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Guarding the Emerald Isle: the story of Irish policing

It’s a well-known fact - especially here at NESM - that the first modern police force in Britain was established by Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, in 1829 (and that officers have been nicknamed 'bobbies' ever since as a result). It’s a less well-known fact, however, that London’s Metropolitan Police was not the first such force that Peel had helped to found. Oh no, Bobby had previous!

Back in 1814, while serving as Chief Secretary for Ireland, Peel had passed a law for 'Peace Preservation' which created the first professional and organised police forces in the country. Later this led to the formation of a national police force in Ireland, some seven years before London’s 'Met' came into existence. The Royal Irish Constabulary, existing for a century between 1822-1922, therefore held the distinction of being the first modern police force in the UK at that time (Ireland being a UK state in 1822).

A surprising fact, perhaps, but the story of Irish policing is full of those. For this week’s blog I’ve decided to delve deeper into that story and indulge a personal interest. Like many people living in Britain, I have Irish roots: my dad was born in County Waterford, my mum in County Tipperary (which is a long way, as you might have heard). Exploring the history of Irish policing inevitably gives me a chance to explore the history of Ireland itself, for police forces have played a key role in its often turbulent past.

The first question that springs to mind is this: how was Ireland policed in the centuries before Robert Peel arrived in 1812?

Celtic police? Early Irish law enforcement

In the Middle Ages, Ireland’s policing system had closely mirrored that of England. At that time England’s laws were enforced mostly by parish constables and watchmen; part-time volunteers who had appeared after the Norman Invasion of 1066. A century later these constables took root across the Irish Sea as a result of the 'Anglo-Norman' invasion of Ireland beginning around 1169. England would play a role in ruling Ireland over the next eight centuries in a tortured history, the ramifications of which are still being felt today.

However the Norman-style constables who arrived in Ireland found a very different society to the one their ancestors found in England in 1066. Back then the Normans had invaded a Saxon land where laws were upheld by the Sheriffs. In Ireland they found a Celtic people whose society was quite different.

Who were the Celts? Traditionally they were thought to have been a central European people who had migrated to Britain and Ireland by around 800 BC, bringing with them the pre-historic 'Iron Age'. Recent scholarship has questioned this, suggesting the Celts were not an ethnic group that migrated, but rather that the Celtic culture had spread through Europe, being adopted by native Britons and Irish during the Iron Age. It was a culture based in hillfort communities, overseen by kings and the infamous priests, the druids, who had a penchant for human sacrifice!

Trying to get a handle on how crime was controlled by the ancient Celts is not easy. In her book 'The Celts' historian Nora Chadwick writes: “the obligations and rights of each freeman… were defined clearly and enforced by customary law, although there was nothing even approaching a police force to enforce the law. The power of custom appears to have been adequate. In pre-Christian times an important factor may have been the threat wielded by the druids of virtual outlawing of a transgressor by denying him participation in ritual observances… most causes of dispute from murder downwards were provided with means of redress, not by imprisonment, but by some form of ‘honour price’ (lóg n-enech).”

A druid police force? Who knew?

Celtic culture survived far longer in Ireland than in England because the country didn't experience the waves of invasion that washed up on English shores; Romans never conquered Ireland (though recent research suggests they had more influence than previously thought) and nor did Saxons.

But that is not to say that the Anglo-Norman constables found a druidical policing system in the 1100s. Ireland did not move from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages unaffected by the outside world. Christian missionaries had arrived to supplant the pagan druids in the 4th and 5th centuries. Saint Patrick (a Romano-British missionary) arrived in 432, and the period from then until around 800 is often called the 'Golden Age' of Celtic Christian Ireland, when learning and literature flourished and great artworks like The Book of Kells were produced.

Christianity had an impact on the world of law enforcement too, though it remained by-and-large an issue of local custom, subject to the whims of local rulers. Ireland was never a politically unified territory so generalising about criminal justice is difficult. By the 800s the great kingdoms of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught were well established, with certain of their rulers claiming to be 'High King of Ireland', but none had the power in practice to impose national laws. It was only in the 900s that the High Kingship became a reality as the result of a major crisis: the Vikings.

Norsemen were the only invaders to really threaten Ireland before the Anglo-Normans, coming in waves for over two centuries from c. 800. They were only defeated when Brian Boru, King of Munster - and indisputable High King of Ireland - won the decisive Battle of Clontarf in 1014. The Viking rulers were expelled, though not before they had founded major cities like Dublin and Waterford.

Thus, by the time King Henry II of England began his invasion, Irish law enforcement relied on a complex mixture of Celtic 'Brehon Law', modified by Christian thinking, and subject to local customs.

The English influence

The last High King of Ireland was a certain Rory O’Connor of Connaught who submitted as a vassal of Henry II in 1175, thus beginning the long history of English rule. In 1210 Henry’s son, King John, declared that English Common Law should replace the ancient Brehon Laws. From then until the 19th century policing in Ireland was quite similar to the system in England, with parish constables, night watchmen and the military helping to enforce the law.

Likewise, new 'proto police' agencies started popping up in Ireland in the 18th century, around the same time that the Bow Street Runners appeared in England. In 1787, for example, the 'Baronial Police' were set up in rural areas to replace night watchmen.

The creation of a centralised professional force came only after 1801, when the Act of Union officially made Ireland a UK state. Irish policing would, however, never be quite like that in the rest of the UK during this period, because Ireland itself was never quite like the rest of the UK…

Irish police: an armed force

From the outset of English rule, several nationalist movements emerged determined to re-establish Irish independence. These movements were often violent, waging guerrilla wars against British forces. Nationalist sentiment only increased after the Act of Union and, as a result, Irish police forces in the 19th century were far more militaristic than their English counterparts.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was established in 1822. It grew out of the earlier forces that Robert Peel had founded through his 1814 Peace Preservation Act. But unlike the later Metropolitan Police, the RIC was routinely armed and had a quasi-military structure. It may not have had military ranks (like other police forces it was made up of constables, inspectors and chief constables in each province) but its officers were housed in barracks, not stations.

RIC officers had even stricter rules to adhere to than the first Met officers. They had to remain politically impartial and were barred from voting. They could not serve in their own local areas either. They did undertake the whole range of regular police crimefighting tasks, but they also had a security remit far wider than other UK officers. There were around 11,000 RIC officers by the end of the 19th century, which was when the issue of Irish independence began to dominate UK affairs.

The transformation of Irish policing

The period from 1916 through the 1920s is often referred to as the 'Irish revolutionary period' and it had a profound effect on policing in the country. 1916 saw the famous Easter Rising when nationalists declared independence. On the first day of the rising, a young Catholic RIC constable, Charles McGee, became the first of more than 500 police officers killed between 1916 and 1922.

The Easter Rising was brutally put down by British forces, which led to far greater support for independence among the Irish populace. In 1918 the nationalist party Sinn Fein won a landslide election victory and formed a breakaway government the following year. The British government did not capitulate, leading to the 1919-1921 Irish War of Independence.

The RIC was a major force on the British side along with the army. It was reinforced by recruits from Britain, including the so-called 'Black and Tans', who became notorious for brutality. The RIC came under attack from the Irish Republican Army, or the 'Old IRA' as it is now referred to, the army of revolutionary Ireland (not to be confused with the 'Provisional IRA', the paramilitary group that emerged in the 1960s).

Royal Irish Constabulary officers at Dublin Castle, c. 1922

The war ended in 1921 with a treaty that partitioned Ireland: Northern Ireland remained in the UK while the rest of the country became the 'Irish Free State', outside the UK and largely self-governing but still a dominion of the British Empire. The treaty came into force in 1922. At the same time the RIC was disbanded, a century after its formation. It was replaced by two new police forces: the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Northern Ireland, and the Garda Siochána (Gaelic for ‘Guardians of the Peace’) in the Free State.

The Irish themselves were split between those who accepted the terms of partition and those who wanted to push for a full republic. The ensuing Irish Civil War of1922-1923 saw great bloodshed, ultimately ending in victory for the pro-treaty forces. Full independence wasn’t achieved until 1937 when the Free State was abolished. A republic was formally established in 1949.

In the following years policing in the North and the Republic took very different paths. In the North the RUC was bound up in the 'Troubles' from the 1960s onward. The sectarian conflict between pro-British (usually Protestant) groups who wanted the North to remain in the UK and republican (usually Catholic) groups who wanted it to join the Republic led to shocking violence. Terrorist groups, on both sides, caused death on a massive scale. The RUC, as an agency of the British administration - and as an overwhelmingly Protestant institution - became a target for the new IRA and so remained an armed and militarised force. During this period the RUC was the most dangerous police force in which to serve anywhere in the world, with 319 officers killed and around 9,000 injured.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which formally brought the Troubles to an end, led to police reform. In 2001 the RUC was abolished and replaced with a new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). This was not simply a cosmetic change (removing the ‘royal’ from the name) but used positive action policies to recruit more Catholics and make the police more representative of the community they served.

In the Republic, meanwhile, the Garda developed along the lines of conventional police forces. Like Robert Peel’s original vision for policing, 'the gards' are a predominantly unarmed force, policing by consent.

Thankfully there has been much less violence in Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement but history has left terrible wounds, and recently the repercussions of Brexit have aggravated the political situation. The strained history of policing also lingers in the Irish memory. In January 2020 the Republic was due to hold a commemoration for pre-partition police services including the RIC. It was, however, shelved at the last minute due to opposition from those who criticised the constabulary’s part in the War of Independence. History in Ireland casts a very long shadow.

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