Not since the summer of 1916 had there been a day of horse racing in Thurles. The owners of the track were determined to make the races on 23rd June 1919 a success. The meeting was advertised in local and national press, with Thurles’ ‘excellent train facilities’ mentioned so as to help bolster crowds. The Irish Independent’s leading racing reporter stated that the meeting was as keen as he had ever seen in the Tipperary venue as Mirza won the feature Thurles Handicap.
Once the final race finished around 4.30pm, thousands of people left the venue and walked back into the town. As the crowd approached the Square from New Street, a number of shots shattered the jovial atmosphere. Panic spread as the crowd darted in every direction away from a man slumped on the ground that had been shot twice in the back. That man was the head of the RIC in the Thurles district, District Inspector Michael Hunt. The Chairman of Thurles GAA Club, Fr. Micheal Kennedy Ryan, arrived on the scene within moments to administer the last rites. Hunt was dead within 20 minutes of the shooting.
The shooting was one of the most significant moments of a War of Independence still in its infancy. Five RIC Officers had been killed already since the beginning of 1919. However, their deaths were not the specific goals set out by the Volunteers involved in the Soloheadbeg Ambush, Limerick Workhouse rescue, or the Knocklong rescue. D.I Hunt was the first RIC Officer to be killed that was specifically targeted by Volunteers.
The death of the 45-year-old father of three, originally from Sligo, shone a light upon a rapidly deteriorating situation in Tipperary from the perspective of the Crown Forces. The County Inspector of the RIC, in his monthly report to Dublin Castle, said ‘The murder of ... Hunt is the culminating act of lawlessness and defiance in this locality ... The murder of the two police at Soloheadbeg was their first blow. Then came the Knocklong outrage in which prisoners were rescued and two police killed…The volunteer organisation has, in this part of the country, become so successful, so determined, so powerful and so revengeful that any policeman who is instrumental in bringing any of its members to justice is a marked man’.
Hunt had been a figure of immense ire for the Volunteer movement for some time in North Tipperary. Just a few days before his death, he had ordered the removal of a tricolour at an aeridheacht in Upperchurch. He was enraged when the platform performers refused to comply and began to sing ‘The Green, White, and Gold’, joined in during the course by the large crowd in attendance. Two of the men that were involved in shooting Hunt, Jim and Tommy Stapleton, were natives of Upperchurch and were likely among the crowd that defied Hunt’s orders. The third man involved in the shooting was Jim Murphy, known as The Jennett, from Kilcommon.
D.I Hunt’s shooting was a catalyst for an official crack-down on the Volunteers, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan, and the Gaelic League in all of Tipperary. Shortly thereafter, Sinn Féin and the Volunteers would become illegal organisations all over Ireland. An influx of reinforcements into the area forced prominent Volunteers to go on the run and billet in safe houses in parts of East-Clare, Offaly, and Camross in Co. Laois. The Thurles Races of 1919 would go down in history as the day the War of Independence in this part of Ireland took on a menacing new complexion.