Every day as I pass by the now vacated Kickham Barracks on The Mall, I pause to cast an eye on the two most important memorials in that now sadly empty group of buildings and deserted barrack square.
These are now well encased in stout protective meshing. It is a protection which reflects the current climate of criminal vandalism with which we are only too familiar.
Memorials, statuary, inscribed wall-plaques, all tell the story of a place. They extend our knowledge of local history. They are focal points in a streetscape. However, apart from a long-distance view, many Clonmel citizens would not be familiar with the significance of the military memorials, because the barracks was not generally open to the public. Yet, they do mark the importance of an institution in a town, over a period of nearly two centuries, and during a time of great change, in a transition from being part of the United Kingdom to self-governance in a Republic.
The barrack memorials commemorate world crises, and the part played by ordinary young men who served in the British army in some of the many wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These were ordinary young men who once drilled and marched and exercised the tools of their military trade on the still extant barrack square, and who assembled on the appropriately named adjacent mall, with their flags and banners and bands as they marched to some battlefront. And most of whom were Irishmen, and many of whom never came back to Ireland again.
The two most important of these memorials were erected by the comrades of the officers, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment who had been killed in action or who died of diseases contracted during various campaigns.
In a most interesting article contributed to the 2000 edition of “Tipperary Historical Journal,” Aine Maire Chadwick has made the detail and significance of these monuments much more accessible to ordinary people. In addition to giving the inscriptions, names and ranks, she has also given a very brief account of the campaigns - or the wars - in which these young men lost their lives.
The polished red granite cross on the southern boundary of the barrack square is the memorial which can be easily seen from The Mall. This cross is reflective of, and in the same approximate dimensions to some of our own ancient high crosses. It is a memorial to the young men who had once occupied this Clonmel barracks and who perished in the Afghanistan Campaign of 1879-1880, a brief war in Egypt in 1982 and the Nile Expedition of 1884-85.
The Chadwick papers lists the names, amongst them Barry, Clarke, Delaney, Moore, Kennedy, O’Donnell - and many more, all obviously Irish. She describes their participation in that Afghan war as a short campaign, undertaken to stop the encroachment of the Russians “into the wild country of the North West India” and primarily to defend the remote and forbidding Khyber Pass.
The recurrence of these troubled spots in world history, and their relevance to modern times, is a striking feature of the relevance of these memorials.
The very brief campaign in Egypt in 1882 is difficult to understand and appears to be the preservation of British interests in that area of the world. The Nile expedition of 1884-85 was, according to Aine Maire Chadwick, yet another involvement in Egyptian affairs, this time spurred on by the British press. And in all of which young Irish men died.
The South African memorial on the northern boundary of the square is a remarkably beautiful monument, and one which would enhance any public place. While a distant view of it can be had from The Mall, the detail can only be seen at close proximity.
It is made of Stradbally marble with inserted bronze images and as Chadwick describes it, namely, the Harp Crowned, the Lion of Nassau and the Sphinx of Egypt.”
It commemorates a number of engagements in which the Royal Irish Regiments and men from the Clonmel Barracks were involved, in a war that came to be known as the Boer War. The monument marks the celebrated Relief of Kimberley and the 1901-1902 battles of Cape Colony, Belfast, and Wittebergen. And here again, there is a Brett, a Clancy, a McGrath, a Power, a Whelan, and a list of young Irish casualties.
The former Kickham Barracks has now gone out of military ownership and has become the property of the local authority. Its future, in so far as the ordinary citizen understands (and the local authority has not been very forthcoming in giving information to the ordinary citizen!) will be municipal and recreational.
It is to be hoped that some area of the site will be reserved to mark its long military history, in which the existing monuments, with perhaps some additions, will be retained and displayed in attractive settings.
Such a display will not only acknowledge and honour a long military occupancy, but should be a reminder and acknowledgement that the history of a town, and of Ireland, is not just one-dimensional, but complex, and thought-provoking, and multi-layered.