The Irish Constabulary in the Great Famine

Published in Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), The Famine, Volume 5

In 1845, the Irish Constabulary, which was organized in its permanent form in 1836, was deployed countrywide to control agrarian crime. Even though fears of violence were high in provincial landlord and merchant circles during the Great Famine, the police mostly found themselves witnesses to human tragedy. The desperation of the famine produced some 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, which defined the Constabulary’s post-famine role.
The Constabulary became a familiar fixture in Ireland during the famine. The discipline and military bearing with which the police were associated were strictly maintained, as were the barrack routines laid down by the Constabulary Code. A Constabulary function that was firmly institutionalised during the famine was collecting statistics. It may seem perversely mundane that Irishmen on the public payroll reduced the suffering 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 recorded at the local level by the police and local magistrates.
The Constabulary’s role in districts seriously affected by hunger and disease derived almost entirely from its regular duties and assignments, but responsibilities were added as needs dictated. The pressure and duration of duty in famine-afflicted districts was unprecedented and would only be approached again during the Land War of the early 1880s and the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21.
The Irish National Archives contain collections of papers that describe conditions in Ireland during the famine and the Constabulary’s activities. The Outrage Papers and the chief secretary’s office’s Registered Papers, for example, are organised by county for the famine period, which permits a detailed view of how the famine affected different areas, such as Clare, Galway, Mayo, and Tipperary. There are also collections of famine-era Constabulary circulars in the Public Record Office, Kew.

Fears of famine violence

The Constabulary’s first assignment was to keep the misery of famine Ireland from erupting in violence that threatened property, property owners and good order as defined at Dublin Castle and Westminster. By January 1846 the Irish government was receiving a steady stream of local reports that potatoes were scarce and the prices of provisions beyond the means of subsistence families. There were widespread fears about unrest and a Resident Magistrate (RM) wrote from Galway Town to ask that a warship and marines be sent to Galway Bay:

The reports which I receive daily of the continued rot of the potatoes in the pits and in the houses are truly alarming. Potatoes are now from five pence to six pence per stone, wholesale…a famine price to the poor unemployed inhabitants…And I know not the moment an outbreak may take place…
He thought that a ‘very large military force’ was needed to preserve order because the twenty-eight resident Constabulary were wholly inadequate: ‘The minds of the people are excited beyond measure. They are unemployed, they are without food…some evil is brooding’. Foreboding in the respectable public mind and reports of possible unrest were taken seriously. Within days cavalry, infantry and a steamer carrying marines arrived in Galway.


While crime related directly to destitution was a serious problem for the police during the famine, the large-scale rioting and plundering that frightened provincial business and professional people did not occur. Still there were local problems and threats that steadily increased the demands on the police. Traditional agrarian crime declined as communities were affected by hunger, death and emigration. But there were large increases in offences of hunger and privation, such as burglary, robbery, livestock stealing, and plundering of provisions. Crime was at its highest levels in Black ‘47, reported offences increasing by about 60 per cent over 1846. There were 10,000 reports of cattle and sheep stealing, 1,200 incidents of plundering of provisions and more than 1,000 reports of stealing weapons in 1847. Very few of these crimes resulted in arrests or convictions, but each required a police investigation.
The high incidence of petty, individual crimes prompted Edward Jones of Clonmel, Tipperary to write that

The country is in a state of nearly perfect anarchy. Our police force is not sufficiently strong…From the way in which the people conduct themselves, they appear to believe that the restraining power of the law is removed. The well disposed and industrious feel uneasy for the safety of their property. They know and hear of cattle & sheep being killed and carried away; of boats & carts being plundered and of assaults & petty robberies being daily committed on almost every road.
Large numbers of destitute families were compelled to leave their homes for failure to pay rent, to find subsistence or emigrate during the famine. So the roads were filled with people who appeared threatening and the Irish Constabulary, mostly deployed in four-and five-man stations, did not appear sufficiently imposing.
The government’s public works programme also caused worry: ‘The present mode of giving employment to the unemployed of collecting them in masses, by which facility is given to them to form schemes of intimidation and disturbance, is decidedly faulty’. This sense that the scale of poverty could overwhelm local Constabulary parties caused a great increase in requests for police during the famine. In 1847 alone, there were 131 requests for protection of individuals; 275 requests for increases in police (ranging from a few to 100 men); and 157 miscellaneous calls for extra police assistance.
Even the progressive increase in the size of the force during these years (from 9,100 in 1845 to 12,500 in 1850, 1,265 extra constables in 1846 alone) fell short of local expectations. Inhabitants of Louisburgh in Mayo petitioned for more police because they

live in a wild, remote district and have reason to apprehend danger to their lives and properties, from the dreadful excitement that at present prevails by reason of the famine…[we] can expect but little defence against the infuriated populace from four police constables composing the whole force here.

This is a good example of the pleas that reached Dublin Castle and the reception that most received. The cost of increasing local police presence was shared between the Dublin government and the local ratepayers. While additional protection was almost always seen as necessary, the accompanying cost to ratepayers was usually viewed as an outrage, threatening letters being almost preferable to notices of rate increases. Since few of the petitioners volunteered for higher rates, they were usually given a polite brush-off.
It is not surprising that some of the most common occasions of violence involved the transport of food and provisions to markets, warehouses, ports, or relief points. The resulting guard and escort duty so stretched police resources that a Galway RM wrote to Dublin Castle about the ‘overworked police force…arising from the escorts they are obliged to furnish for the safe transit of provisions, their nightly patrols and escorting of pay clerks through the country’.
An elaborate system was needed so that available police and troops could handle different stages of provision carts’ routes. Escorting was manpower and time intensive and Inspector General McGregor worried about the effects of prolonged heavy duty. When he was asked to increase offroad night patrols, he complained that

they could but very imperfectly patrol their subdistrict were they even to march the whole night. But it must be remembered that these very men have also numerous indispensable duties to perform on the following day…The physical powers of even the Irish police…have their limits…

Complaints, exaggerated reports and requests for augmented police presence comprised a great deal of the Constabulary-related paperwork generated by the famine. But the famine years figure as a time of extraordinarily heavy expenditure of police time and energy (they went almost everywhere on foot) in a variety of duties. The police sometimes had to confront the types of crime and disorder that the anxious memorials described, but most of the long hours spent by the Constabulary involved duties that varied from tediously routine to cruelly ironic.

Policing government relief

The temporary government relief schemes of 1846 and 1847, public works projects and the soup kitchens that replaced them, required Constabulary supervision. The public works employed donkeys, whose owners were paid. An incident in Tipperary in January 1847 is an example of how easily tensions could escalate. A relief project required six donkeys and twelve animals were available. The local Board of Works steward, a Mr Cosgrave, hired six of the donkeys and then the other six, ‘week and week about’. A donkey owner who wanted his donkey to work continuously brought an armed party to fire on Cosgrave’s house.
By late 1846, there were robberies and attempted robberies of Board of Works clerks travelling to distribute wages at relief project sites. The Chief Secretary, Sir George Grey, recommended that pay clerks travel only with police escorts, but it was acknowledged that the ‘numerous demands for escorts are more than the Constabulary can furnish, as their stations usually consist of only five men, who have also to maintain a night patrol’. The police began to escort public works pay clerks and at least two policemen were shot dead in robberies.
There were also dangerous disputes over the rates of wages. At Lorrha, Tipperary, wages were reduced from l0d per day to 8d An angry crowd of 400 left the road works to protest the wage reduction and drove seventy-two sheep from a field, ‘to slaughter them for their own use’. The crowd and the sheep were pursued by Head Constable Rutledge and his six policemen, who reported that

The language of the body of men was that of self-destitution [sic], such as they would suffer to be shot, that they might as well die there…that they would no longer suffer themselves to be in a state of starvation.

The head constable and the local Catholic curate persuaded the men to return the sheep to the field.
The transition from public works wages to soup kitchens was part of the government’s effort to restrict famine relief and its cost to the local level. But the change stirred fears that government policy would result in disturbances because it was clear that people preferred even miserly public works employment to soup kitchens because they wished to retain some independence and control of their domestic lives. The Cashel magistrates drafted in additional police and cavalry and secured the co-operation of the Catholic clergy to keep things peaceful. At Littleton in Tipperary ‘a large concourse of people’ destroyed the boiler for the local relief committee’s soup kitchen, ‘there being no adequate police force successfully to resist so great a multitude’.
The Constabulary’s contact with the relief system involved much sadder duties. The most common evidence of the impact of hunger and disease was the finding of corpses. An example of the famine hardship that the police saw so regularly comes from Corrofin, Clare, where Subconstable Michael Lynch investigated the death by starvation of John Coleman in May 1848. Coleman had a relief ticket for his family, but his wife was too ill to go to the workhouse:

The body has the appearance of long fasting, and, by all accounts, they are a destitute family. I saw a bunch of withered nettles there which I was told to be intended for breakfast.

The coroner’s verdict was that Coleman died ‘for want of the common necessaries of life’.
The desperation of life in famine Ireland was manifested in other ways that directly involved the Constabulary. Bridget O’Dea was arrested for setting fire to a house near Scariff in order to be transported, since she had been refused relief. In that same neighborhood a man was shot dead for stealing potatoes by Edmond Stewart, who ‘was exasperated at the time, as quantities of his potatoes had been frequently stolen before’.


The hardships of hunger and disease were compounded by clearances of thousands of small holdings for nonpayment of rent and to make way for the further expansion of grazing. Problems of collecting rents presented a convenient pretext to consolidate holdings. The Irish Constabulary did not actually take part in evictions, but frequently were on hand in case of trouble. The scale of famine-era clearances, as well as the density of population on small holdings, are starkly illustrated by a mass eviction on the property of John Gerrard, Ballinlass, Galway, in March 1846. The Constabulary Sub-Inspector, Bernard Cummins, was called on to protect the sheriff’s party with forty-five constables and ninety soldiers:

Eighty houses were levelled to the ground and no resistance offered by the people, several of whom had cleared off previous to our going there. Eighty families consisting of upwards of 400 individuals were dispossessed. The townland contains about 500 acres.
The tenants and labourers of Mr Gerrard from another part of his property were obliged to attend there (very much against their will) in order to assist in levelling those houses.

County Inspector W. Lewis added that

The unfortunate people who were turned out are in a state of misery not to be described, scattered over this neighbourhood, living in the ditches, or anywhere they can find shelter to erect a hut in. Fortunately for them, they were allowed to take the timber of their cabins with them.

Not all clearances were unresisted. A Mr Mannin of Dublin, who owned land in Tipperary, wrote to Dublin Castle to request assistance in clearing tenants and levelling their houses because his agent had been murdered in January 1847. Mannin’s case was an opportunity for a clear explication of the Constabulary’s role in evictions and clearances:

The police cannot be employed in pulling down houses or carrying out any other arrangements…but if an affidavit is made before a magistrate…that an outrage is likely to be committed upon those employed… in a lawful occupation, it is competent to such a magistrate to direct a patrol in the neighborhood…

Even at the height of the land agitation of the 1880s, the police protected but did not sanction evictions. Besides the potential danger to policemen actively participating in clearances of cottiers, there was also the matter of rank-and-file morale. Asking men who were the sons of tenant farmers to take an active part in evictions would have sorely tested the Constabulary’s discipline.
There were sufficient problems and excitement in the 1840s to keep the Irish Constabulary fully occupied with conditions directly related to the famine. But, foreshadowing the role they would occupy in the administration of Ireland for the next seventy-five years, there was yet another duty that absorbed a great deal of police attention and confronted hard-pressed farmers and the police in Ireland with the relentless banality of bureaucracy.

Rate collections

The government’s progressive emphasis on making famine relief a local responsibility and expense meant that, even in the depths of the famine, tax collections were pursued agressively. Even after the public works and soup kitchens were withdrawn, local relief costs could be very high and government at all levels was eager to capture as much tax revenue as possible. The establishment of the poor law system in Ireland in the late 1830s created a new local tax to be collected, the poor rate, and by the early 1840s resistance among tenant farmers to the payment of poor rates required Constabulary presence when bailiffs were sent to seize crops and livestock for nonpayment.
During the famine even substantial tenants were affected by more expensive food, yet they were liable to heavier county and poor rates that left them sometimes unable and often disinclined to pay. From early 1847, as the famine’s impact intensified, resistance to tax collection increased. Dublin Castle directed that poor rate and county cess collections should receive police protection, which quickly added to the pressure on police time and resources.
Even with a Constabulary escort, collection sometimes failed. A bailiff protected by eight policemen seized cattle and sheep in Bansha, Tipperary, and was then confronted by forty people blocking the road. The attempt to drive the livestock through the group resulted in the animals being recaptured. Those involved in the rescue were arrested, but resistance continued. By 1848, some collections were more successful and peaceful, but police and sometimes military protection was often on hand. Anywhere from twenty to fifty police might have to march from different stations.
The autumn of 1848 saw intense resistance to rate collections in Clare. The rate collector for the Gort union went to Cranagh without his police and military escorts. His twenty carts were damaged and harnesses cut by stone-throwing men and women. When the police arrived, the crowd was barricading the road, but the police declined to act without the authorisation of the RM. A couple of carts approached the grain intended for seizure, but they were damaged, the drivers injured and nothing seized. Several stonethrowers were arrested, but freed, so that the police would not be burdened with prisoners in a dangerous situation.
News of Cranagh spread quickly in north Clare and threats and resistance continued. The situation was complicated by the fact that two important sectors of the rural establishment were competing with each other for tenant farmers’ scant resources. The landlords were owed the entire crop intended for taxes and they were trying to cart it off ahead of the rate collectors. The collector at Milrook, Mr Glynn, was advised that ‘the next time you come, bring your coffin, for you’ll require it’. Glynn concluded that ‘the people of that village are unquestionably very poor, and have scarcely any means, but whatever corn they had, which is seized by the landlord’. At Arran, the bailiff was confronted by angry women, who refused to let him pass. They warned him that

no matter what number of police I brought with me, they would treat them and my men in the same way as they were treated in Grennagh [sic] the day before…It is perfectly impossible for me to bring a single beast or a grain of corn out of it without a strong force. This village certainly is very poor, as they live on the seaside and depended hitherto on the seaweed and potato. The potato is now gone and, consequently, there is no demand for the seaweed [as fertilizer].

A collection expedition of 100 police and troops failed at Kinvara and of the Cranagh incident ‘it is generally reported throughout the union that the police and military were defeated’. The resistance that Cranagh inspired created the opening through which

the stock of corn, in numerous cases the only stake for the rate, is rapidly disappearing from the lands of many of the farmers…In a very short period there will be nothing left on these premises available for payment, and the occupiers by their violent and lawless proceedings, will secure exemption from this rate as well as from the last.

The people so described by the Gort board of guardians were not poor relief recipients but tenant farmers who had crops to sell and rents to pay, which shows the long social and economic reach of the famine crisis and the ways in which government relief policies affected communities. Rate collection, like evictions and provision escorts, caused very long days for the Irish Constabulary, who often marched long distances in the face of popular disapproval, if not open opposition.

The Famine’s impact

Policing famine Ireland involved extended hours of duty, the threat of violence and enforcing the law in the face of human suffering. The police were constantly in the presence of the poor and destitute, presiding at relief programs or evictions and escorting provisions and rate collectors. There were severe emotional, morale and physical costs to such prolonged stress of duty and exposure to epidemic disease: the three years 1847, 1848 and 1849 accounted for the highest-ever active-duty death rates, about twice as high as the average for the entire period 1841-1914. The incidence of gratuities to policemen who left the force prior to being pensionable also rose to their highest level in 1847.
The rate of resignation also began to accelerate during the famine. Inspector General McGregor worried in 1848 that ‘many of our respectable men have sought refuge from such excessive work by withdrawing altogether from the force…young men of character having begun within the last twelve or eighteen months to refuse entering Constabulary service notwithstanding the general want of employment’.
The intense activity during the famine accelerated the consolidation of Constabulary roles and duties that continued until disbandment in 1922 and the police were established as a permanent local presence. But Irish policemen did not escape the toll exacted by the famine.

W. J. Lowe is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of History at University of Detroit Mercy.

Further reading:

C. Kinealy, ‘This great calamity’: The Irish famine, 1845-52 (Dublin 1995).

W.J. Lowe, ‘Policing Famine Ireland’ in Eire-lreland, xxix, no.4 (Winter 1994).

W.J. Lowe & E.L. Malcolm, ‘The Domestication of the Royal Irish Constabulary, 1836-1922’ in Irish Economic and Social History, xix (1992).


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