Category Archives: family history

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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Murphy and the Princess

Murphy & the Princess

DI Murphy accompanies Princess Elizabeth, Belfast, June 1949

There was no difficulty finding gunmen in those days. Swordsmen were rarer. But blades are the style when you’re escorting a princess. There she is, the future Queen Elizabeth, looking very nicely turned out.

It’s understandable that you didn’t notice her at first glance, given the distinguished handsome bloke beside her. He’s District Inspector Murphy – aka Great Uncle Mike – of B District.

He tended to be called in to lead RUC parades on royal visits, partly because he was one of the few officers versed in sword drill. That came from his Irish Guard days.

On this occasion Princess Elizabeth is inspecting an RUC Guard of Honour at Belfast City Hall in June 1949. The following month Michael Murphy was promoted from DI 2nd class to DI 1st class.

Another family policing link is here – Dan Waters of the RIC.

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Scraping the margarine as thinly as possible

Why is that I often find myself sitting at the computer, trying to write, pondering this word or that turn of phrase, until I realise I’m cold, chilled, almost shivering? Anyone with a titter of wit would have got up and turned on some heat. But, of course, you get distracted, caught up in things…

But I don’t think that’s it. I reckon it’s some kind of austerity mentality. I’m far (far far) too young to remember “the war”. I can’t remember it because I wasn’t even thought of, never mind born. But when I was growing up there was a kind of self-rationing in our home. Maybe it was to do with “the Troubles” outside the front door. Or more likely it was from the World War Two home front experiences of my parents, or their parents.

So, you’d turn down the heat. You’d turn off a bar. You’d layer up with jumpers. You’d turn off lights. You’d hold out as long as possible before turning them on in the first place. You’d be extra vigilant to prevent any heat escaping. (See Des Bishop for a hilarious update on this.) No door to be left open.  No tap to be left running. All sorts of bits and bobs to be gathered and stored away for some fantastical future possible use. (“Oh, might come in handy some day if you were stuck on a desert island.”)

And, in a country full of cows, milk, butter and cheese, you’d always spread the margarine across your toast as thinly as possible. More of a scrape than a spread, to send burnt crumbs bouncing behind your knife.

It wasn’t because we were poor. We weren’t. Nor am I now. But I suppose some attitudes are hard to unlearn.

(Going back to the shivering in front of your computer aspect of things. I visited the Roald Dahl Storytelling Centre in Great Missenden today. Good stimulating place for the imagination. I recommend it. They have a reconstruction of Roald Dahl’s writing shed. He had a special armchair with a hole cut in its back, to better support his back. An electric heater was suspended from the ceiling to keep his head warm. He legs were encased in a blanket or sleeping bag. And he wrote on a board propped up at just the right angle,  on a roll of corrugated cardboard, each end resting on an arm of the chair. At his right hand a flask of milky tea. Four hours of uninterrupted peace each day.)

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Dan Waters RIC man

Dan Waters, RIC

Dan Waters, RIC

 That’s my great grandfather, Dan Waters. I suppose he’s part of the story, or the backstory at least. In my story, Blackwatertown, some of the main protagonists are RUC men – that is, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police. It was a very controversial organisation over the years, but more on that another time.

My great grandfather Dan joined the predecessor of the RUC, which was the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Irish Constabulary was set up in 1835, and was granted the prefix Royal by Queen Victoria in 1867 after suppressing a nationalist rebellion.  Dan himself joined later, according to his card, on May 11th, 1875.

Dan Waters RIC card
The RIC disappeared in 1922 with the partitioning of Ireland into the six counties of Northern Ireland in the north east, and the twenty six counties of what is now the Republic of Ireland. Tough times for many members. In the south the RIC was replaced by the unarmed Civic Guards, who were renamed the Garda Siochana. They’re still there. In the north, the I became a U, and the RIC became the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (Northern Ireland comprises six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster.) It’s the RUC who feature in my book Blackwatertown.
The RUC name has itself since given way to a new title. As part of radical reforms, in 2001 the force became the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or PSNI.
So – does this personal link make me any better or worse qualifed to write a story about policemen in Ireland?
PS: There’s another family link to policing here – Mike Murphy, RUC District Inspector accompanying Princess Elizabeth.

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