Wednesday 16 November 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 20



Here have I been writing for a couple of weeks about the police courts, and discussing solicitors, magistrates, and lawyers, and have made no special reference to the police, who have given the courts their name and much of their business. It is like a performance of "Hamlet" with the noble Dane's part omitted, or like an essay on German culture that would exclude all reference to brutality and barbarity, ruthlessness and butchery, which are its principal developments. The police, like the poor, are always with us, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why I forgot them for a time. And yet for me, of all men, to neglect the police, and especially the Royal Irish, would be an act of ingratitude as well as of stupidity. If to be well known to the police could be regarded as a passport to respectability, I think I should claim a place in the front ranks, for I have been associated with the police in many departments, and have received great kindness from them. I have always found them courteous and obliging, and ready to help me with information and assistance in all cases in which I have called upon them.

My two years in the courts brought me into special association with, at any rate, one generation of them; and unless in one case, which I may refer to hereafter, I have never had an unpleasant association with or an unpleasant memory of the force. In my time the Royal Irish Constabulary had full charge of Belfast, with Mr. James L. Bailley as Commissioner, and Mr. Harrell, Mr. Thynne, Mr. Blake, and Mr. M'Dermott as sub-inspectors — and I will say of them as a fact, which their subsequent careers proved, a finer lot of officers could not have been in charge of any force. In the 'sixties we had a local force; but I had never an opportunity of seeing or judging of them except in the case of one or two who had been drafted into the constabulary from it, and were fine, strong, stalwart men. The riots of '64 and the Commission that followed put an end to the old municipal force. It had come in for much criticism. It was a local and civil force purely, and recruited locally. One of the grievances in regard to it was that it was largely a Protestant force, and under the control of the Town Council. It was alleged that the Town Council gave a preference to Protestants, and that the men were selected more on account of their faith than their fitness. One of the members of the Town Council, and he a Roman Catholic, of the time I believe rather startled the Commissioners — they were Messrs. Bary and Dowse, both afterwards Judges — by the statement that the members of the force were subjected to a preliminary examination, a suggestion that had never been made or heard of before. When asked to explain its character, he said they put them up against the wall and measured them. I am unable, as I have said, to offer any opinion about the old police; but at the time I came into close contact with the Royal Irish I can speak favourably of them. They were a fine body of men physically, and otherwise well trained and disciplined. And they were not confined to members of one denomination. There were Roman Catholics and Protestants in certain fixed proportions. I cannot say what the proportions were, and I cannot say how far that proportion is maintained at the present time. If, however, all I hear is true, the proportions have varied greatly by the increase of Roman Catholic; but as they have always been and, are one to me in kindliness and friendliness, I do not desire to raise any question on that point.

There were not a few policemen from the South and West, and if required some time to establish an understanding between them and the people. Their accent was as strange to the people as that of the people was to them. And it was some time before they acquired the geographical and ethnological knowledge necessary to a satisfactory understanding and a satisfactory discharge of duty. For example, one policeman startled the Court once by declaring that he had arrested his prisoner at the graveyard in York Street, which, of course, turned out to be merely Robinson's establishment for providing tombstones for the cemetery, which was elsewhere. There was another difficulty as appeared to me. At the time of which I am writing the memory of the riots of '64 had not died out; and many in the South and West of the classes that the policemen were recruited from had an idea that all Belfast men were Orangemen, and that Orangemen were all men of Brobdingnagian proportions, who went about armed with clubs to smash the heads of all Roman Catholics — or Fenians, as was the political term of their time — that came in their way. But by degrees knowledge came, and each began to understand the other better. The Southern and Western police found that the Belfast people were not all Orangemen, and that they were men that had the same feelings and passions as themselves, and only differed in their views of the position, power, and authority of the Pope.

I found the police on the whole, and even the Southern police, were not bad fellows. And I found that a policeman's lot was not that happy and idle one imagined by those who knew and saw them doing nothing but patrolling the streets, which they did not consider work at all. I was, and am, inclined to think that there is a wearisome monotony even about that, and always the risk of coming across some rowdy alcoholic person-male or female after their kind; and in my experience in many cases the females were the worse. I have seen the police taking prisoners to the court, and suffering badly in the process; and I have seen them in court the following day with marks of many wounds and scars on their faces and tunics. I learned, too, that there were some policemen who were never happy when they were not about the police court, and I learned of others who were not happy if they were. I do not suggest that this means that the one was more inclined to do duty than the other; it was only a case of taste and idiosyncrasy. I had heard a great deal about the clannishness of the police, about the readiness with which one policeman would back up and swear up for another. Well, I have discovered in my life that there is clannishness everywhere, clannishness at the Bar, clannishness on the Bench, and I did not think any worse of the police because they did their best to protect and support each other.

I was myself a victim of this spirit on one occasion. In the morning, while I used to be entering up the books for the magistrates before the Court opened, some of the police were in the habit of coming in and chatting with me. I had a weakness for joking in those days; but on one occasion I made the dangerous experiment of joking with a policeman. The Corporation at this time had issued a very elaborate series of new byelaws, which interfered, among other things, with the privileges of hawkers selling oranges and onions on the street and spreading their wares not only on the footpath, but on the streets, which, at the time, they did quite freely. The police were continually applying for summonses against these traders and others who broke the new and hardly understood bye-laws, and I suppose that was the reason the fact became so impressed on me. "Hello," I said one morning to a constable with whom I had the temerity to speak with a certain familiarity, "any more byelaws to-day? I declare if this goes on we will soon not be able to take our breakfast without a policeman's permission." I admit it was a poor joke, perhaps, but it was mine own. I made it, and forgot all about it till I was painfully reminded of it later in the day.

A very exciting case was on in the court. John Rea and several other solicitors were engaged, and there were about half a dozen magistrates on the Bench, including the two Resident Magistrates, Messrs. Orme and O'Donnell. It was a police case, and a breakdown was threatened because the police had failed to summon some particular witness. Thereupon my friend of the morning, who had no connection with the case at all, got up and said that it was impossible for the police to do their duty for the way they were obstructed by the clerks of the court. "For example, your Worship, here was a remark made to me this morning by one of the clerks of the court," whereupon the constable opened his notebook and read out the remark I have given above.

Consternation reigned all around. The magistrates looked at each other, and then looked at the clerks — a noble band of four — the clerks looked at each other, and the solicitors and police seemed overwhelmed by excitement. The only clerk who did not know where to look was the one who had made to the constable the remark he had so carefully registered in his notebook. I said I thought their Worships would understand the remark was mere chaff, and that I did not think it was a crime to chaff with a policeman. Then having got familiarised with the sound, of my own voice, and rising to the full height of my clerical dignity and oratorical powers, I said, "Now that this has been mentioned, I challenge him or any policeman in court to say that I ever obstructed him in the execution of his duty."

Then were opened the floodgates of magisterial and legal laudation on the head of the much-maligned and much-wronged clerk, in their opinion. Magistrate alter magistrate and solicitor after solicitor got up and declared that since the days when magistrates' clerks first dawned on the land there never was a clerk that equalled me in all the great and noble qualities that should adorn a clerkship; in courtesy, civility, capacity, carefulness — save the mark! — there was none to equal me. To the extent of over a column the local papers of the next morning chronicled this "Police Court Scene," so that for days after I blushed when a paper of that date fell into my hands.

I may say that till that man's dying day I never forgot or forgave him, and I think he was the only one while he lived, or the only one who ever lived, towards whom I ever entertained an unkindly or bitter thought. But I never got rid of the idea of the malevolent intention, and though on several occasions both before and after his
retirement from the force this constable seemed disposed to speak to me, I absolutely refused to either speak or shake hands with him. Perhaps I was wrong, but all who know me will understand that the wound must have been deep for the thought to rankle so long.

But while I mention this incident, I do it ns an exception that proves the rule that, on the whole, the police in those days did their duty fairly and honestly and honourably. There is one thing I noticed at this time. I think there was a rule in force that the police could get credit for the records of their prosecutions, the number apart from the character. There were four or five men in the force who, in my opinion and that of the other clerks, were more zealous for multiplying prosecutions than for doing other duty. In some of these cases we formed the opinion that the prosecutions were frivolous and vexatious, and pressed with too much severity. I will pay this tribute to the discipline and character of the force, that in a very few years every one of these men had to leave the force, their zeal having overcome their discretion and the official sense of justice. The police were no respecters of persons, and in many respects neither were magistrates. There was a story told, not of these days, but of days later, of two magistrates, had been spending a jovial, if not a riotous, evening together. One of them got too boisterous on the way home, and was either arrested or summoned in consequence. His companion of the previous evening took his seat on the Bench, fined his companion, and gave him a lecture on the disgraceful character of such conduct in one who occupied such a position.

There was another case, also of a later date, which showed the Spartan character of the police. I cannot vouch personally of its truth, but I know it was current, and generally accepted as true. Once during an Assize, one of the Judges, a very genial Judge, indeed, and one of the Resident Magistrates, who also possessed similar characteristics, were, with others, being entertained by the Mayor of the year at dinner at his private residence. He, too, was among the most hospitable and genial of men. He happened to mention during the dinner that their was an establishment in the town where the finest whisky could be procured at any hour of the day and up to a late or early hour in the night. The Mayor was driving his guests home after midnight, and the Judge asked him where was the place where the good whisky could be obtained. The host good-naturedly drove his guests to the entry in which the establishment was situated. A policeman on the beat saw the carriage, and guessed who and whom the occupants were and where they were. He made his way to the house, knocked at the door, and shouted "Police." The poor waiter did all he could by his language and pantomime to suggest to the constable that he should for the time give the house a "bye." But no; duty must be done; the law must be respected even by the highest. And so the constable entered, went up to the room, asked for and took the names of the three violators of the law. I never heard that there was any prosecution; but I did hear that the constable shortly afterwards was promoted to be a head constable. It was evidently considered that such a faithful servitor of the law was worthy of something better than his sweetness in patrolling Belfast streets in the desert night. I do not tell this either to make light of the offence or of those who committed it, but simply because it came into my mind as I was thinking of these old times of the police and their manner of discharging their duties; and I give it for what it is worth. It can do no harm to anyone now living, and it only shows the zeal and fidelity and impartiality of the police, which is the point I have been trying to make.

I alluded above to the sub-inspectors of police in Belfast about the time of which I am writing, as was the term then employed. Now it is district inspectors. Everyone of the four who, I believe, were in charge about the time to which I am referring, made good. Mr. Thynne (afterwards Sir Henry) was not only an excellent officer of police, but an excellent rifle shot, and for many years took a leading part in all rifle competitions, and for many years was one of the Irish competitors for the Elcho Shield. He was also a highly cultivated gentleman, a graduate of the old Queen's University, with treble honours, a gold medallist, and an LL.B. He was held in great respect by the police, the magistrates, and the public. Appointed a Resident Magistrate in the late seventies, in the year 1886 — during the dark and troublous time of Irish crime and history — he was appointed Deputy Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary, a position which he held till 1900. He received a knighthood during his term of office.

Mr. Harrell, now Sir David, was also a very efficient and zealous officer, and very courteous and popular. He was appointed a Resident Magistrate in 1879, and in 1883 was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, a position he held for ten years, when he was appointed Under-Secretary for Ireland. He was a gentleman of sound judgment and great independence of character. It was his son, Mr. W. V. Harrell, that was victimised by the Chief or Under-Secretary in connection with the landing of the arms by the Nationalists about three years ago. The unjust treatment of young Mr. Harrell was one of the basest acts of the base regime of Mr. Birrell at Dublin Castle. I make no reference to the part the then Under-Secretary, Sir J. B. Dougherty, played in the matter. I heard that Mr. Birrell said that it was with great regret he had to punish young Mr. Harrell by dismissal. I suppose his heart bled for him, as the heart of the Kaiser bled for Louvain. Mr. Harrell, jun., was subsequently vindicated before a Commission in Dublin — at any rate, the base treatment to which he was subjected was fully exposed, and his official character vindicated.

Then there was Mr. Blake, now Sir Henry Blake, who has had a most brilliant career. I see that "Who’s Who" says that his recreations are riding and shooting. I should say that amateur acting, with an occasional excursion into literature, were the recreations of his youth. He was a very fine-looking, manly, courteous, and dignified gentleman in his youth, and perhaps that and his amateur acting had as much to do with his success as anything else — I do not say this to depreciate his abilities, which were and are great. He married early in the 'seventies the daughter of Mr. Bernard Osborne, M.P., who was perhaps the wittiest man of his time in the House of Commons. Mr. Osborne possessed a number of fair daughters, who shared his health, if they did not share his wit; and I believe they possessed a good deal of that. One of the daughters married the Duke of St. Albans and another Mr. Blake, who was then a mere sub-inspector of constabulary, who thus linked the police and the peerage in a kind of way together. However, it was not till years after his marriage that great success came to him. He was, it is true, made a Resident Magistrate, and in the 'eighties a special Resident Magistrate, and then honour after honour fell to him — Governorship after Governorship — the Bahamas, Newfoundland, Jamaica, Hong Kong, Ceylon. In all these positions he seems to have done well, and in the midst of his labours found time to write a very fine book of "Pictures from Ireland, by Terence McGrath," which had a great vogue in its time from its literary setting as well as from its revelations. He has now retired from his varied and active duties, and relieves hia leisure by giving the public from time to time letters and suggestions about Irish affairs, which make interesting and suggestive reading, and the result of wide experience of Ireland.

The fourth of the quartet of sub-inspectors of my day, Mr. M'Dermott, became a Resident Magistrate, and disappeared from my ken. I remember, however, that he bore a good Irish name, and possessed Irish gentlemanly characteristics.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 17th November 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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