A new book detailing the history of Birr Military Cemetery has been published by Offaly County Council. Researched, written and designed by Stephen Callaghan the book gives an authoritative history of the cemetery and all those identified as buried there. While the cemetery only contains 52 inscribed memorials, the book gives biographical details of a further 230 people buried there. The memorials which survive are also examined and described in detail, including information about type, symbols and details about the materials used and the stonecutters who made them. The cemetery is one of the few surviving features of Birr Barracks and is an important link to the past. The people buried there are a mix of soldiers, soldiers’ wives and children, the latter make up most of the burials.
To give context to the cemetery we must explore some of the history of Birr Barracks. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the town of Birr was in need of permanent garrison. A location in Crinkill was decided upon. Construction began in 1808 and was completed in 1812. The garrison in Birr wasn’t unique with other permanent garrison being constructed around the country in important and strategic locations. The barracks at Birr grew and developed over time with various additions and improvements including gas lighting, a prison, hospital, married quarters and a canteen with its own currency. The village of Crinkill saw great trade and development as a result with many of the roads we know today (Military and Whiteford Roads) being to facilitate the military and troop movements.
The barracks could originally hold two infantry regiments, which equated to about 1000 men. Various regiments would come and go typically spending a year in the barracks before moving elsewhere. With such a large body of soldiers in one place it was inevitable that soldiers were going to die while stationed there. Initial military burials took place in town’s pre-existing burial ground; St Brendan’s graveyard and the newly opened cemetery at Drumbane. These places soon became crowded and neglected, the cemetery at Drumbane being described in a local paper as a receptacle for vagabonds and dissolute women. The annoyance of the military at the state of the local burial grounds resulted in them taking action and opening a cemetery of their own in 1853. This filled up in the proceeding 20 years and was extended in the 1870s.
At the same time of the opening of the cemetery construction of a Garrison Church was completed. The church served two important purposes, divine service during the weekend and to educate soldiers and soldiers’ children during the week, where the pulpit could be screened off during lessons. Many of the Protestant soldier’s children were also baptised here. Roman Catholic soldiers attended mass in St Brendan’s Roman Catholic Church in Birr.
It cannot be denied that Birr and Crinkill still harbour strong links to the Leinster Regiment. The regiment was formed in 1881 from the amalgamation of the 100th and 109th Regiments of Foot. The regiment’s depot being designated as Birr Barracks. Many of the soldiers of the regiment who trained or were stationed here would go on to service in various parts of the Empire. An interesting example is Captain Kirkpatrick, Lieutenant Keating and Corporal Gale. These men were on secondment from the Leinster Regiment and served in Uganda and Nigeria during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and were ultimately killed during service, they are commemorated on a brass tablet memorial in St Brendan’s Church of Ireland Church. Their memorial and biographies are further explored in the book.
Many of the ordinary working men of the King’s County served in the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, Leinster Regiment. This battalion formed in 1881 from the old King’s County Militia. The battalion volunteered to serve in South Africa during the Second Anglo Boer War (1899–1902) and spent two long years on service in a hot subtropical climate where the main killer was disease. The battalion did their duty and returned to a hero’s welcome in Birr Barracks on 26 May 1902. Despite the chairman of Birr Urban District issuing the battalion a welcome, it had been heavily contested within the Council over the controversial nature of the conflict and the fact the Council was mainly nationalist. More controversy ensued with the proposed erection of a memorial for the death casualties of the Birr battalion in the Boer War. The memorial lay in a yard for a number of years before being erected in front of the Garrison Church in Birr Barracks. The memorial was moved to the military cemetery a few years after the burning of the barracks.
Birr Barracks was handed over to the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) in early 1922, the army auctioning off most of supplies and furniture beforehand. Internal friction within the I.R.A. over the Anglo-Irish Treaty saw the anti treaty side set fire to the barracks on 14 July 1922. The ruins of the barracks were ultimately knocked for rubble years later.
Stephen Callaghan’s book is available for purchase online from Offaly History and can also be purchased in Crinkill Store and Woodfield Café, Birr.Offaly History sends Stephen our warm congratulations on his latest book and his untiring energy.