Last week, Clonmel citizens thronged the streets of the town to say farewell to the soldiers of our Irish Army. It was an occasion of sadness, of nostalgia, of the here-and-now and of the what’s-to-come. The large area of buildings and open spaces on the eastern suburbs of the town has had military occupancy for over two and a half centuries.
The late president of the Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society, Colonel S.J. Watson, described the terrain on which the barracks was originally built as “a swamp”; a marshy wasteland through which the Boulick Stream flowed and flooded. And though it is now culverted, it makes its presence known in times of heavy rain when it bubbles through the tarmac on The Mall.
Armies have marched in and out of the barracks through the centuries, going to and coming from wars, from the times of its designation as Artillery Barracks to Victoria Barracks. Since it has become Kickham Barracks, in modern times, our Irish soldiers have marched in and out through its gates, no longer, fortunately, to wars, but on perilous peacekeeping missions. But through the centuries, young Tipperary men marched away from Clonmel to fight in Afghanistan, in the Napoleonic, the Zulu, the Crimean, the Boer wars, and devastatingly in World War I.
In the chain of memories, two particularly come to mind. The late Colonel Grubb of Castlegrace told my husband that, as a child, he remembered being taken to his grandparents’ home in River House, New Quay. A very old nanny, a family retainer, still resident in the house, told him of her own childhood memory of seeing a great parade on The Mall, of military bands and banners and flags, as soldiers who had fought in Waterloo (where Napoleon was defeated) celebrated the victory and paraded captured colours. Two memories, passed down to a third, which takes us from 1812 to the present day!
In its long history of nearly three centuries, the barracks was unoccupied for only 16 years, from 1923/24 to 1940/41, during which time much of it lay in a roofless, windowless ruin. The early period covered the difficult birth-pangs of the new State and the internecine destruction into which it was plunged.
The last soldiers of the British Army, numbering only about 70, had been confined to Victoria Barracks during the Truce, and they left following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6th December, 1921. It was said that as the troops left the barracks and marched towards the railway station, poor women begged them to give them blankets. It is a reflection of the destitution which prevailed in some sections of the town’s community at that time.
The large armies which had occupied the barracks over the centures were equivalent to today’s large industries in the contribution made to the economy. Food supplies, milk, meat, vegetables were all locally sourced. Many of the trades and services were supplied by townspeople. Then, as now, the soldiers and their families shopped and spent their money in the town. Their departure, at a time of post war worldwide economic depression, was not universally seen as a good thing.
In the chaos of what followed, Clonmel experienced conditions reflecting some of the more troubled periods of its history. An tAthair Colmcille, the Cistercian monk and Freeman of the town, has written some accounts of the period, much of it observed as a senior student in the High School, and published in a series of articles in The Tipperary Historical Journal.
It would appear that sometime in the middle of February 1922, the anti-Treaty forces - which became known as the Irregulars - occupied the barracks and continued “the war,” only this time Irishmen killed other Irishmen. Curfews were imposed on the townspeople: bridges over the river and the railway were blown; telephone cables were cut. To compound the consequent isolation, the town was be-set by serious industrial disputes involving the workers of the Condensed Milk Company of Ireland (with premises on Suir Island), and the formation of the so-called “soviet.” For the first time since the Famine, soup kitchens were established in the town.
On 8th August, 1922, the now official army of the new State - referred to as The Free State Army - advanced on Clonmel, via Horsepasture and Powerstown. In the final engagement - called the Battle of Kilsheelan Street by the people of the town (now Davis Road), the barracks was captured by the State’s army, but by then it had been left a burning splintering mass. The frightening glow, and the fires which continued for days, were ingrained in the memory of the citizens.
The resultant ruins became part of Clonmel’s streetscape until the 1940s, when yet another period of Ireland’s troubled history, The Emergency, brought our Irish army into the town. In the interval of 16 years, parts of the barracks which survived the fires were used for various purposes. The military church became the premises of the Sporting Press. Another building became a dance-hall - The Playfair. The barrack square was used for fetes and carnivals and funfairs.
And now the barracks, which has reflected the divergent changes of Irish history - from Artillery to Victorian to Kickham - mirrors, once again, the vicissitudes of our own times.