restricted access Sporting Policemen: Sports and the Police in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland
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Sporting Policemen:
Sports and the Police in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland

Historians of an garda síochána have stressed the importance that the leaders of that force placed on having their men engage in sports during the formative years of the Irish Free State, not merely as a means of maintaining physical fitness among the gardaí but also as a means whereby their men could “play their way into the hearts of the people.”1 The promotion of sports in An Garda Síochána was a deliberate policy, an allegedly novel approach that was designed to avoid the supposed mistakes of the Garda’s main predecessor, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), which was often portrayed by the new state’s founders as an alien and unpopular force, one that had been isolated in its barracks from the population it policed.2 Recent work has called into question the perception of the RIC as a force that was isolated from the Irish public.3 What is largely missing from this revisionist work is a close examination of the extent to which the RIC and its sister force, the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), [End Page 54] engaged in sports contests in the cities, towns, and rural communities of Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. Many officers of the RIC and DMP enthusiastically embraced the tenets of “muscular Christianity” that were a hallmark of the sports revolution of the entire United Kingdom during the period,4 and helped to inculcate these values among the men under their command. This article illustrates the sheer variety of RIC and DMP sports activity in the late Victorian and Edwardian years, showing that the athletically active policeman predated the foundation of the independent Irish state by several decades. In its enthusiastic promotion of sports among its policemen—as in numerous other ways—the Irish Free State simply persevered with institutional practices laid down by the British state in Ireland. The article also examines the varied responses of the Irish public to the phenomenon of the sporting policeman, thereby adding a new dimension to our understanding of the interaction between police and public in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, and more importantly, it shows that by engaging in sport, both among themselves and with members of the public, the police went a considerable way toward winning over the hearts and minds of the Irish public during this period. The image of the policeman isolated from the rest of society needs a major revision in light of the evidence advanced below of the widespread engagement of the police in the Irish sporting revolution of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Most of the RIC’s officers were commissioned directly into the force as gentlemen cadets, receiving the rank of sub-inspector (later retitled district inspector in 1883) after completion of their course of training. They came from a distinctly higher social class than that of the rank and file, most of whom were laborers or the sons of farmers; most sub- and district inspectors, in contrast, came from landed gentry backgrounds, with a sizeable minority coming from the professional classes. Sub- and district inspectors were expected to cultivate friendly relations with Ireland’s landed gentry, which was one of the justifications given for the RIC’s reliance on gentlemen cadets to fill [End Page 55] most vacancies in the officer ranks.5 Socializing with landlords, their families, and other members of Ireland’s elite came easily for most officers who had begun their police careers as gentlemen cadets. It was common for RIC officers to be invited to join the local county clubs, membership of which was usually confined to men from the most socially prestigious families as well as to officers from local military garrisons.6 Sport—especially field sports—was an important element in the interaction between police officers and the rural elite. This was more than a mere duty for the policemen, however, as many constabulary officers described how the numerous opportunities that Ireland afforded for engaging in sport was one of the principal attractions of a career in the RIC for a young gentleman. To an extent, their service...