. Indeed, collective punishments and reprisals are now considered violations of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions, the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war.
Recognising this does not mean that acts of violence against any civilian should be condoned. A later independence cannot justify a cowardly act against a civilian, a civilian used as exemplary victim.
Reprisals continued throughout the War, with famous incidents such as Bloody Sunday in Croke Park, and perhaps those less well-known, such as the indiscriminate shooting of Eileen Quinn, shot dead while seven months pregnant as she stood outside her house in County Galway with her three children. The use of collective punishments and reprisals would, ultimately, become a decisive factor in the outcome of the War, resulting in shock and outrage. When reported internationally, it increased support for the IRA and the independence movement more generally at home and abroad.
Today, as we remember the bloody violence that occurred in Balbriggan exactly a century ago, violence that would result in tragedy, widespread suffering, and lingering bitterness, we must strive to do so ethically and responsibly. Such an ethical remembering must refuse any kind of conscious or unconscious amnesia. The exercise in remembering must be open to all perspectives, requires us all, each of us, to summon up our shared humanity, a humanity which was tested, often brutalised, but also magnified during the War of Independence and indeed over the longer revolutionary period.
There are challenges in relation to the war of memory, the journey from personal memory to collective memory to celebrated memory, to the use and abuse of memory. These are matters to be parked if not forgotten, so that a mutual respect in narratives is made possible.
I have often turned to the work of the great French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in trying to deal with these challenges. Ricoeur’s work forces us to face up to uses and abuses of memory in contemporary society which occur on a pathological level as the problem of blocked memory, on a practical level as manipulated memory, and on an ethical-political level as obligated memory. Two key questions then arise from such a consideration: whether history is a remedy for, or rather a hindrance to, these problems; and to what extent does history depend on memory?
If historians know more about the past than individuals remember, can history completely break with an appeal to memory as a form of evidence? History as written, Ricoeur suggests, “stands for” the past as “having been”. On this basis, we can seek to address “the problem of forgetting” in relation to the problems listed earlier.
Traces of the past can be lost, and that past will be forgotten in the sense of being beyond memory, but what of forgetting where the traces remain? This is where the problems of blocked, manipulated, or commanded memory linger, especially in the latter case with attempts to order forgetting, either through amnesty, censorship, state versions or ideological rationalisations of present failure or future danger that are used to exclude any pluralism of stories and their use. This problem leads to us to consider the vital possibility of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is difficult but not impossible. It can be considered, as Ricoeur proposed, something that is akin to a gift, one that unbinds the agent of the act from the act itself. To forgive is not to forget. It is this idea of a gift, not as requiring or expecting a gift in return, but as something received and passed on as a second gift that has the transformative and emancipatory potential of mutual recognition that can ultimately result in states of peace. The currency of the gift of forgiveness, however, as Hannah Arendt might remind us, is compromised if the giver of forgiveness uses it as an invocation to superiority.
Through the cultivation of an ethics of commemoration to replace our past entrenchments – on this island, and indeed across Europe – as well as an openness to others, we have a real opportunity together to strive to cultivate memory as a tool for the living and as a solid base for our shared future.
This is not an easy undertaking. It requires self-knowledge at the individual and collective levels, as well as recognition that generosity and compassion from both sides does not lead to reductionist outcomes. Rather, it can be reciprocally beneficial, allowing us to yield to each other in mutual respect – to recognise that our fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities can only be assuaged by actions of mutual generosity.
This requires generous effort. Reaching an accommodation with sometimes conflicting versions of the past is merely a stepping stone in the journey via understanding to the destination of forgiveness for past hurt, neglect or omission; a destination which, in so many areas of conflict, at home and abroad, past and present, the participants may not reach.
Yet, as the great German philosopher and Holocaust-survivor Hannah Arendt has written, “forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history”. In its absence, we run the great risk of lingering bitterness that can lead to tit-for-tat violence, intensifying rather than resolving conflict – to quote the late John Hume’s famous adage, “an eye for an eye leaves us all blind”.
Forgiving, therefore, enables us to come to terms with the past. If forgiveness and forgetting did not exist, we would be trapped in the past where every previous action would be irrevocable and where the present is dominated, burdened even, by preceding events and memories. Recognition of the act committed, however, is essential. Heidegger refused to accept this and thus he remained one whom Hannah Arendt could not forgive. Empirically, I suggest peoples and nations manage forgiveness easier than empires. There is often too dense a paraphernalia of privilege and title that gets in the way, but more usually atrocities too great to recall.
It is only through such forms of ethical remembering that we can avoid retreating to the blinding categories of censure or denunciation, or indeed revenge and bitterness, that blighted this island for so long. Let us all continue with, indeed embrace, the new beginning that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement represented as we continue to carve out our peaceful co-existence on the island of Ireland through a genuine democratic dialogue grounded in respect for our communities’ identities and their lawful traditions, recognising and paying tribute to John Hume’s vision of a shared island at peace.