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Explainer: Who were the RIC?

The Government’s controversial commemoration had been the subject of much criticism this week.

officers-and-men-of-the-royal-irish-constabulary-in-the-19th-century-the-armed-police-force-of-the-united-kingdom-in-ireland-until-1922-from-the-century-edition-of-cassells-history-of-england-publ Ken Welsh / PA Images Ken Welsh / PA Images / PA Images

AMID CONTROVERSY OVER the now-cancelled commemoration event for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), let’s examine each police force’s role in Ireland, who made up their ranks and their part in the War of Independence. 

The commemoration was aimed at acknowledging those who served in the RIC and DMP prior to Irish independence.

Yet a number of politicians had refused to attend. Last night, members of Dublin City Council voted to boycott the service.

Today, a member of The Expert Advisory Group for the government’s Decade of Centenaries programme said it didn’t recommend the planned RIC commemoration event.

This evening, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced the event’s cancellation.

Who were the RIC? Why was it established? And were officers as vicious as the notorious Black & Tans, who joined their ranks in 1919?

The Royal Irish Constabulary

Established in Ireland in 1836, the RIC policed Ireland outside of Dublin. Separately, The DMP policed the capital. 

It’s estimated that 90,000 men served in the RIC and DMP between 1836 until Irish independence in 1922. 

Numbering  c.10,000 men, the RIC were rigorously trained, although unlike police in Britain, they were armed more like a militia. That arming included truncheons, revolvers, carbines and bayonets.

The RIC assisted at evictions, suppressing Fenian rebellions. In Dublin, the DMP was “much-hated for its violent actions against the strikers during the 1913 Lockout,” according to UCD Historian Mary McAuliffe, who wrote a piece exploring the complicating nature of the RIC commemoration for this week.

Historians W. J. Lowe and E. L. Malcolm note that by the turn of the 19th century “RIC families” – father, brother, son, uncle or grandfather active in the RIC or on pension – were a “very important source of recruits” for the force. 

“By the end of the 19th century, RIC regulations contained incentives for sons of RIC men to join. 

“RIC sons could be a year younger and an inch shorter than prescribed minimums,” note Lowe and Malcolm. 

Between 1837 and 1920, “only labouring and farming stand out as consistently significant” prior occupations to men who joined the predominantly Catholic RIC ranks, they note. 

19th century Ireland, as in Britain, offered more stable, pensionable income that agriculture. 

The War Of Independence

As Lowe and Malcolm point out in 1992′s ‘The Domestic Action of the Royal Irish Constabulary 1836-1922′: “The almost total absence of ex-soldiers from the [RIC] rank-and-file is remarkable in view of the fact that, prior to 1836, the army and militia were the main sources of police recruits, while the paramilitary character of the RIC was still a controversial issue well into the second half of the [19th century].”

It was only towards the end of the RIC’s existence were military men recruited. 

Following the outbreak of the War of Independence – in which two RIC officers were killed in an IRA ambush at Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary – the IRA adopted guerrilla tactics, forcing the British Government to act. 

The RIC couldn’t cope.

As UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter noted this week: “RIC men were ill-equipped to deal with guerrilla warfare and were easy targets”.

So, too, were their barracks “which were being burnt out and evacuated in considerable numbers,” said Ferriter. 

As the War raged on, locals in Ireland began boycotting and disrupting RIC activities, particularity in rural IRA strongholds. 

In 1919, the British Government sought recruits to bolster RIC ranks against the IRA:


The Black & Tans

The first new recruits landed in Ireland in late 1919. 

A shortage of uniforms mean they’d to wear both police and military clothing. Darker police uniform and military khaki gave them their ‘Black and Tans’ moniker. 

Over 8,000 Black and Tans served in Ireland. Most were sent to Cork, Tipperary, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Kerry. 

The Black and Tans were not, as is often claimed, ‘a criminal class’, but were mainly working-class English (about 20% were Irish or of Irish descent), Protestant, demobbed soldiers.

They were not assessed, for physical or psychological suitability, on joining, nor were they given the same rigorous training as the pre-war RIC.

They were later joined in July 1920 by the Auxillaries, a smaller group of British recruits intended, Ferriter notes, “to be an elite cadre or strike force…only nominally under RIC command”. 

Both forces became notorious during their time in Ireland. According to UCD’s McAuliffe  The Black and Tans and Auxillaries “carried out the British authorities’ policy of reprisal with unfortunate and brutal gusto, burning, beating and killing their way across the country.”


Many have pointed out this week that, as the War of Independence raged RIC officers worked in tandem with Britain’s imported brutality. Others see The RIC as a colonial force. 

As McAuliffe said this week: “There is no doubt that the over 500 RIC being commemorated include many Black and Tans and Auxiliaries who were killed during the War of Independence.”

There is also very strong evidence that some of the existing RIC joined in these reprisals, not as a duty they were loath to do, but with the same brutality, she said. 

Yet, as McAuliffe notes, “large numbers of the RIC had been resigning from the force from 1916 onwards, many in opposition to the policies of policing followed by the State they served.

Others who remained were conflicted about their duties, and quite a number served as double agents for the IRA.

One example of resistance comes from Listowel, Co Kerry, where RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee refused, in June 1920, to hand over the barracks there to the British Army.

At the same time, RIC officers participated in atrocities like the burning of Balbriggan, Cork, Ballylongford, or in raids on isolated farmhouses and communities.”

They were also involved in violence against women; along with the Black and Tans, they beat, attacked, harassed women and committed acts of sexual violence.

“However, so too did the IRA, whose members committed acts of gendered and sexual violence against ‘their own’ girls and women accused of ‘company keeping’ with the RIC or Black and Tans, and against the wives and families of RIC men,” said McAuliffe. 

“These families lived in the communities and were an easier target than the RIC men who had retreated to barracks.”

“Commemoration is tricky, but it matters,” she said. 

The Boycotts

Over 400 RIC officers were killed between January 1919 and 1922. 

The force was disbanded following independence with the Dublin Metropolitan Police being absorbed into An Garda Síochána in 1925. 

Today, EAG and Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD Diarmaid Ferriter clarified the nature of the EAG’s recommendation to “commemorate” the RIC. 

“The EAG did not recommend or endorse the idea of a formal state commemoration for the RIC in the manner proposed,” he said. 

“It is not included in the list of events and themes we suggested should be formally commemorated by the state. What we stated was that ‘consideration should be given to the organisation of specific initiatives to commemorate the RIC and the DMP and to acknowledge their place in history’.”

This evening, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said the RIC commemoration at Dublin Castle had been cancelled. 

In a statement this evening, Minister Flanagan has said that “given the disappointing response of some to the planned event on 17 January, I do not believe that the event, as planned, can now take place in an atmosphere that meets the goals and guiding principles of the overall commemorative programme”.

The minister said that he is committed to “proceeding with an alternative commemoration in the months ahead”.

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