Michael Guilfoyle’s Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) research journey began when he found a neatly-folded piece of paper at the bottom of a biscuit tin of family photos.
His mother had always told him his father’s father was a policemen, but Michael never thought too much about it.
However, his first real clue of where and when his grandfather — also named Michael — had served only emerged when he unfolded what turned out to be his discharge certificate from the RIC.
“That got me really interested. He had served from 1909 to May 1922 and he was the last RIC sergeant in Belmullet, Co Mayo,” recalls Michael.
“I can’t describe what it was like to find out a relative had experienced the War of Independence, in that he was an Irishman who found himself on the wrong side of history.”
After reading a newspaper article about a man in the US who was still receiving his father’s RIC pension, he was put in touch with Jim Herlihy.
The retired Co Cork garda is seen by Michael and many others as the reason why the RIC’s story has been kept alive.
Jim found Michael Guilfoyle’s service record, which gave his grandson the key details around which to begin his search for more information on the policing career he had known so little about for most of his life.
His cousin was able to provide copies of discharge certificates from the RIC and RUC for Michael’s granduncle William, brother of RIC Sergeant Michael Guilfoyle.
It was only later still that he discovered that his great-grandfather, Edward, had been a policeman before his sons.
That biscuit tin lucky dip happened 12 years ago and Michael now oversees a Facebook page dedicated to the RIC. When he set it up about five years ago, Michael described the RIC in the forum’s title as “a forgotten police force”.
“I wanted to see whether there were any other people out there who were interested in the RIC, or had relatives who had served,” he explains.
“It opened up a forum around the RIC and their importance within the overall context of Irish history, from their formation until their disbandment over a century later in 1922. I discovered they were an integral part of life in Irish towns and villages.”
Born in Newry, Co Down, but now living in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Michael describes the growth of the Facebook page as a slow burner.
Now, though, has over 3,300 members, with around 20 people asking to join weekly. Most live in Ireland, north and south, but many hundreds are from across the Irish Sea.
Hundreds more are from the US and Canada, reflecting the fate of many men who felt like outsiders in the state that emerged following the War of Independence.
As administrator of the Facebook group, Michael carries out some preliminary vetting to ensure anyone who joins will not bring unwelcome discussion into a forum that sets out to be strictly non-political.
He sees it as purely a facility for people researching the RIC’s history, particularly those with ancestors who served in the force and who comprise the majority of members.
However, this process can throw up some surprises, as Michael discovered this year when the Facebook profile of one applicant to join the group suggested ties to a strongly Republican organisation.
“I didn’t accept her at first, but she sent a very touching private message, explaining that she was indeed joined another group and understood if her political beliefs made him slow to admit her to the RIC group,” says Jim.
However, the message went on to relate her recent discovery that a relative was in the RIC and she hoped the group might help her learn ways to found out more about him. She was totally respectful of her late policeman ancestor, despite their potentially different political views.
“It would be great if we can get more people out there who are willing to accept their relatives were in the RIC. I don’t believe it was for political purposes that anyone went into this police force,” he says.
With no political baggage brought into the discussions, and any conversations around contentious issues quickly cut off, the focus remains on sharing information, research, and photographs.
A daily stream of family photos, newspaper cuttings, and other records are posted, often from members sharing the fruits of their previous research in direct response to appeals for information from newcomers to the group.
Many members discover shared histories with others, such as ancestors who served together in the same RIC barracks.
For his part, Michael was blown away to find a link to a tragic story from his own family past through the group.
He had learned that his grandfather’s sister May Guilfoyle was drowned in 1907 at Enniscrone, Co Sligo, in 1907, where their father Edward had been stationed with the RIC. She was swimming with a friend, Gretta Duignan, when they got into trouble and only one of them was saved.
“A woman joined the group looking for information about her great-grandfather James Duignan and I got to tell her about the incident involving her grandaunt Gretta, and that our great-grandfathers had served together,” says Michael.
Time and distance may have made it more difficult for ex-RIC men and their families to maintain contact; but so too did the political connotations of their employment history in the early years of Irish independence.
Michael’s own grandfather moved to England after the RIC was disbanded, and later emigrated to the US.
It was only after a decade in New York that he returned to Ireland, but chose to live in Newry from the early 1930s. His brother William was in the new Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast, having previously served in the RIC in Co Down.
However, the fact his grandfather never went back to the west of Ireland, where he spent more of his police career, or his own father’s native Tipperary, suggests a sense of the climate at the time.
“I believe the only reason he didn’t go back was that he wouldn’t have felt welcome as an ex-RIC man. I would say a very large portion of the RIC members left Ireland for such reasons,” says Michael.
Michael also has another reason why his father might have been slow to discuss the police background of his own father, uncle, and grandfather.
On his mother’s side, Michael’s family were all strong republicans from south Armagh, where his grandmother and her sister were shot by the British army in 1922. His grandaunt died alongside another girl, who was also shot.
Silence has long surrounded many of the stirring events whose centenaries are being marked in recent years and the next few, including Irish service in the First World War.
However, the wider sharing of the personal history and stories of the men and women on all sides of those events is beginning to slowly pierce widening holes in that silence.
The Facebook group run by Michael Guilfoyle is ‘Royal Irish Constabulary 1816-1922 — A Forgotten Irish Police Force’