The Last Tattoo: Dublin, September 1945

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., accessed 23 June 2013.
  15. Tattoo/History.htm accessed 24 June 2013.
  16. See the Northern Command Tattoo in 1957 and the Tattoo at Warley Barracks in 1946.
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