Oi! No smirking at the back there.

RUC Hastings Street garrison, Brickfields district, Belfast. 1923/24.

What a difference 30 years makes. In this police photograph from the 1920s almost no-one is smiling. I have another of new recruits to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) taken in the 1950s where nearly everyone is beaming. Two photos, two different sets of people, two different times, two different generations.

This one includes the father – my grandfather. When this post was originally published I included his name, rank and where he is in the picture. But I’ve been asked to remove the name – so I have done so.

But he’s easy to spot. The handsome one with the patrician air. (God no, not yon dopey-looking one.)

You’ll notice they’re a serious bunch. I suppose given that they’re in a tough area – the Belfast’s Brickfields police district – and that some of them will have survived World War one, the Irish War of Independence, civil war, pogroms and general rioting – it’s understandable. Or perhaps it was the rule back then. No smiling while on duty. Perhaps Smiler in the back row, left hand side, is actually squinting, not grinning.

I was struck by the contrast between this photo, and another from the mid 1950s. In the later one they’re all smiling. Including the son of the handsome one above. (I hope to put it on display shortly.) Maybe it’s because peace has broken out and war in Ireland is a sufficiently distant memory. They weren’t to know that the next round of hostilities was heading their way in a couple of years time – the IRA’s 1950s border campaign (which is the setting of my book, Blackwatertown).

So the men in this photo are the fathers or uncles of the police officers who fought in the ’50s campaign. They were a formidable bunch.

But back to 1923/24. Does anyone else remember those snake-clasp belt buckles? I remember coveting one when I was small. (Which was only the other day. Or perhaps the day before.)

Perhaps some faces in the picture are familiar. Drop me a line if you recognise anyone. (I’ve posted pictures of some other branches of the family policing tree: Dan Waters & Michael Murphy.)

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10 Comments

Filed under family history, history

10 responses to “Oi! No smirking at the back there.

  1. Soft toilet paper. Bet that’s the difference.

    And yes, snake-clasp belts rocked. I had a red and green one.

  2. Basil Dajani

    Fascinating piece. Would be interested to see your Dad’a pic. Photography was still in its relatively early days. It wasn’t so long since portraits required several second’s exposure and victims had to be clamped in place. That might partly explain the convention of striking a deadly pose when photographed.

    • Good point about the length of the exposure. I hadn’t thought of that. (Though they do say that it takes fewer muscles to smile than frown – even in Northern Ireland.)
      However, I should clarify one other point, for you and anyone else who came to same conclusion from the original post. My Dad himself was never in the RUC. Nor even the RIC.
      (That’s just me being cheeky. He’s far too young.)

  3. My Gram was born on Sandy Row in Belfast in 1924, and she has some very distant but distinct memories of the police and rioters from her early childhood. It is fascinating for me to put visuals like this with the stories she’s told me.

  4. Hungover Guy

    As much as I can understand right now, I think you’re right!

  5. Gerry

    Hi Paul,
    I think that my Granddad is in your RUC photo but I’m not sure. Is there anyway of finding out the identity of them?

  6. What a wonderful photograph –
    I just love images like this, there’s just so much history there…
    🙂

  7. Which (in turn) reminds me of my first visit to N.I.It was in 1968.the marching season was just begining as i stepped off the ferry from England.I was 16 & knew nothing of Irish Tension.I was was travelling with a mate.Hitchhiking from North To South.That Night we were staying at his relatives on The Shankhill (I was under instruction not to mention I was a Catholic)
    Anyway!Long Story Short.Arriving on the dockside.First person I saw was this big Grim looking Policeman with a Grim looking gun on his hip (I had never seen a gun before,apart from driving through East Germany in 1965)
    My point is, I found the policeman’s Grim look reasurring .He looked as startled as me!Had he been smiling I would have been worried.On TV only the “Baddies” smiled with guns around!

    • blackwatertown

      Good story. I like the idea of the smile as negative signal. It often seems to be in that part of the world.

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