As British as the Irish themselves

Recently, in conversation with a colleague, I remarked upon a concept which I felt was pretty straightforward. Cut and dry even. That as part of the British home islands, pre-independence Ireland was disproportionally policed. Now it was, there is no other way of looking at it really. The mainland police forces were not routinely armed, though if an officer on night patrol in major metropolitan areas (e.g. London) felt it necessary, he could carry a ‘comforter’ (small revolver). But that wasn’t the sticking point. Rather the issue was that of identifying Ireland as a constituent part of the British homeland, as opposed to the British Empire! Controversial indeed! And why shy away from controversial!

The Palace of Westminster, home of the Houses of Parliament (

Let’s examine the facts. Firstly, Ireland was part of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. Which made the Irish legislature, by definition, Westminster. Irish MPs and peers sat there with their colleagues from the mainland. Laws were enacted there which bound Ireland and issues raised. On more than one occasion Lord Kenworthy rose to tackle/heckle the Lloyd George administration on one of the many disastrous decisions made on Irish policy.

Irish Home Rule MP, Charles Stewart Parnell, being escorted out of the British (and Irish) House of Commons, c. 1881.

Point number two. Administratively, although Ireland had a Viceroy, the Lord Lieutenant, it also had a cabinet secretary, as did Scotland and Wales. India, a colonial possession, did not. Indian concerns went through the Colonial Office. The Irish vice-regality can be traced back to the era of the Norman invasion of Ireland and as the Monarch’s personal representative, the holders of that office enjoyed a largely ceremonial role. During the 19th century, the Chief Secretary for Ireland assumed a more executive role, essentially superseding the Viceroy. The Secretary still reported daily to the Prime Minister and when the Cabinet met regularly, held a seat there. So Ireland had an administratively detached unit of the British government and some different laws, but on the whole, was it drastically any more different than say Wales or Scotland?

Richmond Barracks Dublin (pic credit

The New Barracks, Fermoy (pic credit 

But let’s examine the opposing points; the British military presence in Ireland, Coercive Legislation used in Ireland; Ireland came under a separate command (Irish command) reporting to Commander in Chief Ireland. The military presence in Ireland, ostensibly as integral a part of the UK as Wales, or Kent, was beyond substantial. Every single town of even moderate size, boasted a barracks of some description, replete with a detachment of foot or cavalry. Every Irish city (and most large towns) boasted more than one barracks, with more than one arm of the military. Fermoy, on the banks of the Blackwater River, in North East Cork, was home to two large barracks, in an otherwise moderately sized town.


RIC constable, with carbine (

The forces of law and order were another case in point. Unlike mainland Britain (a term which has raised eyebrows in recent usage), Ireland maintained a national police force, after the decision was reached in 1836 to amalgamate the existing provincial police commands (formed in 1822). The ‘Constabulary of Ireland’, or ‘Irish Constabulary’ as it was more popularly known, assumed control of policing functions in the majority of the countryside of Ireland, with the exception of some specialist areas of customs and excise, and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (formed at the same time). The force was formed along paramilitary, or gendarmerie lines, with the Constabulary using both long arms (carbines and rifles) and side arms (revolvers), which clashed directly with the tradition of non-armed police on the mainland. The reason given was that Ireland was considered wilder and more dangerous, however it is possible that the Castle administration felt that by associating the Constabulary with arms on a daily basis, the Irish would become overawed and fearful of upsetting the apple cart.

Police on foot patrol (possibly in Ahascragh, Co. Galway; pic credit

The use of coercion as a central plank of British rule in Ireland cannot be overstate, and should not be oversimplified. Though in most cases, a citizenry will continue on with their lives and livelihoods, there remains a miasma of oppression with regard to the forces of control which a government imposes on its citizens.  The RIC would later shun its status as an armed force, in an attempt to bridge the gap between itself and the community it had been appointed to look after/over, which would in turn lead to its downfall at the hands of the IRA. The Irish were without a doubt, subjected to disproportionate levels of policing, with the forces of law and order occupying roles which the Army and militia would traditionally have filled. Ireland’s proximity to the centre of British power in London and its ancestral link with the United Kingdom, meant that this island was often subjected to a quasi-colonial type of rule by the mainland; Britain could not afford to treat Ireland as a rebellious colony, like South Africa, but instead more like a wayward province, one which required more of a ‘mailed fist’ than a steadying hand.

About eamonntgardiner

Dr. Eamonn T. Gardiner, is a Consulting Historian. He has previously conducted research into links between wartime traumatic-neurosis and evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) amongst veterans of the First World War serving as Auxiliary Policemen, during the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921. He has written extensively on British central and colonial administrative responses to popular insurgencies. In 2009 he published 'Counterinsurgency and Conflict: Dublin Castle and the Anglo-Irish War (CSP, 2009).' Published papers include; 'The training of the Irish Volunteers, 1913-1916' (The Irish Sword, 2017); 'Scattered, Ambushed and Laid Out: War and Counterinsurgency in the greater Tuam area, 1919-1921' (JOTS, 2015). Research interests include De-Colonialisation/Post-Colonialism; Insurgency, Police/Military Histories; Institutional Histories; Modern Irish/World History; History of Conflict, Protectorates and Peace-Keeping; Hegemony; Old and New Terrorism.
This entry was posted in 1916, 19h century, 20th century, Anglo-Irish War, Auxiliary Division, Black and Tans, Britain, Commemoration, Conflict, decolonisation, Empire, First World War, Insurgency, Ireland, Memory, Northern Ireland, Policing, Revisionism, revolutionary, Royal Irish Constabulary and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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