RIC Divisional Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Gerard Ferguson Smyth (aged 34) of Banbridge, Co. Down (County Club, South Mall, Cork city)
Date of incident: 17 July 1920
Sources: CE, 19, 20, 21, 30 July 1920; II, 20 July 1920; FJ, 21 July 1920; CCE, 24 July 1920; CWN, 24 July 1920; Ulster Herald, 24 July 1920; Fermanagh Herald, 24 July 1920; WS 719 of Maurice Ford et al., 5 (BMH); Seán Culhane’s WS 746, 2-3, 5-6 (BMH); Patrick Murray’s WS 1584, 15-16 (BMH); Seán Healy’s WS 1643, 9 (BMH); Daniel Healy’s WS 1656, 10-11 (BMH); Stephen Foley’s WS 1669, 6-7 (BMH); Rebel Cork’s FS, 77-80; O’ Herlihy (1997), 224; Abbott (2000), 96-103.
Note: Smyth’s name, reported a correspondent of the Cork Examiner in the wake of his death, had come ‘into prominence lately in connection with the revolt of the Listowel police, to whom he delivered a speech which has given rise to much controversy’—something of an understatement. See CE, 19 July 1920. What exactly Smyth said and did at Listowel and elsewhere in Kerry is perhaps less important than what he was understood by the Cork city IRA to have said and done.
The controversy made a deep impression on (among others) Volunteer Daniel Healy, sometime O/C of the city Active Service Unit, who recalled about Smyth: ‘He was appointed to the R.I.C. early in June 1920 and, in the course of a tour of certain R.I.C. barracks in County Kerry, had incited the police to shoot at sight persons suspected of having Sinn Féin sympathies. At Listowel on 17th June 1920 he ordered the R.I.C. to hand over their barracks to the military and to transfer . . . to different stations in the district. He then addressed the police, instructing them, inter-alia, “to shoot, and shoot with effect,” any civilians who might not immediately obey a “hands-up” order. As a result of Smyth’s inflamatory [sic] remarks, five R.I.C. constables resigned in Listowel. Elsewhere in Kerry, Smyth repeated his incitements to murder, and when he came to reside for a while in the County Club on the South Mall, Cork, early in July 1920, the brigade decided that an attempt should be made to shoot him.’ See Daniel Healy’s WS 1656, 10-11 (BMH).
Since the County Club, ‘the resort of landed families and high military officers’, took care to employ a loyalist staff, the local IRA was at a loss for essential detailed intelligence about the identity of Club visitors and guests ‘until at last a young waiter in the Club agreed to co-operate’. With the benefit of this inside information the city IRA made plans to shoot Smyth on the morning of 13 July, but these plans were foiled when Smyth suddenly packed his bags that day and left. When he returned unexpectedly on the evening of 17 July, nine members of the First Battalion of the Cork No. 1 Brigade were ‘hastily mobilised’ and took action: ‘About 10 p.m. on the night in question the six of us [three others served as scouts] went into the County Club and down a passage to the lounge, which we entered with drawn revolvers. Smyth was seated with another man—County Inspector Craig of the R.I.C.—in a corner of the lounge in which there were about twelve other people. We immediately opened fire, killing Smyth and wounding Craig. Smyth tried to draw his revolver when he saw us entering the lounge but without avail. We then left the premises and got safely away.’ See Daniel Healy’s WS 1656, 10-11 (BMH).
Volunteer Stephen Foley was a member of the squad that stalked Smyth, and he named as fellow participants Leo Aherne, Martin Donovan, Dan ‘Sandow’ O’Donovan, Dick Murphy, and Corny Sullivan. ‘When we went to the door of the Club,’ recalled Stephen Foley, ‘the porter was standing there. “Sando” and Martin Donovan said something to him. The next thing was the porter put up his hands and walked in front of “Sando” and Martin to a door of a room where Smyth and his friends were. The porter actually pointed to the door of the room. Leo Aherne and Corny Sullivan remained at the front door, whilst I and Dick Murphy went up on to the first landing. Very shortly afterwards shots rang out. Our lads [apparently Martin Donovan and ‘Sandow’ Donovan] left the room where Smyth had been, and we all then left the building, mingling with the crowd which was then leaving a nearby cinema. Smyth had been shot and killed, and a county inspector of the R.I.C. who was with him was badly wounded.’ See Stephen Foley’s WS 1669, 6-7 (BMH).
The members of the IRA squad who killed Smyth ‘could not have been more than three minutes in the building’. Smyth was easily recognised there because he had only one arm. The reporter who broke the story in the Cork Examiner described the murder of Smyth as ‘by far the most sensational shooting of a government official that has yet occurred in Cork’. See CE, 19 July 1920. A coroner’s inquest had to be abandoned when the necessary complement of twelve jurors could not be found.
Former Volunteer Seán Culhane, successively intelligence officer of B Company (covering Cork city centre), the First Battalion, and the Cork No. 1 Brigade, took the leading role in tracking down Divisional Commander Smyth: ‘My main contact in the County Club . . . at this time was a waiter named Ned Fitzgerald, a native of Ballyhooly, Co. Cork—his nickname was “Bally.” (The poor fellow died about three years ago [in 1949].) It was “Bally’s” practice to keep me informed of any visits of important personages to the Club from Major General Strickland down. Smyth visited the Club on the 18/7/1920 but left again after a short interval. This information was conveyed to me, but owing to his short stay nothing could be done on that day. He returned to the Club again the following evening, and I received word of his visit very shortly after his arrival. I immediately contacted Seán Hegarty, who was then acting Brigade O.C., as Terry MacSwiney was in Brixton Prison. . . . Following my conversation with Seán, he got into immediate touch with the following: Sando Donovan, Corney Sullivan, J. J. O’Connell, Danny Healy, [and] Seán O’Donoghue, and these, together with myself, proceeded immediately to the vicinity of the Club on the South Mall, and all of us were fully armed. The five whom I have named above remained at the opposite side of the street, and I went across to the entrance of the Club and met “Bally,” who told me that Smyth was still inside. I took off my cap and ran my fingers twice through my hair, which was the signal arranged with my comrades. They immediately came to the Club entrance, and with “Bally” in front of us, as if at the point of the gun, he moved to where Smyth was sitting in the room and faced him. This was arranged to ensure that we got the right man. We opened fire immediately, without any preliminaries, and most of our shots hit the target. Smyth made an effort with his one arm to make for his gun but collapsed in the attempt—he must have died at once. When I was firing at Smyth, I noticed sitting opposite him County Inspector Craig, R.I.C., to whom I had sold some socks in the Munster Arcade a week or so before. I opened fire then on Craig, and although I aimed at his heart, I only succeeded in shooting him in the leg. My comrades did not know Craig, hence did not understand until later why I turned my gun on him. Had they known, Craig’s fate would have been sealed.’ See Seán Culhane’s WS 746, 5-6 (BMH).
Smyth had been born at Dalhousie in the Punjab in India in September 1885. He enlisted in the Royal Engineers Regiment in 1905 and became a captain in 1914, when he was sent to France with the British expeditionary force. In October of that year he lost his left arm as a result of a serious war wound. This loss in no way diminished his ardour or his courage: he was wounded no fewer than six times altogether, earned the DSO, and in December 1916 became the commander of a battalion of the King’s Own Scotch Borderers. After the war he was recommended for the post of RIC divisional commissioner for South Munster by his wartime colleague Major General Hugh Tudor, who served as police advisor to the viceroy of Ireland and commander of both the RIC and DMP. Smyth moved into his position as RIC divisional commissioner early in June 1920. Less than two months later (on 21 July 1920), he was interred ‘with full military honours in the family burial ground in the public cemetery [at] Newry Road, Banbridge, Co. Down. After his death three days of rioting ensued in Belfast, and a number of people lost their lives. There was also rioting in Banbridge and Dromore, Co. Down, with one person being killed in Dromore.’ See Abbott (2007), 96-97. Not long after Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth had been shot dead, his brother Major G.O.S. Smyth, D.S.O., M.C., R.F.A., was killed by the IRA in a fatal affray at Drumcondra in Dublin on 12 October 1920. See II, 13 Oct. 1920.