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The Murder of Patrick Howard: A Case Study of Police Crime in the War of Independence

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 47:3&4, Fomhar/Geimhreadh / Fall/Winter 2012
pp. 111-140 | 10.1353/eir.2012.0019

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On the evening of 12 February 1921, at about 8:45 pm, a woman named Elizabeth Dillon heard someone calling outside her home in the village of Balscadden, Co. Dublin. She went to the front door but saw no one. She then went to the back door, where she heard a man say, “Let me in” and “Send for the priest—I am dying.” When she asked who it was, the voice replied: “Pat Howard.” Opening the door, Dillon helped the injured man into her kitchen, where he lay down on the floor in great pain. She then went for Patrick’s brother-in-law, who sent for the priest. The brother-in-law and two other men came to Dillon’s house and took Howard home.1

Sometime after 9pm the local medical officer, Dr. William Fullam, went to Howard’s home and examined him. He had been shot—once in the abdomen and twice in the right arm. Dr. Fullam rendered first aid and sent him to Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Dublin.2 The wounded man arrived at the hospital around midnight, when he was attended by a resident, Dr. John Geraghty.3 At about 9 o’clock on the following morning Howard underwent an operation by Dr. William McAllister. The surgeon found a bullet in Howard’s abdomen, along with lacerations of the intestines and peritonitis. According to Dr. McAllister, “After the operation there was no improvement, and the patient sank and died about 15.48 hours.”4

The murder of Patrick Howard has heretofore passed unnoticed by historians. I first learned about this case in the summer of 2000, when I visited what was then still called the Public Record Office to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation. While searching through the files of the Irish Office and Irish Branch, I requested file HO 351/83 without knowing anything about its contents: the catalog promised only documents concerned with “remittance of unexpired portion of penal servitude sentence of George S. Pearson for murder.” Imagine my surprise when my beeper summoned me to the counter, and I was handed a thick folder containing more than five hundred pages of reports and correspondence. The reason for this bulging folder quickly became clear: Patrick Howard had been murdered by a Black and Tan—one of the thousands of British recruits who had reinforced the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in 1920 and 1921. What was more, the police constable who had murdered Howard was one of the very few to be put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death for his crime during those years.

Unfortunately, as a graduate student with a very limited budget, I had neither the time to take detailed notes nor the money to photocopy the case file at fifty pence per page. But seven years later, I came back to what was now the National Archives of Ireland, armed this time with a digital camera and determined to make sense of this very complex case. What I found was in some ways normal and in others exceptional. The murder of Patrick Howard fits the pattern that I found in other rare cases where police had been caught and punished for their crimes, as described in my book The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 19201921. In all these exceptional cases the perpetrators had been strangers, unknown (or at least little known) to the local police, and their victims had been “civilians”—loyal or nonpolitical people. There was no record of even one policeman ever having been punished for any of the very numerous extrajudicial killings of Irish republican militants or activists, and the sinister implications of this absence hardly require comment. But the case of Patrick Howard also shows just how extremely difficult it was to catch and punish police who broke the law. In particular, it demonstrates how hard it could be to mount a successful prosecution when the police themselves were unwilling to give evidence against each other. In the end, the man who shot Patrick Howard was tried and convicted not because he had confessed, or because his guilt had been uncovered...

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