Almost airbrushed out of history, RIC effectively tackled Irish unrest

A group of RIC men pictured circa 1914
A group of RIC men pictured circa 1914

On September 12, 1867, the Royal Irish Constabulary was born. It has its origins in the Peace Preservation Force of 1814 which was the creation of Robert Peel, the Chief Secretary of Ireland between 1812 and 1818.

The purpose of PPF was to counter rural and agrarian unrest.

Known as ‘Peelers’ (after the chief secretary), they were appointed by the Irish administration in Dublin and placed under the command of a stipendiary magistrate, the precursor of an RM. ‘Peelers’ could be dispatched to a district ‘proclaimed as disturbed’.

As local ratepayers had to pay for the force whether they requested its presence or not, ‘Peelers’ were not very popular with landlords – despite the fact they were usually the principal beneficiaries of their presence because they were protecting their property. By 1822 ‘Peelers’ had been deployed in exactly half of Ireland’s counties.

In that year a permanent and in practice national constabulary was established throughout Ireland. Many ‘Peelers’ joined the new force. The PPF was briefly revived in the early 1830s to combat disturbance during the so-called Tithe War, a violent protest against the payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland, and dispatched to the most troubled counties, which were largely to be found in south Leinster and Munster.

In 1836 the PPF was absorbed into a reorganised Irish Constabulary which by 1841 numbered over 8,600 men.

In pre-famine Ireland the Irish Constabulary role was largely confined to suppressing agrarian strife, election disorders, sectarian affrays, faction fights, drunkenness and resistance to evictions. As these duties might suggest, the maintenance of public order (rather than crime prevention or investigative policing) was the principal remit of the force.

Post-famine Ireland was a significantly more peaceful and a law-abiding society than that before the famine. The duties of the Irish Constabulary changed somewhat and were extended to include the collection of a wide range of statistical data which elsewhere might have been considered the work of civil servants. Through this work the Irish Constabulary, it was alleged, became ‘the eyes and ears’ of Dublin Castle.

The success of the Irish Constabulary in suppressing the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s insurrection in 1867 earned the Irish Constabulary the prefix ‘Royal’.

The majority of the lower ranks in rural areas were of the same social class and religious background as their neighbours. About 75% of the force were Roman Catholics and 25% were Protestants. Protestants were more strongly represented in the upper ranks of the force but not overwhelmingly so.

The military ethos of the RIC with its ‘barracks’ (often simply rented houses), carbines and emphasis on drill and smartness distinguished the force from civil police in Great Britain and Dublin. Throughout its history the RIC wore a distinctive dark green uniform with black buttons and insignia, similar to that of the Rifle Brigade. .

With the conclusion of the Land War and apart from periods of tensions surrounding the Home Rule issue, by the late Victorian and Edwardian periods the RIC had secured widespread acceptance from the public – except from those elements of society hostile to any form of policing.

The typical RIC recruit was the son of a farmer, often one of the younger sons who would not inherit and whose options would have included emigration or entry into the priesthood. Recruits were required to be strong and healthy and to have had a good general education.

They received their training at the RIC Depot in Phoenix Park in Dublin and were subjected to strict discipline. After six months of training they were sent throughout Ireland (except initially Londonderry which retained its own force until 1870 and Dublin which had its own police force until 1925). They were posted away from their county of birth and the family they had married into.

Most policemen enjoyed respect and affection in the community in which they served. Although their salary may have been poor, there was the prospect of a pension at the end of 25 years’ service which was a very attractive proposition at the time in Ireland.

The RIC was regarded as an efficient organisation and served as the model for North-West Mounted Police in Canada (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the Victoria Police in Australia and the Royal Newfoundland Police.

The most dangerous years to be a member of the RIC were between 1916 and 1922. During the course of 1916 Rising 17 policemen were killed. Of these only four were killed in Dublin, three of whom were members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police rather the RIC. Outside Dublin, eight members of the RIC were killed or died of their wounds as a result of an ambush at Ashbourne in County Meath. Five further members died as a result of incidents in Counties Louth, Galway, Tipperary and Cork.

Between 1919 and 1921, 535 members of the RIC and 10 members of the DMP were killed through acts of politically-motivated violence. While some were murdered on duty, others were murdered in their beds, on their way to or from Mass, or simply going about their every-day lives.

For example, Sergeant Henry Cronin was shot and wounded three times near his home in Henry Street in Tullamore on October 31, 1920 and died the following day. After the shooting the sergeant’s wife ran out into the street and met her husband who fell into her arms, saying, ‘I’m shot, I’m shot’. It was later found that he had been shot at very close range as his clothing showed signs of having been singed. Sergeant Cronin’s then eight-year-old son Patrick became a priest in the Missionary Society of St Columban, spent a lifetime as a missionary in the Philippines.

In 2000 Richard Abbott published an invaluable account of Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-22. Almost airbrushed out of history, the RIC is commemorated by two small plaques in London: one in Westminster Cathedral and the other in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.