Patrick McAvinia, the first member of the Garda

By Brendan Murray

Cavan man, Patrick McAvinia, a native of Templeport, was effectively the first member of the Garda Siochana.

Due to some confusion when joining the force, he was given registration number 2. (The first man on the record did not serve in the force). As a clerk of the arbitration court in Galway, he met Michael Stains, the first Garda Commissioner who brought him to Dublin to help start the Civic Guard (the name of the force at that time). Patrick had previously served with the RIC but he retired from that force in 1917 after the British government threatened the introduction of conscription and its enforcement by the R.I.C. His formal resignation from the R.I.C. is in the Gárda museum and it states that he retired due to Sinn Fein sympathies.

Prior to joining the Civic Guard, Patrick married Cumann na mBan girl, Christina Allen on 12th May 1918. The following June when the illegal Sinn Fein National Arbitration Courts were set up, he worked as an officer of the court and as a republican policeman. These courts worked underground and this meant that like many others, Patrick went on the run. For two years Christina was never sure where her husband was while he moved around Mayo, Carrickmacross and Cavan.

Patrick joined the Civic Guard on 21st February 1922 at its temporary headquarters in the Ballsbridge grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. He helped drill and discipline the incoming recruits many of whom were from rural backgrounds with no experience of discipline or handling arms. On 25th April 1922 the Civic Guard vacated the RDS show grounds in time for the Spring Show and proceeded to a new headquarters in Kildare town to continue their training in the recently vacated military barracks and RIC barracks.

The early days of the State were difficult for the new force; confusion, misunderstandings, and no doubt, a certain amount of lawlessness reigned. In an episode referred to as the “Kildare Mutiny,” Patrick and another sergeant were chased from Kildare town, pursued by a mob and had to run for their lives and take shelter in the house of the parish priest.

In the course of ten and a half months, the new force moved to several different headquarters. Patrick moved with them continuing his barrack type duties in supplying food, equipment and training to new recruits. One temporary headquarters was Collinstown British military barracks and aerodrome (later to become Dublin Airport). The area contained a few wooden huts in bad condition and green fields. Living conditions were draconian. On wet days, squad drill was held in the hangers.

Towards the end of December 1922, the British evacuated the Phoenix Park depot, which had been the RIC headquarters and training centre. All Civic Guard recruits were moved to the Phoenix Park depot and the adjoining Marlborough barracks (renamed McKee).

* There was no general distribution of the Civic Guard throughout the country until last week in September 1922 when members were sent to some of the larger towns and cities including Cavan, Granard and Clones. A list of the 40 Garda Stations opened in the Cavan and Monaghan District up to 1925 also includes Bailieboro, Ballyjamesduff, Cootehill, Grousehall, Kingscourt, Mullagh, Shercock, Tullyvin, Virginia, Ballyconnell, Bawnboy, Belturbet, Blacklion, Glengevlin, Killeshandra, Swanlinbar, Arva, Ballyhaise, Ballinagh, Finea, Gowna, Killnaleck, Redhills and Stradone.

The vast majority of uniformed guards were unarmed with the exception of a small number while assigned to special duties. The entire detective branch was armed. The Government appreciated the importance of the force being unarmed in helping it to be accepted by a divided community. Successive governments were confidant the Gardaí could withstand occasional increases in armed violence without resorting to rearming; a decision which greatly influenced the respect and support for the force by all sides of the community. But this success was bought with the lives of some members of the force. Following the ending of the civil war in May 1923, armed gangs of various persuasions, some just common criminals, roamed some districts. The government did not want to arm the general body of the Guards; instead an armed Special branch of about 200 was formed and in areas where the uninformed branch was finding it difficult to cope, the Special Branch was called in. Throughout 1926 armed crime decreased.

Shooting of Gárdai continued and on 20th March 1931, Superintendent Sean Curtin of Friarsfield, near Tipperary town, was shot dead. In June 1931 it was decided to issue revolvers to all chief superintendents and to increase the detective branch by 200. Commissioner Broy wanted 20 uninformed guards available in each division for protection duty, which would carry arms. Suitable men were called to training. Throughout the 1930s there were occasional instances when Guards were fired upon, but there were no fatalities.

During the “emergency” period, surveillance of the I.R.A was increased, and a growing number of armed confrontations occurred between them and members of the Gárdaí. Regrettably, the Gardaí suffered some fatalities in their fearless execution of duty. The last reveille was answered by a well known member of the Garda in Co. Cavan on 1st October 1942 when Detective-Officer, Michael Walsh died as the result of a gun battle with a wanted man near Ballyjamesduff. Michael had been a noted horseman and member of the Cavan hunt club and show committee.

A recommendation to arm the entire force was refused by the Minister for Defence. He believed that the Gardaí, unarmed since 1923 had functioned effectively and the threat was now much less; and also, the success of the force depended on the moral support given by the community and arming it might diminish this and remind people of the R.I.C. and oppression.

The McAvinia’s transferred from the Depot in Phoenix Park to Julianstown. “Things in Meath were very hot,” recalled Mrs McAvinia in a 1984 interview; “there was terrible bitterness between the pro and anti treatyities. “She remembered her husband cycling his beat. “He got half a crown a month towards the bicycle which he had to buy himself.” The McAvinia’s went on to have ten children and for their sake Patrick and Christina moved to Drogheda town where Patrick was sergeant and worked long hard hours. Guards worked 7 days a week with one day off in the month; their work included a 24 hour duty period (on a rota basis) in the barrack day room; this was called “B.O” - (Barrack Orderly). To ensure hearing the phone at night the B.O slept under the phone in the day room. In the interests of crime prevention and detection, Guards did foot patrol duty in towns, and countryside patrols on bicycle; patrols at night, usually from midnight to 3am were called “rising patrols.” A guard was always on duty outside dance halls and public functions where crowds gathered.

During the 1920s, various government departments imposed non-police duties on the Gardai such as issuing firearm certificates, acting as school attendance officers, census returns, revising voters and juror’s lists, compulsory tillage returns, enforcing the law regarding the cutting of thistle, ragweed and dock on lands, and the delivery of pension books. These duties ensured close contact with the public and aided support of the guards by the community.

Sergeant Patrick McAvinia retired from the Gardai on 24th March, 1947 having served 25 years and 32 days. He then joined an oil company, which he worked with for 15 years. He died in 1963, two years after he retired. Christina, when interviewed in 1984 at the age of 88 was enjoying her retirement in the peaceful, beautiful house and gardens of her daughter, Mrs Olga Markey, in Clogherhead, Co. Louth, far removed by time and circumstances from the violent, dangerous and unpredictable days of her youth and early marriage, but she was heartbroken because Patrick could not share it with her. When interviewed in 1984 she had 37 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren.

Taken from Breffni Blue 2005