Who were the first Gardaí?
‘Who were the first Gardaí?’ is quite a straightforward question to answer. UCD has put the early register of the Civic Guard online so anyone can access the names and personal information of the first 6,042 members of the new police force. Each entry records the following details: registered number, date of joining, name, address, date of birth, religion, if in I.R.A. – rank, if ex. R.I.C. – rank, if ex. foreign army – rank, height, chest, and remarks. We, therefore, know a lot about the recruits. They were male, mostly Roman Catholic, in their 20s, tall, well-built, with good teeth, and literate. Significantly, potential recruits often claimed prior service in republican forces.
The register is a really important piece of evidence, as there remains a popular misconception that the first Gardaí were mostly Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) veterans. Writing in the Irish Times in 2012, the paper’s former editor Conor Brady alludes to this;
‘Contrary to the common belief that the early Garda Síochána was heavily populated with former RIC members, just 13 men transferred to the new force. But the influence of these and the inheritance of RIC practices and procedures greatly shaped the Garda Síochána.’
Admittedly, RIC officers also served the new force as instructors and administrators but Vicky Conway in Policing Twentieth Century Ireland corroborates Brady’s findings. She claims that just 160 of the 4,000 who joined the Civic Guard in 1922 had previous service with the RIC. Just 20 more RIC veterans joined over the next 10 years, Conway states. For completeness, it should be recalled that there was also a second police force in the 26 counties under British rule, the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). This unarmed body continued in existence until 1925 when it amalgamated with An Garda Síochána. By 1929, there were 321 Gardaí who had been members of the DMP prior to independence. Therefore, only 4% of the new force in 1929 were former DMP officers and even fewer, 2%, were ex-RIC members.
‘Resigned’ v ‘disbanded’
According to Richard Abbott’s Police Casualties in Ireland 1912-1922, approximately 4,000 RIC officers either resigned or were dismissed in the years 1920-21. A portion of those that resigned had done so ‘for patriotic reasons’ at the direction of Sinn Féin. They had consequentially suffered a financial loss and unsurprisingly, at least some, had an expectation of a place in any new police force. Those that stayed in the RIC until its official disbandment in 1922 were a different category. In a superb piece, Brian Hughes argues that ‘that there was no universal experience in the early Irish Free State for disbanded members of the RIC.’ Great hardship was certainly to be a feature in the lives of many ‘disbanded’ officers. Very few enjoyed a career in the new Civic Guard. The main exception to this being the small number that stayed in the RIC during the conflict to aid the republican cause – in other words IRA spies in the police. For ex-RIC officers unclear about the direction the new force wanted to head, an official statement in the Irish Independent (March 25, 1922) may have clarified its intentions;
‘The present strength of the Civic Guards is 400. Of these, 370 are members of the IRA, 30 are resigned RIC men. Of these 30, 25 did war service in the ranks of the IRA.’
The ‘resigned’ RIC & the Civic Guard?
So why did more of those who resigned from the RIC ‘for patriotic reasons’ not join the new force? There were multiple reasons. Initially recruitment was targeted at IRA members. In the case of former RIC officers, candidacy had to be supported by the IRA in their own locality. This may have posed problems for some. There was also practical considerations. Civic Guard recruits had to be aged between 19 and 27 and unmarried. Despite requests, RIC veterans were not given any dispensation from this provision, so many were automatically disbarred from applying. The prospect of joining again at ‘raw recruit’ level may have dissuaded others. There was no possibility of giving recruits with police backgrounds preferential treatment in the training process. Indeed, there was literally a mutiny in the Civic Guard on May 15, 1922 when the first recruits felt that a small number of ex-RIC personnel were getting better treatment in promotions. As Minister for Home Affairs Kevin O’Higgins explained to the Dáil in 1923;
‘That trouble [the mutiny] was successfully countered, and we got round the corner, but we have not thought it wise to take any step that might leave a possibility of recrudescence. We have not, for instance, since that trouble, admitted to the force, ex-members of the RIC.’
It should also be recalled that aside from the first wave of recruits, there was a later influx of republican veterans in the 1930s, when Fianna Fáil took office. These were ‘the Broy Harriers’ and included a core group of older, anti-treaty IRA members.
So how active in the revolutionary period had the first Gardaí been? Statements of serving Gardaí (in the 1950s) given to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) provide a little insight. This was an oral history project that gathered testimony from veterans of the 1920s conflict. Here, for example, is one Garda’s account to the BMH detailing the execution of a civilian in 1921;
It was purely accidental that the unfortunate man Holmes [the victim] came along first and was the only victim. There, was, however, ample evidence to prove that he had such an intense hatred for everything republican that he would go to extreme limits to destroy the movement. In this the man was no different from his other Unionist neighbours in his local village. I wish, however, to record that he suffered not for anything he himself had done but for a deadly danger to the lives and freedom of our companions in arms which men of his class represented.
This example is an outlier. There are dozens rather than hundreds of BMH statements from Gardaí similarly detailing past republican activism. There were 115,550 on IRA membership rolls in 1921. Like virtually all military bodies, it was a small cohort that did much of the fighting. So, very few of the new force were likely to have actually fired a shot in anger during the War of Independence. We also need to exercise caution when it comes to the documentary evidence. Not everyone tells the truth when applying for jobs. Some of those who claimed IRA membership may have done so to improve their chances of being admitted into the new force. Nonetheless, it still seems that we can say with some certainty that many, if not most, of the new recruits had at least nominally been part of the armed opposition to the ancien régime.
Why the misconception?
The focus of much discourse in terms of the Decade of Centenaries to date has been on the role of the RIC. The new force at the moment of its foundation has yet to be given the same attention. Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that there remains confusion about the early years of the Gardaí and this can be reflected in commentary. Indeed, as recently as last week, an Irish Times correspondent stated;
‘As with many aspects of modern Ireland, the history of policing has often been turbulent. Many members of the Royal Irish Constabulary joined the Civic Force, the Gardaí’s predecessor, on its creation.’
Some of those that did transfer from the RIC rose through the ranks and attained positions of power, perhaps explaining their prominence in popular memory. For example, six of the twenty officers promoted by Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy to the rank of Chief Superintendent in 1923 were former members of the RIC. Additionally, while the composition of the new police force was very different in terms of personnel, organisationally An Garda Síochána was quite similar to its predecessor. The RIC’s influence is particularly significant in this respect.
Neither the state nor the Garda authorities themselves probably want to draw too much attention to the issue. The idea that a good portion of the first Gardaí had involvement in a revolutionary movement is a difficult one to square with the contemporary role of a modern police force, particularly in light of the Gardaí’s ongoing involvement in anti-subversive operations.
The government in the early years of the state had motivation to exaggerate the revolutionary credentials of the new police recruits. There may now again be a favoured, but very different, official narrative. So in looking at the period, particular care should be taken to avoid presenting the story of the ‘few’ as that of the ‘many’, or indeed over simplifying the origin story. That is what makes the register at UCD such a superb resource. We get a vignette into each individual’s story. Despite the possible shortcoming as a source document, the register clearly illustrates exactly who the new police were. Significantly, the register also includes details of some unsuccessful applicants. So, we get some idea of who the Civic Guard were not, which can be just as revealing.