What is a garrison town?

Garrison town: it’s an odd name to call any town. After all, many urban areas started off with fortifications built and occupied by soldiers. Strong walls were built to keep the marauders out and to protect the law-abiding traders and their property within. A quick browse of the Historic Irish Towns Atlas series shows how fundamental these walls were to urban topography.

But military heritage is not enough to distinguish a garrison town from a market town or a port town. The term ‘garrison town’ implies a certain mindset or outlook directly attributable to the presence of soldiers who live, work and play in a town. A garrison town is architecturally, culturally and politically distinctive precisely because there is a barracks with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of soldiers within it.

I suppose the first question is, how many garrison towns were there? The answer depends on the date since the British army debated barrack locations, renewed leases, sold land, then reaccquired it or rented it throughout the nineteenth century. 1 Keeping track of when each barrack was occupied, how many men were stationed there and, crucially, why it was in use is frankly bewildering. This is not from a lack of records kept by the War Office but because the army generated too many statistical returns. The Victorian army marched not on its stomach, but on its ledgers, tables and paperwork. And finding out the numbers of barracks doesn’t tell us a lot about the towns themselves. 2

But the extent of the barrack network does tell us how important the military were to the nineteenth-century Irish urban experience. If we compare the list of military stations in Munster with the list of the province’s towns, we find that in 1888, 21 towns out of 51 contained a barrack. 3 In 2012, the Irish army has 3 military stations in Munster with just 16 military stations (including the Navy and the Aircorps) in the whole state. 4 Anyone living in a country with a small standing army will struggle to imagine how pervasive was the military presence.

The army was a conspicuous part of urban life. When a regiment vacated a barracks, it processed through the town led by the regimental band.  5 In Cork city in 1888, a field parade and sham fight with 1,200 soldiers was held in Cork Park, the public amenity by the river. 6 Unsurprisingly, the sight of hundreds of soldiers, wearing tight-fitting uniforms, marching in time to drums, with standards and flags waving, and with the sunlight glinting on belt buckles and bayonets drew appreciative spectators. 7 Reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice gives us an idea of the effect a host of single young men in fancy uniforms had on one family – imagine the impression these great military displays made on society at large.

Apart from these large military displays, uniformed soldiers socialised and shopped in urban areas, while Catholic soldiers paraded from the barrack to the local parish church every Sunday. 8 Soldiers played sports against local teams 9 even organising garrison sports days to display their sporting prowess to the local population. 10 The cavalry escorted representatives of the state on ceremonial state events such as the opening of the court sessions. The reaction of onlookers to the spectacle of a judge in his carriage with his escort of mounted soldiers and police was mostly benevolent.

‘… The bravado of the street-boys sometimes occasioned an “incident”, as the escort had no hesitation about using the flats of their sabres; but on the whole the proceedings were accepted by the crowd as a condescension on the part of the Government for their amusement.’ 11

This image from the visit of Edward VII in 1903 hints at the magnificence of military procession. The plumed helmets, the elaborate uniforms and the shining coats of cavalry horses are impression even in black and white. Add colour, sound and a royal visitor, and the eagerness of the spectators on the rooftops to catch a glimpse of the procession is understandable.

Royal Horse Guards Regiment, Cork 1903

Source: http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/mapsimages/corkphotographs/corkcameraclubhistoricalphotos/royalhorseguardsregiment/ (Accessed 2 March 2012).

For many, this history may be fascinating, colourful and intriguing but not especially relevant to Ireland today. But for those who lived in garrison towns where a continuous military presence permeated everyday life, the barrack became part of a town’s self-image. This was demonstrated by the protests against the recent closure of Columb barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath. Obviously, the economic cost of the loss of 180 troops and their pay packets was stressed, but the ‘Save Our Barracks’ campaign also spoke of 200 years of history and how the town was an ‘exemplar of loyalty to the State in challenging times’, particularly during the height of the Troubles. 12

The people of Clonmel, County Tipperary were also about to lose their barracks and protested that ‘Clonmel has been a garrison town since 1650, when Cromwell’s armies met with a great resistance that “nearly turned his noble to ninepence.”’ 13 This is a particularly interesting line of argument. Oliver Cromwell is a by-word in Ireland for anti-Catholic violence and regarded as the ultimate example of English repression. Any town that resisted his onslaught deserves praise. Of course, since Cromwell won the war, it follows that Clonmel became, in turn, a town garrisoned by his forces. But a good rallying cry is rarely burdened with boring facts.

In spite of their respective campaigns, neither Clonmel nor Mullingar could persuade the government that their military traditions and local economies were enough to save the barracks. In November 2011, it was announced that barracks in Mullingar, Clonmel, Castlebar and Cavan would close. 14

But I believe that Clonmel and Mullingar will remain garrison towns for some time to come. Hundreds of years of military and urban history will not be wiped out that quickly. More on that in forthcoming posts…..

  1. Jacinta Prunty ‘Military barracks and mapping in the nineteenth-century: sources and issues for Irish urban history’ in H.B. Clark, J. Prunty, M. Hennessy (eds), Surveying Ireland’s Past: multidisciplinary essays in honour of Anngret Simms (Dublin, 2004) pp 477-534.
  2. And by towns I mean urban areas with populations of 2,000 and more. These are towns as defined in the censuses W.E. Vaughan and A.J. Fitzpatrick (eds), Irish Historical Statistics: Population 1821-1971 (Dublin, 1978) pp 27-48).
  3. Figures obtained by comparing the list of military stations in The Munster Military Journal and Cork District Directory (1888) with towns listed in Vaughan and Fitzpatrick in ibid.
  4. http://www.military.ie/info-centre/how-we-are-organised (Accessed 22 Feb 2012). This website does not reflect the recent closures of barracks in November 2011.
  5. The Devonshires left Cork Barracks on 19 December 1888, and were replaced by the Cameronians, Munster Military Journal, Jan 1888, vol 1 issue 1, p 5.
  6. Most of Cork Park vanished when the Ford Marina factory was built in 1917. See M. Nyhan, Are you still below? The Ford Marina plant, Cork, 1917-84 (Cork, 2007).
  7. Munster Military Journal, June 1888, vol 1 issue 6, p 20.
  8. Roman Catholic soldiers in Cork Barracks attended St Patrick’s Church.
  9. Walter S. O’Shea, A short history of Tipperary military barracks (infantry) 1874-1922 (Cashel, 1998), p 66. Verbatim extracts from this book can be found here http://www.freewebs.com/tipperarybarracks/ (Accessed 2 March 2012).
  10. Annual military sports day in Fort Camden, Cork described in the Munster Military Journal, May 1890, p 7
  11. Maurice Healy, The Old Munster Circuit: a book of memories and traditions (Dublin, 1939), p 12.
  12. When the troops go marching out’ Irish Times, 1 October 2011. Just one of the listed buildings in Columb Barracks is the military chapel http://www.buildingsofireland.ie/niah/search.jsp?type=record&county=WM&regno=15310008 (Accessed 2 March 2012).
  13. http://clonmelonline.com/stop-closure-of-barracks-petition/ (Accessed 2 March 2012).
  14. ‘Barrack closures will see 500 redeployed’ Irish Times, 17 November 2011.
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