Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review of Inspector Mallon by Donal McCracken, Irish Academic Press (2009)

Inspector John Mallon (1839-1915) was the first Catholic to reach the position of Assistant Commissioner in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), having climbed the ranks through clever police work and political skill. During his life time, and for a considerable period afterwards, Mallon was the most famous policeman in Ireland, having successfully led the investigation into the 1882 Phoenix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish (Chief Secretary of Ireland) and Thomas Burke (Under-Secretary), and crushed the so-called Invincibles, a secret band of republicans who carried out the attacks and who sought Irish independence from Britain. McCracken’s book sets out Mallon’s career and in particular his role in suppressing Irish revolutionaries in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The DMP was divided into six divisions (A-F) and the elite G Division, the detective branch. Mallon joined the DMP in 1858 and was transferred to G Division in 1862 at the age of 22. He served most of his career in G Division, much of it focused on combating politically motivated crime.

Given the very rudimentary nature of forensic science at the time, Mallon’s modus operandi was to try and prevent a crime occurring in the first place by breaking apart conspiracies through informers and intimidation (though not the use of agent provocateurs which he strongly opposed). In solving a crime he would use an extensive network of paid informers (who were often compromised by their own sheer poverty) and would play the protagonists off against each other so that they would inform on each other in an effort to try and save themselves. They were strategies that worked incredibly effectively much to the detriment of the republican cause and much to the liking of moderate nationalists who wanted to achieve home rule through non-violent means and unionists.

McCracken’s book is a fairly pedestrian piece of historical biography. While the book is fascinating in places, the writing is rather dry and it lacks the flair and story-telling of much contemporary popular history. Whilst the book is an academic text, it is undoubtedly meant to appeal to a wider, generalist audience, and I suspect some will struggle to stay engaged. Personally, I would have liked the book to be more widely situated and contextualised by the broader historical frame of Ireland in the late nineteenth century and in particular the nature and politics of policing. This would have helped to explain the wider situation in which Mallon was operating. Some of this context is there in places, particularly in relation to specific events, but not enough of it. At one point, McCracken berates Mallon’s biographer of 1910, Frederick Moir Bussy, for always returning to the case of the Invincibles and the Phoenix Park murders, something that McCracken repeatedly does himself, not unsurprisingly given it was his career highlight, the yardstick against which his subsequent endeavours were measured.

Overall an interesting enough read. I got roughly what I wanted, which was to see how the Dublin Metropolitan police operated and the strategies of detection they used. I picked up my copy in The Reading Room in Carrick on Shannon.

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