From Ed Moloney and Bob Mitchell
By the autumn of 1922, the ‘B’ Specials had already established themselves in the Irish Nationalist psyche as a much feared, sectarian force which acted as the military wing of the Northern Unionist government.
Established shortly before partition in October 1920 at the request of Unionist leader and future prime minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, the Ulster Special Constabulary quickly absorbed large sections of Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force, set up to resist Home Rule, and some early units were even equipped with UVF weapons smuggled from Germany in 1912.
Overwhelmingly Protestant and Unionist in make-up, the Specials were soon at the front line of violence in the North. Initially regarded as a reserve force to assist the RIC and the British Army, the Specials’s profile increased after the Treaty. During the short-lived ‘Border War’ of 1922, for example, the Specials played the leading role in clashes with the IRA, whose members put aside their differences on the Treaty in opposition to the new border, and forty-nine of the new group’s members were killed.
But by this stage the Specials had also earned a name for fierce anti-Catholic violence. In Newry, they were accused of burning 160 Catholic homes and killing ten Catholic civilians and engaged in tit-for-tat attacks on Catholics elsewhere in response to IRA killings of security force members. The most notorious of these incidents was the massacre of six members of the MacMahon family at their Antrim Road home in Belfast in March 1922, apparently in reprisal for the IRA murder of two Specials earlier the same day.
It was little wonder then that Nationalists on both sides of the new Border viewed the Specials with a mixture of fear, distrust and loathing.
That certainly was a judgement shared by Michael Collins’ fiancee, Kitty Kiernan. Or at least it was her view until her husband-to-be was felled by an anti-Treaty bullet at Béal na Bláth in August 1922, some two months after the outbreak of the civil war.
An insight into how even the most steadfast of political views can be turned upside down by painful personal experience is given by a recently discovered document at the British National Archive at Kew, Surrey. It comes in the shape of a report of the Northern Border Commission in early September 1922 written by a Lt.Col W. M. Sutton on the security situation in counties Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh and Down.
Sutton wrote that all those areas were “extremely quiet” and that “Happier relations than usual appeared to exist between people of different shades of political and religious opinion.” Among the reasons he gave was the “widely held belief that the forces of law and order are in the ascendant, South of the Border.”
As further evidence Sutton cited a number of incidents which “were being much discussed by inhabitants of the Border Counties”, the first of which dealt with an encounter on a train between Kitty Kiernan and a patrol of Specials.
It reads: “When the late Mr Collin’s (sic) fiancee was recently searched by Special Constables, on the train by which she was travelling entering Co. Fermanagh, she stated that a few months ago she hated the specials, but that now she looked upon them as friends, being representatives of law and order and stable government. She spoke bitterly about her lawless countrymen who had murdered her fiancee, and she looked forward to the peace and quiet of Northern Ireland.”
Other evidence cited by Sutton included a decision by “Free State Forces in Clones” to return a deserter from the Specials after he had attempted to join them, the arrest and handover of two bank robbers by Gardai shortly after they had held up a bank employee near Lisnaskea and a newly forged friendship between a Protestant clergyman and a Catholic priest from Lisnaskea who had met a dinner party hosted by the Hampshire regiment.
The romance between Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan, and the rivalry for her affection between Collins and his friend Harry Boland provide one of the most engaging sidebars in the story of the War of Independence. Collins eventually won out when he and Kitty Kiernan became engaged (doubtless Collins’ cause was aided by Boland’s prolonged absence in America alongside Eamon de Valera as the unrecognised president of the Irish republic sought funds and recognition in the US).
Boland broke with Collins over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and sided with the recalcitrant elements in the IRA. On August 1st, 1922 Boland was shot dead by soldiers of the new Free State army in disputed circumstances as they attempted to arrest him in the Grand Skerries Hotel. Boland was unarmed at the time. His death so affected Collins that, according to some reports, he reached out to de Valera for peace talks to end the civil war but he was himself killed not long afterwards during a fateful visit to West Cork.
Why Kitty Kiernan was on the cross-Border train and who she intended to visit is, alas, not revealed in the document.