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POLICING FAMINE IRELAND W. J. LOWE the irish constabulary had been consolidated less than a decade when Ireland ’s potato crop failed on a large scale in 1845. A quarter-century of new research and rewriting of Irish history has not substantially challenged the position of the Great Famine as a point of social, demographic, and economic departure for Ireland. Changes already in process were accelerated by the Famine’s impact and Ireland was becoming a diVerent country at the end of the 1840s.1 The famine years also mark the beginning of a gradual but clear evolution of the character and role of the Irish Constabulary that, while important and of long-term signiWcance, was obscured by the stress, tedium, and enormity of the conditions the police confronted in the dayto -day routine. In 1845, the Irish Constabulary was deployed to control a disturbed, violent countryside. Districts traditionally associated with agrarian crime, particularly in the South and West of the country, were devastated by destitution and disease during the Famine. So, even though fears of violence were at a high level in provincial landlord and merchant circles during the Famine, the police mostly found themselves witnesses to human tragedy in the communities where they were stationed. The desperation of the Famine produced violent confrontations that involved the police, but, for all the tension, drama, and seemingly interminable duty, policing the Famine was mostly an extension of customary routines. It was during the Famine that the Irish Constabulary began a steady movement toward becoming a familiar Wxture of Ireland’s civic scenery. The subtle change in organizational direction was overshadowed by the magnitude and complexity of the problems that aVected Irish society in POLICING FAMINE IRELAND 47 1 Recent accounts of the Famine period are: M. E. Daly, The Famine in Ireland (Dundalk 1986); C. Ó Grada, The Great Irish Famine (Dublin, 1989); J. S. Donnelly, Jr., chapters 12–19 in A New History of Ireland, V: Ireland under the Union, I, 1801–70, ed. W. E. Vaughan (Oxford, 1989), pp. 272–371. the late 1840s. But some aspects of the Constabulary were constant and perhaps even strengthened during the Famine. Discipline and military bearing were strictly maintained, as were the barrack routines laid down by the Constabulary’s Standing Rules.2 The Irish Constabulary represented great stability in diYcult times, and while clearly stretched thin by the scale of Ireland’s needs, its performance appears to have been recognized as energetic and competent. Another indicator of the acceptance of its important role is the growth in the force’s strength from 9,100 in 1845 to 12,500 men in 1850, despite heavy turnover in the ranks. The Constabulary remained staffed at the 11,000 to 12,000 level for the rest of the nineteenth century.3 One Constabulary function that was Wrmly institutionalized during the Famine was the collecting of statistics. It may seem perversely mundane that Irishmen on the public payroll reduced the suVering of the Famine years to numbers, but what the government and later generations know about the Famine’s impact owes a great deal to information, both statistical and narrative, recorded at the local level by the police and local magistrates . The police were responsible for compiling agricultural statistics and began reporting on the condition of the potato crop in mid-September , 1845.4 They were also frequently on duty at evictions and in 1849 they began keeping the statistics on that sad reality.5 Their experience with these and other administrative routines opened the door to a rapid expansion of civil responsibilities as public order in Ireland rapidly improved after the Famine.6 It remains an historical irony that the Famine, which caused the rapid expansion in both absolute and percentage terms of the POLICING FAMINE IRELAND 48 2 Standing Rules and Regulations for the Government and Guidance of the Constabulary Force of Ireland (Dublin, 1837). 3 Returns Relating to the Constabulary Force, 1841–1919 (Public Record Office, Kew [PRO], HO 184/54). 4 During the autumn of 1845, urgent requests were sent to Constabulary officers in local districts for information on the extent of damage to the potato crop. Similar reports were again...


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