Riches of Clare: Policing the Early Irish State

Clare Champion, Friday, March 28, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local-authority run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. This week, museum curator John Rattigan writes about the Royal Irish Constabulary.

The Irish Constabulary was granted the “Royal” prefix by Queen Victoria in 1867 for the role it played in suppressing the Fenian uprising of that year. The Irish Constabulary had been formed with the passing of the Constabulary Act of 1822, resulting in the creation of four forces in the four provinces of Ireland, and three independent police forces in the cities of Dublin, Derry and Belfast. The first modern police force in Ireland, it had a standard code of regulations, but differed from today’s Irish Police by being armed, and having a dark green uniform.

In 1836, it was decided to centralise the administration of the four provincial forces under Dublin Castle. Supervised by a county inspector, the Royal Irish Constabulary in each county was subdivided into a number of districts, with its own district inspector. They in turn were assisted by a head constable based at the district HQ, responsible for operational policing and the conduct of the men in the barracks. There were a number of barracks in each district, usually with a sergeant and four constables.

The RIC is probably best remembered for engaging in the unpopular role of protecting bailiffs who were executing distress warrants and evicting tenants during the land war. This duty was greatly disliked by many RIC men as many of them had come from rural backgrounds. Other duties however, included collecting agricultural statistics, census taking, escorting prisoners, weights and measures inspection, patrolling and acquiring a thorough knowledge of the district under their jurisdiction and building good relations with the local community. Life in the RIC was not a simple one as it was governed by a strict code of discipline. For example, there was no official system of duty, rest days or annual leave, and constables were barred from voting in elections. Members could not marry until they had at least seven years service and any potential bride had to be vetted to ensure her social suitability. It was also forbidden for policemen and their wives to sell produce, take lodgers or engage in certain forms of trade.

Nonetheless, by the end of the 19th century there were some 11,000 constables in the RIC (one of whom was my great-grandfather, Sergeant John Rattigan) and there were 1,600 barracks throughout the countryside. The force was 70% Catholic, representative of the religious composition of the country. In terms of political beliefs, Catholic RIC men were obviously loyal to the crown. Seán Spellissy, in his book The Ennis Compendium, remarks that when King Edward VII was crowned in 1902, the Union flag was flown over the RIC barracks in Clarecastle. Although loyal to the crown and unable to vote, many RIC personnel were against the Act of Union and supported the Home Rule party. As a result large numbers of RIC resigned to follow John Redmond’s call to fight for Britain during the First World War.

During the War of Independence, the Royal Irish Constabulary was again in the front line defending the authority of the British Crown. Rural RIC Barracks were systematically targeted by the IRA to capture arms and also to drive the British authority out of the countryside. For the RIC in Clare, there was no exception. At Ruan on October 15, 1920, the mid-Clare Brigade of the IRA attacked the RIC barracks in the village, wounding the sergeant and two constables. A constable, John Bergin, is recorded on the RIC memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral, London as having been killed in Ennis on March 21, 1921. Further evidence of the hostilities of the time can be seen in the recently published History and Folklore of Cooraclare and Cree, where there is a photograph of an RIC barracks covered in Republican graffiti.

Many RIC men resigned during the War of Independence. To make up the numbers, an RIC Special Reserve was formed from the unemployed British former rank and file veterans of the First World War, better known as the Black and Tans. In addition, an RIC Auxiliary Division was recruited in Britain from unemployed veterans of the First World War who had been officers. Both had fierce reputations.

The Dublin Metropolitan Police was formed in 1836 and unlike the RIC, were unarmed. They were the longest surviving independent urban police force in Ireland – the forces in Belfast and Derry had long since been disbanded – with new recruits trained at the depot in Kevin Street, Dublin. Included in the Dublin Metropolitan force was a mounted troop which was disbanded in 1919 and a detective division nicknamed “G Men” formed to combat the IRA during the War of Independence.

Following independence, the RIC was disbanded and replaced in February 1922 by the Civic Guards. It was an unarmed force that quickly evolved into the Garda Siochana. The Dublin Metropolitan Police was authorised to act in conjunction with Gardai outside the capital in 1924 and was formally amalgamated into the new force in 1925.

View the Royal Irish Constabulary Helmet and Dublin Metropolitan Police Baton

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