James Glynn: The life of an Irish policeman

By Niall Glynn
BBC News

Image caption,
James Glynn survived two IRA attempts on his life

"Open and read. Newspaper cuttings of ambushes etc in which I have been implicated."

The neat handwriting belongs to my grandfather, James Glynn, directing his descendants to examine a haul of material from his career in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

If it wasn't there in black and white, you would put some of it down to family folklore, exaggerated over the years - the murder attempts he survived, the gun battles he took part in, the threats he and his family faced.

My grandfather, recipient of the King's Police Medal in 1921, died when my father was 12 years old and much of what I read about his short life, I was learning for the first time.

My late father rarely spoke about him, and it wasn't until a recent conversation with my uncle at a family funeral that I discovered that his father had kept an archive of newspaper cuttings and other items.

My grandfather, who was born in Cork city, joined the RIC in 1912 at the age of 20 and spent much of his early career in County Clare.

He would serve through some of the most violent and turbulent years in Irish history, including the War of Independence (1919-21).

Yet it's a period that has become somewhat sanitised, even romanticised.

A quick look at some of the material my grandfather collected quickly dispels that image, bringing home the brutality and bitterness of Ireland's early Troubles and introduces the real people whose lives were affected and often prematurely ended.

Gun battle on bridge

My grandfather narrowly escaped becoming one of them in February 1920, during a gun battle on Crowe's Bridge, near Ennis in County Clare.

Image caption,
The taunting postcard sent to my grandfather from New York

He was one of a number of RIC officers on bicycles ambushed by gunmen on the bridge, close to the Maurice's Mills barracks where he was based.

A newspaper cutting from the time reads: "Constable Glynn had the strap of his cap severed at the side and a second bullet passed through the peak of his cap." A number of bullets also struck his bicycle, but miraculously he was not injured.

The policemen, however, were able to return fire and one of the IRA men who attacked them - Martin Devitt - was killed.

Today a memorial to Martin Devitt stands at the scene - which says he died fighting British forces. Yet my grandfather was a Catholic policeman from Cork.

Also among the items in the haul is a letter to a publican in Ennis.

It reads: "We are informed by our intelligence department that you are keeping Mrs Glynn whose husband was implicated in the murder of Martin Devitt.

"Owing to your house being a public house we would respectfully request you shift her. Or if not it will be at your own risk.

"We will have to use methods that will not be very palatable to you."

It is signed the 'Black Hand Guards', probably a cover name for the local IRA.

Body on railway line

The brutality of the period is also shown by the murder of resident magistrate, Captain AC Lendrum.

Abducted in September 1920, he was found the following month by my grandfather and a colleague. He had been shot through the head and dumped on a railway line.

Above a newspaper clipping about the murder, my grandfather has written: "No mother was near to shed a tear, no sister his last words to hear, a comrade closed his eyes, far from his native home he lies."

Several RIC colleagues would also fall victim to IRA guns, many of them in identical attacks to that on Crowe's Bridge.

Among the victims were Sergeant Denis Garvey, shot dead as he boarded a tram in Cork in May 1920.

The sergeant led an escort, along with three constables, that accompanied my grandfather to Limerick in March of that year. Garvey and two of the constables were subsequently murdered.

In a coincidence, according to my grandfather, his father John Glynn, was foreman of the jury at the inquest into Sgt Garvey's murder. He says it was the first to return a verdict of murder against Sinn Fein in Ireland.

The threat to my grandfather's life grew severe enough that later in 1920, he was posted to Londonderry, in what is now Northern Ireland and it was there that he survived a second gun attack.

While on patrol at Bishop's Gate in the city with Constable Peter Henley, gunmen opened fire, wounding Constable Henley in the leg.

Famous figures

In 1921, James Glynn was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Broughshane just outside Ballymena and then to the Harryville district of the County Antrim town.

Many of the press clippings from that period of his life deal with the more mundane aspects of policing, now with the Royal Ulster Constabulary - the RIC was disbanded after the partition of Ireland.

Image caption,
A letter threatening a publican in Ennis was signed the 'Black Hand Guards'

There is however an echo of more recent times in Northern Ireland - an Irish Times picture of my grandfather at the scene of a riot in north Belfast in July 1935.

There would also be two brushes with significant figures in Irish history.

In 1933, he testified in court about the theft of items - including a gold cigarette case and three studs set with diamonds - from the car of Sir Basil Brooke, who would become Northern Ireland's third prime minister in 1943.

The theft happened while the future Lord Brookeborough was participating in a shooting party near Broughshane. It was my grandfather who arrested the thief and recovered the stolen items.

A more sinister document was sent to my grandfather in 1932 and it highlights the often personal nature of the Irish Troubles.

A postcard, posted in New York, reads: "I was highly gratified to read the press report of your grand and glorious capture of a hen (I prefer chicken). Did you capture Dan Breen yet? A well wisher."

Dan Breen was a prominent IRA leader in County Tipperary during the War of Independence and civil war. He left Ireland for America in 1927, running a prohibition speakeasy in New York for a time.

Did Breen himself send the taunting postcard?

My grandfather died in December 1935, killed not by a republican bullet, but by a fractured skull sustained in a fall down the steep stairs of the family home in Ballymena.

A picture of the funeral cortege shows a young boy - my father - walking behind the hearse.

The legacy of material left behind leaves me with two main thoughts.

Firstly, a bullet an inch the other way and my grandfather would have been dead aged 28 and I wouldn't be here.

Secondly, whatever terms are used to label the recurrent violent episodes of Irish history, we must never forget the human cost and the brutality with which so many lost their lives during them.