This article was originally published in Familia, journal of the Ulster Historical Foundation (volume 2, no. 7, 1991). Published annually.

The Irish in South Africa

- The Police, A Case Study [Part 4]

by Donal P. McCracken, University of Durban-Westville

Life in the police force often meant living for days on and in the saddle, coming under fire, breaking up African faction fights and being ordered about by arrogant soldiers contemptuous of the colonial police. Danger interspersed with long periods of boring routine led many Irish policemen into trouble and the turnover of Irish recruits was high, few surviving more than three years. Some, like Robert Austin of Enniskerry, deserted with horse and revolver. Troopers were constantly being fined or demoted for drunkenness or improper behaviour: Victor Morris of Dublin got 14 days confined to barracks for creating a disturbance in a brothel; William Thom of St. Peters, Roscommon, was discharged in 1904 for 'having a colonial woman in his barrack room'; and Thomas Treanor of Mayo was admonished for 'making a rude and insolent remark to the [Natal] governor', Sir Matthew Nathan, Ireland's lord-lieutenant in 1916.

Matters were not made any easier by a depression after the second Anglo-Boer war, which brought cuts resulting in large-scale police demotions and redundancy. A humorous poem appeared in the CMP regimental magazine. Entitled 'The Irish-man's Rise', it tells the story of an Irishman who joined the police in 1892 and rises to become an subaltern. From 1908, however, because of financial cuts, he is progressively demoted until:

They're going lower every day,
They're giving us now damn all for pay,
And yet it's very hard to say
What next they will connive at;

For me I can revert no more
In this assassinated corps,
And there can't be "wusser" times in store,
For I'm now a native private.19

But many Irish policemen distinguished themselves in South Africa. To quote the discharge forms, they had 'sobriety, zeal and efficiency'. They often were good linguists and we find Irish policemen in South Africa speaking Dutch, Xhosa, Zhulu, Matabele, accomplishments for which they were tested and received extra pay, as well as Spanish, French, German, Latin, Greek, Italian and Irish. Few who were asked admitted either belonging to a secret society or to having a venereal disease.

There were many Irish chief constables with names such as Sullivan, Whitsitt, Shea, Hagan (Armagh), Molloy. Famous Irish police inspectors in South Africa included names such as Blake, Dorehill, Lyttle, Prendergast, Keating, Lindsay and Esmonde-White. Two of the NMP's six sergeant-majors, Shackleton and O'Brien, were Irish.

An interesting phenomenon of the colonial South African police is the large number of sons of eminent or well-to-do Irish people who were sent to join one of the police forces. One such example was William Porter, son of Reverend Classon Porter of Belfast and nephew of the Honourable William porter of Limavady, the celebrated Attorney-general at the Cape who gave the vote to educated blacks in the 1870s. Young Porter, from Larne, joined the NMP in 1881. Another was William henry Carson, son of Sir Edward and Lady Carson, who joined the CMP in 1905.

In 1913 the modern South African police (SAP) was formed and the number of Irish recruits began to decrease. None the less in its early years there were such Irish notables as Major John Tate of Downpatrick and lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Perry from Lisburn. There were also the lesser-ranking Irish policemen, among them Sergeant Ferguson Fee from Greeve in Longford. At the Saturday races at Cape Town he was wont to line his horse up at the start beyond the fence and take on the field.20

But by the 1920s Irishmen in the police were becoming rarer. A generation before, the Irish in the Cape Mounted Police and Natal Mounted police had been as prominent as the Irish in the New York Police.21