February 7th is a special day here in Kilkenny, marking as it does the centenary of the takeover of the Military Barracks. The Kilkenny Observer is grateful to Larry Scallan for his research into this period in our history and we are delighted to publish his observations. Over the coming two issues, we look at the history of the Barracks including an account given by James Comerford in his book
‘My Kilkenny IRA Days’
We are now approaching the centenary of the takeover of the Military Barracks, Ballybought Street, Kilkenny City. This momentous event occurred on February 7th 1922. The Barracks had been home to over sixty Infantry Regiments of the British Army since 1803. It also served as a Brigade Headquarters of Artillery from 1908, as well as being the home of various units such as King Edward’s Horse (The King’s Overseas Dominions Regiment). This was the cavalry regiment of the British Army which saw service in the First World War. The Kilkenny Militia used the Barracks as their home base for annual training, particularly in its active service periods during the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, The Boer War and of course the Great War.
This twelve-acre walled village on the edge of Kilkenny City has been an ever-present feature of the city for over 220 years. It replaced two pre-existing Barracks after the 1798 rebellion. They were located off John Street (the current site of Butler Gallery) and the Horse Barracks which was in the vicinity of the brewery site. Horse Barrack Lane and Barrack Lane signpost these long-gone encampments.
Its strategic location, on the edge of an expanding city which was positioned on an economic crossroads for trade in the Southeast of Ireland, was enormously beneficial for the crown forces. They used it as a strong base for enforcement and projecting military power across an extensive area and especially for conducting joint operations with the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence.
The high walls that enclose the Barracks now accommodate a modern light Infantry battalion called the 3rd Infantry Battalion. This is, incidentally, the oldest infantry battalion in the permanent Defence Forces. It should be noted that every soldier, airman and sailor has sworn to defend and protect the Irish State as enshrined in the Irish Constitution – a legacy of the loyalty that was espoused by those who joined the volunteers in 1914.
In contemporary Kilkenny the Barracks and its soldiers blend into the streetscape and fabric of local communities. Its members are often found in local GAA, soccer, or other sporting clubs as players or administrators on school committees. They are supporters of many local good causes and charities. Our Defence Forces have always been fast to respond to a request for the civil power (An Garda) or the civil authority (e.g. County Council).
With their skills and talents they provide support to the local community such as after severe weather events where they help with clean-up operations. We particularly saw their contribution to the community during the current pandemic.
They also provide prominent support to Portlaoise Prison.
It was very impressive to see the 3rd Battalion providing the honour guard for the ceremony held in Dublin Castle on January 16th 2022 when the centenary of its handover was commemorated.
This all happens while maintaining an absolute commitment to overseas service and their altruistic attitude to proactive peace-keeping in often difficult operational situations.
One hundred years ago the Barracks was garrisoned by the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. This Regiment would have been involved in military operations which involved the lethal use of force: included among these military operations were Coolbawn (death of Nicholas Mullins and Jack Hartley), Knocknagress (death of Pat Walsh and Sean Quinn), Friary Street (death of Tom Hennessy and Michael Dermody) and the ambush at Uskerty near Coan.
The Irish Republican Army, the sworn army of Dáil Éireann had fought a guerrilla type war 1919-1921, attacking and evading the Crown Forces and then disappearing into the local population. When this tactic was combined with an excellent knowledge of the landscape, it led to successful continuous operations to ensure denial of freedom of movement to the British military. Most Crown Forces’ fatalities in the Kilkenny Brigade area during the war were RIC members; however there are many examples of targeting of the Devonshire soldiers, the main one being the attempt of the 1st Battalion Kilkenny Brigade to trigger an ambush on Friary Street in March 1921. It is in this context that it is important to reflect and remember this seminal event in what we now refer to as our decade of centenaries.
Next week we look at an account given by James Comerford in his book ‘My Kilkenny IRA Days’. This is a highly important account as he was a member of the marching body of troops who entered the Barracks through the Ballybought Street gate under the command of Brigadier General George O’Dwyer.