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The truth about Hugh Tudor


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Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Major General Sir Hugh Tudor never became a household name in Newfoundland. But the story of the former commanding officer of the hated "Black and Tans" who fled from Ireland to Newfoundland to escape the wrath of the Irish Republican Army has become part of the lore of our past.

Two would-be assassins, the tale has it, came to Newfoundland many years later, determined to kill Tudor, only to be dissuaded by a Roman Catholic priest. Tim Pat Coogan, a well-known Irish writer, described the incident in detail in his Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora (2001). But is the story true?

Tudor, an Englishman, joined the Royal Artillery in 1893. He was wounded in 1899, while fighting with the British Army during the Boer War. Among those who sent him a note to wish him a speedy recovery was Winston Churchill, a fellow soldier. Tudor remained in the army, and rose steadily through the ranks.

By March 1918 he had become a major-general, and was in command of the 9th (Scottish) Division, fighting in northern France and Flanders. He came to know the Newfoundlanders that September, when the Royal Newfoundland Regiment joined his division.

Tudor recorded in his unpublished memoir that the Newfoundlanders had "gained a very high reputation as first-class fighters and [he was] proud to have them" in his division. The memoir is filled with references to his meetings with his friend Churchill, who at the start of the war was First Lord of the British Admiralty, and then commanded a battalion fighting on the Western Front before returning to the Cabinet in the latter part of the war. The two friends remained in close touch with each other throughout the conflict.

The British government appointed Tudor as police adviser to the Viceroy (the senior British official in Ireland) in April, 1920, and then as chief of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Peter Hart, in his acclaimed biography of Michael Collins, said that "he got the job because he was good friends with Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for War."

His real task was to command the Black and Tans, First World War veterans recruited by the British to supplement the RIC in the fight against the Irish Republican Army. The unit got their name because part of their uniform was black and the rest was khaki, or tan. The unit soon became known as "Tudor's Toughs," after their commanding officer.

Ireland — still politically one country — was torn by civil war in the years after the First World War. The Irish conflict was as brutal as any the world has ever seen. Irishmen fought Irishmen. Each side was guilty of atrocities.

The civil war ended in 1922, when the British government agreed to the creation of the Republic of Ireland. Tudor was appointed a Knight Commander of the Bath, a very senior British honour.

Tudor emigrated to Newfoundland in 1925, and lived here for the rest of his life. He worked with George M. Barr, a well-known St. John's fish exporter. He lived quietly in an apartment in Churchill Square, and was often seen going about errands in the city. His address and phone number were listed in the St. John's telephone directory. He made no effort to hide; to the contrary, he enjoyed an active social life and had many friends in high places.

He met King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the parents of today's Queen Elizabeth II) when they came to St. John's in 1939.

And he and Churchill remained close friends. When Joseph R. Smallwood called upon Churchill, then Britain's prime minister, in 1952, Churchill's first words were to ask about his old friend, Hugh Tudor.

"Give him my best regards when you get home," he asked Smallwood. He did so.

Hugh Tudor died at age 95 in September 1965. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, successors to the men he commanded in the First World War, bore him with full military honours to his grave in the Anglican cemetery in St. John's.

What then of Coogan's story about the attempted assassination? As he tells it in his book, two IRA gunmen came to St. John's after the Second World War, with orders to kill Tudor.

"Being good Catholics," Coogan tells us, "they went to confession first. When one of them asked the priest for absolution for the killing which he intended to carry out, the confessor, not unnaturally, sought a few details." The priest, the story continues, told the two men that while they might succeed in killing Tudor, there was no possibility that they would be able to escape, so their execution of him "would inevitably be followed by two further executions — their own."

Coogan recounts that he got the story "from sources of my own," but gives neither names nor any details of them. He named a "Father McDermott" as the priest.

Monsignor J. J. McDermott, Irish-born and Irish-educated, became vicar-general of the Archdiocese of St. John's in 1915. He was in Ireland on holiday when the Second World War broke out in 1939, and remained there during the war years. He returned to Newfoundland in 1946 and resumed his duties in the archdiocese, where he served until he died in April 1947.

The suggestion that he saved Tudor's life, in so many words, fits the time element, then. Old and trusted friends have told me substantially the same story. One even recalled that his father had heard it from a young priest who heard it from McDermott himself.

But is the tale plausible? Why would two would-be assassins seek consolation from a priest, even under the seal of the confessional? And if the IRA wanted to kill Tudor, why did they wait 20 years before trying to do so? All that one can say for certain is that if Monsignor McDermott did encounter the two men, he took the secret with him to his grave, and they took it to theirs. The rest of us are left to decide for ourselves.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

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