Seamus Breathnach’s examines Irish society through its norm-creating as well as its norm-breaking agencies. These include the Church controls of Ireland’s State -- its Schools, Law, Police, Courts, Prisons, Media and much more...


12.) A new history of police in Ireland (Book #21)








Chapter 1: The Gaelic Period


Chapter 2: The Holy Roman Period


Chapter 3: The Protestant Period


Chapter 4: The Nineteenth Century


Chapter 5: The Twentieth Century - Overview


Chapter 6: The History of the Garda Siochana


Chapter 7: Administration, Education and Training of the Garda Siochana


Chapter 8: Special Branch

Chapter 9: The Royal Ulster Constabulary


Chapter 10: Police and Public Doctors



Appendix A







Other Works by the Author:

A History Of The Irish Police
(From Earliest Times.) Publishers: Anvil, 1974

Emile Durkheim On Crime And Punishment
(An Exegesis), 2002

The Riddle Of The Caswell Mutiny
UPublish. com 2003

Crime And Punishment in Twentieth Century Ireland
Vol 2: A Description Of The Criminal Justice System (CJS) (1950-80)



POLICE historians may be divided into two schools: those who claim the continuity of the police function from earliest times and those who attribute their origins to the late eighteenth century. De la Mare, the first and greatest historian of the French police, “was in no doubt of the continuity of the Romano-French police”; whereas John Coatman, the English historian, postulates that “the embryonic forms of the present-day system of police appeared in France, England and Germany in the eighteenth century” . Had Coatman substituted Ireland for England in his claim he would have been much nearer the truth; for undoubtedly Ireland, contrary to popular belief, gave birth to the modern concept of police long before England, Scotland or Wales.

For convenience we can divide Irish police history into three eras represented by the words ‘garda’  (which may be taken to include the pre-Norman period and from 1922 on),‘ constable’ (referring to the period between the twelfth and late-eighteenth century) and ‘ police’ (which includes the period of police growth from the late eighteenth century to 1922 and in a general modern sense thereafter). Since I am concerned in the main with‘ police’ history, most of this book is devoted to their development. It would be remiss on my part, however, to ignore the earlier beginnings, particularly the origins and development of the office of‘ constable’.

Militarism And Brehon Law

The constabulary, like the police, grew out of the military concept, notably the gens d’arms. Historians are divided as to whether the Gaels were a warlike race or not; and notwithstanding the fact that the Ceithre Maistri record the first battle in Ireland in “the age of the world 2530”, G. A. Hayes-McCoy informs us that there was no warrior class in ancient Ireland: “There were no housecarles . . . no kings’ bodyguards . . . no fyrd, or national militia . . . men assembled for limited periods when called upon by the king or lord, accompanied him on his hostings, or military expedition, and fought, if necessary to support his claims or to defend their homeland. When the occasion of service had passed they went home

Heroism, of course, is to be found in every branch of Gaelic literature; particularly in the Fenian and Ossianic cycles, which were to the younger chieftains, what the Odyssey was to the Greeks. Finn’s advice to his grandson Mac Lugach  for example, is not at all unlike that of Polonius’s advice to Laertes. Also, Joyce tells us that in the early stages of society “warriors slept at night with a single weapon by their side for use in any sudden alarm....” It is also evident that guards (gardai) were not only plentiful at Tara but were considered in a high-ranking respect much the same as the French and common law constable. The banqueting hall of Tara “contained fifty apartments, and fifty men in each, fifty barrack rooms or dormitories for guards, and twenty men in each”

While there is a case to be made for the existence of sentinels or guards in Gaelic Ireland, there is little doubt but that their function had no bearing whatsoever on that performed by the civil policeman. If such existed at all, they would be most surely mentioned in the Brehon law.

Prince Alfred, who became king of the Northumbrian Saxons and who was educated in Ireland about 684, was observed to have found “sweet fruits, good laws for all and each, good chess-players, and men of truthful speech”. Robin Flower in The Irish Tradition puts forward the case that Alfred, known affectionately as Fland Fina in Ireland, was related to the great scholar Cenn Faelad from whom he learned to compose in Irish. But this was the age when Englishmen could visit Ireland to improve their education, when they were given “food from day to day without any charge” and books to read. Almost a thousand years later, however, the poet Spenser asked seriously: “What is that which you call the Brehon law? It is a word to us altogether unknown.”

Moreover, because capital punishment was unknown to Brehon law, Spenser in his ignorance suggested that Brehons “could do what they list, and compound or altogether conceal amongst themselves their own

rimes”. Seathrun Ceitinn in his Foras Feasa ar Eirinn explains that capital punishment could not possibly be enforced by the Gaels whereas the Eric, or honour-price (a fine), could. In other words if a murderer, after the murder, left his tribe, there was no point in killing his relations.

The relations were, however, liable to pay restitution as adjudged by a Brehon. Furthermore, this practice of kindred-responsibility was common to the Anglo-Saxon Hundred, comprising of ten tithings, which in turn comprised of ten families. King Alfred thus divided the shires or counties of England into tithings in whose charge there was a tithing man, chieftain or burgh-holder appointed.

The Nemed and the Senchas Mor, which embody the greatest part of the Brehon law, do not mention police. There are, moreover, ample authorities to corroborate this view. Laurence Ginnell, Liam Ua Cadhain, Mac Neill, Orpen, O’Rahilly and Binchy will at once admit the non-existence of police. To understand why the Brehon code found no necessity to legislate for police, however, it is necessary to understand the society in which it operated. Binchy points out that Ireland was not a sovereign state before the Norman invasion: consequently the Ard-Ri was not recognised in the law tracts, though Niall of the Nine Hostages who reigned in the fifth century had bequeathed the claim to his descendants, the Ui Neill, whose dynasty lasted for six centuries. The Ard-Ri only comes into his own in Lebor Na gCeart (The Book of Rights), which was a late document and does not go back further than the eleventh century. The relevant king to this discussion would, however, be a lesser king indeed, namely, the chieftain, or ri of the tuath. Binchy tells us that this king, “with the aid of a few officers like the rechtaire or steward, can exercise the very limited functions of government in person; indeed, the king of the Irish tuath could say with much more truth than could Louis X1V: L’etat c’est moi”

These kings were not legislators or public prosecutors; jurists interpreted the law, and persons against whom crimes were committed were left to sue out redress as in a normal civil case. For this purpose a Brehon was summoned to arbitrate according to principles of law and justice in assessing the amount of the fine that should be levied by way of compensation. If the defendant failed to pay immediately, a distress was levied on his goods. If a person was killed this process was left to his relatives.

Though not referring to Brehon law Leo Page points out that

“The evolution of the system of payment of compensation to the victim of wrong was a great step forward.”

At first it was limited to private wrongs, but, unlike the Gaels, the Teutonic Tribes developed offences, which endangered the community at large and for which no bot (bootless), or payment, could atone.

“In this distinction between public and private wrongs we find the germ of the modern difference between crime—which it is the business of the state to pursue and punish—and civil offences, of which the remedy is left to the discretion of the injured party” .

In Gaelic Ireland this distinction was never developed. Conseq-uently police were never necessary to enforce the state’s interests. Never-theless, “When an Irishman made an important contract he gave a pledge and took sureties . . .. There was no public authority in Ireland to execute the law, but the sureties, as well as the kin, played an important part in securing a man’s rights”.  As late as the sixteenth century Spenser feared the Brehon law because it placed so much authority with the “Lords and captains of counties and the principals and heads of septs . . . where it should be a most special case in policy to weaken”.

But this necessity Spenser acknowledged -- since the Gaeil “cannot easily by any Sheriff, Constable, Bailiff, or other ordinary officer, be gotten when they are challenged” and because it was “a very good means to get them (criminals) to be brought in by him that is the head of the sept or chief of that house”. Neither, despite the Norman invasion, was Brehon law readily discarded; for, as Spenser records in the sixteenth century, the Gaeil still remained “in their own kind of military discipline trained up from their youths” and “preserved and kept their own law which is the Brehon law”.  The poet, however, was well served by his understanding of the difficulties of imposing another legal system on so matured a native one. What had worked in England would not necessarily work in Ireland. What William the Conqueror had wrought by terror in England would not work in Ireland: “for they were otherwise affected. and yet do so remain, so as the same laws, me seems, can ill fit with their disposition or work that reformation that is wished, for laws ought to be fashioned unto the manners and condition of the people to whom they are meant, and not to be imposed upon them according to the simple rule of right, for then as I said instead of good they may work ill and pervert justice to extreme unjustice”.


Up to the Norman invasion warriors and soldiers, coupled with the Brehon law, had kept the greater peace within the realms of each Irish kingdom. This, one may assume, included the protection of King Brian Boru on circuit in 1004 and policing the fair of Tailteann in 1007. When the ‘peace’ was disturbed it invariably meant internecine war. By 1 I00, however, Celtic Wales had fallen under the feudal yoke and it was only a matter of time before Ireland would likewise be threatened; for after Clontarf and the death of the resumed high king, Malachy, in 1022, the six-century old Ui Neill succession had finally come to an end. The older order of things was irreparably disrupted and the country was left wide open to factious chieftains and the eventual invasion.

With the aid of Pope Adrian IV, who commissioned Henry II to invade and reform the church in Ireland, Henry duly landed with 4,000 men in Waterford in 1171 and within six months had established the roots of English sovereignty. It is futile to argue the authenticity of Henry’s papal authority given him by the Bull Laudabiliter—as does Laurence Ginnell in his Doubtful Grant of Ireland by Pope Adrian IV. Suffice it to accept Edmund Curtis’s ‘better evidence’ to the effect that John of Salisbury in 1155 obtained a grant of Ireland from the papal curia for Henry.

Henry, at any rate, rewarded those in Waterford who submitted to him, and at Lismore “he held a council where the laws of England were received and confirmed”. The docile Irish kings accepted Henry, his appointment of Hugh de Lacy as viceroy, the garrisons he set up in the major areas, and the constables he introduced. The Irish princes and chiefs had yielded willingly and in good faith on a religious pretext, whereas Henry, losing no time to set feudalism deep in the heart of his new and novel annexation, gave Meath, a province covering an expanse of four counties, to de Lacy who, with the service of 50 knights, held it for the crown. Thus, the initial prop was put on the stage, the actors were rehearsed in common law, and the drama that is Anglo-Irish history was set in motion.

From 1177 Henry’s son John, by Henry’s authority at a council in Oxford, became lord of Hibernia, and it was during his reign that Dublin Castle, the nerve centre of the Irish police up to the present day, was first begun. John conceived a plan for central government while in Ireland and also set up counties with their own sheriffs and courts. The year following John’s death saw the introduction of the Magna Carta,  section 20 of which states that “we will not make men justiciaries, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs, unless they understand the law of the land, and are well disposed to observe it”.

By 1228 every county then in Ireland was meant to acknowledge English law. By 1308 the Winchester Act (of 1285) was introduced into Ireland. This act delegated authority to the justices to hear civil and criminal cases pending to the court at Westminster. In the thirteenth century the function of knights changed to that of peace wardens to that of justices of the peace. An act of 1360 (34 Edward 111, c. I) gave justices the power to have criminals arrested and punished. The following year ‘pure-blooded’ Irishmen were debarred from taking any official jobs, such as that of bailiff, mayor or officer of the king. By 1366, when the parliament of Kilkenny convened, more stringent laws had to be passed to keep the English from becoming ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. Consequently, the Brehon law was outlawed; so, also, were the Irish language, Irish customs, clothing, fashion, songs, stories, culture and commerce. 

From the invasion to the end of the eighteenth century constabulary growth was gradual and, for all intents and purposes, insignificant. The British (and Irish) constable, like the Chevalier du Guet, emerged as watchmen and came under a host of officials and officers of the peace such as justices and conservators of the peace, church-wardens, magistrates, mayors, viceroys, lord lieutenants, vestries and under-secretaries.

In many ways the Statute of Winchester was radical for both England and Ireland: it formalised the watch and ward system which was to last for six centuries; it made the whole hundred (those within the pale) answerable in cases of robbery, to prevent the concealment of robbers in towns it provided that the gates of all such towns should be shut between sunset and sunrise. Broadly, this act, though modified incessantly, remained the blueprint for watchmen and constables until the 1822 Irish act when a provincial force of over 5,000 constables was initiated.

Initially the Winchester Statute was aimed against “a gang of rogues then called Roberdsmen, that took their denomination of one Robin Hood . . .” G. H. Rolph, endorsing the importance of the statute, points out that “the reason for its six hundred years of life was in all probability its total inefficacy in carrying out its ordained purpose”. Richard Bolton tells us that by virtue of this statute justices in Ireland could have two high constables for each hundred and that these high constables were “to make view of armour twice every year”. To aid these high constables further petty constables were appointed in towns and parishes from the beginning of the reign of Edward III, and the law required that these constables had to be Idoneus Homo, that is, “apt and fit for the execution of the said office, and he is said in law to be Idoneus, who hath these things, honesty, knowledge, and ability”.

The word ‘constable’ is multi-meaningful and defies definition. This arises from the fact that the office of constable, like that of marshal, has changed both in time and in territory of usage. The word itself appears in the Doomsday Book as constabularia and is also mentioned m the Great Charter of Ireland in 1216, and it can be spelled in at least 10 different ways and has as many derivative meanings.

lt comes from the Latin comes-stabuli, meaning keeper or count of the king’s stable or horses. The constable also commanded the king’s army, particularly under the Frankish kings when, in the thirteenth century, the constable became the king’s provincial lieutenant and, in the fourteenth, his commander-in-chief. Unknown in Ireland or England before the Norman invasion the office came to be synonymous with a high-ranking military post. It then became associated with castles, garrisons and ships, and by the Winchester Statute the offices of high and petty constable managed to assimilate the military aspects of the Saxon militia and the civil or magisterial aspects of the sheriff (shire-reeve) and tithing man. It was predominantly in this sense that the meaning of the word came to be used m Ireland. 

The growth of the constabulary itself is a very indicative yardstick of the spread of the Anglo-lrish ascendancy throughout the country. Naturally the conquest was not readily acknowledged by the ever-resist-ant Gaels—nor is it to this day acknowledged in some circles as having been successful. In the early fourteenth century the walled town of Dublin was a mere half-mile long and a quarter mile wide. In 1331, following an attack on the archbishop’s castle at Tallaght by the Wicklow tribes; a tax was imposed on the town in order to support the upkeep of a watch system. These watchmen were gradually known as Waytys and are recorded by some as being the original Christmas carol singers. 

Bullingbrooke, in his Justices of the Peace and Parish Officers for Ireland, raises an interesting point in suggesting that women would of necessity be chosen as constables if, as was believed, the post was customarily filled “according to the situation of their (the inhabitants) several houses”. By 1465, however (5 Edward IV, c. S), it was ordained “that in every English town of this land that hath more than three houses holden by tenants” one constable be chosen as president and governor of that town. In the same year the Dublin municipal records noted that “John Colleran and Robert Henwood shall be waytys within the said cittie, taking for their wages as others hathe done before them in the said office, that is to say, fourpence of every hall and threepence of every shop within the said cittie, and their findings in the jures, and each of them a livery gown of the mayor and bailiffs.”

By the fifteenth century further legislation had to be introduced to check the gaelicising influence on the colonists. After all, there was little point in having a conquest if no one was going to play his part in remaining English. Consequently, Poynings’ law, endorsing the previous Kilkenny statutes, was enacted in 1495, and during the reigns of Edward IV (1461-83) and Henry VII (1485-1509) Irishmen dwelling in the counties of Dublin, Meath, Uriel and Kildare “shall go apparelled like Englishmen and wear their beards after the English manner, swear allegiance and take English surnames. Every Englishman and Irishman dwelling with Englishmen and speaking English betwext fifty and fifteen shall have an English bow and arrows.” Furthermore, in 1537 (28 Henry VIII) every conceivable cultural object which was considered fashionable by the Gaels was outlawed. These included cromeil (moustaches), hair glibbes (hair), “shirts, smocks, kerchors, bendels, neckerchours, mockets”, and for women “any kyrtell or cote tucked up or embroidered or garnished with silk or couched or laid with usker after the Irish fashion . . . shall be forfeit”. lt was also made lawful for “every the king’s true subjects to seize” them.

During the sixteenth century the effort continued to make Ireland shire-land. In 1556 the earl of Sussex arrived to plant King’s and Queen’s counties with settlers and in 1586 in the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) Munster was planted. Elizabeth made desperate attempts to control outside the Pale and in 1569 (11 Elizabeth 1) it was enacted that five persons of the best of every stirp of the lrishry, and in counties not yet shire-ground, (be) bound to bring in to be justified by law, all idle persons of their surname charged with offence, or else satisfy for the same out of their own goods and fined at discretion”. 

Towards the end of the century the Nine Years War, the last of Elizabeth’s lrish wars, created a sense of urgent security in Dublin, and Adam Loftus, archbishop of Dublin, “issued the first of the ‘Civic Regulations for Defence and Protection of Dublin’”. This meant that the Dublin watch was increased and they were to be armed with “swords, muskets, calivers, corslets and pikes”. On 20 October 1598 a curfew was imposed on the city.

In 1634 an act recited that the ‘hundred’ would be held responsible for robberies committed therein. In the reign of Charles I (1625-49) constables were given the added powers of whipping offenders for barking trees (10 Charles 1, c.23). During the reign of Charles II (1660-85) they were to assist excise officers in the execution of the excise act (14-15 Charles I1, c.8). And in the reign of William 111 (1689-1702) constables were further empowered to enter taverns on a Sunday to apprehend offenders under the act (7 William II1, c.17).

By the time of the Georges in the eighteenth century, constables had been in Ireland for over four hundred years. Like those in England, the ‘charlies’, their office was at once despised and unpopular. Time and time again penalties were imposed upon them in order to keep the office in existence; for the constables themselves were by no means partial to their duties.

Edward MacLysaght, writing on the seventeenth century, tells us that “there was no regular police system, and such police duties as were considered necessary were carried out either by the watch or by the military, the former being easily bribed and more easily intimidated, the latter seldom available at the moment they were required”. One man, however, William Edmundson, a Quaker, who was refused shelter and refreshments by a Mullingar innkeeper because of his religion, found good use for the constabulary, when he insisted that the constable find him lodgings: “for 1 was a traveler and had money to pay for what I should have! The constable got him a room with a fire, and hay for his horse”.


For historic reasons the reign of William lIl’s sister-in-law, Anne, after his death in 1702, was a continuation of the nailing of the Irish Catholics to the cross of the penal code. Successive acts debarred Catholics from every facet of political life no less than from the appointments of high and petty constable. In 1773 Lord George McCartney, a descendant of the Ulster MacCarthys and chief secretary for Ireland (1769-72) said, “that the laws of Ireland against Papists are the harsh dictates of persecution.... A Papist shall not be a divine, a physician, or a soldier; he shall be nothing but a Papist.” Brien Merriman in his Midnight’ Court repetitively mentions the corruption of the law (“I nduhhcheilt dlithe”, “fallsacht~fear dlithe”, and again “scamal an dli”), whereas Sean O Tuama, in his Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire, maintains that the catholic Irishman Art O’ Laoghaire was murdered on 4 May 1773 because he refused to sell his brown mare to the protestant Abraham Morris. Apparently, O Laoghaire’s horse had beaten Morris’s at a race in Macroom, and Morris tried to force a sale of the horse under an act of William III (7 William III, c.5). 

 In 1715 (2 George I, c.5) constables were obliged to repair to fires and assist in extinguishing them. Papists held some posts as constables, but by (cap 10) of the same act it was observed that “by the instigation and authority of popish priests and others of the popish religion” the execution of warrants was being neglected, especially those warrants issued against other papists. The following year catholics were debarred from the post of high or petty constable. By1743 constables were entitled to threepence a mile for every mile traitors and felons “shall be carried” to gaol. This only applied to the city of Dublin, where the same sum of money was to be paid to “each of two protestants armed with fire-arms” who accompanied the arresting constables. And should there have been more “Protestants with firearms necessary”; the JP was to appoint them. In 1745 protestant linen-weavers, whose industries were invariably held to be very important, were exempted from performing the duties of petty constable.

In the reign of George III (1760 1820) constables acquired further powers. They also acquired new penalties for not enforcing their powers. In 1776, for example, constables were fined £5 for failing to execute a justice’s warrant under the inland fishery acts. In 1782 they acquired the power to stop persons suspected of carrying stolen goods after sunset, and bring them before a justice. In 1785 barony constables and sub-constables were to inspect milldams and weirs for nets. On finding nets, which belonged to the owner of the mill, the constables were to notify a 1P. Failure to inspect such places when required to do so, meant that the neglectful constable had to forfeit his last half-year’s salary to the county infirmary. The following year he was obliged to seize persons tumultuously assembled, who numbered 12, and who assembled for one hour after a proclamation was made. The constable was also indemnified if he killed anyone in the course of his duty. 

Throughout the eighteenth century commentators like Dean Swift, Bishop Berkeley and the Gaelic poet, Aodhagan O Rathaile, had fought the era’s injustice and tyranny with their scathing pens. The penal laws, for the relief of which a Catholic Committee was formed in 1757, were equally felt in England, where it was estimated towards the end of the century that no less than 160 offences carried the death penalty. England was ravished by criminals, whereas Ireland was ravished by politicians. By 1740, 400,000 people in Ireland died within one year, of the potato famine, a precursor of the Great Famine a century later. After George I’s reign (171~27), during which the Irish parliament became dependent on the English one, it was only natural that agrarian disturbances would arise, and in the 1760s Whiteboys arose in Munster and Oak boys in Ulster.

Towards the end of the century there was such criminal activity in England and internal political strife in Ireland that it was gradually being felt that the military were not the most responsible people to deal with domestic problems. The growth of the franchise and the subsequent development of democracy strengthened this view. What was needed was a less military and more civil organ of administration. What form that organ should take was still unknown, but was gradually being forged between the anvil of the lrish people and the hammer of tyranny under which they lived. 

 ln 1787 (27 George 111, c.40) ‘An Act for the better execution of the Law, and the Preservation of the Peace within the Counties at large’ was passed, whereby the lord Lieutenant was empowered to appoint a chief constable to each one or more baronies. Grand juries were empowered to appoint 16 sub-constables to each of the same districts. Again, this act provided that all appointees should be protestants and that they would get three pence a mile for prisoners conveyed to the county gaol, the amount to be determined from the place where the arrest was made. It w as in connection with this act that Robert Curtis in his history of the Irish Constabulary wrote in 1869: “How vastly for the better all that has been changed since then; now three-fourths of the Irish constabulary are Roman Catholics.”  But this was almost a hundred years later.

Constables under the act, like most of those of their successors and those in the Dublin force, were useless, uninformed and undisciplined. Many counties failed to adopt its provisions. Thus, in 1792, a further act (32 George 111 c. 16) entitled ‘An Act for regulating the Office of Constable, and for the better enforcing the Process of Criminal Law in certain Parts of the Kingdom’ was passed. Under this act grand juries could appoint additional constables, who were known as baronial constables, to each district. Though 13 counties were exempted from this act, its construction propelled the traditional constable into the role of the modern police. Each man was paid £4 per annum and was to keep proper arms, the expense of which was to be raised on the baronies. Four years later the number of sub constables was to be increased again. The police force for Ireland was being forged by gradations, and, needless to say, the act of union was to create the added impetus which eventually gave Robert Peel the authority to formalise the Irish police in 1814 before formalising them in England 1: years later. 

The role of the policeman had still a long way to go before it became defined in the public mind. Even in the mind of Peel, who is far too often accredited with the original conception of a modern police force, the function and concept of the modern police was not entirely formulated. The acts mentioned, however, nursed the concept along to the revolutionary force in 1814 known as the Peace Preservation Force. Where and when the police exactly began has become one of the most controversial Questions facing police historians. It would be unwise, however, to try to answer such a question without first having a look at the Dublin police.


Like London, to which the Statute of Winchester 1285 did not apply and which was always treated as a separate entity as far as police law and regulations were concerned, Dublin was similarly immune. Like London, also, which had been divided into 24 parishes for the purposes of the watch system, Dublin was divided into 21 parishes, each of which contained IS watchmen who were supervised by a constable who was appointed by the churchwardens. Apart from the watch from I April to Michaelmas Day the metropolis had no police force, or, for that matter, day patrols. ln 171S the Dublin Corporation was authorised to appoint watchmen and constables to keep the night watches, and an annual levy of 3d in the pound valuation was imposed. 

By 1706, however, Dublin’s internal crime rate was so bad that ‘An Act for the Encouraging the Discovery and Apprehending of Housebreakers’ was passed. Though London was the home of criminals during the eighteenth century, it would be as well to remember that Ireland had a capacity for criminality, mendicancy and violence second to none. 

In 1723 (10 George I, c.3) churchwardens and parishioners of each parish in the city and adjoining liberties were to assemble annually on Tuesday in Easter week at 11 o’clock am in the Church or Vestry room” and choose a “sufficient number of fit and able persons inhabiting within the said parish, who shall be house-keepers, to be constables for one year from the first of June in each year....” By 1729 (3 George II, c.13) “no persons keeping publick-lnns, AleHouses, or Houses of Entertainment or Papists, shall act in their Persons as Constable, but if any such shall be chosen to serve as Constable, they shall find some fit Protestants to serve in their Room....” Constables in Dublin were sworn in by the lord mayor and were obliged to leave with him a “memorandum in writing of the house he dwells at, ;’ within the said parish”. Curiously enough, they were also obliged to “nail up in view at their respective doors, a short Constable’s staff against the House they inhabit”. Neglecting this seemingly petty obligation would cost them 40 shillings. They also had to take the constable’s oath to act “without favour or affection, malice or ill will”—a thing which has not changed greatly right u‘, to the present day, since all recruit gardai take a similar oath. 

What have changed in the oath are the political overtones. According to Bullingbrooke the old constable’s oath included primarily that he “shall well and truly serve our Sovereign lord the king....” The Garda Siochana swears allegiance to the state and may be sworn in by a member of the rank of Cigire or Ceanufort (i.e. Inspector or Superintendent). “When a man becomes a policeman in England and Wales he makes a solemn declaration before a justice of the peace that he will faithfully and truly ‘serve the Queen in the office of constable’.” In Scotland he declares that he will “faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable”, and in Northern Ireland that he will “well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady the Queen and Her Government of Northern Ireland”.

R. J. Bennett in his article ‘Old Guardians of the Peace’ gives us a description of what one might term a ‘political policeman’. The following description, according to Bennett, appeared in a Dublin newspaper on 6 November 1731: 

Yesterday being the anniversary of our Great Deliverer (William of Orange), the Constable of St. Andrew’s watch on duty, being a very loyal man, made a bonfire before the effigy of King William in College Green,

and set candles all round the rails, and candles and lanthorns where the horse stands, which made a glorious show; then paraded his men, which were thirty in number, and he at the head of them with an orange sash and cockade and a half pike in his hand. He drank the immortal memory of King Wm. and made his men do the same. Then he marched them in ranks four deep, with their candles lighted in their lanthorns and borne upon the tops of their watchpoles, which made a most agreeable sight.

Rarely were a constable’s duties so pleasant. Usually, the metrop-olitan constable detested his job and was invariably forced to perform it, particularly during the reign of George III (1760-1820). By 1793 (33 George llI, c.56) refusing to assist in collecting city grand jury cess cost him £10. A similar penalty was imposed if he neglected to get sworn in within 10 days of his appointment. By the 1770s parishioners elected what was known as a Ward Mote Court, which in turn selected watchmen and constables more or less against the will of the appointed.

By 1782, however, the watch system was threatened by the introduction of a bill in the lrish House of Commons. On 28 March the lord mayor and city council protested against it. By 1784 an extra 20 constables were appointed and by the following year an act was passed entitled ‘An Act for the completing and effectually lighting and watching~ of Rutland Square, and for the better Support and Maintenance of the Hospital for the relief of poor Lying-in Women in the City of Dublin’.

By I786 the Dublin metropolitan district was formed. The word ‘police’, with all its French and minatory under-: tones, had finally reached the first statute book in these islands. Under this act (26 George III, c.24) three magistrate-commissioners were appointed by the lord lieutenant and were endowed with judicial and admh1istrative control over the police. (One of these commissioners was compared to Attila the Hun.) Under a high constable the DMD was divided into four divisions with a chief constable and 10 petty constables in each division. These, for the first time in Dublin, were regular policemen and were charged with patrolling the streets of the city by day and night. Watchmen were also appointed under this act and further constables to supervise them. Both watch and constabulary were under the supervision of the commissioners who could fix an annual levy on householders for the maintenance of the force, their arms and equipment. 

This Dublin police act was very important. Though imperfect in itself it was the original legislative draft containing the word and intent-ion of the modern ‘police’. Lecky’s History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century tells us that for the first few months there had been a diminution of crime, but “little more than a year had passed when petitions were presented by a great body of Dublin householders, asserting that the new police were as inefficient as the old watchmen, and that crime had fully regained its former level, while the expense of the police had trebled, and a great amount of purely corrupt expenditure had been incurred”.  Apparently, a parliamentary committee revealed, inter alia, that the police charge for stationery over a period of two and a half years amounted to £3,3I6.6.6d. Of this more than £150 was curiously paid for gilt paper. Another £49.8.8d. was spent on sealing wax. Was it any wonder that Dubliners rebelled against this police force? They hailed it as a patronage bill; they claimed that it violated the charter of Dublin and they registered their protest against the idea of transferring police power from where it traditionally was under the ‘hand and seal’ of the lord mayor and corporation to that of the crown. 

Two years before the act of union, Dublin had 32 watch constables at £30 per annum each, from 450 to 600 watchmen at l/ld. a night, 48 peace officers, and six office constables at a salary of £40 per annum.


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