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WANTED: Police writer with excellent descriptive skills

November 27, 2012

While researching pictures for the ebook Irish History Compressed I was very happy to find on Wikimedia Commons this “WANTED” poster printed by the British authorities during the Irish War of Independence.

A police notice for the capture of Dan Breen after the Soloheadbeg attack in Ireland (the start of the Irish War of Independence)

A police notice for the capture of Dan Breen after the Soloheadbeg attack in Ireland (the start of the Irish War of Independence).

Dan Breen was one member of the group of Irish Volunteers who attacked and killed two RIC men at Soloheadbeg – widely considered the first shots fired in the Irish War of Independence. The poster must refer to this attack, as within six months the reward had been increased to £10,000 – a staggering amount. (Even £1000 was equivalent to somewhere between £38,000 and £286,000 nowadays, depending on how you calculate it.)[1]

Dan Breen had a pretty eventful life, all in all: he had a number of hair-raising escapes and was once so seriously injured he was given the last rites. After the truce he went to America, meeting among others Mahatma Gandhi (of all people!), then back to Ireland where he was captured early in the Civil War. He wrote his autobiography My Fight for Irish Freedom in 1924, aged not quite 30. He was the first Fianna Fáil TD to swear the Oath of Allegiance and take his seat in the Dáil. In the late twenties he recrossed the Atlantic and found employment running a speakeasy in Prohibition-era America. He didn’t stay for so long though, returning to his home county to become its first-preference TD for many years. He died in 1969.[2]

But to return to the poster:

I find it interesting for a number of reasons. “Wanted for murder in Ireland” is curious: was that a separate offence to murder in England (or Wales or Scotland…)? Unlikely, I think, so why the need to make a distinction, especially as the poster presumably was intended for display within Ireland? The phrasing (“calls himself Commandant of the Third Tipperary Brigade”) reflects, of course, the British view that the IRA had no legitimacy whatsoever, though is it just me, I wonder, who wants to respond facetiously “And what do the other members of the Third Tipperary Brigade call him?”

I originally hadn’t paid much attention to the text below the photos, assuming I could guess what it said. Then just recently while I was reading the ebook proofs, a phrase caught my eye: “looks rather like a blacksmith coming home from work”. I can only speculate as to what that was meant to convey: Tired? Hot? Sweaty? Big brawny arms?

Of course, how many of us have ever encountered a blacksmith? Presumably this information conveyed a definite picture to readers at the time, one that has been lost to us today.

Intrigued, I read the whole thing through. It starts off as I’d expected, with fairly standard facts like height, but has more than the one quirky expression. “Sulky bulldog complexion” may be a little more concrete than the blacksmith comparison but is even odder: it makes me think of Churchill (a little anachronistically, I know…) but hardly fits the bloke in the photos, who looks quite genial, if – perhaps? – a tad mischievous.

All in all, the description isn’t what I’d have expected to find on a police notice, and just raises further questions: Who wrote it? Where did he get his information from? Did he know Dan Breen or have access to people who knew him personally? Were all RIC ‘Wanted’ descriptions written in a similar style?

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who could help shed light on this.


1. The lower figure represents the purchasing power equivalent; the higher is relative ‘economic power’. I used the website http://www.measuringworth.com/index.php for the calculation. It has a wealth (excuse the pun) of information about the various ways to calculate the modern value: adjusting for inflation, comparing prices, or even labour costs, etc etc…
2. The information on Dan Breen come mostly from History Ireland’s review of Dan Breen and the IRA. I’ve not had a chance to read the book itself yet.

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