From the mid-1840s a primary function of the constabulary was to prevent the hardships of Famine erupting into large scale violence threatening property and owners. The scale of the Famine was overwhelming for the force even with the decline of traditional agrarian crime but this was offset by the large increase in crime related to hunger and destitution. On numerous occasions in such a tense period police were attacked and lives threatened. At Ballyragget six policemen escorting a flour consignment were stopped by a crowd of about 300 people. When the police threatened to fire on the crowd they were told that if they did so, not one of them would be left alive.   The hardships of hunger and disease were compounded by the clearance of thousands of small holdings for non-payment of rent.

Contrary to common beliefs the constabulary did not participate in evictions but were present to prevent trouble which gave the impression of collusion. While these duties did not endear the constabulary to the local population there were occasions when they (RIC) were critical of landowners. On one occasion a complete family were hung for murdering two keepers who had been ordered to prevent them accessing food they had stored on the farm from which they had been evicted. The whole expense of the trials and the rewards to witnesses was £10,000. A senior police officer commented that ‘his undoubting opinion is that had the most ordinary feelings of humanity, simply fair play, been observed towards those people, no murder would have been committed. The two lives of the keepers would have been saved, and the five lives of father, mother, daughter and two sons would not have been given to vengeance and the gallows’.

Nevertheless, social memory depicts the RIC in a very dismal light with little reference as to how it was affected by contemporary events. Evictions more than any other function were abhorrent to many of the force whose background was similar to those being evicted. Despite common perceptions, evidence of benevolent acts by the constabulary during the Famine testifies that policemen, moved by the suffering around them, provided charity for the starving. At Dungarvan on 15 October 1846 three policemen, Constables Downes, Jennings and Flanagan attended a riot. They witnessed three of the rioters about to enter a store and seeing their famished appearance each policeman offered them a crown to buy bread which was declined. However, because of their benevolence the policemen were cheered by the crowd.

A little known yet vital function of the constabulary was the burial of Famine victims carried out at various locations throughout the country often to the detriment of the constables. The Freemans’s Journal reported ‘So many of the dead were left at the police barracks in Cork city that many of the force fell ill with fever and had to be transferred to the fever hospital...’. The long hours and nature of the work of the constabulary in this period took its toll. Constantly in the presence of the destitute and poor coupled with stress and exposure to disease contributed to the highest ever active duty death rates between 1847 and 1849 of members of the constabulary, almost twice as high as the average for the entire period 1841 to 1914.


Edited 7 times by Michael K Sep 19 14 8:19 PM.