Policing the Famine era

 

IN THE autumn of 1845, the Royal Irish Constabulary, reorganised less than a decade earlier, was still a young police force. During the Famine it continued to function in its primary role. But individual constables, not lacking sustenance themselves, living and working in the midst of starvation and disease and death, cannot have escaped the psychological scars of the calamity visited on kith and kin.

Police discipline hardly stood in the way of good Samaritans aiding neighbours in the close knit communities where they were stationed. Their names may appear in the lists of subscribers to relief funds but otherwise they left little evidence of their response to the greatest social tragedy in Irish history.

Maize and other food supplies were moved under police escort. In the Inspector General's return of rewards for May 1848 there is an isolated reference to the Earnine in Co Mayo. For zeal in "fulfilling the claims of humanity (incurring) unusual personal risk" and in consideration or bearing but determined conduct in protecting meal carts in transit" Colonel Duncan McGregor complimented Constables Samuel Clarke and Nicholas Kirwan, and Sub Constables John Cuddehy,

Michael Maher, William Heffernan, Thomas McMunn, David Bodkin and Robert Cunningham. The terrible scene can hardly be imagined starving people, weakened by hunger but desperate enough to pose a threat to the police escort the distress of constables charged with the duty of ensuring safe passage for the carts.

The Co Mayo Outrage Reports for the autumn and winter 1845 give no hint of famine. In August, a faction fight between the O'Malleys and the Burkes at Borrishoole near Newport was averted when a constabulary force under Sub, Inspector Fergus Farrell dispersed a crowd of a thousand supporters. In September, James Hardiman of Errew House, Castlebar, complained that stones had been thrown at his house and windows broken.

The aggrieved landlord protested that the reward of £20, offered for information was inadequate for "an attack on house and the posting of a notice on my hall door threatening to shoot me if I durst interfere with my own tenantry. . . I am leaving this country rather than hazard my life any longer among those who think they may act in defiance of the law with perfect impunity".

As the first year of the Famine drew to a close, there was a marked preoccupation with the need to protect rate collectors.

When the potato crop failed again ire 1846, a deputation, 500 strong, from the Belmullet area waited on George Crampton, a justice of the peace, their leaders threatening to break into the corn stores if relief was not provided. "This statement of their distress is far from exaggerated . . . I do not expect that the present tranquillity can last . . . if relief is not afforded", Crampton reported to Dublin Castle. He requested direction on the course government would wish the civil authorities here to pursue in case the population shall have recourse to violence".

WHEN the corn harvest was gathered, a Westport merchant named Graham routed his carts to the quay side for export. Sub Inspector Denis Walshe reported that a crowd of 600 starving people blocked the road, determined not to allow one grain of corn to leave the country. The crowd "did not offer the slightest violence", the policeman reassured his superiors. A resident magistrate, Pierce G. Barron, sent an urgent warning to the government in Dublin. "I apprehend the frequent recurrence of similar acts during the winter. . . The military and police forces are quite inadequate to protect the property of merchants."

In December, the body of "a poor man" named Pat Loftus was found in a ditch at Ballynahaglish, near Ballina. The coroner returned a verdict of death from "want of sufficient food and not otherwise". In another case, James Bryan of Claremorris, having earned 14 pence for two weeks labour on public works, died on the side of the road "from want of money" to buy food and from "want of tools".

In January 1847 people of property in Louisburgh, including Robert Potter, clerk, Patrick M'Gill, postmaster, and Dr P.G. Fergus, petitioned the Lord Lieutenant for police protection, having reason "to apprehend danger to their lives and properties from the dreadful excitement that at present prevails . . . The (petitioners) can expect but little defence against the infuriated populace from four police constables. . . We are fearfully aware that dreadful outrages must shortly occur". An uncomprehending official wrote on the petition "I imagine the inhabitants could have no difficulty in purchasing arms for their own defence".

Early in January, schooners laden with foodstuffs took shelter from a storm in Elly Harbour, attracting "an immense number of men, women and children" to the fore shore. Riding out the storm in Blacksod Bay the master of HMS Rhadamanthus, Commander Aylen, sent his mate John Imrie to the harbour where Imrie observed "the Clyde of Glasgow" surrounded with boats and her decks covered with men "breaking open the main hatchway, a large hooker coming from the shore and a number of carts on the beach". With hand spikes and broom handles the naval party cleared the decks.

Imrie led the schooners out of the harbour, followed by a flotilla of currachs. Some local men succeeded in boarding the Rhadarnanthus, as Commander Aylen reported to Admiralty Headquarters in Cork. The country people that have come on board are in the greatest distress as I ever beheld, such objects of perfect misery, they are literally starving and I could not send them out without giving them food at my own expense, as did also my officers and ship's company.

Vessels plying the west coast ports ran the gauntlet at Erris Head and were regularly plundered. An exasperated coastguard officer reported that the people appeared to think it was "the inclination of the authorities to overlook their depredations...

"The officers of the Crown are wearied out with unceasing but unavailing exertions to preserve peace, order and quietness, and all they have for it is to see the bonds of society just rending asunder and the whole community becoming a mass of lawless and uncontrollable plunderers... They pay no attention to the entreaties, admonitions or prayers of their clergy and art equally regardless of their curses.

THE Ballycastle Relief Committee pleaded for more police protection to guard crops growing in the fields. "Our wretched peasantry impelled by want and with starvation staring them in, the face driven by desperation ... will seize on everything in the shape of food . . . reckless of the consequences. The poor farmers will very naturally resist their aggressions by force and arms and we are persuaded that many valuable lives will be lost in the conflict."

A letter writer in the Tyrawly Herald for November 18th, published in Ballina and filed with the Outrage Reports for 1847, was critical of sectarian disagreements over the distribution of relief while both poor Catholics and poor Protestants were dying. Not one for cursing the darkness, the writer held up a candle of hope. "I am happy to tell you that in Erris, Catholics and Protestants have combined in devising measures, and in carrying them out, for feeding their fellow creatures."