The folklore and oral histories of Mayo are peppered with accounts of the dreaded Redcoats – the army of the English invader.
They shot and hanged our rebel heroes, hunted our gallant highwaymen, protected landlords and bailiffs, and guarded food convoys exported out of the county during times of famine. Many of these soldiers were Irishmen, but we anonymise them as 'the Redcoats.' Who were these men? Why did they take the 'King's Shilling'? What is their legacy, and how should we remember them, if at all?
In the television adaptation of Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe's Battle', Sharpe is in Spain. Wellington has tasked him with sorting out the Royal Irish Company, an unwanted regiment of Irish exiles. Formerly the Spanish royal bodyguard, Sharpe, is instructed to treat them with respect, but Wellington wants to be rid of them.
He tells Sharpe to encourage them to desert. Sharpe, aided by his trusty no-nonsense companion, Captain Patrick Harper, takes a different approach – he will make soldiers out of them. Can Sharpe trust his new regiment? Will they line out behind him in the final engagement or cross to the French? Conflicts like the Peninsular War undoubtedly gave rise to confusion among rank-and-file Irish in the British army. France and Spain supported the Irish cause at various times, and the ranks and officer class of both armies harboured Irish men.
In the early 1830s, Irish men made up just over 42% of the non-commissioned officers and men in the British army. Harper told Sharpe, 'God forbid should they ever mutiny Sir' or words to that effect. Harper and Sharpe were pragmatists. When Harper kills deserter O'Rourke from Galway, he stabs him 'for Ireland'. Beneath the dreaded 'Redcoat' tunic, there were many vests of green and red – men born and raised in Castlebar, Belcarra, Swinford, Ballyhean, Ballina, and Westport. Most of these men were Catholics forced to enlist to escape abject poverty; many were illiterate. All were destined to spend their time in the lower ranks. Their commanding officers included many Anglo-Irish protestants from aristocratic Mayo families.
These men traversed the British Empire, killing for the Crown, being killed, dying of disease, and in some cases surviving to return home years later. With the aid of historical records, it is possible to stand with these men in ships mid-Atlantic as they fight for their lives to repel French boarding parties and dodge musket shot and cannonball; struggle with them as they summon up the last of their energy to make one final push to escape a sinking transport caught in a storm and driven onto the rocks off the west coast of Ireland; watch them evade primitive traps and arrows as they hunt Uva rebels to extinction in Ceylon, or brutally put down slave rebellions in Jamaica and uprisings against colonial rule in India and Ireland.
Some of these soldiers were mere boys. Michael Grimes of Castlebar enlisted at 16, fought in all the major engagements of the Crimean War, secured several medals, and was discharged due to insanity. John Browne of Breaghwy enlisted at 14. He was wounded when a shell burst beside him during the bloody Siege of Badajoz and was later shot in the head at Waterloo. He served in Jamaica, where the military kept the large, enslaved population, in check for planter-slavers, like the Marquess of Sligo. He married the daughter of a planter-slaver and took her to Breaghwy. Thomas Connor of Ballyhean fought in the Peninsular War and served for a lengthy time in Ceylon. Castlebar man, Thomas Tone, fought at the Battle of Talavera (Image: 'On the Morrow of Talavera', Elizabeth Thompson ). Pat Heffron received five hundred lashes in Castlebar Barracks. He was one of fifty-five men court-martialled there in 1832.
Letters written by men who returned to Mayo following long campaigns are preserved at the National Archives. This correspondence tells the story of men discarded by the Crown. Some highlighted their experience abroad and sought positions in the constabulary. Many ended up grotesquely disfigured in Castlebar debtors' prison. Our county's history is incredibly complex and tightly woven into the fabric of world history in ways we have yet to explore fully.