A wave of emotion hit the soldiers of the 12th Infantry Battalion as they marched through the Southern Gate of Kickham Barracks for the last time at the stroke of 1pm on Monday.
The upbeat music of the Band of the First Southern Brigade from the interior of the barracks heralded to the expectant crowd outside on the Davis Road that the soldiers were on the march.
In orderly columns, they passed under the stone arched gateway behind the band into the embrace of hundreds of well wishers gathered in the spring sunshine at either side of the Barracks entrance to witness the historic moment.
The 150 soldiers, led by Kickham Barracks OC Cmdt. Robert Kiely, were greeted with spontaneous applause from the crowd of spectators stretching all the way down The Mall, many of them armed with cameras, mobile phones and camcorders to record the occasion for posterity.
Sgt. TJ Ryan from Dualla, most senior Non-Commissioned Officer, said marching out that gate to embark on the Barracks’ final military parade as soldiers was a very emotional moment for all of them.
“Even the youngest soldiers had a lump in their throats as they left,” said the Sergeant, who served at Kickham Barracks for 24 years and is now moving to Sarsfield Barracks in Limerick.
The people of Clonmel had been urged through the local media and even from the altar at Masses in the week leading up to the ceremony to come out and support the troops “march out” parade through the town.
And boy did they respond to the call.
They turned out in thousands to bid farewell to the Defence Forces men and women, who contributed so much as soldiers to the local community whether it was transporting stranded residents during the height of Clonmel’s infamous floods or running fundraising events for a myriad of worthy local causes.
Workers on their lunch breaks, school children from the local primary and secondary schools, shoppers, mothers with small children, retired people, Defence Forces veterans, politicians of all party colours, church leaders, friends, neighbours and relatives of the soldiers flocked to the town centre to see the historic parade.
Young children from SS Peter & Paul’s Primary School lined up on The Mall waving hand made tricolour flags as the parade, that also included two AML 90 vehicles and four military motorbikes driven by members of the 31st Reserve Cavalry Squadron, passed by.
Once the soldiers turned down onto The Quay, the crowd swept down Parnell Street to gather at The Main Guard and other vantage points on O’Connell Street to catch another glimpse of the spectacle as it passed under the town’s historic West Gate and down through the spine of the town centre.
The crowd stood eight deep at The Main Guard and broke into applause as the soldiers marched passed onto Gladstone Street.“It’s a crying shame,” declared one woman standing under one of the Main Guard arches as she watched the spectacle.
In Parnell Street, Mayor of Clonmel Darren Ryan stood on a stage outside the Town Hall to receive the salute from the soldiers on behalf of the people of the town. Gathered with him were Defence Forces representatives, Clonmel Borough Council members in their ceremonial robes, TDs, senators, county councillors, church leaders, local authority and Garda chiefs and other local dignitaries.
Members of the Organisation of Ex-Servicemen and Women and Irish United Nations Veterans Association standing proudly in their berets and blazers formed a guard of honour.
Among them was Gus Slater from 52 Ard Fatima, Clonmel, who served as a cook at Kickham Barracks for about 15 years and is now a member of the ONEC.
“I came here today to just see them off. I was in tears, it’s a very sad occasion and we’ll never see this again,” said Gus afterwards as he waited in McCarthy Square in Kickham Barraks for the final part of the Barracks closing ceremonies - the lowering of the Irish Tricolour from its flag pole.
Again a huge crowd assembled around the Square and outside on the street along the Barrack perimeter on The Mall to watch the soldiers led by the Band of the First Southern Brigade march in parade and enact this poignant military ritual.
Following speeches by Mayor Darren Ryan and Brigadier General Derry Fitzgerald, General Officer Commanding of the First Southern Brigade, Kickham Barracks chaplin Fr Seamus Madigan blessed the troops on parade and Canon Brendan Crowley, PP of SS Peter & Paul’s Parish read a well known reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Soldiers Prayer was recited.
The band played Slievenamon and the crowd was invited to stand as the Tricolour was lowered by Lieut David Murphy and Sgt. Frank Roles to the strains of Sundown from the army band, carefully folded and presented to Cmdt Robert Kiely.
The ceremony concluded with the playing of Amhran na bhFiann and the dismissal of the parade by 12th Battalion OC Lieut Colonel Anthony McKenna.
“It’s the end of an era. It will be devastating for them,” said Mary Monaghan from Ard Caoin, Clonmel after the last soldier had left the parade ground. Her friend Helen Moloney from Rockfield, Glenconner agreed. “We are both born and reared in Clonmel and never thought this day would come,” she told The Nationalist.
Helen and her daughter Laura and Mary with her husband Jim were taking photographs at the Barracks Celtic Cross monument to the British army soldiers from the Barracks, who died in the 19th century Afghanistan and Egypt campaigns. They had neighbours and friends in the Defence Forces and had cheered them on as the soldiers marched through the town centre earlier in the day.
While it was a sad day for the town, the parade had been a wonderful occasion that they could look back on in years to come.
Gabrielle and Joey Fortune from Clerihan watched the flag lowering ceremony from The Mall and stood up on the Barracks perimeter railings to get a good view.
“They are a lovely bunch of lads in the army and they deserve better than this. They didn’t have to close down this barracks. It a sad day for Clonmel when they turn around and do this,” declared Gabrielle.
Nevertheless she thought the soldiers had got a great send off from the town. “It was absolutely fabulous, they deserved every bit of it and they got a good day,”
Susan Carroll from Shanavine Way, Glenconner, Clonmel watched the parade and flag lowering ceremony with her three sons Peter, Leigh and James.
“My father John Corry is just after retiring from the army after about 39 years service. It’s a very emotional occasion and so sad.
“We watched the parade on O’Connell Street and then followed it down to the Town Hall. It was lovely that all the schools were out to see the parade. It was important.
“We saw a lot of people crying and you felt like crying yourself. It was also great that people could come here to the Barracks and say goodbye.”