One of the most touching moments of the past year’s commemorations happened 100 years to the minute after the first fatality in the Easter 1916 Rising.
Those who had gathered were left pleasantly overwhelmed when a young girl asked if she may lay flowers alongside the wreaths placed at the gates of Dublin Castle in honour of fallen Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) constable James O’Brien.
It was not so much the gesture at what was already a moving short ceremony, but Freya Connolly’s identity, which marked the moment out as special. Her family explained that she was the great-grandniece of Sean Connolly, the Irish Citizen Army member who had shot dead Constable O’Brien and who was killed himself nearby hours later.
“We were all flabbergasted and delighted at the same time,” said retired garda Jim Herlihy, one of those who helped organise the event last April.
Nobody has done more than Jim over the past few decades to widen public understanding of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) or the DMP and their important roles in Irish life for over a century up to 1922.
However, despite all of that work, he believes, we have some way to go before being ready to appropriately commemorate the 549 RIC members killed in the War of Independence.
“You can’t choose who your ancestors were, no more than you can choose who your descendants will be,” said Jim. “We have a long way to go, but this event at Dublin Castle was one of the gestures of reconciliation that gives some hope that we might properly honour those men.”
With profiles built up of 20,000 of the 85,000 men who served, and more than 10,000 photographs, it is more than an understatement to say Jim Herlihy has amassed something of an encyclopaedic collection of many other people’s ancestors.
He has also helped many thousands of people to build a picture of the service and lives of some of those men about whom they otherwise had little or no information; not just through his many books on the RIC and DMP, but by sharing images and records with people who have sought his assistance from around the globe.
Formed just over 200 years ago as a peace preservation force, the Irish Constabulary became a ‘royal’ police force in recognition of its role putting down the failed Fenian rising of 1867.
The RIC gave over a century of policing service to the country, during most of which constables and officers were an integral part of their local communities. But they also endured bad feeling for enforcing evictions during the Land War of the late 19th century and other campaigns of public resistance.
It was only in its final years that the RIC became a focus of republican violence and intimidation during the final years of British rule.
But most public perceptions of the force still revolve around their role in the War of Independence, and the less than gleaming reputation of the Black and Tans and Auxiliary Division of the RIC.
In the latest edition of one of his books on the RIC, Jim Herlihy explains how more than three decades of research began.
He was moved to Blarney Garda Station in 1980 and struggled to find information on any of the men who served in the same building when it functioned as an RIC barracks, one of several attacked by the IRA’s Cork No 1 Brigade in 1920.
The RIC service registers he managed to trace at the UK National Archives in Kew have also been available for many years to researchers willing to trawl through often poorly-copied microform in Dublin .
The recent online availability of most of those records, and the remaining RIC records from Kew, on the Findmypast subscription genealogical website have made such searches open to anybody with a comfortable seat and an internet connection.
Jim has amassed an incredible collection of photos, medals, and other artefacts relating to the RIC and DMP.
Many similar items can now be seen first-hand in the Garda Museum, which opens to the public at its new home in Dublin Castle in early 2017. Uniforms, helmets, weapons and other items worn and used by An Garda Síochána’s two predecessor organisations.
The main aim of Jim and fellow founders of the Harp (Historical and Reconciliatory Police) Society in 2013 is to see a permanent state memorial to RIC and DMP members killed on duty.
The names of James O’Brien and 16 other policemen who died during the Easter Rising were included — as well as the dead rebels, and civilians and British soldiers killed in the rebellion — on the new memorial wall at Glasnevin Cemetery this year.
The step drew criticism from some quarters, but was welcomed as a step towards reconciliation by many, including the Harp Society.
“Hopefully we can replicate this with a memorial for over 500 policemen killed between 1916 and 1922,” says Jim. “Just like those names on the wall in Glasnevin, people can look at it and take from it whatever they wish themselves.”
Jim was part of another significant moment this year at a commemoration in Galway for Constable Patrick Whelan, the only RIC member killed in the west of Ireland during the 1916 Rising.
Various descendants of Whelan, his fiancée, and the man who had shot the policeman all met for the first time.
It was another glimmer of hope that Ireland may be ready to begin consigning its painful past to history. But the event also showed yet another aspect of that history, and how easy it can be to forget its complexities.
“The grandson of the man who shot Patrick Whelan had an RIC district inspector as his other grandfather.”
A revised and updated edition of Jim Herlihy’s The Royal Irish Constabulary: A Short History and genealogical guide is published by Four Courts Press
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