OPINION:THERE IS a high Romanesque arch in the lobby of the officers' club at the Garda Depot. It frames a fine staircase that leads to the old mess hall and the building's upper storeys. At the centre of the arch, picked out in delicate plasterwork, is the Celtic sunburst crest of the Garda Síochána.
But a visitor who climbs the stairs and looks back will see that the reverse of the arch has a harp and crown. It is the badge of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the predecessor force that occupied the depot up to 1922.
Gardaí will point it out as a curiosity but also as a symbol of continuity between the old and the new. It is a recognition that the Garda Síochána owes much to the RIC.
For more than 90 years the RIC has been consigned to a loser’s role in history. More than 85,000 men – the vast majority of them Irish – served in the various police forces operating here between 1816 and 1922. But not very many families were anxious to claim a father or a brother as a “peeler” once the new order was established.
The Irish State was a cold place for the men who were characterised as the “Janissaries of England”. Thus this weekend’s commemoration of the RIC, as well as the Dublin Metropolitan Police, is a heartening step in acknowledging our many-stranded past. Perhaps some of the myths about the RIC in particular may be dispelled. And it may serve to remind us how much this State’s policing system is still modelled on that of the RIC.
Perhaps the greatest myth about the RIC is that when Michael Collins determined on its destruction it was a formidable paramilitary organisation, entrenched in fortified barracks and holding the countryside in a grip of steel. It had indeed put down both the New Irelanders and the Fenians. But in the early 20th century it had mellowed so that in many ways it resembled more an English or Welsh constabulary.
Men routinely patrolled without firearms. Increasingly they lived among the community rather than in barracks. The old divide between the officer caste and the rank-and-file had been considerably eroded, with almost half the commissioned posts being filled from the lower ranks.
By and large the police were well-integrated with the community. They were active in sporting circles, including Gaelic games. Indeed the founding committee of the Gaelic Athletic Association included a district inspector. A career in the police was much-sought-after. Pay was meagre but the job was secure and the status of the policeman, particularly one who had attained a bit of promotion, was high.
Of course, in essence they were not just a police service but the front-line security agents of the crown. Collins’s decision to neutralise the force was strategically brilliant and it was conducted with ruthless efficiency.
It placed the men of the RIC in a terrible dilemma. They were sworn to serve the crown. But as hostilities increased, fewer were willing to act against fellow Irish men. A mass resignation of constables in Listowel, Co Kerry, prompted hundreds of men to leave or simply become inactive. Some offered their services to Collins and became intelligence agents, passing out information to the IRA.
But for many, especially the older men with families, there was no easy way out. They stayed on because they had no economic alternative. The IRA and others took a heavy toll on them. Men were shot as they went to Mass, or at the races, or even in some cases in their hospital beds.
When the British decided to reinforce the RIC with so-called cadets – the dreaded “Auxiliaries” – the effect was to further legitimise the killing of anyone wearing a police uniform.
Remarkably, the general mainstream of the RIC did not lose its discipline. The “Auxies” committed fearful barbarities. But very few such allegations were ever substantiated against the RIC proper. An exception was RIC involvement in the murder of Cork’s lord mayor, Tomas MacCurtain*. And when they were obliged to fight, they usually did so with courage and skill, as in the defence of their barracks at Kilmallock, Co Limerick, for example.
When the new State was being formed, it was determined that the remnants of the RIC should be disbanded. The serving members were offered good severance terms, enabling many of them to retire on pension and seek employment elsewhere.
Not too many felt sufficiently safe to stay on in what became the Free State. Some transferred to the newly formed Royal Ulster Constabulary. Others found careers in the colonial police forces, many of which were trained and led by RIC men. A sizeable cohort went to join the Palestine Police.
Contrary to the common belief that the early Garda Síochána was heavily populated with former RIC members, just 13 men transferred to the new force. But the influence of these and the inheritance of RIC practices and procedures greatly shaped the Garda Síochána.
The organising committee for the new force, nominated by Collins, started work in February 1922. Apart from the TD Michael Staines, the son of an RIC man, and two members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, all of those engaged in the committee were former RIC men. That they designed the new service in the shape of the old, with some symbolic changes such as Gaelic lettering, is hardly surprising.
In time the Garda Síochána became an unarmed force. But the essential structure of a unitary body, reporting through a chief officer, direct to central government, first developed for the Irish constabulary was retained.
An RIC officer returning today, once he became accustomed to blue uniforms rather than green at the depot, would quickly recognise the essentials of Robert Peel’s policing model, cast anew in a 21st-century format. And if he went to dine at the old mess, he might not be surprised to find the harp and crown of the old force displayed comfortably alongside the Celtic sunburst of the new.
Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002. He has written extensively on the history of Irish policing.
* This article was edited on August 24th,2012, to correct a factual error.