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The Royal Irish Constabulary

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Throughout the 19th century the constabulary continued to develop as a police force. The evolution of the force was characterised by improvements in rank structure, training, and the rules and regulations governing the duties, conduct and discipline expected of the men. One of the most significant developments in the history of the constabulary during the 19th century was its redesignation as the Royal Irish Constabulary, making it the first 'Royal' police force in the British Empire.

Following the failed Smith O'Brien revolt a period of conspiratorial activity on the part of the Fenian movement which had developed in its aftermath eventually culminated in an organised rebellion in 1867, generally referred to as the Fenian Rising. The Rising itself principally involved a series of co-ordinated attacks on a number of isolated police stations, almost all of which were successfully repelled by the determined resistance of the resident police officers. In recognition of the heroism and dedication to duty shown by the constabulary in successfully quelling the rebellion, Queen Victoria granted the force its 'Royal' prefix and conferred upon it its badge, the harp and crown of The Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick (the badge still worn by the R.U.C.).

Life in the constabulary during the 19th century could certainly, on occasions, be difficult. There was periodic agrarian unrest and constant simmering discontent in relation to the land question, particularly in the south and west. Indeed the dominant image of the R.I.C. for many people often stems from its responsibility to give protection to bailiffs executing distress warrants and evicting tenants, an unpleasant duty that was greatly disliked by members of the force (most of whom were themselves from a rural background). Nevertheless, the duties of the average policeman were otherwise usually varied and uncontroversial.

With Ireland's modernization came a decline in lawlessness that had marked the first half of the century. Total outrages reported by the constabulary fell by two thirds from the mid 1840's to the late 1870's. Characteristic pre-Famine offences - unlawful armed assembly, shooting at persons and attacks on houses - virtually disappeared. Agrarian outrages skyrocketed again during the Land War of 1879-82, but fell steadily thereafter. Indeed post-Famine Irish society was producing the kind of crime long familiar in the rest of the British Isles - urban, property orientated, non-violent. One sign of the increasing convergence in criminality was that the commonest offences in both England and Ireland were petty theft and drunkenness. Emigration, increased prosperity, greater literacy and more rigorous clerical control also undoubtedly played a part in the general improvement in public order.

As the 19th century progressed disorganized local protest came to be replaced by sophisticated nationally co-ordinated political organizations, notably the Land and National Leagues and the Home Rule movement. Agrarian grievances were increasingly channelled into Tenant Associations. In general, Ireland in the second half of the 19th century was a rapidly developing, less turbulent, and more orderly society.

The city of Belfast, however, was periodically convulsed by sectarian rioting. Belfast was a rapidly expanding commercial and manufacturing centre which attracted thousands of people from the Ulster countryside to work in the mills and engineering works. (The population increased from 70,447 in 1841 to 386,947 in 1911.) Consequently the ancient quarrels which characterised rural Ulster were 'transferred by industrial concentration to battles between Orange and Green in the narrow streets of Belfast.' Particularly serious rioting broke out in the years 1857, 1864, 1872 and in 1886 (in response to the 1st Home Rule Bill of the same year). As a result of their inability to contain the disturbances in 1864, a commission of inquiry recommended that the old Belfast Town Police be disbanded. This was subsequently accepted by the government and from 1865 the policing of Belfast was left entirely to the Constabulary of Ireland (which was soon to become the Royal Irish Constabulary).

From the 1850's the administration at Dublin Castle increasingly assigned numerous civil responsibilities to the constabulary, making full and economic use of the well informed men on the ground. The responsibilities of the police included such diverse tasks as the collection of agricultural and other statistics, census taking, escorting prisoners, weights and measures inspection, maintaining order at election polls, and preventing wakes for people who had died of infectious diseases.

These extensive civil and local government duties as well as routine patrolling in their districts ensured that the police constable was a very familiar part of daily life, someone with whom people would expect to have regular contact. It was the constable's job to acquire a thorough knowledge of his district and good relations with the local community made this easier. Indeed, good community relations, then as now, were essential for effective policing.

By the end of the 19th century there was a total of around 1,600 barracks dotted around the Irish countryside and some 11,000 constables. The territorial division of county and district on which the command structure had been based since the 1836 reorganization continued throughout the life of the R.I.C. Each county was supervised by a county inspector, with the counties sub-divided into a number of districts, each headed by a district inspector. They in turn were assisted by a head constable based at the district headquarters, on whom rested the main responsibility 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 R.I.C. was characterised by a strict code of discipline. There was no official system of duty, rest days or annual leave, and in the interests of political impartiality members were even banned from voting at parliamentary elections. There were strict instructions laid down in police regulations concerning standards of conduct and appearance (for example, at one time police were absolutely prohibited from entering a public house socially). Other regulations were principally designed to maintain the standing of the police within the community. Members were forbidden to marry until they had at least seven years service and any potential bride had to be vetted by the constabulary authorities to ensure her social suitability. It was forbidden for policemen and their wives to sell produce, take lodgers or engage in certain forms of trade (for example, wives could be dressmakers but could not employ apprentices).

According to the 1872 Regulations married men were permitted to have 'for their own use garden ground not exceeding ten square perches, situated within a quarter mile of the barrack; also one pig and as many fowl as are sufficient for the sole consumption of their family'. Although the R.I.C. were generally poorly paid the job offered stable secure employment, and many rural families provided personnel for its ranks. Its members were not without grievances, but they shared a common loyalty and pride in the force to which they belonged.

By the early years of the 20th century the R.I.C. had evolved into a thoroughly domesticated civil police force, reflecting in its operations the needs of relatively law-abiding communities. During the 19th century the force had also become increasingly representative in its religious composition. (Until the Anglo-Irish War it was more than 70% Catholic, and thus very close to the recorded Catholic proportion of the population during 1861-1911. ) From the 1870's most regular policing duties did not call for the carrying of firearms. Indeed familiarity with firearms had to be maintained by a once yearly target practice laid down in the regulations. Between the Land War (1879-82) and 1916 the R.I.C. was not seriously challenged by major unrest or controversy. The Constabulary had settled down to low-key routine policing, with the members of the force enjoying a position of high regard in the local areas in which they served.

Watercolour: 'The Royal Irish Constabulary, 1874-1880'
RIC sergeant and his wife
2 RIC Head-dresses
William Limerick Martin - RIC District Inspector
RIC officer's sword and scabbard
Mountpottinger Barricks
RIC Tug of War Team
Address to Sergeant W.A. Ballantine
Sergeant W.A. Ballantine
Osborough Family
RIC Constable in service dress uniform
RIC Sergeant's full dress tunic
RIC Head Constable's full dress tunic
2nd class District Inspector's full dress tunic
Voices and the sound of drums by Parick Shea
RIC ranks and uniforms
Brigadier-General Sir Aloysius Byrne
Byrne's Decorations