Saturday, 1 September 2012


From Padraic Colum's book My Irish Year, about the midlands of Ireland in 1912 (downloadable from

That evening I had an adventure with two members of the army of occupation, or, as some would prefer to call them, the army of no occupation, the Royal Irish Constabulary. 
Between the town of B and the village of C I came upon a brace of constables. They were lying in the ditch, smoking their pipes. As I passed I remembered that there was an inquiry in my mind that the patrol were competent to answer. I determined to raise the question on our next meeting. 
Outside the town I met the children of my friends and turned back. We caught up a country woman who was carrying some packages and a heavy basket. The children helped her with the parcels, and I took possession of the basket. When we came to the police again I was one of a group of country people. They were still in the ditch. 
I turned to one with the query, '' Would you tell me the meaning of a proclamation that I saw in Carrigallen last Tuesday?" Now, unawares, I was asking an invidious question, as this proclamation had reference to the withdrawal of extra police from the County Leitrim. 
" The meaning of the proclamation—would you like to know ? " 
" Yes." 
" Why didn't you read it ? " 
"I was too far away." 
" Then you can go to Hell." 
There was notliing to be done at the moment, so I lifted the basket and went on with my friends. Later I came on the patrol ; they were leaning against the parapet of the railway bridge. 
" Your pardon, gentlemen," said I, " were you the constables I met a while ago ? " 
" Would you like to know ? " said one, and " What's that to you ? " said the other. 
I asked for an apology for rudeness, but they said, " Go home now, or we'll throw you over the bridge." 
Their insolence came from the fact that they regarded the country people as Eastern officials regard the provincials. Such a woman sold porter illicitly ; if her friends were uncivil to the constables they could show their power. So-and-so's children grazed a few cows along the side of the road ; if their father raised his head there would be a case of technical obstruction. I saw how easy it was for the Royal Irish Constabulary to fall into the insolence of Turkish officials. 
Next morning I called at the barracks. The sergeant, good, easy man, was recovering from an attack of delirium tremens and was " shook " as the saying is. He asked the constables to apologise, but again they used the word " Hell." I might have communicated with the authorities had I not a prejudice against addressing myself to DubHn Castle. 
The Royal Irish Constabulary are a force of 11,000 armed men, distributed through 1475 stations. They are not under local control, but are ordered directly from Dublin Castle. For their upkeep the Imperial power raises £1,400,000 in Ireland, an amount largely in excess of the grant for national education. 
In the main they are a rural force, but they are extended to the cities of Belfast, Cork, and Londonderry. In country places individual constables look bloated and patrols have an easy-going air. One comes to regard the Constabulary as a rural police with little to do. But let us go into Connemara and enter a police hut in a lonely place. The constables are probably idle and unbuttoned, but there are rifles and bayonets to hand, and the hut has the position of a blockhouse. 
The life of Ireland has been forced back on the land, and the most powerful of Irish efforts has been directed to the liberation of the land in the interest of the majority. Against all forms of agrarian agitation stand the Royal Irish Constabulary with their rifles and bayonets, their drill and revolver practice. 
Why does Murty Flynn join a force that stands against the interests and passions of his class ? There is the bribe of a livelihood, and the fundamental muddle of the human mind prevents him from seeing the conflict in clear terms. They tell of a constable who had to assist at the eviction of his father, and Murty himself knows of a recruit, sent down with an extra levy to the County Clare, who found himself guarding a rancher's cattle against his father's hazel stick. The direct conflict rarely occurs. 
Murty's father has four sons. One of them will inherit the farm, and another may obtain the means of getting some land. For the rest there is emigration or casual labour. Murty is not studious enough to become a teacher, nor has he enough application to succeed as a shopkeeper. He is a big, healthy lad, with a fair intelligence and a fondness for outdoor life. 
He offers himself to the Constabulary. There are many applications, but Murty obtains a place, and his people are as glad as if they had got two acres of land. Constable Murty Flynn begins with a renumeration exceeding that of the assistant teacher in the local school. With twenty-one shillings a week, he has various allowances, and is lodged in the barrack at a slight charge. 
Promotion is almost inevitable, as there are 1859 sergeants and 451 acting-sergeants to 8380 constables. He is sure of a pension, and is under no necessity of saving. There are three Constabulary men in the station — an easy-going sergeant with a wife and family, Murty Flynn, and another constable. 
His day is really idle. He goes on parade at 9 a.m., when there is elementary drill, then for a while the three sit in the station smoking, going over the rules of the Constabulary and the Acts of Parliament governing the action of the police. Two go on patrol at 11 a.m. —that is to say, they stroll through the country for a couple of hours. 
They attend the arrival and departure of the Dublin trains, secure the newspapers, and read them on their way back. There are more patrols in the evening, and each constable has to put in six hours per day in outdoor duty. 
Sometimes the constable has to collect statistics for the Department of Agriculture, and some writing has to be done. Murty Flynn is well content with the life. He knows in the force men who are good Irishmen, good Catholics, and good citizens. After seven years he can obtain permission to marry, and many goodlooking girls would be glad to wed a man who can take them away from the hardship of the farm — a man of assured position, moreover, with a pension, who need not make himself anxious about a dowry. Murty's comrade intends to remain single for the next twenty years ; then he can retire with a pension of at least £42 per annum, when he intends to marry a girl with a dowry and set up a shop.

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