Wright and the other Volunteers: Birr, the Boer War and the Lindley connection. By Rosemary Raughter

This week’s blog is by Rosemary Raughter, an independent scholar, who has published widely on women’s and on local history. Her discovery of a collection of love letters, written 1898-1901, from her grandmother, Sarah Whelan, originally of Roscrea, to her grandfather, Thomas Eades of Birr, led her to research aspects of life in Birr at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the autumn of 1899 my twenty-one year old grandmother, Sis Whelan, was living in Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), Co Wexford. Far from home and friends, she kept up a regular correspondence with the young man whom she had met while working in Birr, and whom she would eventually marry.[1]  Like Sis, Tom Eades was a shop assistant: reared in Fortal, since his early teens he had been employed in Fayle’s hardware shop on the Main Street. Sis’s life was a narrow one, confined for the most part to the drapery shop in which she worked, to her lodgings above it, to the Methodist chapel across the square where she worshipped, and to the riverside paths and woods just outside the town where she walked on occasional free afternoons. Current national and international events impinged hardly at all on her consciousness, which was not surprising: as she told Tom, ‘we never see a paper here’.[2]

sis (c.1925)
Sis Whelan

The one exception to Sis’s almost total disregard of politics and the wider world was the Boer War, which broke out on 11 October 1899 with the declaration of war by the Boer Republics. With feelings ranging from staunchly loyalist on the one hand to vociferously pro-Boer on the other, and with up to fifty thousand Irish soldiers ultimately involved in South Africa, this was an issue which polarised contemporary Irish opinion. Even Sis, with no access to a newspaper, heard talk in the shop about the war, while Tom’s letters must have contained news gleaned from his contacts with soldiers of the Leinster Regiment, headquartered at Crinkle, and shortly to embark for the Cape.[3]

 

Sis’s first reference to the war in her correspondence came in December 1899. Voicing her sadness at ‘all the lives that have been lost’, she went on to express sympathy for Mrs Smyth, daughter of Tom’s employer, Benjamin Fayle, whose husband, Captain Temple Smyth, and two brothers, Robert and Harry Fayle, were all currently serving in South Africa.[4]  A few days later, as news of devastating British defeats in so-called Black Week[5] arrived, she reported that a concert had been held in Newtownbarry to raise funds to provide comforts for the ‘poor soldiers’, and to assist their families at home.[6] Similar events were taking place all over the country: in Birr, in the same week, a ‘popular and interesting entertainment’ was held in the Oxmantown Hall. ‘No matter what opinions may be held as to the justification or otherwise of the sanguinary war raging in South Africa’, noted The King’s County Chronicle, ‘all coincide that it is a public duty to provide assistance for the dependants of our brave soldiers.’ The hall was packed on the night, and ‘it was gratifying to note how all creeds joined in “lending a hand”.’[7]

'it is very sad to think of all the lives that have been lost in this war' - letter from Sis, 11 December 1899.
‘It is very sad to think of all the lives that have been lost in this war’ – letter from Sis Whelan, 11 December 1899.

With the appointment of Lord Roberts as commander-in-chief and the dispatch of reinforcements, the tide of the war began to turn in Britain’s favour. Irish troops played a crucial role in the relief of Ladysmith, and Sis shared in the general pride and exhilaration, commenting that ‘the war is going on very well now, and I think that the Irish soldiers are very brave fellows.’[8] An enthusiastic royalist, she looked forward eagerly to Queen Victoria’s forthcoming visit, intended as a mark of appreciation for Irish support, and commented wistfully on the plans of Tom and ‘some of the other fellows’ to travel up to Dublin for the celebrations.[9]

 

 

In her next letter, written on 23 March 1900, Sis touched on another instance of Irish support for the war, enquiring whether ‘Wright or any of the other volunteers’ had gone out to South Africa, although ‘perhaps’, she added (as it turned out, prematurely) ‘they won’t be wanted now.’[10]  On 8 January 1900 Archie Wright, twenty-seven year old son of John Wright, proprietor of The King’s County Chronicle, and a journalist on the paper, enlisted in the Imperial Yeomanry, a new force established following the military disasters of late 1899, and three weeks later he and two other volunteers, Edward Kearns, whose address was given as St Kilda, and Joseph McDowell of Ballinavarra, Ballingarry, left Birr, without ‘eclat’, as The Midland Tribune put it, to join their unit, the 45th (Dublin) Company, Imperial Yeomanry.[11]  By early April they were in South Africa, and on 23 May the company, as part of the 13th Battalion, left Bloemfontein by train to join British forces at Lindley. When they rode into the settlement on 27 May, however, it was to find the British column gone and the Boers once more in possession. Instead of retreating, as would have been possible, the volunteers took up a defensive position in the hills outside the town. Surrounded and under fire, they held out until 30 May, when they were forced to surrender. Seventeen men of the force had been killed, four more died of wounds, and 379 were taken into Boer custody. A despatch from Lord Roberts dated 5 June reported the relief of Lindley, and the ‘very regrettable circumstances’ of the 13th Battalion’s surrender. The list of prisoners included the three men who had left Birr in January, Wright, Kearns and McDowell, as well as two others from the general area, M Hickey, Borrisokane and C H Brereton, Nenagh.[12]

Despite Lord Roberts’s hope that the men would shortly be released, it seems that they had to endure some weeks of imprisonment: in August a letter, dated 10 July, reached Dr Middleton of Mullingar from his son, confirming that he and his comrades of the 45th Company were prisoners of war. They had, he reported, been very well treated ‘considering everything’:

We were 28 days on the march from where we were captured to here, and we had to sleep in the open veldt every night; we had to break the ice in our buckets in the morning, while the day was roasting … It is very monotonous here, but we have sports and concerts to pass the time.[13]

The Lindley debacle was a humiliating setback for the British, and indeed for the Imperial Yeomanry. Despite a number of minor victories in the months which followed, the force generally failed to distinguish itself. By the end of 1900 barely a third of the contingent which had arrived at the beginning of the year was still in service, and it was decided that those still remaining should be sent home. Archie Wright left South Africa in December 1900, and was discharged from service on 4 February 1901.  His name appears in the census taken on 31 March, by which time he was safely back home in Cumberland Square. He would in due course succeed his father as proprietor of The King’s County Chronicle until its takeover by its longtime rival, The Midland Tribune, in 1948, and he died in Birr in 1954.[14]

Despite the existence throughout Ireland of memorials to the Irishmen who fought in the Boer War (including, of course, the monument to the officers and men of the Leinster Regiment in the military cemetery at Crinkle), the conflict itself is now very largely disregarded, its horrors cast into the shade by the conflagration of 1914-18. However, Sis’s references, coming from a correspondence which is otherwise entirely domestic and local in its focus, are a reminder of the impact which it had on contemporary Irish society and, indeed, on the lives of a number of Birr people of the time.

Notes:

[1] The correspondence from Sis Whelan to Tom Eades is published in full in Bulletin of the Methodist Historical Society of Ireland, vol 22, 2017, pp 37-116.  All references to the letters are taken from this source. See also Rosemary Raughter, ‘”With best love, Sis”: a Parsonstown courtship, 1898-1901’, Birr Year Review, vol 17, 2017, pp 19-21.

[2] SW to TE, 11 December 1899, Newtownbarry.

[3] On the Leinster Regiment and the Boer War, see https://www.angloboerwar.com/unit-information/imperial-units/569-leinster-regiment

[4] SW to TE, 11 December 1899. Captain Temple Smyth, Eveleen (nee Fayle) Smyth’s husband, was a member of the Cape Medical Staff Corps, as was Captain Harry Fayle (1865-1920). Major Robert James Leech Fayle (1857-1936) was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was awarded the DSO for his services in South Africa.

[5] During Black Week – 10-17 December 1899 – the Boers defeated the British at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso.

[6] SW to TE, 18 December 1899.

[7] King’s County Chronicle, 21 December 1899.

[8] SW to TE, 23 March 1900, Newtownbarry. Ladysmith had been relieved on 1 March 1900. On the Irish response to the Boer War, see Luke Diver, ‘Ireland’s South African War, 1899-1902’, Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies, vol 42, 1,  2014, pp 1-17.

[9] SW to TE, 19 March 1900. On the royal visit, see http://www.turtlebunbury.com/history/history_irish/history_irish_victoria1900.htm

[10] SW to TE, 23 March, Newtownbarry.

[11] Imperial Yeomanry service records, 1899-1902, http://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=gbm%2fwo128%2f0032%2f081_001&parentid=gbm%2fwo128%2f0032%2f128006255 ; Midland Tribune, 27 January 1900.

[12] The Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 9 June 1900. Kearn’s name appears here as ‘Kevans’, and his address as St Hilda, Parsonstown.

[13] Weekly Irish Times, 1 September 1900.

[14] It would be interesting to know if Wright ever became aware of the parallels between his experience in South Africa and that of another soldier turned journalist: as correspondent for The Morning Post, Winston Churchill entered Lindley on 19 May 1900 with the British force which evacuated the town just prior to the arrival of the Imperial Yeomanry.  He also shared Wright’s experience of imprisonment, having been taken prisoner in November 1899, only to escape four weeks later.

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