High Nelly at the ready as Garda Museum moves into new home

Free display in Dublin Castle covers more than 200 years of police history in Ireland

Police truncheons and pistols, knives and bullets, uniforms, helmets and peaked caps, and display cases aplenty. And in the middle of them all, a big old High Nelly bicycle, straight out of central casting for how everyone sees the mid-20th-century rural garda patrolling his patch.

The Garda Síochána Museum has a new home, a fine, well-lit modern display of history and ephemera on the ground floor of Dublin Castle’s treasury building. There, the story is told of more than two centuries of policing in Ireland, right up to the present day.

“I think it’s absolutely fabulous,” said an enthusiastic Assistant Commissioner Jack Nolan, as he walked through the almost-finished display. “It’s a credit to the people who designed it and to everyone who brought it to fruition. It’ll be a great addition to Dublin, great for children.”

The museum was opened officially on Monday evening by Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan, though it will be a few weeks (probably early in the new year) before the public can be admitted (free of charge).


While the museum tells the story mostly of the Garda Siochána, the narrative of policing in Ireland starts in 1782 with the formation of the Baronial Constabulary. In 1822 came the County Constabulary, which evolved into the Irish Constabulary in 1836.

For helping to suppress the Fenian Rebellion of 1867, the word “royal” was added to the name, thus creating the RIC, the force that policed the entire island up to 1922.


Using bright lights and Garda Traffic Corps blue and yellow livery, a walkway snakes through a series of display cases, audiovisual screens, and pictorial and narrative exhibits, through which the policing story is told in a clear, engaging and accessible way.

In one early case, we see the dress uniform of the last commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Lt Col Sir Walter Edgeworth-Johnstone, all heavily woven silver braid on black cloth, together with his formal cocked hat. It and another uniform, dating from 1917, that of county inspector Dr Pryce Peacock, would look at home in the costume wardrobe of a Gilbert and Sullivan production.

Also on show in the RIC section is a .30 Webley revolver, cuffs, truncheons and medals, that High Nelly Brooks bicycle and, bizarrely, an outsized bottle of Constabulary Ginger Wine.

"There was no copyrighting a name in those days," said museum curator Sgt Martin Drew lest any contemporary entrepreneur was considering an arresting name for a new craft beer.

The dying days of the RIC and the emergence of the Garda Síochána saw the new force set up, with key roles played by erstwhile rebels including Michael Staines, the first commissioner; David Neligan, Michael Collins’s spy in the castle; and Patrick Walsh, the second commissioner.

The unarmed force survived its Civil War baptism of fire and even the Emergency (also known as the second World War). But arguably more testing trials were to come.


The first females in the garda, ban gardaí as they were originally known, were appointed in 1959 and, in a debate preceding the move, the independent TD Frank Sherwin sounded this warning in a Dáil debate: “I would suggest to the minister that while recruits should not be actually horsefaced, they should not be too good-looking; they should be just plain women and not targets for marriage.”

Perhaps surprisingly (if only for deputy Sherwin), the women joined and served and the sky didn’t fall in.

In words, pictures and objects, the story of the garda’s contribution to the United Nations is told, as is the work of the traffic corps and the various other specialist units – air support, mounted unit support, the subaqua unit and public order policing – as well as modern detective work and the role of forensics.

There are displays of drugs (or what look like drugs), knives and guns (including an AK47) and 100 jam jars of bullet casings looking for all the world like a wall of sweetie jars.

The museum was designed by Dara Lynne Lenehan, for whom the task was all about making the story accessible.

“It’s important for people to see and understand what gardaí do, the expertise they have and the services they carry out,” she says. “I wanted it to be educational; I want young kids to learn about policing.”

The message that crime doesn’t pay is brought home by a mock Garda station cell, complete with real door.

And at the end, near the roll of honour for the 87 guards who have died on active duty, a video tableau presents today’s members talking about their motivations and the love they have for what many members call, simply, The Job.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times