It’s very hard to describe a true Irishman, without acknowledging that we all share a complicated inheritance. At no time was that complication more powerfully amplified than in the crisis of identity leading up to and during War World I. On the one side is the unionist image of Irish Protestants loyally, and exclusively, rallying to the Union Jack, and sealing that union with their blood; while on the other side, the Catholic and nationalist men and women, the people of the 1916 Rising, who represent the ‘true’ Ireland, in sharp contrast to the misguided Irishmen slaughtered in France on the altar of British imperialism.
For years to try to reconcile those differences was an ‘No Man’s Land’ for historians. Families, with shoe-boxes of memorabilia, medals and letters gathering dust in their attics, were left in silence. But thanks to the passing of time, and I believe to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, local historians are beginning to prise open those attic doors. There we find ample evidence of all kinds of true Irishmen in all kinds of clothes; whether they be uniforms, or canonicals, the ermine robes of the aristocracy or the humble tweed of the commonality, all expressing their loyalty to Ireland in their own individual ways.
The Connaught Rangers, founded at the end of the 18th century, whose Regimental HQ was at Renmore Barracks, (now Dún Uí Maoilíosa, named after Liam Mellows who organised the the Galway IRA during the 1916 Rising ), was one of five Irish regiments in the British army. It was disbanded in 1922 when Ireland became the Free State. But for 130 years the Rangers were an integral part of Galway life. It recruited young men from Clifden to Sligo, from Roscommon to Ballina, and from Galway city to the off-shore islands.
At times of hardship and unemployment the army offered a decent wage, adventure, and a pension; and in the case of World War I, the added incentive that not only was this to be the war to end all wars, but would, at its conclusion, bring in its wake the promise of an independent Ireland.
As part of Ireland’s Great War recruitment effort, the Connaught Rangers raised an additional four battalions (a battalion consisted of approximately 1,000 men ) to add to its existing two regular battalions. Rangers served in the Western and Eastern fronts, the Middle East, North Africa and India. Galwaymen, if they were living or working elsewhere, or if there was a family tradition associated with another regiment, joined the Blackwatch, the Royal Irish, the Tyneside battalions and others of their choice. More than 250 men from the Claddagh joined the Royal Navy. In all, about 80,000 Irishmen enlisted in the first 12 months of the war, approximately half of whom came from Ulster.
In 1915, the citizens of Galway clubbed together, and presented the Rangers with an ambulance. I am sure it was put to good use. The Rangers won battle honours in France and Flanders, including Mons, the Retreat from Mons, Marne (1914 ), Aisne (1914 ), Messines (1914 ), Armentieres (1914 ), Ypres (1914 ), Langemarck (1914 ), Gheluvelt; Nonne Boschen, Givenchy (1914 ), Neuve Chapelle, Ypres (1915 ); St Julien, Auber, Somme (1918 ); St Quentin, Bapaume (1918 ), Hinderburg Line, Cambrai (1918 ), and Selle. In Salonika they fought at Macedonia, and Struma (1915 - 1918 ).
At the Dardanelles: They fought at Suvla, Sari Bair, Scimitar, and Gallipoli (1915- 1916 ).
At Palestine: Gaza, Jerusalem, Tell’Asur, Megiddo, Sharon (1917-1918 ), and in Mesopotamia, at Tigris and Kut al Amara (1916-1917 ). Practically at every major battle of the war. And obviously there were terrible consequences. It is estimated that during the four years of World War I, some 10,000 Connacht men were killed. But among the Rangers just short of 2,000 men died. If the total complement of the Rangers at the beginning of the war was about 6,000, that is an appalling attrition.
Stained glass memorial
I was prompted to write this very brief history of the Connaught Rangers (see previous two weeks ) following the opening by Brig Gen Padraic O Callaghan, of an impressive new museum at Dún Uí Maoilíosa.* The regiment has a dramatic history. It served with Wellington in the Peninsular War (1808-1814 ), The Crimean War (1854-1856 ), and fought in India in response to the Indian Rebellion (1857-1870 ). It served in garrison duties all over the empire, and under the command of Lord Kitchener in the Sudan. In the Boer War, it participated in the relief of Ladysmith (1899-1902 ), and of course it fought with distinction in World War I.
But as a result of the foundation of the Irish Free State, under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Connaught Rangers, and five other Irish infantry regiments of the British army, were disbanded. On June 12 1922 the Colours of these regiments (the regimental flags and captured standards in battle, regarded and respected with almost religious devotion by each regiment, and an essential part of army psychology ), were laid up in a disbandment ceremony at St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle in Berkshire UK, in the presence of King George V. The king, an iconic image, held with almost a sacred status among the soldiery, understood the importance of the occasion. His words are sympathetic and kindly, if even fatherly. The report in The Times (published on this page ), captures some of the pageantry and pathos of the occasion, which perhaps could only be fully understood by a soldier who had lost comrades in battle fighting for the very standards they were now leaving aside.
Many of the younger officers, however, joined the new Irish Army, and the famous Connaught Rangers were replaced by An Chead Cath, the Western Command of the new Irish Army.
In 1966 a stained glass memorial window to the Connaught Rangers was included in the new Galway cathedral. It pays tribute to a regiment so long associated with the west of Ireland, the rolls of which bore the names of many families in Connacht at one time or another. It also reminds us all of our great military tradition in the west, brilliantly continued today by our contribution to the UN peacekeeping efforts from the Congo to Afghanistan, from Lebanon to Chad.
Much of their work, which is highly professional, and highly regarded internationally, does not get the publicity it deserves. I have seen at first hand the results of their patient guardianship of the people in part of south Lebanon; and heard the gratitude of doctors, businessmen, and some of the people. The lasting image is of children playing nosily in the school playground in Brashit, a fact that couldn’t have happened without our troops.
*The new museum is worth a visit. Because the museum is within the walls of the old barracks, visitors must make arrangements prior to their visit by contacting Sgt PJ Maloney at 091 751156/7/8
Indian Mutiny correction: I am grateful to Peadar Nugent for correcting me when I incorrectly named one of the leaders of the Indian Mutiny last week as Joseph Hayes. He was in fact Joseph, or Joe, Hawes. Once he left the army he became a barber in Kilrush, and cut Peadar’s hair when he was a boy attending the local CBS from 1957-1961. 1922:
THE TIMES LONDON JUNE 12 1922:
DISBANDED IRISH REGIMENT’S COLOURS HANDED TO THE KING
-CEREMONY AT WINDSOR
(From our special Correspondent )
The ceremony which took place this morning at Windsor would, perhaps in pro-war days have been without any special significance to those who had not served in the Regular Army, but to-day, when practically all the manhood of our nation has passed through the ranks of the Army in the course of the great war, the outward and visible signs of the disbandment of ten historic infantry battalions is something which few can regard unmoved.
To-day the first and second battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment and Royal Munster Fusiliers, and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which are being disbanded, sent their Colours, their commanding officers and their Colour parties to Windsor, there to hand over to safe-keeping of the Sovereign the Colours which they have cherished and which are inscribed with the names of the battles in which they have been engaged from the days of Marlborough onward. Each Colour is in itself an epitome of the history of the British Army.
Forming up in the station yard at Windsor, and preceded and followed by escorts provided by the 3rd Battalion of his Majesty's First Guards, and with the band of that Regiment at the head of the procession, the ten Colour parties bearing their Colours aloft, marched up the hill to the Castle, the band playing the march-past of each Regiment in turn. Arrived at the entrance to St. George's Hall, the tune suddenly changed to "Auld Lang Syne', and so the column of Colour parties passed out of the great quadrangle.
Within, the ceremony was a private - almost of an intimate - character. The King inspected the representatives of his Irish Regiments, among which was a party of the South Irish Horse, and then addressed them as follows:-
“We are here today in circumstances which cannot fail to strike a note of sadness in our hearts. No regiment parts with their Colours without feelings of sorrow.
A knight in days gone by bore on his shield his coat-of-arms, tokens of valour and worth. Only in death did he surrender them. Your Colours are the records of valorous deeds in war and of the glorious traditions thereby created. You are called upon to part with them today for reasons beyond your control and resistance. By you and your predecessors these Colours have been reverenced and guarded as a sacred trust - which trust you now confide in me.
As your king I am proud to accept this trust. But I fully realise with what grief you relinquish these dearly prized emblems, and I pledge my word that within these ancient and historic walls your Colours will be treasured , honoured, and protected as hallowed memorials of the glorious deeds of brave and loyal regiments.”
The king shook hands cordially and in regretful farewell with each member of the Colour parties. Then followed to each commanding officer a few words expressive of very real sympathy - and then came again the personal touch when his majesty, the head of the army, handed to each of the several colonels a letter of good-bye addressed especially to each battalion, recalling its past history, and expressing again his grateful appreciation of services rendered. And so the outstanding act of disbandment was accomplished, and soon nothing will remain of five splendid Irish regiments but a memory - and those banners in the Hall at Windsor Castle.
The king wore the service uniform of a Field Marshal, and was accompanied by the queen, dressed in white, and Princess Mary, Viscountess Lascelles, dressed in grey. The Duke of Connaught, in Field Marshal's Service uniform, was with the king, and there were also present the Marquess of Cambridge, Governor of the Castle, Viscount Lascelles and the Earl of Athlone. Among the spectators were the Marchioness of Cambridge, Lady Mary Cambridge, and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone.