‘My great-grandfather’s shooting traumatized the family for decades’
One hundred years ago my great-grandfather was murdered by the IRA. On the morning of Sunday May 8, 1921, Chief Constable William K Storey attended mass with his wife, Mary, with his assistant, Sgt Butler, and his wife in Castleisland, Co Kerry. As they left with the congregation and went out into the streets, they were followed by four IRA men, who took out guns and fired at the officers from behind.
A bullet hit Storey in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Butler was injured and was reportedly killed by follow-up fire, but his wife threw herself at his body and dared the assassins to shoot him. The IRA men are gone. Butler died of his injuries two months later.
My great-grandfather’s burial certificate says he died of natural causes. Did the undertaker who recorded this indicate that it was natural for the IRA to kill a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary? Or was he just scared, aware of the boycott the IRA was imposing on people who associated with the traitors?
Hundreds of police officers have been targeted by the IRA to make Ireland ungovernable. The British response was to send in soldiers and armed gangs of veterans and misfits called the Black and Tans. They carried out their own attacks, including retaliation for the murder of my great-grandfather.
The story is familiar, but silences remain about people whose loyalty fell somewhere between the tricolor and the union flag.
The Storey family fled Castleisland, first to Cork, then to Chatham, Kent, and then to Queens, New York. My great-grandmother and her children moved to a neighborhood called Corona, which was predominantly Italian.
“At least they were Catholics,” my grandmother told me. Maybe it was just a joke, but maybe Irish quarters should be avoided. It was the time when a bartender could ask a customer to donate for “the boys.” The association with the RIC carried a lasting stigma. In 1976, the IRA made its last threatening phone call, the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I was ten years old.
My father advised me never to visit Castleisland. The things that happened there had left her family traumatized.
The murder of my great-grandfather raises many questions. Did he make a target by doing something wrong? It’s possible. As a historian, I am trained to put aside personal biases and use evidence to get as close to the truth as possible. It is difficult to find evidence, even though the murder was well publicized. He was mentioned in the UK parliament, but until recently the public record was little more than a few newspaper articles.
A few years ago, new documents were published. The IRA man who killed my great-grandfather told his story to the Irish authorities, as part of his pension claim. His testimony is published online, as part of the Bureau of Military History documents. The testimony answers the question “how” but not the “why”. British documents were subject to a 100-year gag rule. Soon they might provide some more clues. But what I would really like to do is go to Castleisland and ask questions.
‘He had a family to support’
I know that oral traditions have their limits as proof. I know from elderly parents that the IRA told my great-grandfather that if he didn’t quit his job for the British they would kill him. He told them to leave. He had a family to support. In fact, he only had a few years left before he could draw a pension.
Family tradition says he was proud to be a police officer. Family tradition says his sympathies were with the nationalists. Family tradition says that when my great-grandmother deposited the monthly British pension check, she cursed the Black and Tans.
All of this could be confirmed or contradicted. In any case, 100 years later, I go beyond the silences.
There are a lot of questions to be answered, the main one being: if things were so violent and polarized then, how do people get along now? In the decades leading up to WWI, class, religious and party identities and loyalties were diverse. During the struggle for independence, intimidation, violence and revenge tended to polarize people. This was the intention of the loyalist and patriotic militants: to prevent anyone from choosing their side. How did people recover from such a deadly way of thinking?
This spring, I was hoping to leave the polarized United States and visit Ireland. I hope to learn more about the murders and how things have improved.
Covid-19 restrictions have prevented travel, but the extra time online has been a godsend. I introduced myself to an electronic forum dedicated to the RIC and a few weeks later I was contacted by Donal O’Donovan. He is the great-grandson of WH O’Connor, a Republican from Castleisland whose home and business were destroyed in retaliation for the murder. O’Connor’s family connected with the Storey family in other ways as well, highlighting the intimacy as well as the brutality of the conflict in a small rural town.
William K Storey is professor of history at Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi