The Royal Irish
Constabulary by Stephen Crane
The newspapers called it a Veritable Arsenal. There was a
description of how the sergeant of Constabulary had bent an ear to
receive whispered information of the concealed arms, and had then
marched his men swiftly and by night to surround a certain house. The
search elicited a double-barrelled breech-loading shot-gun, some empty
shells, powder, shot, and a loading machine. The point of it was that
some of the Irish papers called it a Veritable Arsenal, and appeared to
congratulate the Government upon having strangled another unhappy
rebellion in its nest. They floundered and misnamed and mis-reasoned,
and made a spectacle of the great modern craft of journalism, until the
affair of this poor poacher was too absurd to be pitiable, and
Englishmen over their coffee next morning must have almost believed
that the prompt action of the Constabulary had quelled a rising. Thus
it is that the Irish fight the Irish.
One cannot look Ireland straight in the face without seeing a great
many constables. The country is dotted with little garrisons. It must
have been said a thousand times that there is an absolute military
occupation. The fact is too plain.
The constable himself becomes a figure interesting in its isolation.
He has in most cases a social position which is somewhat analogous to
that of a Turk in Thessaly. But then, in the same way, the Turk has the
Turkish army. He can have battalions as companions and make the
acquaintance of brigades. The constable has the Constabulary, it is
true; but to be cooped with three or four others in a small
white-washed iron-bound house on some bleak country side is not an
exact parallel to the Thessalian situation. It looks to be a life that
is infinitely lonely, ascetic, and barren. Two keepers of a lighthouse
at a bitter end of land in a remote sea will, if they are properly let
alone, make a murder in time. Five constables imprisoned 'mid a folk
that will not turn a face toward them, five constables planted in a
populated silence, may develop an acute and vivid economy, dwell in
scowling dislike. A religious asylum in a snow-buried mountain pass
will breed conspiring monks. A separated people will beget an egotism
that is almost titanic. A world floating distinctly in space will call
itself the only world. The progression is perfect.
But the constables take the second degree. They are next to the
lighthouse keepers. The national custom of meeting stranger and friend
alike on the road with a cheery greeting like God save you is too
kindly and human a habit not to be missed. But all through the South of
Ireland one sees the peasant turn his eyes pretentiously to the side of
the road at the passing of the constable. It seemed to be generally
understood that to note the presence of a constable was to make a
conventional error. None looked, nodded, or gave sign. There was a line
drawn so sternly that it reared like a fence. Of course, any police
force in any part of the world can gather at its heels a riff-raff of
people, fawning always on a hand licensed to strike that would be
larger than the army of the Potomac, but of these one ordinarily sees
little. The mass of the Irish strictly obey the stern tenet. One hears
often of the ostracism or other punishment that befell some girl who
was caught flirting with a constable.
Naturally the constable retreats to his pride. He is commonly a
soldierly-looking chap, straight, lean, long-strided, well set-up. His
little saucer of a forage cap sits obediently on his ear, as it does
for the British soldier. He swings a little cane. He takes his medicine
with a calm and hard face, and evidently stares full into every eye.
But it is singular to find in the situation of the Royal Irish
Constabulary the quality of pathos.
It is not known if these places in the South of Ireland are called
disturbed districts. Over them hangs the peace of Surrey, but the word
disturbance has an elastic arrangement by which it can be made to cover
anything. All of the villages visited garrisoned from four to ten men.
They lived comfortably in their white houses, strolled in pairs over
the country roads, picked blackberries, and fished for trout. If at
some time there came a crisis, one man was more than enough to surround
it. The remaining nine add dignity to the scene. The crisis chiefly
consisted of occasional drunken men who were unable to understand the
local geography on Saturday nights.
The note continually struck was that each group of constables lived
on a little social island, and there was no boat to take them off.
There has been no such marooning since the days of the pirates. The
sequestration must be complete when a man with a dinky little cap on
his ear is not allowed to talk to the girls.
But they fish for trout. Isaac Walton is the father of the Royal
Irish Constabulary. They could be seen on any fine day whipping the
streams from source to mouth. There was one venerable sergeant who made
a rod less than a yard long. With a line of about the same length
attached to this rod, he hunted the gorse-hung banks of the little
streams in the hills. An eight-inch ribbon of water lined with masses
of heather and gorse will be accounted contemptible by a fisherman with
an ordinary rod. But it was the pleasure of the sergeant to lay on his
stomach at the side of such a stream and carefully, inch by inch, scout
his hook through the pools. He probably caught more trout than any
three men in county Cork. He fished more than any twelve men in the
county Cork. Some people had never seen him in any other posture but
that of crowding forward on his stomach to peer into a pool. They did
not believe the rumour that he sometimes stood or walked like a human.