A s he filed out with the congregation from St Anthony’s Church in Clontarf one Sunday morning in 2015, retired Detective Sergeant Michael Finn was approached by a local man, telling him about some ledgers discovered in a nearby skip.
The ledgers were similar to the large volumes kept at the Bridewell Garda Station behind the Four Courts in the 1960s and 1970s. Finn recognised the shabby, stained books for what they were: arrest books.
Since they were found in 2015, the four volumes of Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) records, which cover the years from 1905 to 1918, have been kept in Dublin Castle.
Local historian and author Padráig Yeates pushed for the books to be digitised and put online. Now he wants to take it one step further.
He hopes University College Dublin will find a way to make the volumes easily searchable. “What the books give you,” says Yeates, “is a snapshot of Dublin.”
Looting and Bicycle Thieves
The four large leather-bound, double-ledger volumes contain hand-written entries that record the details of daily charge sheets issued by DMP members to offenders or alleged offenders.
Each volume covers a couple of years, and contains the names, ages, addresses, occupations, alleged offences and, in most instances, outcomes of cases for more than 30,000 people arrested by the DMP, says Yeates, sat inside the Dublin Civic Archives on Pearse Street on a Friday afternoon.
The allegations are varied. James Irvin, a Grand Canal boatman, was arrested for “stealing porter” in 1907. Robert Steel, a Glasnevin local, was arrested for “wife desertion”.
It soon becomes clear that Yeates has an encyclopedic knowledge of the DMP arrest books. In 1916, for instance, the biggest group of offenders were deserters from the army, he says.
“I’d say if you look at any book from here to Moscow, the biggest group of offenders were people trying to get out of the army,” he laughs.
During the First Word War, you were considered an “absentee” if you were missing from the army for fewer than 30 days. Anything above that and you’d be a deserter.
But the punishment meted out to these officers often went undocumented, says Yeates. Such was the volume of absentees and deserters in those days.
On 31 March 1915, soldier Edward McDonnell was charged with desertion at College Street Station. His listed sentence? “Given to Escort.”
“In some units, they would court-martial them and go through the procedures. But in other units they wouldn’t,” says Yeates. “We don’t know for certain what happened. What we suspect happened, and this is anecdotal evidence, is that soldiers would be taken around the back and given a good hiding, run through the gauntlet.”
Yeates says that he initially found it difficult to muster interest in the records once he and Finn decided they should be available to the public. Said Finn: “[We] decided they should not go anywhere that they’re just going to go into a hole in the ground.”
A former trade unionist, Yeates later persuaded SIPTU to front some money – €3,000 to be exact – to help get the arrest books to a wider audience.
While there is an index at the back of each book, with over 30,000 entries, it can be tedious trawling through each one, says Yeates. “Because they’re handwritten, you’ll find a relatively rare name, but someone like Murphy or O’Brien … you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Retired Detective Sergeant Finn hopes that people will be able to search them online soon. “It was my understanding that they would be digitalised with the inclusion of a system of searching,” he says.
The library at University College Dublin has been looking at what technology to use to transcribe the hand-written entries, and how to archive the text, said John Howard of UCD Library Services, by email.
They’re looking at how to do that for all their hand-written historical records, whether letters, diaries, scientific texts, or arrest registers, he said.
That worries Yeates a bit, as he sees other centenaries on the horizon – that of UCD student and republican Kevin Barry’s death, for example – and is concerned that the arrest books could be put on the back-burner.
“It could be the other side of the centenaries,” says Yeates. “That’d be a pity in a way because one of the groups who are very interested are prisoners. There are people in Wheatfield and Mountjoy today who would have had grandparents in these books.”
Yeates recently gave a talk at Wheatfield Prison where, he says, those inside expressed an interest in finding out more about their relatives. The Prison Officers Association, he says, also wants to bring the books into prisons for research.
“They said they’d be delighted,” says Yeates. “What we could do is take in a couple of pages at a time and do it by volume.”
The largest group recorded in the DMP records are Dublin’s children.
On 9 November 1913, 12-year-old schoolboy William Bacon from Augustine Street was arrested for “wilful damage”. He was sentenced to seven days in prison.
On 6 April 1915 Mary Gandey, a 14-year-old servant from Buckingham Street was arrested and charged with larceny. She was later released on bail.
The books record larceny, house-breaking, and theft. But you can see how the authorities of the day were reluctant to send the children to places such as Artane Industrial School, says Yeates.
“What they did was they’d fine them, put them on bail or put them on probation for six months,” he says.
The Dublin Metropolitan Police was abolished in 1924 under the newly formed Free State, making way for An Garda Síochána, which had been established in 1923.
The physical DMP arrest books are held at the Garda Museum in Dublin Castle. It has, however, been closed for renovations for a while.
Sergeant Martin Drew, who ran the museum, says that he hopes the museum will be up and running again soon, but there is no exact date.
Historian Yeates has no doubt as to the import of the DMP arrest books. Blue-collar crime, the arrest of 1913 Lockout protesters and 1916 Easter Rising looters, the recorded run-ins with the law on Dublin’s streets are “a great social document”, he says.