A Sensational Court Martial: the Wathen Affair, Cork Barracks 1833-4

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In December 1833, Cork barracks was the setting for a court martial that drew crowds of spectators, and whose proceedings were published in papers across Britain and Ireland. Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Brudenell,1 the officer commanding the 15th Hussars, had pressed 6 charges against one of his officers, Captain Augustus Wathen. Three of these charges were for ‘conduct unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman’, which included dissimulation, disrespect and dissent, while the other 3 were for outright impropriety and disobedience. Even before the court martial was convened, the personal conflict between Brudenell and Wathen had been reported on in Cork local newspapers.2 Such was the media coverage of these disagreements that prior to the sitting of the court martial the Freeman’s Journal commented that ‘Captain Wathen has become – and he can’t help it – excessively popular’.3 But how could the officer accused of refusing to obey orders become a popular hero? Court martials of soldiers, NCOs and officers frequently featured in local and national newspapers, but few achieved the notoriety of this one. It was a military trial with a number of compelling narratives: aristocratic privilege, honour and the abuse of power.

The parties involved – Lord James Brudenell and Captain Augustus Wathen – represented two competing visions of military men. Lord Brudenell (he was to become the 7th Earl of Cardigan) was an extremely rich aristocrat with little military experience who had bought the command of the 15th Hussars in 1832 for about £20,000.4 Captain Wathen, not being rich enough to purchase command, earned his rank the unglamorous way. From a military family (his father was Major Augustus Wathen), by 1833, he had spent 20 years in the army, and was a veteran of Waterloo.5 While Wathen was married to Lady Elizabeth, a daughter of the 13th Earl of Rothes, Brudenell had married Elizabeth Johnstone, with whom, when she was Mrs Johnstone, he had conducted an affair. The scandal of Lady Brudenell’s past was partly to blame for the tension between Brudenell and Wathen, whose wife was believed to have snubbed Lady Brudenell.6 Thus the virtuous, hard-working, if well-connected, Wathen was arraigned by the scandalous, aristocratic, military dilettante Brudenell. In a decade where the burning political issue was the reform of the electoral law Brudenell embodied  entrenched aristocratic privilege, whose money and connections surpassed his ability and moral stature. For newspaper readers, this was a delicious story.

Since the military court-room was open to the public, it was an irresistible draw for the ‘respectable Citizens’7 of Cork, who crowded into the room for 18 days of evidence and cross-examination, chatting, murmuring and reveling in the ‘sensation’8 caused by some evidence, even though the fine details of troop debt, stable jackets and equine health were often opaque. Each day, apart from one day of very inclement weather, the court room was ‘excessively crowded, particularly with civilians.’9 The audience was an emotional participant in this trial, reacting to W’s appearance on the sixteenth day with ‘a loud buzz of sympathy’.10 It was clear where the public sympathies lay, for when Wathen delivered his personal testimony (rumored to have been written by his wife)11, ‘an irrepressible and enthusiastic cheer broke forth’ when he mentioned his service at Waterloo.12 Adding to the personal and political interest of the trial was the pageantry that attended a military court. Fifteen military judges, all resplendent in the full-dress uniforms of their respective regiments, faced Brudenell and Wathen, both dressed in the glittering uniform of the 15th Hussars, with pelisses and fur trimmings. The panoply of lace, braiding, shining leather and rich fabrics heightened the drama of the occasion as well as providing a diversion when the evidence became tedious. There are no images of this court-martial to illustrate the glory of these uniforms but I think that this photo of the Cavalry Depot staff in 1878, showing a variety of ranks and regiments, gives a flavour of the peacock pageantry of cavalry officers.

Cavalry Depot, Canterbury, 1878Source

A local newspaper, the Southern Reporter, printed full minutes of every day’s session, and these were reproduced across Britain. The real story, as appreciated by the Southern Reporter, was a human one about the exercise of authority, or rather its apparent abuses by the officer commanding, Lord Brudenell. Wathen had been arrested in September 1833 but the Horse Guards (the term for the London headquarters of the Army) had decided that there was insufficient grounds for a court martial. But Wathen was convinced that he was not safe from his commanding officer’s vindictive nature and his fears were realised in November when Brudenell again arrested him. This time London decided that Wathen should stand trial. What Lord Brudenell did not anticipate was how his command would be scrutinised during the trial. For every allegation of mismanagement Brudenell laid at Wathen’s feet, his captain endeavoured to show how the commanding officer was ultimately responsible.

At the heart of the court martial was the alleged mismanagement by Captain Wathen of his troop and specifically, their finances. Wathen’s troop had incurred a large debt by purchasing large numbers of stable jackets, the uniform worn daily by the men while exercising and working the horses. Brudenell alleged that this was a symptom of Wathen’s poor officership but Wathen showed that his debt was not exceptional, revealing Brudenell’s prejudice against him, but more importantly, how the debt was unavoidable, given his commander’s penchant for new uniforms. Brudenell was undoubtedly obsessed with new uniforms. Under Thackwell’s command, from 1827 to 1831, 21 stable jackets were issued. In the year since Brudenell had assumed command, 80 jackets had been ordered.13 There was a set amount allowed for uniform expenditure but, under Brudenell, it was difficult for a troop not to exceed its budget. In general, an officer commanding a troop took decisions on clothing and equipment, but Brudenell had taken this responsibility into his own hands, inspecting the men himself and ordering new clothing from the regimental tailor.14 The injustice of blaming an officer for excessive debt incurred as a result of the commanding officer’s decisions became clear as the court martial proceeded.

But Brudenell’s case was truly lost when it emerged that he had secretly engaged an NCO to make notes on the conversations between himself and his officers. By spying on his brother officers, Brudenell had spectacularly breached the code of ‘an officer and a gentleman’. It was no surprise when, in March 1834, Wathen was cleared of all charges. What was astonishing was that Brudenell was removed from the command of the 15th Hussars. This was a severe reprimand and it was delivered in a General Order which was ‘read at the head of every Regiment in His Majesty’s Service’.15 Across the British Empire, from gloomy granite barracks in Britain to sweltering parade grounds in India, the General Order clearing Wathen’s name and condemning Brudenell’s conduct was read to every soldier and officer. The Order was also reproduced in newspapers across Britain.16 Even the Times approved of the censure, believing that Brudenell’s practice of setting NCOs and soldiers to spy on their superior officers endangered the ‘discipline, efficiency and honour’ of the British army.17 It was a very public disgrace.

It seems unbelievable that a clothing bill could have provoked a sensational court martial that brought down a commanding officer but uniforms and appearance were fundamentally important to the British army. Brudenell emerged during Wathen’s court-martial as a petty, vindictive martinet, willing to manipulate the army’s disciplinary process to persecute an individual he hated. Though the extremes to which Brudenell took his feud with Wathen was unusual, his attention to sartorial detail was not. Officers who loved uniforms and drove their men to achieve a neat appearance above all else were called ‘pipe-clay soldiers’18 after the substance with which soldiers whitened leather. Such officers believed that a glorious appearance was the signifier of military efficiency. Some took it to ridiculous extremes: an officer commanding the 16th Lancers, the only Lancer regiment wearing red jackets, attempted to recruit only red-haired men and insisted that they be mounted on chestnut horses.19 On a serious level, this fascination with fancy uniforms was dangerous: in 1865 an army committee concluded that a soldier’s kit, designed primarily to look beautiful, contributed to the rates of heart and lung disease in the ranks.20 Far too often the officer class of the British army treated the human beings under their command as toy soldiers to be dressed according to their whims. In many ways, Brudenell was simply the distillation of the worst aspects of the British military system. The regimental system produced some odious petty tyrants, as the weak central control over the army fostered regimental independence in all forms. Just as distinguished and thoughtful officers such as Sir Charles Napier commanded according to their morals and principles, so too did men of Brudenell’s ilk.

And Brudenell was the archetypal aristocratic officer. Although mortified by the General Order of 1834, he and his relations lobbied the King and the Horse Guards so well that in just 2 years, he was given command of the 11th Hussars. Once again, uniforms came to define his command. After escorting Prince Albert on his arrival in Britain to marry Queen Victoria, the regiment was renamed ‘Prince Albert’s Own’ Hussars. To Brudenell’s delight, Albert became Colonel of the regiment and designed their new uniform. Kitting out the entire regiment in this magnificent new uniform reputedly cost Brudenell £10,000 of his own money. Resplendent in red trousers with a yellow or gold stripe down the side, the regiment was dubbed ‘the Cherry Bums’. Even among the peacocks of the British army, the uniform of the 11th Hussars was dazzling.

However, Brudenell remained a controversial figure, falling out with his officers and scandalising public opinion by having a soldier flogged on Easter Sunday, just half an hour after divine service had ended. He did not see military action until the Crimean War, when he infamously led the Charge of the Light Brigade to its doom. He was also the first man to return from the fray, leading to accusations of cowardice and further public opprobrium. Eventually, Brudenell made an enduring mark on fashion but not until 1868, the year of his death, when the ‘cardigan’ first appeared.21 James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, is now associated with an informal, woolen garment, a piece of clothing bearing no relationship to the tailored, tight, embellished uniforms that defined his military career.

  1. His parliamentary career in detail is here: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/brudenell-james-1797-1868.
  2. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, (under the presidency of Sir John Suchan, and conduct of Mr. Judge Advocate General Walker) on the 23rd of December, 1833, and continuted, by adjournments, to the 16th of January, 1834 (London and Dublin, 1834) p 8.
  3. Freeman’s Journal, 24 December 1833.
  4. Saul David, The Homicidal Earl: A Life of Lord Cardigan (1997), p 61.
  5. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 153.
  6. Tremens Exeter Flying Post, 6 February 1834 (excerpting New Weekly Dispatch.)
  7. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 15.
  8. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 155.
  9. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 35.
  10. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 116.
  11. Times, 18 January 1834.
  12. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 154.
  13. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 61.
  14. David, Homicidal Earl, p 64.
  15. The full proceedings of the general court martial, held at Cork Barracks, p 187.
  16. Freeman’s Journal; 6 February 1834; Caledonian Mercury, 8 February 1834; Ipswich Journal, 8 February 1834; Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 8 February 1834; Manchester Times and Gazette, 8 February 1834; Newcastle Courant, 15 February 34.
  17. Times 4 February 1834
  18. Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle: from the Napoleoonic Wars through the Crimea (Harvard, 1996), p 24, 50.
  19. Myerly, p 29. The regiment was known as the ‘Scarlet Lancers’.
  20. Myerly, p 27.
  21. There is no evidence Brudenell wore a cardigan during the Crimean War – he probably wore one in his chilly country house, Deene Park. Richard Rutt, A History of Hand Knitting (1987), p 135.
Posted in Augustus Wathen, Britain, Cavalry, Co Cork, Court Martial, Crimean War, Earl of Cardigan, History, Ireland, James Brudenell, Lady Elizabeth Rothes, Military, Scotland, Urban | Comments Off

Digitised Document: Cork Military Tattoo Programme, 1936

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In an earlier post, I wrote about the Cork Military Tattoo in 1936, reproducing the dramatic and eye-catching front cover of the souvenir programme, which features a distinctly German silhouette of an Irish soldier. But the front cover is just the introduction to a fascinating cultural artefact. Unfortunately, this particular publication does not seem to be preserved in a Cork or Dublin public library. I only secured a copy because it turned up in a house clean-up. So I have scanned every page, even the blank ones and the duplicates, and created a PDF file for your delectation.

Of the 68 pages in this programme (inclusive of covers), just 29 are about the tattoo itself, while 38 are advertisements. Here, Cork business – past and present – advertise alongside the familiar alcohol and tobacco brands. There is even a perplexing adertisement for a military airplane, the Avro ‘Anson’, though the Cork audience was unlikely to be in the market for military hardware (p. 38). The adverts for the three national newspapers are particularly amusing: the paper of record, the Irish Times ‘is welcome into the home because … It offers a real opportunity for the whole family to get together and discuss important happenings locally, and all over the world’ (p. 42). Forget about the Angelus, the right newspaper was the bulwark of the happy home. The Irish Press (now extinct) advertisement featured a Celtic warrior towering over the tilled fields and smoking factories of Ireland, carrying a banner proclaiming ‘From Strength to Strength’ (p. 28). Thus the progress of the nation and the newspaper went hand in hand. The Irish Independent was the most prosaic advert of all, choosing to emphasize the size of its readership: 130,000 (p. 52). With so many local and national businesses advertised, this is as much a commercial directory as a programme for a government event.

Posted in Co Cork, Commemoration, Document, History, Ireland, Irish Army, Military, Tattoo, Urban | Comments Off

The Last Tattoo: Dublin, September 1945

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The last great military tattoo organised by the Irish army was held in Dublin in September 1945, and it published an illustrated guide to accompany the fortnight-long military exhibition and tattoo staged in the RDS. The event was held to raise funds for the Army Benevolent fund but the government also had an eye on the wider context of the Emergency (known to the rest of Europe as World War II), for the ‘general motiff’ of the Tattoo was the ‘Preparation for Defence’. 1 Just as the Irish Times published its report on tattoo plans in April 1945, the Allied forces in Europe were engaged in what the final push of the war, overunning Western Germany and meeting the Soviet army at the Elbe on 25 April. It was undeniably surreal to plan a show and exhibition about Irish martial traditions as the greatest military conflagration in history, from which the Irish had pointedly abstained, was coming to its bloody end. Although the Irish army had (mercifully) evaded battle, the government was determined to mark the contribution of the armed forces to the state during the Emergency. Thus, to benevolent and political ends, events in Dublin and around the country celebrated the men who had served in the defence forces.  The souvenir programme for the Dublin tattoo and exhibition featured Eoin Ruadh O’Neill on the front cover, because O’Neill’s victory at the Battle of Benburb (1646) was the historical pageant centre-piece in 1945. In previous years, the army had re-enacted Patrick Sarsfield’s Ride to Ballynetty (1690), the Siege of Clonmel (1650) and the storming of the GPO (1916).


The transparent figure of O’Neill looms over the corporeal figures of the Ireland’s modern army, expressing the ‘spiritual link binding the Defence Forces of today …. and the Irish armies of the past.’ 2 According to the Irish Times reporter, the ‘colourful’ Battle of Benburb pageant was also a little ‘confusing’: ‘the only impression of the battle one gained was that when Munro’s men charged twice they were each time driven back with surprising ease, but when the Irish charged Munro’s men in return, the English forces were completely routed with equal ease.’ 3

However, not all national newspapers were as jaundiced as the Times. The Irish Press (inextricably associated with Fianna Fail, the governing party) and the Irish Independent were unreservedly positive and occasionally breathless with admiration in their coverage of the tattoo. Munroe’s armies – ‘grotesque Redshanks’ – were routed by ‘hot-blooded, impetuous’ Irish troops in one devastating charge, according to the Irish Press. 4 The Irish Independent reporter was taken aback by how impressive the show was: ‘I can truthfully say that every item was better than I expected it to be, although my expectations were high’. 5 Apart from the epic Battle of Benburb, the historical pageant was identical to previous years, with a march of armies beginning with the Red Branch and ending with the victorious republican forces of 1921. While audiences may have been familiar with much of the tattoo from previous performances, the military exhibition was a novel addition. More than 200,000 exhibition tickets were sold 6 and the exhibits were predictably popular among children, as this footage shows.

Once again, the Irish Times reporter cast a sceptical eye on proceedings, pointing out how much of the ‘modern’ heavy weaponry on display was no longer used by other European armies. Impishly, the headline proclaimed, ‘British-Made Arms At Military Exhibition’. 7 On the other hand, the Irish Independent’s response to the exhibition was one of ‘open-mouthed wonder’ at the sight of the weaponry ‘painted and polished as if they were miniatures in a jeweller’s shop window’. Pretty guns, shooting ranges and mock-up minefields are not generally reliable indicators of military effectiveness but the Independent concluded that ‘this magnificent show’ proved that the army ‘would have made a walk-in or a walk-over impossible, and a quick and easy victory improbable.’ 8 This extravagant praise cannot conceal the air of hectic, barely suppressed giddy relief in this report. Ireland’s tiny, shiny weapons seemed impossibly fragile next to the might of a Great Power. Meanwhile, the Irish Press marvelled that ‘Exhibition Has Everything But The Atomic Bomb’, unconsciously reminding the readers of the awful military power of other armies. In its editorial on the opening day of the tattoo and exhibition, the Press chose to headline ‘For Pride’, summing up its attitude to the event. As the Press and Independent were the most-read national newspapers in the country, these narratives about the 1945 tattoo and exhibition were widely consumed. Although known as the paper of record, the Irish Times has never had a large readership, so its sceptical take on the tattoo and exhibition was unlikely to have influenced popular opinion.

Eoin Ruadh O’Neill (or Eoghan Ruaidh Uí Neíll, or Owen Roe O’Neill depending on the publication) and the victory at Benburb was sufficiently important to merit a tercentenary commemoration and tattoo in Cavan in 1949. The 300th anniversary event featured ‘one of the biggest military parades seen outside of Dublin’, with 100 bands accompanying the army, the F.C.A. and civilian organisations. 9 Because this event was organised by a Cavan committee, the programme is short on items about the state or the army, instead detailing the battle itself and Cavan town’s connections to O’Neill. Another example of a local tattoo commemorating a military event of national importance was held in New Ross in 1948. Here the the Ross Battalion of the F.C.A. staged a tattoo to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ross in 1798. Similar to the commemoration of Benburb in Cavan, the programme was locally written and published. 10

After the 1940s, military tattoos ceased to be public showcases for the state and its defence forces. In 1958, a tattoo was part of An Tóstal, a civic ‘Festival of Ireland’ that celebrated the country’s culture in order to attract foreign tourists. An Tóstal ran from 1953 to 1958, and the first opening ceremony in Dublin featured the Irish army parading through the city streets. (Films of this can be seen here and here) However, the 1958 International Military Tattoo was organised by an athletic club, the Clonliffe Harriers, and was more a marching band display than a military pageant. Parading alongside the star musical attraction – the US 3rd Air Force Band, ‘famous for its precision marching and jazzy music’ – were the bands of the Irish Transport and General Worker’s Union, the Post Office Worker’s Union, and the mass bands of the Irish Pipe Band Association. 11 The Irish Army was represented by its School of Physical Culture, the mounted officers from the Equitation School, a motorcycle unit and its Number 1 Band. 12 Clearly the time for the Irish army to celebrate its achievements with pomp and circumstance had passed. Although the F.C.A. organised a tattoo in McKee Barracks in 1962 to attract recruits, this ‘Parent’s Day’ event cannot be compared to the spectacles organised by the Irish army between 1927 and 1945. 13 The army continued to parade on the streets of Dublin for important state occasions, memorably during the 1966 commemoration of the 1916 Rising, but the historical pageants staged that year were not organised or performed by the army. 14

The flourishing of military pageants in the early years of the state reveal a fascination with the martial history of Ireland, and an unexpected flair for theatre. But a powerful desire to attest to the legitimacy of the modern Irish army strongly emerges from these tattoos, particularly in the accompanying programmes. By intertwining the stories of O’Neill or Sarsfield with motorcycle displays, the army was bolstering its image by re-imagining popular heroes of Irish nationalism. In a glorious fortnight-long military extravagansa in 1945, the defence forces drew attention to their vital role in preventing invasion. This final tattoo proved that the Irish Army had defeated her enemies, and it was victory untainted by fraternal hate, as the 1921 defeat of the British had been by the Civil War. The successful gamble of Irish neutrality had paid off and the army celebrated accordingly. In spite of its success, the army did not stage another lavish tattoo or exhibition again. Was this because of financial resources? Had important figures in the army and the government turned against public ceremonial displays? Or had the very success of the 1945 tattoo satisfied everyone’s need to celebrate Irish military achievements? Perhaps historic military pageantry seemed out of place as the full horror of World War II began to filter into the consciousness of the Irish people. It is worth noting that military pageants also fell out of favour in Britain: the last of the massive Aldershot tattoos was held in 1939. 15 However, those tattoos that were staged by individual regiments or regional commands in the post-war period did not contain pageantry or historical re-enactment. 16 (Caveat: I haven’t done enough research on this, so if you have any information about Irish/British tattoos after 1945, please email me.) It is fascinating that the Irish and British armies, whose war experiences were not remotely comparable, could behave similarly in the post-war years. Whatever the complex interplay between war, and a society and its sense of history, there is little doubt that the cessation of public martial spectacles show that both a state’s imagining of itself and popular consumption of national narratives profoundly changed.

  1. Irish Times 7 April 1945.
  2. The Illustrated Book of the Military Tattoo and Exhibition Dublin 1945 (Dublin, 1945).
  3. Irish Times 1 September 1945.
  4. Irish Press, 4 September 1945.
  5. Irish Independent, 28 August 1945.
  6. Irish Times, 15 Sep 1945; Irish Press, 10 September 1945
  7. Irish Times, 31 August 1945.
  8. Irish Independent, 25 August 1945.
  9. Irish Times, 5 October 1949.
  10. Patrick Donovan, Military Tattoo commemorating the Battle of Ross by the Ross Battalion, F.C.A. in Barrett’s Park, New Ross 5 6 June 1948: souvenir programme containing special study of contemporary Ross and the battle (New Ross, The New Ross Standard, 1948).
  11. Irish Times, 21 May 1958; Irish Times, 22 May 1958.
  12. Irish Times, 22 May 1958.
  13. Irish Times, 23 July 1963.
  14. http://www.theirishstory.com/2010/11/18/a-tv-pageant-%E2%80%93-the-golden-jubilee-commemorations-of-the-1916-rising/#_edn46, accessed 23 June 2013.
  15. http://www.eventfoundation.co.uk/Military Tattoo/History.htm accessed 24 June 2013.
  16. See the Northern Command Tattoo in 1957 and the Tattoo at Warley Barracks in 1946.
Posted in Britain, Cavalry, Co Cavan, Co Dublin, Co Wexford, Commemoration, History, Ireland, Irish Army, Military, Music, Owen Roe O'Neill, Tattoo, Uncategorized, World War II | Comments Off

Barrack Street: a contested street name

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I have always found the street name ‘Barrack Street’ interesting because it is determinedly, unapologetically, literal. There is a barracks here, so that’s what we will call the street. It is similar to ‘Main Street’, an Irish street name whose ubiquity requires no explanation. Not all street names are so down-to-earth; many commemorate the famous (dead or alive) who may never have visited the town in question. Some street names invoke status, such as ‘Grand’ or ‘Mall’ with their echoes of gentility. Each street name has a long and often complicated history, with the maps diverging from common usage or street signs showing two different names for the same street. The image below shows Coburg Street in Cork city, which has an entirely unrelated name, Sráid Uí h-Uigín (O’Higgins’ Street), in the Irish language. 1

Coburg Street/Sráid Uí h-Uigin
Coburg Street/Sráid Uí h-Uigin

Street and place names are a fascinating reflection of politics, snobbery, geography, fashion, vernacular culture and pure chance. Brian Friel took a provocative look at the significance of place names in multilingual societies in his play, Translations. But the play is not too precious about local heritage, pointing out that a place called Tobair Vree was so named because, 150 years before, a local man drowned in a well, an event that almost nobody in the parish remembered, or cared to remember. 2 It is a caution against ascribing too much weight to place names, but politicians have always taken street names very seriously. In 1944, while Europe was engulfed in Word War II, Cork city politicians mulled over the important issue of street names. The Street Names Sub-Committee  drew up a list (and not a little list) of street names that had to go, along with their suggestion for replacements. This is the full list:

Existing Streetname Proposed Streetname
Anglesea Street MacSwiney Road
Albert Quay Casement Quay
Wellington Road Collins Road
Grand Parade Connolly Street
Princes Street Clarke Street
Marlboro Street MacDermot Street
Cook Street MacDonagh Street
Pembroke Street Kent Street
Winthrop Street Plunkett Avenue
George’s Quay O’Donovan Rossa Quay
South Mall Pearse Street

The unacceptable street names were a mix of the posh and the politically incorrect. The memory of James Connolly, Ireland’s most famous revolutionary socialist, would cleanse the streetscape of the genteel Grand Parade. The Duke of Wellington, a British military hero, would be replaced by Michael Collins, a revolutionary founding father of the Irish state who looked good in uniform.  The sub-committee list was not a comprehensive listing of all the British or imperial street names in Cork city: Caroline Street, Coburg Street and Hanover Quay were absent. Perhaps there weren’t enough dead Irish revolutionaries whose names were acceptable to politicians from both side of the civil war divide. In any case, the list was entirely redundant since Cork Corporation could not unilaterally change street names. Two-thirds of the ratepayers on the street had to agree and the sub-committee concluded that such approval was unlikely to be forthcoming. 3

The city’s Barrack Street did not make the list, even though it marks the site of a barracks that was opened in 1689. However, the barracks was gone by the late nineteenth century, replaced by the memorably named Prosperity Square. Perhaps the physical removal of the barracks was enough to make the street name politically unremarkable. Other Barrack Streets were not so innocuous.  By 1890, Dublin Corporation had renamed the Barrack Street that ran alongside the Royal Barracks Benburb Street to commemorate the Battle of Benburb. 4

The cartographic references to Fermoy’s garrison-town past have also been erased: Barrack Hill became Oliver Plunkett Hill, Mess House Lane was dubbed Colmcille Street; New Barrack Street became Sheares Street and West Barrack Street was renamed Bridget’s Street. Only New Barrack Road remains to mark the profound impact the two military complexes (now playing fields) made on the town. These changes occurred in the twentieth century, after the British army barracks had been inhabited by the Irish army. Perhaps it was the unsavoury social associations of the barracks rather than political objections to a British past that motivated ratepayers and politicians in Fermoy. It may be significant that most of the streets were given saints’ names, with Sheares Street being the only nationalist street name chosen. (After the Cork-born Sheares brothers, who were involved in the United Irishmen.) The more pious inhabitants of Fermoy must have been relieved when ‘barracks’, a byword for drunkenness and prostitution, was replaced with native Irish saints’ names.

Of course, not all Barracks Streets vanished. Some notable garrison towns did not purge their military place names: Kilkenny city retains its Barrack Street, as does Athlone, Dundalk, Cahir, Clonmel, Waterford city and Tipperary town. The local political culture of an urban area probably played an important role in deciding to change place names in post-independent Ireland. According to the Placenames Database of Ireland, there are seventeen Barrack Streets in Ireland today, though this is probably an underestimate.

Renaming and rebranding place names is not unique to Ireland or solely a result of the divisive nature of modern Irish nationalism. Across Europe (and the world) street and place names are changed to reflect the aspirations and achievements of political systems.  For example, in the small German city of Pirna, today’s Breite Strasse (Wide Street) was once Karl-Marx-Strasse and before that, Adolf-Hitler-Strasse. But not all the street names reflecting Pirna’s communist past have been changed: Rosa Luxembourg, the revolutionary Marxist, and Maxim Gorki, a Russian and socialist author, are still remembered in the streetscape. Such simultaneous remembering and forgetting are enacted in place names across the world, as societies and governments struggle to define the relationship between the past and the present. Ireland’s Barrack Streets, extant and extinguished, are a small part of that story.

  1. Perhaps local nationalists objected to a street name referencing the British royal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha but did not have the power to change it. The Irish-language name may commemorate Bernardo O’Higgins, but I don’t know for sure.
  2. Brian Friel, Translations (London, 1981), p 44.
  3. Recommendation of Street Names Sub-Committee, 8/11/44, CP/Files/145, Cork City and County Archive.
  4. Rev. C.T. McCready, Dublin Street Names Dated and Explained (1892), p 7.
Posted in Barracks, Co Cork, Co Dublin, Co Kilkenny, Co Louth, Co Tipperary, Co Westmeath, Commemoration, Germany, History, Ireland, Military, Place Names, Street Names, Urban | Comments Off

Barracks and Prisons: Museums in garrison towns

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Time for some reflections on the tourist legacy that garrison towns can exploit. This year, I visited Kilkenny and Cork barracks museums, then Spike Island in Cork Harbour. Each visitor attraction tells a unique story, though Spike Island is by far the most complicated historic site and a fascinating example of garrison town tourism.

Cork Harbour, the second-largest natural harbour in the world, has a long naval history. The great forts at the harbour’s mouth, Camden and Carlisle (renamed Forts Meagher and Davis by the Irish state) are a physical manifestation of the strategic importance of Cork to the British army and navy. From this harbour, British forces provisioned and recruited for overseas campaigns, such as Sir Charles Grey’s expedition to the West Indies. Thirteen ships, full of troops recruited in Ireland, left the harbour in November 1793 for Barbadoes. 1 Fort Westmoreland, now called Fort Mitchell, was constructed on Spike Island between 1804 and 1860. The fort has been a barracks, a deportation point for convicts transported to the colonies, a labour camp, a civilian prison and a military prison. The tour I took was very entertaining, headed by a local man who had also served on the island as a young soldier. His personal reminiscences, told with great style and distinctive Cork humour, were the most memorable part of the tour. We giggled when he told us how, as a young recruit, he whitewashed the coal so that any midnight thefts by the civilian population resident on the island (known as ‘boat people’) could be detected the next day.

But the island’s story is so complicated that our guide struggled to convey it. He also had to stick to the official narrative, laid out online and in the pamphlet we were given. 2 Unfortunately, this meant we were treated to a 10 minute exposition on the life of Little Nellie of Holy God, a soldier’s child who achieved local fame for her piety.

Reputedly the house that Nellie lived in

To the non-Irish, non-Catholic tourists, this part of the tour is mystifying. Even in Cork, Little Nellie has faded from popular consciousness. The Good Shepherd convent where she died and was buried is abandoned and derelict. And if this story is intended to appeal to children, it is badly chosen. What parent on a family outing wants to discuss the painful, lingering death of a five-year old?

The disjointed architecture of the fort itself was striking: the massive nineteenth-century fortifications make a curious contrast with the twentieth-century prison fences and barbed wire.

Fortifications and prison fences

Every type of lawbreaker, from the patriot John Mitchell (1815-75) to the notorious criminal Martin Cahill (1949-94), has been imprisoned in the fort. Young twentieth-century car thieves, known as ‘joyriders’, were held in the same place as men and women convicted of petty theft in the nineteenth century. Convict transports left Spike in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries: first to Barbadoes and subsequently to Australia. 3 There were 2 serious prison riots on the island: one by Irish Volunteers in October 1921 4 and another by civilian prisoners in 1985. 5 How can we tie these stories together? In Irish popular culture, the republican prisoners of the 1920s were heroes, while the young male joyriders incarcerated on Spike in the 1980s were ‘scumbags’. 6 How Spike Island has been a prison for criminals and malcontents for two centuries, continuing its penal function under the Irish state, invites us to contemplate definitions of crime and society. Are all criminals equally, well, criminal? While the state has might on its side, does it have a monopoly on justice? Obviously, a tourist experience isn’t the place for deep contemplation – that would be a real downer on a family day out. The Council is still working on a development plan for the island, so perhaps the narrative will become more reflective. 7

Other military sites with visitor attractions can tell difficult local stories with regard to the international context. Both Cork and Kilkenny barracks – working military barracks – have small museums on site that sensitively describe the buildings and the people. Kilkenny (called James Stephens’ Barracks) is a superlative example of a successful fusion of local and military history, where tales of local soldiers are told alongside displays of debris from World War I battlefields. The history of the Royal Irish Regiment, which was ‘tied’ to Kilkenny under the Cardwell army reforms, is movingly told. A sense of attachment to the past and the long-dead soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment is genuine. Particularly evocative, and unique, are the standards of the Royal Irish Militia hanging from the ceiling.

Kilkenny Militia Standard

As Kilkenny barracks was never a prison, the story is a little less complicated than that of Spike Island. But describing Irish men joining the British army – willingly and in large numbers – is never easy, because in Ireland today, we find it hard to believe that our ancestors could see the British army as anything other than an oppressive and colonising force. If Irishmen joined it, and Irishwomen married soldiers, that may imply that they didn’t have a problem with being British. Of course, the exhibition doesn’t make this point explicitly, but neither does it endlessly repeat that the Irish joined only because they wanted the ‘Queen’s Shilling’.

Cork barracks museum places more emphasis on the struggle for independence than Kilkenny, but this is to be expected as the complex is named after Michael Collins, Cork’s most revered son. There is a whole room dedicated to him. Located in the old Guard Room, the museum is palatial compared to Kilkenny and considerably better resourced. Scattered among the ‘fight for Irish freedom’ exhibits are a hints of other stories such as these World War I postcards.

World War I postcards

Other exhibits range from the curious (a barracks bell replaced because a ‘bench of bishops’ was coming to visit) to the grand (British army regimental silver). I enjoyed learning about the lives of Irish soldiers who served in the barracks, playing sports and founding music societies. This museum has many exhibits and a wonderful view of the vast barrack square but reflections on whether the garrison affected civilian life are lost among the uniforms in display cases. Tying military and social history together may not appeal to military buffs but the case is unanswerable. A few hundred metres away from the gates of Cork Barracks, on Military Road, is Barrackton post office.

Barrackton Post Office

The barracks so throughly imposed itself on the geography and culture of this neighbourhood that there is no linguistic connection between the Irish-langauge placename, Gleann Ciotáin, and the English, Barrackton. 8 The barracks is a pervasive and profound presence in the landscape. A mention of this wouldn’t go astray in a tourist exhibition….

  1. H. R. Clarke, A New History of the Royal Hibernian Military School (2011) p. 85.
  2. Having spoken to people who took tours with other operators, the same broad narratives are told by all.
  3. http://www.spikeislandcork.com/island-purgatory Accessed 10 November 2012.
  4. Peter Harte, The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-23 (Oxford, 1998) p. 112.
  5. http://www.spikeislandcork.com/irish-prison-service-spike accessed 9 November 2012.
  6. A standard hagiographical take on Republican prisoners on Spike Island can be seen in the  TG4 documentary Ealú (Escape) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtLH51t0uBE. Broadcast in 2010, http://www.iftn.ie/?act1=record&only=1&aid=73&rid=4282955&tpl=archnewshome&force=1 Accessed 9 November 2012.
  7. http://www.corkcoco.ie/co/web//Cork%2520County%2520Council/Departments/Corporate%2520Affairs/Media%2520Releases?did=213891373 Accessed 12 November 2012.
  8. ‘Gleann’ means  Glen, ‘Ciotáin’ could be a variation on  a number of words, from ‘ciota’ (wooden mug) to ‘ciotach’ (left-handed, awkward). To explore Irish and English placenames, see http://www.logainm.ie/ Accessed 13 November 2012.
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