St Michael, the Warrior Saint

Archangel St Michael window, Altar Church, Toormore Co Cork

This window, to the memory of Michael Allen who fought in the Indian Rebellion, was placed in Altar Church by his daughter 77 years after that bloody conflict. 1

Dedication plaque to St Michael window

The Archangel Michael, the warrior saint, crushes Satan beneath his feet before raising his spear to skewer the ghoulish fallen angel. Viewed alongside the explicit dedication plaque, the triumph of the blond, white Michael over the dark-skinned monster becomes a literal representation of the victory of British forces over restive colonial subjects in India. The ‘Indian Mutiny’, 1857-58, entered into British military myth, commemorated in reviews and pageants for decades afterwards. The brutality of rebellious Indians haunted the popular imagination, who lauded the military heroes of Lucknow and Dehli as saviours of European virtue. This window’s explicit colonial message disturbs me, especially because St Michael did not have to be portrayed this way.

Other windows in County Cork show St Michael battling a dragon. In Corkbeg church, named St Michael and All Saints, there are two windows featuring Michael, which commemorate military men. 2 One window shows Michael slaying a dragon, in an image that recalls depictions of St George. (Michael is distinguished from George by his wings.) 3

St Michael, Corkbeg Church, Co Cork

The dedication reads:
To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Myers Woolsey Priest Sometime Rector of this Parish and his Son Frank of the 23rd Bombay Rifle Regiment. RIP.

Frank died of sunstroke at Raykote in 1892. His father died in Corkbeg in 1881. 4

The other window shows St Michael with a scales, referring to his role in the Last Judgement, when he will weigh the souls. Although he is holding his sword and wearing armour, Michael here is more stern judge than triumphant warrior.

St Michael, Corkbeg Church, Co Cork

The dedication on this window reads:
To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of Frances Edwards who died at Parkstone Dorset Jany 2nd 1895. Also of Frank Hodges Captn in the Clare Artillery and Royal West Regt who died at Fort Carlisle May 22nd 1896. He served in the Soudan with the 50th Regiment and was present at the Battle of Ginnis.

Although this window commemorates colonial service, it is a more equivocal image that invites multiple readings than the St Michael window in Altar.

As well as being named for a warrior saint, Corkbeg church was effectively the garrison church for the nearby Fort Carlisle. The Rector was chaplain to the troops, for which he received 50 pounds a year. He was also the chaplain and visitor to the school in the Fort where soldier’s children were educated. Every Sunday, the Anglican officers and men paraded to their local church, St Michael’s, led by a military band.

Fort Carlisle, from the 6″ OSI map.

St Michael was not a very popular choice for stained glass in the Church of Ireland, featuring in just 39 windows in the Gloine survey. 5 Important biblical stories such as the Angel and Women at the Tomb were depicted in 100 windows, while 171 portrayals of the Ascension are recorded. But the stained glass windows of the warrior saint shows how the glory of war was part of the devotional fabric of some church buildings.

**Corkbeg images are from the Gloine website. There is no equivalent survey of the Roman Catholic churches of Ireland.**


Posted in Anglican, Barracks, Church, Church of Ireland, Clergy, Co Cork, History, Indian Mutiny, Ireland, Memorials, Military, St Michael, Stained glass | Comments Off on St Michael, the Warrior Saint

War Graves: homemade and official

War Grave of Maura O’Callaghan, ATS

Over 3,000 war graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) can be found in burial grounds across Ireland. But most of the dead remained where they fell, commemorated by seas of crosses in European cemeteries or by monuments to the men whose mortal remains were never found. For the majority of families, their relative’s grave was marked in a country far beyond their means to visit. Some wealthy families did commemorate their dead in local churches with windows or wall tablets, bringing memorialisation into communal public spaces. 1 Most families could not afford such expensive memorials, but the family burial plot was an appropriate space for private commemoration with a public purpose. A gravestone could articulate personal loss while also acknowledging the significance of a death on the battlefield.

In St Mary’s, Curraghkippane, a rural cemetery that is a traditional burial ground for Cork city residents, I visited 14 CWGC markers, including one to Maura O’Callaghan, an Auxiliary Territorial Services casualty who died in 1947. The war grave headstone is incorporated into the O’Callaghan family plot, which is still tended and maintained.

The O’Callaghan family plot

But the homemade, personal war grave of the Burke family is the most memorable military monument in the crowded burial ground where centuries-old stones are being superseded by contemporary and shiny black marble headstones.

A concrete monument, topped with a stone cross inscribed with the words ‘Watch and Pray’ has been embellished with regimental badges and three widow’s — or dead man’s — pennies. These were plaques that were issued to the next of kin of World War I casualties between 1919 and 1920.  It is unlikely that those plaques are the original bronze pennies received by the family; most were safely stored in drawers, but some were mounted on church walls or in memorials. 2 I do not know whether it was common practice to integrate the plaques into family graves. Here, plaques to Stephen, Cornelius and Edward Burke were placed alongside their regimental badges. Luckily for me, the family erected another headstone next to this homemade war grave.

Inscribed headstone, Burke family plot

This is a lineage or genealogy headstone, since it was erected by a relative to commemorate his family history and may not necessarily reflect individuals buried in the plot. 3 Such headstones are found in old cemeteries, where burial plots have been in continuous use for generations.

The Burke family list on the main gravestone starts with an ancestor from the nineteenth century. It begins with Edward Burke, a soldier in the British army who fought in the defining military campaigns of the 1850s: the Crimean War (1853-6); and the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or the Indian Mutiny, as the British called it. According to the stone, two of his sons, Stephen, of the Leinster Regiment, and Cornelius, of the Royal Irish Regiment, died in World War I and are commemorated on the neighbouring cross. The final military casualty named was E. Burke, who was killed in Italy in 1944 while serving with the Irish Guards. 4 His son, Patrick, erected this monument, but the inscription omits a military casualty who appears on the adjoining monument. Who was Edward Burke of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, whose widow’s penny is above those of Stephen and Cornelius? The mysterious Edward has been omitted from the principal monument by the descendant who paid for the headstone.

This headstone tells a family history through a military lens, as the other occupations pursued by non-military men and women are not recorded for posterity. Similarly ignored are the women who married these soldiers and bore their children. A family of invisible women and martial men is a excellent encapsulation of the army’s attitude to the reproductive role of women in military life. Women were necessary to produce soldiers but were barely acknowledged as part of enlisted men’s life. For Patrick Burke, who commissioned this headstone, the family tradition of military service started with his great-great-grandfather Edward in the Crimean War and ended with his own father’s death in Italy. These two memorials celebrate unreservedly the military achievements of selected family members. Military service defines the memorialisation of this family in a more profound manner than the official, austere War Grave Commission markers ever could.

Another lineage headstone in Curraghkippane
  1. To explore Church of Ireland stained-glass windows, see
  3. For an incredible example from Scotland, see
  4. GDSM before his name means Guardsman.
Posted in Cemetery, Co Cork, Crimean War, Curraghkippane, History, Ireland, Memorials, Military, Urban, Women, World War 2, World War I | 30 Comments

A cold Christmas dinner: festivities in army barracks

Christmas at Chelsea Barracks, 1915
Christmas at Chelsea Barracks, 1915, Bloom Collection, Museum of London

According to a 1907 account by an army chaplain, Rev. E.J. Hardy, soldiers ate well on Christmas Day. 1 The usual boiled beef or mutton was served alongside goose, turkey, ham and pheasant. Unfortunately this abundant repast was eaten cold because the barrack cookhouse and its staff were not able to cook such a variety of food in just one day, especially when it was served in the early afternoon. In order to have the meal ready, preparation of the Christmas feast had started a few days before the 25th. Cold food notwithstanding, the ordinary soldier greatly appreciated the range of meats on his table. He ate copious condiments and pickles with his meat; one man thought pheasant ‘tasteless stuff’ without mustard.

The barrack rooms in which soldiers lived and ate were transformed by homemade decorations. Alongside the holly and the ivy, coloured paper streamers hung from the ceiling. The bare white-washed walls were enlivened with festive slogans painted in gilt by an artistically talented soldier. What would have been graffiti and liable for barrack charges the rest of the year was embraced and celebrated as art at Christmas. Some common messages included: ‘To Our Comrades Abroad – God Prosper Them’, ‘A Health To Everyone’, ‘At Peace, but Still On Guard’ and ‘At Rest, But Ready’. There were also joking references to life in the barrack. A room where the regimental drummers dined together was decorated with the ‘Drummer’s Restaurant’, while over the door of the guard room where the same men were arrested again, and again, was painted ‘There’s No Place Like Home’.

From the Bloom collection, Museum of London.
From the Bloom collection, Museum of London.

In spite of the holiday, soldiers were obliged to work on Christmas Day. In the cavalry, the horses had to be fed, watered and cared for as usual. Even the Church Parade on Christmas morning was work, as men attended church in immaculate parade order, the army equivalent of Sunday best clothes. Dressing in parade-order uniform took a lot of time and demanded fastidious attention to detail. 2 Throughout the day, a portion of men had to be ready for guard duty or to form a piquet, a group of armed men poised to respond to an alarm, at all times. At Christmas, there was a danger that over-consumption of alcohol would leave the men incapacitated. Hardy claimed that excessive festive drinking had been a problem in the 1880s when he first joined the army, but that matters had improved enormously by 1907.

Luckily, most routine duties were suspended on Christmas Day. The soldiers and NCOs who worked in the officer’s mess, serving table and keeping the books, had a day off because, to give the staff a holiday, officers generally dined out. Many officers were not in barracks at Christmas because they had the means to travel home during their winter-time furlough. As trains became cheaper and quicker, more ordinary soldiers also travelled home to visit their friends and relations. For those remaining in the barracks, the post-dinner hours weighted heavily upon them. Inevitably, contests of all kinds were started to divert the mind and body. Officers in the 78th Regiment dusted down the mess betting book: on Christmas Day 1824 Mr Cooper and Mr Wilson wagered 1 bottle of port that Cooper would consume a bottle of beer with a spoon while Mr Wilson ate a dry penny roll. (Cooper won this bet.) 3 Soldiers played informal games of football, organised sing-songs or dancing. Occasionally, the long hours after a large meal and generous amounts of alcohol were marred by fighting. Two men in the Curragh argued over which of their respective regiments had travelled furthest up the Nile, and their personal dispute nearly escalated into a brawl between the different regiments. Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, 26th December, was also a holiday though no sumptuous meal was served. More football was played by the soldiers, while officers with a passion for hunting could ride to hounds with a local pack.

But the observation of Christmas was not uniform in the British army, as regimental identity and tradition separated the Scottish units from the rest. Scottish soldiers were relatively indifferent to Christmas day, but celebrated New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay, with great gusto. This distinctive holiday pattern originated in the Scottish Kirk’s disapproval of Christmas as ‘popish’, an attitude which did not change even as Victorians embraced the festival. 4 In his memoir, Scottish soldier John Pindar waxes lyrical on the wine-house conviviality of New Year’s Eve with his comrades. 5 Scots frequently took on extra duties during 25th and 26th December, allowing their English and Irish colleagues time to celebrate. The favour was then returned on New Year’s Eve and Day. 6  Whatever the regiment or the festival, the army strove to find a balance between festive cheer and military discipline, between personal gratification and institutional demands.

Robert Burn's most famous composition 'Auld Lang Syne'
‘Auld Lang Syne’ by Robert Burns, Burns Museum
  1. Rev. E. J. Hardy, ‘Christmas in the Army’, Belfast Weekly News 19 December 1907. This article appeared in a number of newspapers that year.
  2. Compulsory Church Parade was only abolished in 1946 Jeremy A. Crang, ‘The Abolition of Compulsory Church Parades in the British Army’ Jrnl of Ecclesiastical History vol. 56, issue 1, (2005) pp 92-106.
  3. Graham Sharpe Gamblings Strangest Moments ‘A Mess of Bets; Officers Mess 1822-1908’
  5. John Pindar, Autobiography of a Private Soldier (Fife, 1877), pp 98-106.
  6. Pindar, p 110.
Posted in Barracks, Britain, Christmas, Food, Football, History, Ireland, Military, Religion, Scotland, Soccer, Sport, World War I | Comments Off on A cold Christmas dinner: festivities in army barracks