The aborted and ill-advised RIC/Black and Tan commemoration may have been the straw that broke the Fine Gael government’s back, but it is worth noting that the reviled police force of a century ago was a far cry from the RIC of even twenty years earlier.
In his dissertation for a BA degree at Mayo GMIT some years ago, Bryan McHugh undertook a detailed study of the RIC in Mayo in the twenty years up to 1910. It was a study which confirmed the view that police history is a sound reflection of social history, and that the county was in general a peaceable place before the first stirrings of nationalism began to take hold. The historian Diarmaid Ferriter remarked on the ‘relative tranquility of the working lives of RIC members’ at the turn of that century.
The RIC of that time were well integrated into local community life. They enjoyed amicable relations with the local population, not least because the RIC members themselves were the sons of tenant farmers and rural labourers. Indeed it was not unusual for policemen in rural areas to voluntary give of their time to local farmers at harvesting.
Joining the RIC was seen as a legitimate way to earn a living when employment was hard to come by and many families lived at subsistence level. For that reason, Connacht produced 30 percent of all recruits to the RIC during that period, although representing only 15 percent of the country’s population. But while Catholics may have made up the bulk of rank and file RIC members, there was at the upper levels a glass ceiling above which most Irish born Catholics were unable to ascend.
The RIC was an all male force - as the Garda Siochána continued to be for many years - and women were not permitted to join. However, as Bryan McHugh notes, there were occasions when female help required to be called on. The searching of a female prisoner could only be done by the wife of a constable, and if she declined, by the barrack servant (presumably a female), in her presence, but not in the presence of men.
This peaceful co-existence of police and the policed had continued for several decades until the sleeping giant of nationalism was awakened by the emergence in 1898 of the United Irish League. Founded by William O’Brien in Westport, the movement spread like wildfire, catching the authorities by surprise and evoking a repressive response which sundered the once - cordial relationship between the RIC and the people. Demonstrations in Westport turned to riots, in turn creating a police backlash which led to this newspaper roundly condemning the ‘savages in uniform’.
The UIL/RIC confrontation was to lead to a high profile police inquiry at Castlebar courthouse in 1902, when two District Inspectors, a Head Constable, two sergeants and two constables were accused of dereliction of duty and abuse of privilege. The charges centred on a claim that the officers had raided a poteen making operation at Ballygarriff, outside Turlough, and had seized a still for which the investigating constable was paid the standard reward of thirty shillings. However, rather than destroying the still, as regulations required, the police kept it hidden and presented again as a new find, and a second reward claimed. This, said several witnesses, had happened six times.
History does not record what became of the findings of the ‘revolving still’ inquiry, except that the allegations were strongly rejected by the accused police officers. There was not a shred of evidence that the events had ever happened, they said, adding that the whole affair had been a UIL plot to discredit them.