Harrel, Sir David Alfred (1841–1939), policeman and public servant, was born 25 March 1841 at Ardglass, near Downpatrick, Co. Down, youngest son of David Harrel of Mountpleasant, Co. Down, agent for the local Ker estate, and his wife Jane, daughter of James Wharton of Belfast. Educated at the Royal Naval School, Gosport, he briefly went to sea on a merchant ship before joining the RIC as a cadet in 1859. Appointed third-class sub-inspector, he was posted to the depot in Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Promoted to first-class sub-inspector in 1872, he was stationed in Belfast until 1879. He was appointed an RM from 31 January 1880 and assigned to Ballaghaderreen, Co. Mayo, where he remained for the duration of the land war. Harrel took a personal interest in the plight of the rural population, whose hardships he had witnessed as a policeman. He exercised his sympathies for the tenantry by applying justice rather than simply enforcing the law. In November–December 1880 he took charge of security at the Co. Mayo estate of Lord Erne, on the departure of its eponymous land agent Capt. Charles Boycott (qv). Harrel's even-handedness in the face of escalating tenant–landlord conflict was remarkable in the volatile local conditions of law and order at that time.
From 9 January 1883 to 28 January 1893 he served as chief commissioner of the DMP, at a time in Dublin when relations between police and public remained reasonably cordial. His first few months in office were marked by the arrests, trials, and convictions of the Dublin Invincibles. In 1893 he was appointed under-secretary for Ireland at Dublin Castle, with responsibility for government administration under conservative and liberal chief secretaries. He also served on several trade relations committees and on the Congested Districts Board, established in 1891 for the relief and improvement of economically depressed regions. As under-secretary, he insisted on maintaining an efficient, well-armed constabulary in Ireland, criticising what he regarded as laxity in defence policy during the comparatively peaceful era of ‘killing home rule by kindness’. He was much decorated during his tenure at Dublin Castle, receiving a CB (1887), a knighthood (1893), a KCB (1895), and a KCVO in 1900, the year he was appointed to the Irish privy council. Retiring on health grounds in 1902, Harrel remained active as member and chairman of diverse national boards and commissions ranging from industrial relations and police to fisheries and coast guards. Further honours included a GBE (1918) and a GCB (1920). The chief secretary Augustine Birrell (qv) described Harrel as ‘one of the best heads in Ireland’ (Ó Broin, 53). Harrel calmly but firmly opposed home rule. Though sensitive to all points of view, he consistently championed the British administrative system in Ireland. In giving evidence to the Hardinge commission of inquiry after the 1916 rising, he stated that the Irish were unrebellious by nature but easily led by a militant minority. He died 12 May 1939, aged 98, at Bath, Somerset, England.
He married (1863) Juliana (d. 1931), daughter of Richard Nugent Horner, clergyman at Killeshill, Co. Tyrone; they had three sons and two daughters. The elder sons, Alfred and William, followed closely in his footsteps, serving as police officers and RMs in Ireland. The second son, William Vesey Harrel (1866–1956), born 22 July 1866 in Aughnacloy, Co. Tyrone, was educated at the Royal School in Armagh and at TCD before joining the RIC as a cadet, aged 19, in 1886. Posted to Co. Leitrim as a third-class sub-inspector, he was commended on the performance of his duties during evictions there in 1887. Transferred to Co. Louth in 1889, he was promoted (1890) and went to Mullingar, Co. Westmeath (1893–4), serving on the divisional commissioner's staff. He returned in a similar capacity to Co. Louth in 1894, based at Dundalk. In September 1897 he was appointed private secretary to the inspector general of the RIC, Sir Andrew Reed (qv), at headquarters in Dublin. A year later he became inspector of prisons in Ireland, a post of great responsibility, where radical legislation since the 1870s had transformed the Irish prison system from one of corruption and neglect into a contemporary model of reform.
In 1902, the year of his father's retirement, Harrel was made assistant commissioner of the DMP; he was successively honoured with an MVO (1903), the King's Police Medal (1911), and a CB (1912). His fortunes declined during 1913–14 when internal friction over pay and conditions demoralised the lower ranks of the RIC and DMP, the latter using excessive force against civilian protesters during the lockout of 1913 and enshrining itself in labour legend as an object of popular hatred. In the absence of the chief commissioner, Sir John Ross of Bladensburg (qv), Harrel moved swiftly on Sunday 26 July 1914 to stop the unloading at Howth by Irish Volunteers of rifles and ammunition from the yacht Asgard, belonging to Erskine Childers (qv). He proceeded to Clontarf with soldiers of the King's Own Scottish Borderers to assist the DMP in disarming the Volunteers. Chaotic scenes, in which only a few weapons were seized and the rest were successfully dispersed, left Harrel embarrassed and the soldiers ill-tempered at having been thwarted. Returning to barracks, still nominally under Harrel's authority, the troops responded angrily to a jeering, stone-throwing crowd on Bachelor's Walk by opening fire, killing three people and wounding many others. The dead were elaborately mourned at huge nationalist funerals, and the subsequent inquiry resulted in Harrel's forced resignation. In protest, the chief commissioner also resigned.
Harrel's later career was not entirely unhappy, as he served with distinction in the first world war as a commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, becoming a CBE in 1919 and retiring to his home at 1 Clifton Terrace, Monkstown, Co. Dublin. He remained unmarried. He was a member of the Royal St George Yacht Club and the Kildare Street Club, and also a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. He died 4 May 1956. Like his father before him, and his elder brother Alfred Gisborne Wharton Harrel (RIC district inspector, 1885–1900; resident magistrate, 1900–20), he had carried out police and government roles which, though firmly loyal to the British administration, had aimed at serving the greater good within an increasingly untenable system.