The Peeler’s Notebook by Barry Kennerk isn’t just a factual account of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the Victorian era. It’s a tour of the foggy streets of the capital, those dangerous laneways and backstreets which the new recruits or “Johnny Raws” used to patrol – pig yards and mud houses, chickens at your feet, rabid dogs hoarse-barking in the shadows, opium dens on the Liffey, deserted tenements and underground cock-fighting, and Dublin’s booming sex trade with 25 brothels from Aungier Street to Stephen’s Green alone.
The Victorian era might well have been a time of sensible rules, the likes of kite flying and games prohibited, yet the streets were swollen with violence and the graveyards littered with sack’em-ups or grave robbers to the likes of you and me.
Before the Metropolitan Police there were the Dublin Charleys, those old watchmen with long frieze coats and low crowned hats who could easily have stumbled from the pages of a Charles Dickens tale or the streets of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, bottle in hand, crackle in chest, harassed by the students of Trinity College and, in a more violent sense, the gangs of young wealthy men who roamed the streets for fun.
Following instruction from Robert “keep-your-eyes-peeled” Peel, the night-watch was disbanded to make way for a more apt police force in the 1830s and these new recruits certainly had many rules and regulations to enforce in the early years, ranging from prohibiting snowball fights to dealing with duels on Bull Island. In 1839, a great storm hit Dublin, “The night of the big wind” as it became known. Chimneys toppled, people were buried and fire spread. Raw police recruits were forced to take on the role of fire brigade.
At times, it was the police who had to endure the rules. During the 1850s, pressure was coming from on high for all policemen to shave off their facial hair. The constables fought back, 400 signing a petition to keep their taches and bristles. Officers claimed that “almost all, if not all, diseases of the respiratory organs are in great part, if not altogether, caused by the practice which obtains of shaving off the beard”. The Dublin “Beard Movement” had begun.
There was also the regulation walk to contend with, capped at three miles an hour so they were always ready to deal with any issues from the public. Still the police were viewed by most with utter contempt. They were often set upon by crowds when attempting arrest and would sometimes have to sleep in their clothes in preparation for any upcoming emergency, whether that be a wayward hot-air balloon or an Apache attack on Parnell Square.
The streets may have been dull with fog and chronic lung disease but was there ever a time with more colourful characters? Zozimus, the blind street poet, was one of the most famous. He would take up position on a different street each day to make a few quid entertaining the locals.
“Gather round me boys,” he’d say. “Gather round poor Zozimus, yer friend. Boys, am I standin’ in a puddle, am I standin’ in wet?”
Zozimus had a particular grievance with Constable 184B, who had arrested him a number of times over the years. The poet made it his business to exact revenge, producing one satirical piece after the next about the man until the policeman was almost as famous as the poet himself. Tourists would follow the constable around the city and his fame made him open fodder for the locals and journalists too.
How proud Robert Peel must be of such a chap
He stands about five feet nothing in cap
And his name immortalised by his friend Mr D
A statue must be riz to 184B
The Peeler’s Notebook is a treasure trove of stories, the well-I-never sort, the type that get you talking about Dublin and its eccentricities and the characters you might remember from your past. The personal accounts are a nice touch in the book too, not just from the police force but from the likes of street traders and residents, even the author’s grandfather-in-law, who recalls dropping eggs on two policemen nicknamed “Thunder and Lightning” before fleeing into the streets of Kilmainham. Sure, what Dublin childhood doesn’t have at least one story of a good chase?
One of my favourite chapters in the book is steeped in death. Pub cellars could and were often used as morgues and the city was rife with grave robbers and crooked coroners. One such story is told about a Mr Kinsella, who was stopped on a bridge along the Grand Canal by a police constable and placed on a jury panel at an inquest following the discovery of an elderly man drowned in the canal.
As soon as he entered the room, Kinsella fell to his knees and cried “My father!” even though he had just buried this parent of his the week before in the Hospital Fields.
“He had no business in the canal and them clothes never belonged to him,” Kinsella said.
The doctor and coroner tried to convince him he was mistaken but an investigation followed and it turned out that the pair had been disinterring the recently deceased, dressing them in old clothes and pushing them into the canal. The coroner and doctor were paid by inquest and this fee was doubled if suspicious death was suspected and a post-mortem carried out. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Victorian era’s version of Weekend at Bernie’s.
It’s a good book that makes you want to hunt out similar and delve deeper into the characters in its pages. If, like me, you feel that modern life is causing you to lose touch with the history and the heart of this old town, it’s nice to know that a reconnect might lie in the turning of a page in a book such as this. Big thumbs up from me.