RIC and Huzzars at an Eviction in Kilrush, Clare (1898) CC licence

Antipathy to RIC is not based on ‘indoctrination’ but historical experience

After a blunder that partly contributed to the large boost in the Sinn Féin vote in 2020, it is hardly surprising that nobody in government has been clamouring for another commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary whose 200th anniversary occurs in 2022.

The issue has, however, continued to provoke occasional debate, most recently at the West Cork history festival. Professor Marie Coleman of Queens University, Belfast and Dr. Edward Madigan of the Royal Holloway University in London debated how they believe the RIC might be, or indeed if they even ought to be, remembered as distinct from their association with the Black and Tans.

Coleman believes that shorn of that unfortunate connection, that the RIC might be remembered as a pretty much normal police force. Madigan demurs, and believes that it is impossible, on the basis of research conducted by Professor Eunan O’Halpin and Dr. Daithí Ó Corráin into deaths during the War of Independence, to conclude that the RIC’s parting contribution to Irish life was other than “a campaign of terror against civilians.”

Coleman seems to argue that not only the antipathy towards the gentle Black and Tans, but the folk memory of RIC involvement in evictions and other unpleasantness, is all down to the “indoctrination” which school children were subjected to. This is based on a pretty one-sided interpretation of the history and role of the RIC.

The regular Irish constabulary was founded in 1822 as part of a wider reform of older forms of policing in Britain and in Ireland. Prior to that there had been local bodies attached to what there was of an administrative system, which the magistracy could depend on to enforce the rulings of the court and to apprehend and detain suspects. That survived for some time after in the larger Irish cities and towns. As well as that, locally raised Yeomanry and militia had been crucial in suppressing the 1798 and 1803 rebellions and in acting against occasional later emergencies presented by rural secret societies.

What differentiated the Irish constabulary from the bodies established in England, Scotland and Wales was their paramilitary structure. It was a large force which grew to over 10,000 by the end of the 19th century and it was housed in barracks, over 1500 of which were situated around the island. Unlike their British counterparts, the Irish constabulary was armed, and trained militarily.

The reason for that of course was that their primary function was to act as a colonial force which was designed to prevent any possibility of organised resistance to the British presence in Ireland. Much of that was manifest in the ownership of the land by those whose ancestors had taken the land. Thus, any agrarian disputes over tenure or rents was automatically regarded as a challenge to the colonial administration itself.

The Irish constabulary cut its teeth then, not in seizing poitín or wayward donkeys, but in acting instead of the regular army in putting down local or potentially national insurgency. Among these were the brutal suppressions of those who refused to pay tithes to the planter Protestant clergy, and of course crushing the badly planned Young Ireland revolt of 1848. The constabulary also served to ensure that the starving population was unable to mount any sort of resistance during the mass starvation of the 1840s.

The force earned its Royal nomenclature following its part in both infiltrating and putting down the scattered Fenian attempts at rebellion in 1867. The RIC was later prominent in evictions of tenants, and attacks on Land League meetings during the Land War of the early 1880s. Contrary to what Coleman might wish to imagine, these were not something invented by later “nationalist historians”. History ought to be events that actually took place, rather than spurious narratives and stories designed to bolster some faddish ideological impulse.

Such was the tension between the colonial police, who like the colonial police in Africa and India were indeed mostly natives by birth and background, that even to mock them was to invite violence. Harvey Duff was a character in Dion Boucicault’s 1875 play The Shaughraun. He was a police agent or informer and his theme tune, said to have been similar to the air of ‘The worms crawled in the worms crawled out’ was directed at members of the RIC in the street and at meetings.

It would be commonly played by musicians at Land League rallies which might lead to baton charges by enraged and often drunken policemen. In 1881, a group of children, one aged 6, were arrested in Newcastle, County Limerick for whistling the tune. And on May 5, 1882, as crowds celebrated the release of Michael Davitt from Kilmainham Jail, several teenagers were shot and one, Pat Melody, killed by the RIC in Ballina. Some claimed that they were targeted because they had been playing Harvey Duff on tin whistles.

Despite the first two claimed victims of the IRA in the War of Independence being two RIC constables at Soloheadbeg in January 1919, the IRA made a point of not attacking the regular uniformed police of either the RIC or the Dublin Metropolitan Police. They did of course, target the G, or political plain clothes, section of the DMP.

The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were brought in to strengthen the regular RIC, many of whom made it clear they wanted nothing to do with the suppression of Dáil Éireann. It was different, of course, in Belfast and other parts of the north where the constabulary was overwhelmingly Protestant and unionist and was to the forefront of anti-Catholic violence.

No doubt there many fine chaps who were in the Royal Irish Constabulary. However, one would have to question the motives of those who would have a country in which they served for a century as the immediate and most recognisable face of colonial administration, celebrate them. In the case of Coleman and others, those motives are quite transparent.

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