The departure of the British Military from Offaly one hundred years ago – Birr Barracks. Stephen Callaghan

In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty Birr Barracks in Offaly was one of the first to be evacuated by the British military. It was also the largest in the county. Stephen Callaghan takes up the story.

Wednesday, 2 February 2022 marked the centenary anniversary of the departure of the Leinster Regiment from Birr Barracks. A historically significant event which little is known about. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 effectively saw the withdrawal of the British Army from Ireland which would take place over the coming months, with British military barracks around the country being handed over to the newly created National Army. This mass exodus included the Leinster Regiment depot staff based in Birr Barracks, which it had called home for the past 41 years.

On the day of their departure the depot staff consisted of 4 officers, 64 men, 2 women and 8 children. There were additionally two waggons of luggage. There is a myth that when the Leinsters left all they took with them was the regimental silver, leaving everything else behind. While over simplified, there is some truth to this. While any regimental silver belonging to the depot would have certainly been taken, the truth is the regimental silver of the regular army battalions of the regiment would have accompanied them and not have been in the depot. Also everything in the barracks was intentionally left behind, with a large government auction intended to take place on 3 February to dispose of the stores.

Birr Barracks dating from 1810-12. Courtesy Stephen Callaghan.

The depot staff departed the barracks at 12 noon and were greeted by a large crowd of people from the town. They made their way for the last time down Military Road, while the regiment’s band playing Irish and traditional tunes, towards Birr train station and made their way to Dublin by train. When in Dublin, they proceeded to the North Wall, then onto Colchester, Essex via Holyhead, where they would join up with the 2nd Battalion (the 1st Battalion, was in India at the time).

With the above mentioned Anglo-Irish Treaty and additional downsizing and cutbacks in the British Army, the Leinster Regiment along with 4 other historic Southern Irish Regiments were marked for disbandment. The official presentation of the regimental colours to King George V taking place at Windsor Castle on 12 June.

The camp at Birr Barracks outside the walls, c. 1910. Courtesy of NLI.

Despite the Leinsters having left Birr, a detachment of the Northamptonshire Regiment remained for the large government auction of the stores, which was scheduled to take place at 11 am on 3 February. The auction consisted of 7000 lots of furniture, sporting requisites, medical apparatus and unused clothes, boots and shoes. The auction was advertised as a “rare opportunity of completely re-fitting, at a reasonable cost, the home, the office, the workshop, and the club”. Despite publicity about the auction, there is some question as to whether the auction took place as a newspaper article in March states the auction was suspended as the Provisional Irish Government decided they wanted to keep the stores.

The barracks was officially handed over to Commandant General Michael McCormack of the 3rd Southern Division on Tuesday 6 February. Newspapers of the time records there were around 50 members of the National Army present at the handover. The intention was the barracks would act as the headquarters for the 3rd Southern Division. Unfortunately, the handover was not photographed, nor do any of the contemporary newspapers go into any great detail about the event.

The IRA take control. Courtesy Stephen Callaghan

With the handing over of Birr Barracks ended 110 years of occupation by various regiments of the British Army. Originally constructed between 1809-1812 as a response to the threat of French invasion and or internal insurrection. In 1881 the barracks had become the depot of the then newly formed Leinster Regiment, with a fixed recruiting area of Meath, Westmeath, Longford, Offaly and Laois. Despite the regiment’s relatively short existence, links with Birr and Offaly have endured the past century with many people having ancestral links.

With the barracks now in the hands of the national army, all was not well as civil war loomed and the faith of the barracks was sealed. Another article in July will pick up on the story of Birr Barracks.

Easy days on security at Birr Barracks, c. 1900-10. Courtesy NLI