As part of the events for the 50th Birr Vintage Week, a set of mock WW1 trenches were excavated in the training grounds of Birr Barracks. The excavation, which was the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland, helped provide further information about the training structure put in place to train men for life in the trenches. This article gives a brief overview of the barracks itself and its long colourful history.
The start of the nineteenth century saw the requirement of a barracks for Birr, as soldiers stationed in the town at the time were accommodated in private billets. A barracks was planned and a site at Crinkill selected. Construction began in 1809 with the barracks completed in 1812. Stone was quarried locally with Wicklow granite being used for steps and window sills.
At the time of construction, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) were raging in Europe. The British were fearful of a French invasion of Ireland, so began a program of building fortifications along the River Shannon, and at likely land points at Galway Bay and the Shannon Estuary. While the barracks in Birr was not part of this fortification program it could, if necessary, provide troops to defend the crossing points at Banagher and Portumna.
The barracks was large. It was built around two quadrangles and could accommodate around 1200 soldiers. In addition to the two parade grounds, the adjacent land, the Fourteen Acres, was used for training and sports. The Fourteen Acres was an important space for training and saw many interesting events occur on it. In 1877 new colours were presented to the 53rd Regiment of Foot, by the Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria.
The garrison developed overtime with further additions including a hospital, gas works, church, cemetery, married quarters and canteen. The canteen gave employment to retired soldiers and even had its own currency. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the barracks was no longer meeting the sanitary requirements of the time, as a result line infantry regiments stopped occupying it in 1897. It did however remain the depot for the Leinster Regiment.
The Military Cemetery
When soldiers weren’t marching on the parade ground they often spent considerable time in barracks. With conditions often cramped it was possible for infectious diseases to spread. Many cases often resulted in death. When soldiers, their wives or children died they were initially buried in the town’s already established burial grounds of St. Brendan’s or the ‘new church yard’ which had been established to cater for military burials.
Towards the mid-nineteenth century the burial grounds of Birr were overcrowded and in an appalling state, something had to be done. The military solved this problem by opening a burial ground of their own in 1853, located in the North West corner of the Fourteen Acres. The burial ground was originally half the size it is today, later being extended when it began to fill up.
The cemetery ceased to be used once the British Army left Birr in 1922. Today the cemetery contains 52 memorials which record the names of 62 soldiers, women and children. There are also at least another 213 unmarked burials.
The Leinster Regiment
In 1881 the British Army underwent reforms, these were known as the Childers reforms named after the then Secretary of State for War, Hugh Childers. Previously infantry regiments were organised by numbers, these now changed to formal names and regiments would consist of two regular infantry battalions and three militia battalions. This saw the creation of the Leinster Regiment from the 100th and 109th Regiments of Foot which had their depot in Birr since 1873. The old King’s County militia became the 3rd (militia) Battalion of the Leinster Regiment.
The regiment consisted of two line infantry battalions and three militia/reserve battalions. During the Great War, two service battalions were raised. Birr Barracks served as the regiment’s depot up until February 1922 when the army left. The regiment was later disbanded in June 1922.
Today Crinkill and Birr still retain many strong links with the regiment. In 1964 the Old Comrade’s Association unveiled a memorial window in St. Brendan’s church to commemorate all those who served in the regiment.
The Boer War
The Boer War broke out in 1899. It was the product of several factors, the main one was the attempted annexation of the two independent Boer states of Orange Free State and Transvaal by Britain. This was due to a major gold discovery. Initially the British were unprepared for the war, but by 1900 several 100,000 British reinforcements were on their way to South Africa.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Leinster Regiment served in the conflict. The 3rd (Militia) Battalion, volunteered for overseas service. Three hundred officers, non-commissioned officers and men landed in South Africa in March 1900. During their time in South Africa they endured the hot climate and the tedious task of block house duty. Their time in South Africa saw the battalion lose a number of men, mainly due to sickness and disease.
The 3rd Battalion left South Africa and arrived home in Birr on 26 May 1902, they received a warm welcome home at Birr Barracks where the men were presented with their campaign medals and a hot dinner. Birr Urban District Council welcomed the men home too, which was controversial considering that the Council consisted mainly of nationalists.
A memorial was erected in front of the Garrison church to commemorate the men of the battalion who had died in South Africa. This was later moved after the burning of the barracks to its current location in the military cemetery.
Newly excavated training trench at the Fourteen Acres, Birr Barracks
The Great War
During the Great War there was much activity around the barracks. Some 6000 men were recruited for Kitchener’s new armies at Birr. Many Birr families saw fathers, brothers and sons join up, of whom one hundred would never return home.
Mock trenches were dug in the Fourteen Acres to help train the new recruits. The trenches ran zig-zag in a north-south orientation and were in the eastern end of the grounds. There were at least two sets of them dug for training purposes. Crops were also grown in the Fourteen Acres to provide the garrison with more food. Later in 1919 an airfield was constructed and galvanised huts housed six bi-planes.
End of an Era
The British Army left Birr Barracks in February 1922, which were then handed over to the IRA. It was burnt by anti-Treaty forces during the Irish Civil War on 14 July 1922. The Leinster Regiment Depot changed to Colchester.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty and the down sizing of the British Army saw the disbandment of five historic Southern Irish Regiments. Disbandment took place at Windsor Castle on 12 June 1922 where the colours of the regiments were presented to King George V.