An Architectural Conundrum

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The first official police force in this country, the Royal Irish Constabulary, owed its origins to Sir Robert Peel, Chief Secretary in Ireland 1812-18. Two years into his term of office, he introduced the Peace Preservation Act which allowed fir the establishment of a force that would maintain law and order, especially in rural districts where civil disarray was less easy to control. Thanks to his association with this initiative, the force became popularly known as Peelers or, more commonly in England where similar legislation was later passed, as Bobbies. The Irish Constabulary Act of 1822 established a police force in each province with chief constables and inspectors general under the authority of central government in Dublin. Further legislation in 1836 led to what thereafter was called the Royal Irish Constabulary, an organisation which by 1841 numbered more than 8,600 men. At the beginning of the last century that figure had climbed to some 11,000 constables spread over 1,600 premises, these generally known as barracks.

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Although the majority of them were drawn from the locality in which they served, members of the RIC were often unpopular, since they were charged with implementing the authority of the British regime. Hence once the War of Independence began in the aftermath of the First World War, they – and their barracks – were an obvious target for the rebel forces. In the years 1919-21, 513 members of the RIC were killed, while a further 682 were wounded. Many others quit the force: over a three-month period in 1920, for example, 600 men resigned from the force. Unable to maintain control over such a large number of premises, the RIC began to abandon smaller rural barracks: again in the first quarter of 1920, 500 buildings – of different sizes but predominantly in more remote areas – were evacuated. Within months the IRA had destroyed more than 400 of these, seemingly at least 300 in April alone. One of those deliberately gutted by fire during that period is the building shown here.

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The barracks at Clomantagh, County Kilkenny was, as its name indicates, once occupied by a local division of the RIC. Accordingly the local authority dates the building to the middle of the 19th century. However, a stone on the central bell tower is dated 1805 – that is to say nine years before the first police force was established in Ireland – and furthermore the architectural character of the structure is more interesting than was typical of police barracks around the country (which were usually of a utilitarian design). Of two storeys, the building is semi-circular in shape with three elliptical-headed, cut limestone carriageways at its centre, that below the bell tower given a breakfront. The most obvious comparison is with the stable block at Kilkenny Castle some fourteen miles away. Built at the close of the 18th century, this is similarly crescent-shaped, of two storeys and with elliptical-headed carriageways on the ground floor. Clomantagh ‘barracks’ looks like a somewhat less sophisticated version of the castle stables, but it has elegant decorative details such as the round-headed niches found both inside and out. Directly across the road there used to be a seven-storey flour mill dating from c.1775: this was only demolished in 2005. Surely there must have been some connection between that building and what is now called the barracks, even if the latter subsequently became used by the RIC? It is an architectural conundrum, one the present owners, who have already undertaken a considerable amount of essential remedial work and intend to undertake more, would wish to resolve. Their public spiritedness in ensuring the building has a future needs to be matched by discovering more about its past. 

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