Killing of RIC District Inspector Oswald Swanzy
On Sunday 22nd of August 1920, while leaving church, RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) District Inspector Oswald Swanzy was shot and killed by members of the Cork No. 1 Brigade of the IRA. This would have not been a surprising incident in that it occurred well into the ’dirty war’ stage of the War of Independence. The reason this was indeed unusual was that it happened in the Protestant stronghold town of Lisburn, County Antrim, some 400km outside the Brigade location. Outside of their jurisdiction maybe but well within their remit since this was a revenge killing for the murder of their brigade leader Commandant Tomás MacCurtain and Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, Ireland, who was murdered in his home in Blackpool, Cork six months previous.
In early hours of the 20th of March 1920 an armed unit of men with blackened faces raided the Lord Mayor’s home and shot him in front of his wife and children. Despite the fact of this murder happening only yards from an RIC Barracks and during curfew hours, British propaganda – notably legitimised by a statement by Lloyd George in the British Parliament – blamed a renegade unit of the Commandant’s own IRA Brigade who might have been unhappy with their commandant’s conciliatory attitude toward police killings. In this they point to the Lord Mayor’s offer of sympathy to the family of RIC Constable Murtagh who had been killed in Pope’s Quay, Cork just a few hours before the Lord Mayor himself met the same fate. This baseless claim was never backed up with any evidence even when requested later on by an official inquest into the Lord Mayor’s murder. Besides which the RIC did not even bother pursuing an investigation of their own into the murder nor any doubt that if the British had some evidence of an inside job they would only have been too happy to publish same for propaganda purposes.
All indications were that the only people who could have carried out this murder were the RIC themselves and indeed most witnesses noted movement by the RIC on that night/morning (which would support this) in the vicinity of Blackpool, Patrick’s Hill (the Swanzy home) and King’s Street (now MacCurtain Street) – the Barracks from where the murder unit was believed to originate. At this time due to the targeting of RIC stations and indeed RIC constables there was much pressure on the organisation following a spate of resignations that had to be countered by reinforcements by the Black and Tan initially and then the Auxiliaries. There was some talk that some of the assassins of MacCurtain spoke with British accents and indeed there was an attempted shooting, on the streets of Cork, on a Sinn Fein supporting Alderman, Professor W. P. Stockley just two nights previous; where the intended target himself stated that the would be assassins spoke ‘like strangers’.
In a subsequent official inquest into the murder a verdict of wilful murder was returned against David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England; Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; Ian McPherson, late Chief Secretary of Ireland; Acting Inspector General Smith, of the Royal Irish Constabulary; Divisional Inspector Clayton of the Royal Irish Constabulary; District Inspector Swanzy and some unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Under these circumstances the obvious and easiest target for any IRA reprisals would be District Inspector Oswald Swanzy; he was duly spirited out of the Cork area by his superiors.
MacCurtain’s men were intent on seeking retribution on the only person named in association with the murder unit itself who if not proven as partaking in it himself was culpable by his perceived closeness to it.
Swanzy’s secret location, living under an assumed name, in Lisburn, Co. Antrim was easily unearthed given Collin’s spies in the RIC but also some keen intelligence work by Cork No.1 Brigade Intelligence Officer, Sean Culhane who with the help of a comrade, Seán Healy who worked as a railway clerk in Glanmire Railway Station, uncovered the address in Lisburn where Swanzy now resided with his doting sister Irene who had been with him in all his other postings.
Seán Culhane, not yet out of his teenage years was also to be one of the men selected by Brigade command to carry out the killing and it was this 19 year old who would have to make his case before men of the experience and calibre of Collins and Dick Mulcahy.
Michael Collins was of the same mind of MacCurtain’s men as regards the target of any retribution but was inclined to favour the assassination being conducted by his own more experienced unit or even some IRA men from Belfast who he considered would be less conspicuous than a few guys speaking with Cork accents in Lisburn! However Seán not only persuaded Collins and Mulcahy but also impressed Cathal Brugha Minister of Defence of Dáil Éireann in whose hands the final decision lay.
It would be Seán Culhane and Dick Murphy who were to be the men of Cork No.1 Brigade who would finally avenge their murdered First Citizen and Commandant, and they symbolically would use a gun that had once been in the possession of MacCurtain to do the deed.
With the help of some Belfast IRA scouts and a sympathetic taxi driver they both ambushed Swanzy on his way from church, Culhane dispatched the first shot (to the head) while, almost simultaneously Murphy released a body shot. At the later inquest into the death it was deemed that either of the shots would have proved fatal to the unfortunate District Inspector Swanzy. Almost immediately a crowd formed and dramatically the assassination team made their getaway, fending off blows and shooting skyward as they ran. One of the Belfast scouts was nearly left behind by the getaway car but just managed to launch himself into the rear of the swiftly moving car. As he did he inadvertently let off a shot which luckily only damaged a seat rather than one of his colleagues.
The incident sparked outrage and a number of Catholics were murdered and others assaulted and forced from their homes and businesses, which were burned by sectarian mobs. This Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) conducted campaign of violence would lead to the need to recruit special constables to try and prevent further rioting; some of whom were, as UVF members, already responsible for the outrages they would be now be tasked with trying to stop. This recruitment would be the antecedent for the establishment of the Ulster Special Constabulary or more commonly known as “B-Specials”.
After Seán Culhane and Dick Murphy had made good their escape to Belfast they would board a train from there to Dublin to be debriefed by Michael Collins. On their journey they could not but notice the plume of smoke over the town of Lisburn as they passed it, which signified the almost total expulsion of the Catholic population of that town.
When the two Cork Volunteers were leaving Dublin for Cork, Collins had taken both guns from them – which he promised the men, keen to retain the trophy of MacCurtain’s revolver, he would return to them later. According to Seán Culhane he never received the gun later on from Collins but either way after they had de-trained at Blarney outside of Cork City and had made their way back to Blackpool in Cork they encountered a military patrol who proceeded to search them; if Collins had not taken the guns from the men they would have been detained.
It was the understanding of late Jim Gray, who was Brigade Transport Officer in the Cork No. 1 Brigade that the revolver in the Independence Museum Kilmurry collection was the gun – once the possession of Tomás MacCurtain – used to kill DI Oswald Swanzy.
Jim Gray had earlier obtained a permit for his Commandant Tomás MacCurtain for this weapon by posing as a loyalist. The permit for this gun was given by District Inspector Oswald Swanzy.