Today 14 July 2022 marks one of the most significant centenaries of the year in County Offaly, the burning of Birr Barracks in Crinkill. While the barracks started to go into decline towards the start of the twentieth century, it was still a vital provider of local trade. When the town council requested Lord Roberts station an infantry regiment in the barracks in 1897, local trade from the barracks was valued at £40,000 or around €3.5 million today. While not totally abandoned, troops were stationed in the barracks during the Second Boer War and during the WW1.
With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the evacuation the barracks was handed over to the National Army, Commandant General Michael McCormack taking command of the barracks. The last of the British Army to leave had been a detachment of the Northamptonshire Regiment, which stayed to oversee an auction of government property, which ultimately never took place. The deport staff of the Leinster Regiment, had left several days before, bound for Colchester, which would act as the depot until the regiment was disbanded in June 1922.
Now in the hands of the National Army, the barracks was to act as the headquarters for the 3rd Southern Division. As the rift in the army occurred those in favour of the Anglo-Irish Treaty left the barracks leaving behind the anti-treaty forces, which sealed the faith of the barracks.
The night of Friday the 14th July, the anti-treaty forces left the barracks, but not before setting it alight in a bid to stop it from being reoccupied by pro-treaty forces. Petrol was used to help the fire spread, which had allegedly been ‘borrowed’ from a petrol station on the Green, Birr, the owner later apparently compensated with a piano from the officer’s mess.
The fire burned bright into the night as it engulfed the barracks, Crinkill being illuminated as if it was daytime as astonished villagers watched the destruction unfold. The intense blaze being visible for miles around. The fire crept along the various soldier blocks making its way to the clock in the cupola – which was installed 76 years prior in 1846. As the clock stopped ticking the hands came to rest at 3:30 am on the 15th July.
When the fire finished its work, all that was left was a pile of smouldering ruins, no buildings had been spared, even the garrison church which served as a place of worship for Protestant members of the garrison had been burnt.
As dawn broke a steady stream of looters began to arrive and plundered anything that had not burnt. Kitchen ware, baths and anything that could be taken, was taken, items being carted away by donkeys. Looting became so much of a problem that the National Army issued a warning, anyone caught with property from the barracks would be prosecuted, and indeed some people were fined for having items from the barracks in their possession. One hundred years on, it is quite likely people to this day have items from the barracks in their house, ‘liberated’ by relatives.
The barracks lay completely gutted and disused, the parade grounds slowly taken over with grass. Discussions in the Dáil proposed that it could be rebuilt to house National Army soldiers in the town, but nothing came of this. Similar talks occurred during the Emergency, but again nothing happened. The barracks was ultimately sold by the Commissioners of Public Works for stone rubble. The garrison church was sold to the monks at Mount Saint Joseph, Roscrea and the stone was used in the construction of part of the steeple. The main barracks buildings were systematically knocked down and the rubble taken away. Some of the last buildings to be destroyed was one of the officer blocks and central arch and cupola, which were blown up in the 1980s. Today all that remains are the boundary walls and the fine cut stone entrance gates and protective bastions, an important reminder of this once important barracks, built over 200 years ago.
For those interested in learning more about the history of the barracks, Stephen Callaghan, in connection with Offaly Historical Society will be leading a free guided tour of the entire barracks complex. The tour will be on 16th July at 11 am, starting from outside the Thatch Restaurant at Crinkill.
See also two YouTube videos with Stephen on Birr Barracks on the Offaly History channel, previous blogs and articles on our Decade of Centenaries platform at http://www.offalyhistory.com. See also his recent article in History Ireland, July August 2022. Why not subscribe to this great magazine that issues six times a year.