Barrack burial grounds and military families in County Cork

The burial of John Leonard in Cork’s military cemetery in 1866 attracted ‘a mob of 200 or 300 people’ anxious to observe his interment.1 John Leonard was a popular man but he was an ‘old soldier’ rather than an enlisted man who died in service. His burial was not accompanied by military honours such as a gun carriage for a hearse. The caretaker claimed that ‘it was by privilege’ that Leonard’s remains were interred in the military cemetery.2 Why was an old soldier granted the privilege of burial in a cemetery owned and maintained by the city’s military authorities? Opened in 1849, the military cemetery provided burial space for the officers, men and their families who lived in Cork city’s large barracks.3

Cork barracks and adjacent military cemetery, OS 25″ map

As my previous post explained, even veterans of the most celebrated conflicts were not buried in military cemeteries. Given that the army offered no support to men after their discharge, it is unlikely that old soldiers were intended to benefit from this burial ground. Yet the army also tried to portray itself as a family, where a shared attachment to the institution could simulate a kin relationship.4 The military burial grounds across Ireland that reflect the army and the humanity of the individual show that the military were occasionally successful in this endeavour. John Leonard’s friends probably secured a burial plot by appealing to the ideology of the military family. Although the preferred military identity promoted by the army deliberately marginalised soldier’s biological families, cemeteries also reveal the existence of women and children who were poorly documented by the institution.

To arrange the funeral, John Leonard’s friends and family asked permission from senior officers in Cork military district to inter the old soldier among serving military men and their families. Since the cemetery’s caretaker was employed by the Assistant Adjutant General, Colonel William Sherbrooke Ramsey Norcott, it is possible that he granted permission for burials.

Colonel William Sherbrooke Ramsey Norcott

Cork’s military cemetery is very poorly preserved – there is no surviving burial register and the gravemarkers have been disturbed– so we do not know how ex-soldiers secured a burial plot.5 Petitioning by acquaintances and former colleagues who could describe long service, dedication and sobriety may have played a significant role. This informal process may never have been recorded because these examples of senior officers exercising discretion did not affect the military balance book.6 The burial ground also contained memorials that testified to the close personal bonds between fellow soldiers. Regimental badges and mottoes adorned the headstones of soldiers that were purchased by their grieving mess-room fellows.

Artillery insignia on a gravestone, Fermoy New Barracks Cemetery
‘Ready, Aye, Ready’ motto on gravestone, Fermoy New Barracks Cemetery

The personal bonds between enlisted men were celebrated in the cemetery, embodying the idea of the regiment as a surrogate family. Old soldiers like John Leonard desired to be interred in a burial ground that celebrated the army as a family. Burial in a military cemetery was desirable because it offered post-mortem recognition of military comradeship that thrived in barracks across the world.

These long-closed and abandoned barrack cemeteries have a unique intimate character. Unlike headstones in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries which mimic uniformed men on parade, the earlier military cemeteries are populated by diverse memorials to men, women and children of all ages, whose memorialisation was not determined by a central committee adjudicating on their war service.7 In addition to articulating the idea of the army as a family, these home-front cemeteries were domestic spaces where military families supported by the regiment those living ‘on the strength’  buried their children. In Ballincollig military cemetery, of the 200 burials whose age is known, 100 are children under 10 years old.8 The headstones of children are prominent among the surviving memorials in Fermoy’s newer military cemetery.9

Bertie Gordon, aged 2 years, Fermoy New Barracks Cemetery

Parents then left the town and the family memorial behind as the army transferred soldiers between different barracks across the world. These grave markers show that parents wished to memorialise their children even though the burial plot was destined not to be a family grave. Although the families of soldiers were often viewed by military authorities as an expensive encumbrance, these memorials demonstrate that army families chose to remember their dead children in an institutional setting that defined them as army children. As a soldier’s widow proudly stated ‘I was born in the service’.10 Many army children also died in the service, their short, precious lives remembered in military cemeteries across Ireland and the Empire. Military cemeteries founded before World War I reveal the reality and the ideal of the nineteenth-century British army family.

Sam Evans, aged 2 years and 6 weeks, Fermoy New Barracks Cemetery
  1. Cork Examiner, 6 March 1866. Such were the crowds that a scuffle broke out.
  2. Cork Examiner, 6 March 1866.
  3. Dan Harvey and Gerry White, The Barracks: a history of Victoria/Collins Barracks, Cork (1997), p 28.
  4. For example, see David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army and the British People c. 1870-2000 (2005).
  5. A survey of grave markers was undertaken in 2009 and is now preserved in the Cork City and County Archives,
  6. Soldier burials in the nineteenth century were arranged at regimental or unit level, with no input from London beyond the leasing of burial grounds. See
  7. A grave is maintained by the CWGC only if strict criteria are fulfilled. See
  8. Anne Donaldson, British Military Graveyard: Ballincollig, Cork Ireland 1810 to 1922 (2003), p 61. Donaldson has published her list of burials here
  9. Each barrack in Fermoy has an adjoining cemetery, the burial ground behind New Barracks is well preserved.
  10. Waterford Evening News, 17 May 1850.
Posted in Ballincollig, Barracks, Britain, Cemetery, Children, Commemoration, Family, Fermoy, History, Ireland, Memorials, Military, Women, World War I | Comments Off on Barrack burial grounds and military families in County Cork

A dignified burial: military funerals for paupers, 1908-15.

The 8th Hussars cook a meal in the Crimea


In February 1909, 83-year-old Patrick Hanlon died in Waterford workhouse, but he was not buried in an anonymous grave in the Poor Law Union burial plot.1 The coffin was a ‘nice’ coffin with a breastplate rather than the cheapest ‘shell’ provided by the Union for pauper burials. His remains were placed on a gun carriage and the cortege was led by a firing party, ‘with arms reversed … accompanied by trumpeters who sounded the sad and weird notes of the “Last Post”. Three volleys were fired over his grave, which was dug in St Mary’s churchyard, almost an hour’s walk away from the workhouse. 2 But why all this ceremony for an elderly man who died in the workhouse? Upon Hanlon’s death, the workhouse master, Mr Cosgrave, had written to the War Office to inform them that a venerable veteran of the Crimean War had died. The Veteran’s Relief Fund, established just a year earlier, duly sent £4 to the master cover the funeral expenses. 3 Cosgrave arranged the military honours with the town’s barracks, purchased a coffin and selected a grave site. Thus an elderly man who died a pauper was buried as a soldier.

Part of Waterford Union Workhouse.

Men who fought for the Red, White and Blue,
Left to end their last days in the workhouse
When they died – just a pauper’s grave too. 4

Rescuing old soldiers from the ‘indignity of a pauper’s grave’ was central to work of the Veteran Relief Fund. 5 Established by Lord Roberts in 1908, the Fund aimed ‘to uplift, entertain, remember and rescue’ 6 army and navy veterans, but only if they had enlisted before 1 January 1860 7 (Another Roberts, Mr Thomas Harrison, started a fund in 1897 to aid survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, but it did not seem to extend to Ireland.) The Veteran’s Fund was intended to benefit those who had fought in the talismanic imperial conflicts of the nineteenth century, the Crimean War and the ‘Indian Mutiny’ as the Indian Rebellion was known. Kriegel has established how important local committees in provincial England were to the administration of the Fund, but the Irish case is a little different. In Ireland, the Fund was administered from Dublin where staff distributed aid to Leinster, Connaught and Munster, while a Belfast committee administered the Ulster counties. In Belfast, the committee most resembled those found in England, being composed of politicians, former military men, grandees, clergy and local representatives. 8 One Belfast city councillor, George A. Doran, worked so assiduously on behalf of army veterans that he was described as a ‘constant friend of the old soldiers’. 9 He helped to secure military funerals for men who died outside the workhouse, approaching the local barracks on behalf of the bereaved. 10 Doran also lobbied the War Office to grant pensions to old soldiers whose claims may have proved difficult to verify. 11

There is little evidence that similar committees appeared in other Irish cities. Military funerals were organised by the workhouse because the authorities had received a circular from the Local Government Board informing them of the Fund’s purpose. No doubt the opportunity to save money motivated many workhouse masters. These military funerals were extraordinary because the men being interred had not served for decades. Being few in number and great in years, these old men became symbols of the defence of empire. Naturally, strident nationalists were quick to point out how the plight of veterans in the workhouses, ‘the shelters of the outcasts and the paupers’, perfectly illustrated British perfidy. 12 A sarcastic columnist noted that a veteran was consoled by the knowledge that the British army would take the opportunity to ‘advertise itself’ at his funeral. 13 People in garrison towns were familiar with military funerals but the extension of martial pomp to paupers was a novel innovation. Hanlon’s funeral drew a crowd to the workhouse dead house: nurses, inmates, officials, school children and journalists. 14

St Mary’s Church, Ballygunner. Hanlon was buried in the adjacent graveyard.

However, burial with full military honours was not easy to secure. In Waterford, the military party waited outside the workhouse for two hours while Hanlon’s army record was debated. A local journalist observed that ‘telegrams were flying like snowflakes’ as bicycle orderlies travelled between the workhouse and the barracks. 15 Verifying identities was notoriously difficult, especially when at least 38 Patrick Hanlon’s served in the Crimean War. 16 Luckily for Hanlon, his army record was proven and his grand military send-off proceeded as planned. The Veteran’s Relief Fund was instrumental in saving old soldiers from workhouse cemeteries across provincial Ireland. An army funeral leaving a workhouse was an incongruous sight but one that illustrated the cultural militarism of a ‘bellicose era’. 17

British Cemetery on Cathcart’s Hill, in the Crimea.


  1. St Otteran’s cemetery, on the Cork Road, contained the workhouse burial plot.
  2. Munster Express, 27 February 1909.
  3. Munster Express, 27 February 1909.
  4. Excerpt from ‘Take Care of Tommy’ by Henry A. Magee, Westgate, Dunmurry. Weekly Telegraph, 12 August 1916.
  5. Northern Whig, 1 April 1908.
  6. Lara Kriegel, ‘Living links to history, or, Victorian veterans in the twentieth-century world’ Victorian Studies vol. 58. No. 2, p 293.
  7. Northern Whig, 1 April 1908.
  8. Northern Whig, 1 April 1908.
  9. Northern Whig, 21 April 1915.
  10. Northern Whig, 21 April 1915.
  11. Northern Whig, 1 April 1908.
  12. Donegal News, 7 December 1907.
  13. Limerick Leader, 2 March 1908.
  14. Munster Express, 27 February 1909.
  15. Munster Express, 27 February 1909.
  16. See
  17. David Fitzpatrick, ‘Militarism in Ireland’, p 379 in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffreys (eds), A Military History of Ireland (1996).
Posted in Barracks, Belfast, Britain, Catholic, Cavalry, Cemetery, Church, Clergy, Co Antrim, Co Waterrford, Commemoration, Crimean War, History, Indian Mutiny, Ireland, Military, Music, Uncategorized, Urban | 2 Comments

An ‘outrage’: desecration of a vault in Cork, 1895

St. Senan’s graveyard, Inniscarra, Co. Cork

In late May 1895, Cork city and county was intrigued by the ‘outrage at Inniscarra’. A number of soldiers of the 10th Royal Hussar regiment – stationed in Ballincollig, a few miles from Inniscarra – were arrested on suspicion of desecrating a vault owned by the Colthurst family, a gentry family from Blarney Castle estate. The Colthursts buried their dead in Inniscarra graveyard, a picturesque burial ground surrounding a ruined eighteenth-century church, which was situated on a bend of the River Lee. The family had once lived in Ardrum House overlooking the river valley, but the Colthursts moved to Blarney in 1874. In 1895, Miss Harriet Curry of Ardrum worked as their caretaker in Inniscarra, supervising their property and their burial vaults. 1

On 22 May, Miss Curry, accompanied by 2 policemen, visited the Colthurst vault. She noticed that the door and its lock were broken but this did not prepare her for the gruesome sight within. On opening the door, she saw a corpse in its graveclothes standing on a bench, face towards the door. The legs of a body protruded from the remains of a broken coffin, while a skull lay on top of another coffin. After surveying the grisly scene, Miss Curry concluded that 4 coffins had been opened and one was empty. The corpse standing in the corner was that of Mrs Peggy Colthurst, who had died in April 1863, aged 87 years. Her gloves had been torn off and Miss Curry observed marks on the fourth finger of her left hand that suggested she had been wearing a ring. (A friend of the late Mrs Peggy Colthurst told a court on 8 June that the old lady’s wedding ring was placed on her finger after her death, in spite of the undertaker’s objections.) The body hanging out of its coffin was that of Sir Nicholas Colthurst 2 whose three coffins – 2 wooden ones surrounding a leaden coffin – had been broken open and peeled back to expose his corpse. The skull belonged to John Bowen Colthurst, Major of the 97th Regiment, who had died in May 1848. 3 His body was clad in uniform although Miss Curry noticed that ‘shrouding and shavings’ around his hands had been ripped off. Miss Curry and the policemen returned the bodies to their coffins, but not before observing that the bodies were in a ‘good state of preservation’. 4

One of 4 vaults, this one matches descriptions in court evidence.

The police were fortunate that there were witnesses to this ‘dastardly and extraordinary’ event, who came forward once the desecration was discovered. Daniel Sexton, aged 9 years, and his two friends had been playing in the fields when a group of soldiers in the graveyard attracted their attention. Indeed, the sight of a naked man emerging from a burial vault would have been hard to ignore. (The River Lee was a favourite bathing place for soldiers and the shore next to the graveyard is suitable for swimming.) They were chased off by another soldier wielding a ‘cutlass’ so did not see what was happening in the vault. 5 The children’s evidence was the only hope the police had of catching the soldiers responsible. Accordingly, the soldiers at Ballincollig barracks were paraded before the boys, who recognised 2 men from the graveyard. When arrested, these men implicated 3 others, 2 of whom had transferred with part of the regiment to Newbridge.

The 10th Hussars, courtesy R. Bennett

Privates Arthur Grice, Frederick Beake, Herbert Griffiths, and William Henry Flack were charged with unlawfully disinterring Mrs Peggy Colthurst and with maliciously damaging the vault to the value of £15 7s 6d. Only 2 – Beake and Grice – were ultimately convicted at the summer Assizes, having confessed to being solely responsible for interfering with the coffins and bodies. 6 Beake claimed ‘It was done for a lark; not for stealing’. 7 All were sober at the time. Mrs Peggy Colthurst’s wedding ring was recovered from the guard room of Ballincollig Barracks after Grice revealed where he had hidden it. 8 Grice and Beake were imprisoned for 6 months, with hard labour, for a crime the judge described as ‘a thoughtless freak’. 9 The officer in charge of these men, Captain Arthur Poole, had left his wife’s death bed to testify in court to their good character, but they could not escape a prison sentence. 10

Arthur E. Poole, courtesy of HorsePower, Museum of King’s Royal Hussars

This remarkable event was not forgotten in Inniscarra. In the Schools Collection, a folklore project compiled in the 1930s, a local story recounted how soldiers of the 10th Hussars raided a ‘very well-kept vault’ for valuables. After the perpetrators were caught, the regiment became the object of local ridicule, being nicknamed ‘the body snatchers’. Apparently many officers left the regiment to escape the ignominy. Local lore remembers that ‘the entire regiment was penalised: ‘For years after they were compelled to do extra duty for an hour each evening’. 11 Although locals may have recalled the event years later, the regiment itself did not record this ignominious incident. 12 A regiment as fashionable as 10th Hussars, known as ‘The Shiners’ or ‘The Shiny 10th’, had no desire to remember the grotesque antics of ordinary soldiers. At the time, Albert, the Prince of Wales was regimental colonel. Such an embarrassing event was studiously ignored by the men compiling the regimental records. Regional newspapers across Britain covered the story but it did not become a major scandal, probably because the offenders were humble soldiers rather than officers. Today, the old Colthurst vaults in Inniscarra are crumbling and collapsing; there is little evidence that a caretaker attends on them now. The Colthurst family now use a vault underneath Blarney parish church, where the dead lie undisturbed by soldiers on a ‘lark’. 13

A two-storey Colthurst vault.

For more on Ballincollig Barracks and its associated cemetery see,

The Irish duty of the 10th Hussars in the 1890s is recorded in photographs taken by Major Pillinger

Irish connections to the 10th Hussars are explored here

  1. The only Harriet Curry in Ardrum appears in the 1911 census, working as a ‘Foresteress’, an occupation that suggests land supervision. Her landlord was Sir George Colthurst, who owned 6 of the 10 holdings in this area
  2. She did not specify if this was the 3rd or 4th Baronet.
  3. The Major was married to Peggy Colthurst, whose body was removed from its coffin,
  4. Curry testimony to the court, Cork Constitution, 8 June 1895.
  5. The ‘cutlass’ was probably iron spikes from a vault window. Soldiers did not carry swords.
  6. Cork Constitution, 24 June 1895 and 19 July 1895.
  7. Cork Constitution, 8 June 1895
  8. Cork Constitution, 24 June 1895.
  9. Cork Constitution, 20 July 1895.
  10. She died that day, and was buried in Ballincollig military cemetery,
  12. Thanks to the staff and volunteers of the HorsePower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars, for searching the regimental papers and daily record of service for this incident. Their help was invaluable.
  13. Irish Times, 3 March 1951.
Posted in Anglican, Ballincollig, Barracks, Britain, Catholic, Cavalry, Cemetery, Church, Church of Ireland, Co Cork, History, Ireland, Memorials, Military, Police, Prison, Protestant, Punishment, Sport, Uncategorized, Women | 4 Comments