RIC Constable James Brett

RIC Constable James Brett (aged 50) from Waterford (Cloonee Wood near Bantry)

Date of incident: 21 June 1920

Sources: CE, 23, 24 June 1920; II, 28 June, 16 Oct. 1920; CWN, 3 July 1920; Weekly Summary of Outrages against the Police, June 1920 (CO 904/148-50, TNA); Maurice Donegan’s WS 639, 3-4 (BMH); Ted O’Sullivan’s WS 1478, 16 (BMH); Seán Cotter’s WS 1493, 11 (BMH); S. Fitzgerald (1994), 7; Abbott (2000), 89-90; Bielenberg, Borgonovo, and Ó Ruairc (2015), 116-17; irishmedals.org (accessed 28 July 2014).

Note: An RIC bicycle patrol consisting of five policemen were serving jurors’ summonses for the Bantry quarter sessions over a wide area in the direction of Durrus and were returning to their barracks in Bantry when, at about 7:15 at night on 21 June, they were ambushed at Cloonee Wood, about 3 or 4 miles from the town. At least six Volunteers from Bantry led by battalion vice-commandant Maurice Donegan carried out this attack on the RIC cycle patrol. The Volunteer party also included Dan Lehane, Pat Lehane, Seán Lehane, and Tom Ward. Armed with revolvers and carbines, the police put up as much resistance as possible, but Constable Brett was mortally wounded and Sergeant Driscoll was injured, though he survived. Brett’s wounds were horrible, no doubt outraging his police comrades: ‘The body presents an appalling spectacle. The head is almost blown away, the throat being completely severed, and down the right side of the neck there is a long shattering wound. One eye is also blown out.’ Sergeant Driscoll received wounds to the head and body, but he managed to cycle back to the barracks with his comrades. See CE, 23 June 1920.

An inquest into the death of Brett could not be held because only three of the twelve jurors answered the summons. Brett had long been stationed in Bantry and was reportedly very well liked. Declared Head Constable Gleeson at the inquest on 23 June 1920: He ‘never met a better policeman’, and he did not believe that ‘a more willing and genial policeman ever came to Bantry, or a policeman that was so popular and, he thought, deservedly so’. See CE, 24 June 1920. Yet local undertakers refused to supply a hearse or to assist in any fashion with Brett’s burial, and locals stayed away from his funeral. See irishmedals.org (accessed 28 July 2014). Constable Brett had been a member of the RIC for thirty years; much earlier in his life he had been a farmer. He left a wife and four children. Brett’s widow was later awarded £4,000 in compensation for his death.

It appears that the Bantry police sought to retaliate for the IRA ambush at Cloonee Wood. In the early morning hours of 23 June 1920 some person or persons tried to burn down the homes of ‘three prominent Sinn Feiners in the town’ of Bantry by throwing bottle-bombs through broken windows of their houses. In each case the attackers used a bottle containing ‘a highly combustible liquid’ such as paraffin. Luckily, none of the houses caught fire. See CE, 24 June 1920. But on 25 June masked men (assumed to be linked to the police in Bantry and probably members of the RIC out of uniform) shot and mortally wounded Cornelius Crowley.

The Irish Revolution Project

Scoil na Staire /Tíreolaíocht

University College Cork, Cork,