By Barry Kennerk
“In the foggy streets, it is difficult for the young constable to pinpoint his would-be attacker. He can’t see more than a few feet in front of him; footsteps echo in all directions and his bulls-eye lantern is useless.”
So writes Barry Kennerk in his new book, ‘The Peeler’s Notebook – Policing Victorian Dublin: Mad Dogs, Duels and Dynamite’, a collection of stories about the city’s sometimes troubled past.
The Dublin Metropolitan Police (also known as the DMP) was formed in 1836. It was the brainchild of Chief Secretary Sir Robert Peel, thus giving rise to the term ‘Peeler’ and ‘Bobby’. The force replaced the old, and very inefficient, City Watch, whose members had the mammoth task of patrolling miles of lanes and alleys, armed with pikestaffs and wooden rattles which they used to summon help in times of danger.
The DMP bore witness to major events in Irish history such as the Night of the Big Wind in 1839, the emergence of Fenianism during the 1860s and the Dublin Lockouts (1913) and Easter Rising (1916).
Throughout the nine decades of its existence, its officers were armed with little more than truncheons, and attacks on prisoner escorts were commonplace.
Stone-throwing mobs often fell upon the constabulary; sometimes in gangs of 300 or more. Sticks and stones were used and, on extreme occasions, bricks, kettles, old basins and other objects were flung out of tenement windows.
Another problem that the police had to contend with was fog. Dublin had up to sixty days of it every winter; so much that mail vans used to get lost on their way to the GPO and not surprisingly, many of the 1400 strong police force suffered from chest complaints and rheumatism.
To combat that, they struck up associations with friendly cab-drivers and took refuge in their shelters during bad weather. During the 1850s, they even lobbied for the right to wear beards to insulate them from the cold.