The policing of Ireland was a topic that vexed politicians from the act of Union, 1800, onwards. The country was prone to disturbances ranging from that particularly Irish pastime of faction fighting to agrarian unrest. In the opinion of Robert Peel, undersecretary at Dublin Castle, the provision of law and order by the country’s ‘natural’ leaders, meaning local landowners, had broken down. However, difficulties with policing spread beyond local notables to the county constabulary. These forces were controlled by local magistrates, appointed by the grand jury and were generally considered worthless.
The situation led to an ongoing struggle between local landowners and Dublin Castle, as the central administration attempt to reform policing and the administration of justice throughout the island. The outcome of this was the eventual establishment of a centrally control nation-wide police force in 1836. The Irish Constabulary (the Royal prefix would be awarded in 1867, following the force’s efforts in suppressing the Fenian rising of that year) was formed in 1836.
The government’s efforts to centralise the RIC was in direct response to the divided nature of Irish society. While the natural leaders of local politics were predominantly Protestant, the vast bulk of the population were Roman Catholic. While we must be careful not to simplify the divisions between these communities, there were two completing political and religious camps on the island. Due to this, any decision by government or its arms, such as the police, would be scrutinised for partiality. Given the formation of the Irish Constabulary only seven years after the granting of Catholic Emancipation, by a tory government reliant on the support of O’Connell, fears of centralised (political) policing were rife. Indeed such centralised policing was contrary to British ideas of liberty; the ideal was a non-military, regional police force whose control was in local hands. The RIC had more in common with European models of policing than British. Indeed, its intelligence gathering activities were more akin to policing in Indian than Britain.
By having a centralised police force throughout most of the island (the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) was responsible for policing in Dublin) the Irish administration at Dublin Castle sought to ensure that police actions did not incite conflict. Hence, fears of political policing were in a manner well founded. Thus, it was Ireland’s well-known uniqueness in terms of political and social unrest that convinced the government of the need for a centralised and ‘politically’ controlled police force. This was to have long-term impacts on the structure of policing in Ireland, leading to a high level of correspondence. The police force was to become a sort of unofficial civil service. It was to compile statistics on a range of subjects, ranging from farming outputs to surveillance. However, this centralisation also removed the freedom of action of local commanders, leading, in many cases, to the most mundane decisions being taken at high levels of the force’s command structure.
Galen Broeker, Rural disorder and police reform in Ireland, 1812-36 (London & Toronto, 1970).
Stanley H. Palmer, Police and protest in England and Ireland, 1790-1850 (Cambridge, 1990).
Margaret O’Callaghan, ‘New ways of looking at the state apparatus and the state archive in nineteenth-century Ireland “curiosities from that phonetic museum”: Royal Irish Constabulary reports and their political uses, 1879-91’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, civ, C, no. 2 (2004), pp 37-56.
Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.