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Book Review: The RIC: after 100 years, on the wrong side of history

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

THE ROYAL IRISH CONSTABULARY, A Short History and Genealogical Guide, by Jim Herlihy. Four Courts Press. Available from ISBS, 5804 Hassalo St. Portland, OR 97213. 254 pp.

People have never been shy about offering opinions on the role of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Ireland’s history. Some, however, have been closer to the subject than others. The writer Sean O Faolain, a one-time revolutionary and the son of a policeman, said: "Men like my father were dragged out in those years and shot — so be it. . . . But they were not traitors, they had their loyalties and they stuck to them."

Much interest has focused on the 1916-22 period, but as Jim Herlihy points out in this fine book, 85,000 men were members of the RIC in the hundred years or so up to its disbandment.

In the preface, Professor Kevin B. Nowlan touches on the RIC’s two most noteworthy characteristics. First, it wasn’t like the unarmed polices forces in the rest of the United Kingdom, which were organized on a county basis. Nowlan refers to the RIC as a "gendarmerie," which suggests a parallel with the semi-military model of policing found in continental Europe to this day. Second, the organization was a means of social advancement for Catholics. It was the first step, Nowlan says, in establishing "dynasties" of teachers, shopkeepers, civil servants and professionals. To be a policeman was, Herlihy says, "a job for life," one much coveted by the able, younger sons of tenant farmers, who were its typical recruits.

It might be argued that the Irish Catholic policeman in pre-independence Ireland was in a position similar to that of a minority policeman in the U.S. today. There are two obvious differences, however. In the U.S., the dissatisfaction is with the police themselves on a practical level; it’s not the product of hostility to the state itself. The very idea of the Royal Irish Constabulary, though, was offensive to "advanced" nationalists. They saw the force as "the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle." Second, the membership of the RIC was more broadly representative of society than are many police departments in America today. Herlihy, a serving garda, tells us that as early as 1871, 562 of the 782 RIC men stationed in religiously mixed County Cork were Catholics. Fifty years earlier, before emancipation, 16 percent of the then-named Police Preservation Force were from the majority religion. The RIC thus reflected the rise of the position of Catholics in 19th century Ireland.

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Perhaps it was because the RIC seemed to mirror Irish society in one particular respect that so irked the nationalist middle-class: the force was led by an officer class. Of the 250 officers in the RIC in 1900, about a fifth had come up through the ranks. Of those who had entered as officer cadets, 60 were English-born, many of them Oxbridge-educated. The rest were Irishmen, the sons of landlords, clergymen, army officers and police officers.

RIC men of all ranks and backgrounds found themselves on the wrong side of history in the upheaval following the 1916 Rising. The force had long been regarded as a pillar of British administration in Ireland by the people who were now leading Irish nationalism. The police were demonized and boycotted, intimidated and shot. But a plan by the martyred Cork lord mayor Terence MacSwiney showed that some republican leaders were sensitive to the difficult situation the policemen faced. He proposed the resignation of unmarried members of the RIC with less than 10 years’ membership and all members in the ranks who had spent more than 30 years in the force. The plan also involved clerical pressure to be applied on the parents and families of policemen. Every effort would then be made to find employment for these men at home.

The high rate of resignations, and the worsening situation generally, led the British government to recruit two new forces in England, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. This did not help the morale among the members, large numbers of whom were nationalists of one stripe or another.

Michael Collins saw the value of having nationalists in state institutions. There is now evidence to suggest that using emissaries he encouraged many Catholics to stay in the RIC in the North, and in its successor, the RUC. And, of course, Collins had policemen among his trusted agents. Ned Broy, who joined the RIC in 1910 and later moved to the Dublin Metropolitan Police, was one of them. In later years, he was a supporter of Eamon de Valera, who appointed him Garda commissioner after he’d fired Collins’s protégé and future Blueshirt leader Eoin O’Duffy in 1933. There’s a picture of Broy in his police chief’s uniform among the many interesting photographs and illustrations in the book.

Herlihy also reproduces official documents, many of which he uses in the section dealing with genealogy. The RIC registers, the original of which are housed in the Public Record Office in Surrey, England, are a rich source for family historians. There are microfilm copies with the National Archives in Dublin and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, a denomination which gathers genealogical materials from around the world.

Herlihy, a founder member of the Garda Museum and the Garda Siochana Historical Society, has brought together a great deal of material, and he writes clearly and well. And while the book might have benefited from a tighter narrative, and perhaps a longer preface by Nowlan, it’s never less than fascinating.

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