The future of the monuments in the recently “decommissioned” Kickham Barracks has now become the responsibility of the Borough Council of Clonmel. From a recent report in this newspaper, it would seem that the Council is in negotiation with the OPW, and that there is a proposal from that statutory body that the monuments might be dismantled and put into storage, pending a final decision about re-location. There would appear to be an implied depressing sub-text... “if that ever happens!” Again, from this newspaper report it would seem that the Council has no fixed ideas about an appropriate location.
That such a location should be identified is very important. The monuments represent the layered history of Clonmel: the many facets, the many commitments, the many loyalties, which contribute to the composition of a town and of a community.
Monuments and statues add visual interest to any town. They tell a story. They enhance a streetscape. Those of us who wander through European towns and cities learn much from monuments. Some of them are of such artistry that they become the objectives of a town or city walkabout: places to pause and look and learn.
The Kickham Barracks monuments are memorials to young Irishmen, who spent some time in the town, many from the locality and who, as members of the Royal Irish Regiment, died on foreign battlefields. The two monuments are very handsome in design, one particularly beautiful, and because of limited access to the barracks, have not been seen by many of the town’s citizens. In fact, many people saw them for the first time during the recent sad occasion when Kickham Barracks was ceremoniously vacated.
It is significant that these have survived, unharmed, during the destruction of much of the barracks in 1922. Perhaps, even in the trauma of divided loyalties in a very troubled time, the monuments were rightly seen as memorials to young Irishmen, some little more than boys, some propelled by a sense of adventure, and who died in far-off places, fighting in wars they did not understand, in circumstances over which they had neither control nor influence.
The replica Celtic cross, on the southern side of the barracks square and which can be seen through the railings on The Mall, is a memorial to the Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Private Soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, who were killed in the Afghanistan Campaign in 1879-1880.
The catalyst for this war was the Russian encroachment into the mountainous region of North West India. Much of the military engagement took place in the Hindu Kush mountains. (Dervla Murphy has written about her own peaceful but exciting adventure in this stunningly beautiful but harsh environment). There, young Irishmen, with names such as Barry, Downey, O’Brien, O’Connell - 49 in all, died.
Another panel on this monument records the deaths of 24 members of the regiment, of all ranks, in Egypt in 1882 and on the Nile Expedition in 1884-85. Here the stability of Egypt was threatened by a religious leader - the Mahdi - who had been waging a Holy War in Eastern Sudan - a region of the world still troubled by war.
The second memorial is situated on the northern side of the barrack square, and anybody who has seen it at close quarters will realise how remarkably beautiful is the depiction on it of a classical figure - the Spirit of the Morning.
This monument is dedicated to those who fell in action in South Africa - the Boer War - from 1888 to 1902. Some 117 young men, again of all ranks, many Reservists from Clonmel, died in Kimberley, The Cape, Belfast, Whittebergen. One, John Barry of Kilkenny was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross “for his bravery on Monument Hill, where he died under a hail of bullets while disabling a captured Maxim gun.”
Here, I quote from Aine Marie Chadwick’s illustrated article in the Tipperary Historial Journal of 2000: “Some little distance way north of Port Elizabeth, perched astride the railway line which snakes northwards from the coast, is the small township of Glenconnor. Perhaps it was so named by some forlorn soldier who carried with him fond memories of strolling ‘up Glenconnor’ with his sweetheart in that pleasant spot near Clonmel.”
The Boer War particularly came into the folk memory of older Clonmel people and some years ago I met a woman who recalled the neighbours assembling every night in her home, while her father read aloud to them the daily newspaper’s report on the Relief of Ladysmith, then under siege.
The Kickham Barracks monuments are part of the tapestry of local history, and also a reflection of world events. It is hoped that the Borough Council will not indefinitely postpone a decision on their conservation and re-location, and here the Chadwick article (which I have above quoted) should form an essential part of the briefing.
It also seems to me that public consultation would be useful in reaching a decision. There may well be relatives, descendants of those named on the monuments, who would appreciate some involvement.
In the historical context, societies such as the long established Clonmel Historical and Archaeological Society, and the more recently established Military History Society, should be included in any public consultation.
Finally, it seems to me that the town of Clonmel owes a deep debt of gratitude for the good care which our Irish Army has given to the monuments for over seven decades. No less a care is now anticipated, indeed expected, from the local authority.