Pat and John Harte

This is a picture from 1920 of Brigadier Tom Hales and Quartermaster Pat Harte of the West Cork Brigade of the IRA. It was taken after they had been arrested and tortured by the Essex Regiment of the British Army. Tom Hales had had all his teeth crushed with pliers. Both men had had fingernails pulled out. Pat Harte had been severely pistol-whipped on the head.

Pat Harte was my great uncle. His brother, my grandfather, was John Harte, a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. The RIC was the first British paramilitary colonial police force, on which all later colonial forces, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the notorious Royal Hong Kong Police, were modelled. The RCMP’s practice of carrying carbines to intimidate Canada’s natives was lifted straight from the RIC. However, despite this, at the very beginning of the twentieth century the RIC was still widely viewed in Ireland as a relatively benign institution. Girls from Kerry would aspire to marry policemen the way girls from other parts of Ireland would favour the brothers of priests, and indeed my grandmother, Sophia, was a protestant from Tralee in County Kerry. It was therefore a big shock and a bitter disappointment to the RIC constables to find the esteem with which they had once been held give way so rapidly to resentment and hatred as the movement for Irish independence gathered steam. And it was a particularly bitter blow for my grandfather to find himself on the opposite side in this war to his brother.

In this photo, Pat Harte had been coerced into waving a Union Jack in order to humiliate himself. Nowadays Irish Republicans share this photo and talk of Pat Harte’s heroism, trying to find defiance in the way he brandished the flag. But that is not how it was at the time. Back in the 1920s Republicans took Pat Harte’s waving of the Union Jack as an act of betrayal and they abandoned him. He died not long after in an insane asylum as a result of the head injuries inflicted on him by the British soldiers.

After independence the RIC was disbanded in the Irish Free State (although it survived for several decades in the North as the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary) and was replaced by the unarmed Garda Síochána na hÉireann. John Harte, no longer a policeman, found work as a poorly paid insurance salesman and never, as far as I know, spoke of his brother again.