The Sentinel: A History Of Cork’s Collins Barracks
Defence Forces historian and author, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Harvey, provides a panoramic history of one of the Defence Forces most iconic installations, Collins Barracks in Cork, a bastion which has observed the turbulence and growth of a nation since its inception.
1801 – 1855: CAUSE, CONSTRUCTION AND CONSOLIDATION
Situated on the elevated site of an ancient entrenchment called Rath Mór (Great Fort), the terrain was recognised as strategic from early Christian times. Previously the English garrisoned their occupying force on lower ground at Elisabeth Fort, situated to grant protection in close proximity at the southern end of the then city wall (restored, it is today a site associated with a past of much interest).
Collins Barracks owes its origins to the wars known as the French Revolutionary Wars, which was a conflict between Great Britain and her allies and Revolutionary France.
This was a clash of the Old Regime and the new ideas of the French Revolution; Liberty, Equality & Fraternity. The Barracks was built to house and train the expanded armies that Britain had mobilised to counter Revolutionary France. The area upon which the ‘New Barracks’ was to become established, stretched from Dillon’s Cross to the top of Patrick’s Hill, and in the past was used from time to time as a temporary military encampment.
Construction works on the ‘New Barracks’ commenced in 1801 and were completed in 1806. The architect was John Gibson. Occupying 37 acres, it was designed to house 156 Officers, 1,994 men as well as providing stabling for 232 horses.
Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar ( one third of his naval compliment at the battle was Irish ) and Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo ( one fifth of his ‘English’ soldiers were Irish), ended the threat of French invasion and allowed the Barracks, located as it was in this major port city with a large natural harbour (second only to Sydney as the largest natural harbour in the world), with access to Ireland’s rail network, to be able to serve as a significant staging post for units of the British Army setting of to defend some far-off colonial outpost of the Empire.
To become known as ‘Cork Barracks ‘ it had an important continuous role, along with the city’s provisioning agents, merchants and contractors, in providing the necessary commercial logistical sustainment to the many military expeditions preserving the ‘Pax Britannica’ around the world. It was also to bring great wealth to the city’s business class.
In the wake of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Europe enjoyed a prolonged period of peace. Success had set the standard, ‘modernisation’ was deemed unnecessary, and with much of the British standing army dispersed and stationed abroad, there was little collective tactical training witnessed and less change or innovation.
Notwithstanding, the decades passed, and after forty years of relative peace, a more major war in Crimea had made demands of the British Army to a degree far above and beyond the martial requirements involved in the many ‘little wars’ around its colonies, mostly characterised by the quelling of unrest among native peoples.
At least forty per cent of the British Army in the Crimea was made up of Irishmen. Interestingly, for the first time, the Crimean War was to place the private soldier into the public consciousness as the unnecessarily appalling conditions experienced by them had for the first time been reported by from on-the- scene war correspondents, the most famous among them being Irishman William Howard Russell of The Times.
The hardships and suffering of the troops were due to a mixture of supply shortages, poor equipment, inadequate medical facilities and tactical folly. Inquiries and reports were called for and the Cardwell Reforms resulted. These extended into improvements in the spartan living conditions of garrisoned soldiers including those in Cork Barracks, which were previously austere and harsh. Frugal barrack-room furniture had been basic with rudimentary beds, benches, and tables. Sheets were now changed monthly while the straw in the mattresses was replaced every three months.
Places for recreation were constructed and this had a physical impact on the barracks. This however was not all that was ‘entering’ the barracks, the influence of the ‘Bold Fenian Men’, also infiltrated the barracks, sufficient in number to facilitate and plan an attack. The plan was uncovered by spies, agents and informers. A number of Court Martials associated with Fenianism took place and garrison members found guilty were punished.
In 1882 the Clock-tower was added. The turn of the century saw Britain engaged in the Boer War and large troop movements to South Africa contained a number of Irish Regiments, there were also those Irish involved on the Boer side. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 was the catalyst for a name change from Cork Barracks to Victoria Barracks.
If the Crimean War was an important wake-up call from a misplaced reliance on Napoleonic warfare tactics and, some forty five years later, the Boer War would force that point home even more dramatically, the brutality of the battlefield ‘industrial-scale’ warfare of the Great War which erupted in Belgium 1914 was to reinforce this dramatically where the horrendous carnage was something new again, indeed something that had never been imagined.
It was envisaged to be a swiftly-fought war of mobility, a war of free movement and manoeuvre, but instead it quickly became one of prolonged, static trench warfare. A conservative total of 200,000 Irishmen voluntarily enlisted and there are some 49,000 Irish recorded dead.
Recruiting throughout Cork City and County was carried out, initial training conducted in the Barracks and battlefield familiarisation, inclusive of fully function trench layout systems, carried out in Kilworth, where the remains of these ‘training trenches’ are still visible today.
THE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
Easter Monday 24 April 1916 saw activists of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army take the British authorities in Dublin completely unawares and they occupied a number of strategic buildings within and around the city centre. A classic case of ‘Order, Counter-Order, Disorder’ characterised ‘The Easter Rising.’
It was not put into effect on a national scale, but after a week’s fighting in Dublin it proved to be the military failure it was likely destined to be but this miscalculation was nothing compared to the miscalculation by the British Authorities in the aftermath of the Rising.
The manner of the prolonged executions by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail of 13 of the Rising’s leaders provoked particular public outrage, rapidly turning public opinion against a heretofore generally held acceptance of British rule in Ireland.
Dissatisfaction with British rule in Ireland was to take firm hold over the coming years and in an atmosphere of political stalemate at the end of the First World war, Sinn Féin and the Volunteers now came together under one standard from 1918 onwards, and their clear aim was to bring the Irish people from oppression, through opposition, to outright freedom.
The War of Independence (1919 -1921) was to become an engagement of terror and counter-terror, one particularly hard-fought in Cork City and County. IRA ‘flying-column’ ambushes, counter assassinations, as well as a savage, secretive intelligence ‘war’ was conducted.
With contact inevitable, Tom Barry opted to choose his ground at Crossbarry and ambush an encircling section of the surrounding troops, to fight through the cordon and thereafter conduct what became a classically executed, highly successful fighting withdrawal.
A far more modest ambush by a city-based IRA group, far fewer in number, at Dillion’s Cross only a few hundred meters from Victoria Barracks, was to lead to an outrageous reprisal which became known as ‘The Burning of Cork‘ when later that night many prominent buildings throughout the city and retail premises on Cork’s main street were looted and burned by the Auxiliaries.
Martial Law, curfews, arrests of suspected IRA members, suppression and harassment became common. But the irregular force, drawn from and supported by, the Cork people, was to eventually prevail.
As a result of the treaty signed on 6th December 1921 between the Irish Plenipotentiaries and the British Government, all government properties including military barracks were handed over to the Irish provisional government. The formal handover of Victoria Barracks (and other military barracks countrywide) brought home to Cork people more than anything else the reality that the British were actually finally leaving Ireland.
Independence had actually been achieved. Major Bernard Montgomery, later Montgomery of El Alamein, handed over Victoria Barracks to Commandant Sean Murray. It was one of the last of the British Barracks in Ireland to be handed back due to an unfinished, as it happened unsuccessful, search for British military prisoners held as hostages by the old IRA.
The Irish War of Independence had been hard and bitterly fought throughout Cork. But if the British were departing, the Irish they were leaving behind were a divided people. The Anglo-Irish Treaty caused deep divisions within nationalist Ireland because six North Eastern countries of a total of 32 country-wide were to remain part of Britain.Those who favoured acceptance argued that the powers it granted made it worthy of support, and the only alternative was a renewed war with Britain.
Those against criticised it for its failure to achieve a full and completely free Republic of Ireland. The divisions became bitter, divisive and personal. Civil War loomed, and indeed hostilities did break out between Pro and Anti-Treaty forces. Southern Anti-treaty forces were the last to hold out but were out-manoeuvred by a surprise coastal landing of Pro- Treaty forces who landed only a few miles outside Cork city. They put the Barracks ‘to the torch’ on the 10 August 1922 before hastily retreating south westwards.
A tragedy within a tragedy that was already the Civil War was to occur not long after on 22 August, when Cork man Michael Collins, leader of the Pro-Treaty forces, after whom the barracks was to be eventually named, undertook an inspection of his force’s positions in Limerick, Kerry and Cork. Becoming aware of his presence in West Cork, local Anti-Treaty forces put in place an ambush along a route they believed he would take on his way back to Cork City, at a place called Beal na Bláth ( Mouth of the Flowers). Their patient determination to kill paid off and in the ambush Michael Collins was fatally wounded.
The Civil War was to drag on with atrocities committed by both sides, however the ability of the Anti-Treaty side to continue operations became increasingly difficult to sustain and the Civil War drew to a conclusion. In the years that followed the army had to transform itself from a revolutionary to a regular army. It had firstly to be formally established, then reducing numbers and becoming reorganised along regular military lines.
Fortunately these developments, once finances allowed, saw the physical restoration of the newly name ‘Michael Barracks’ (a name that never took on) and so ‘Collins Barracks’ it was to become, ready for its next role in important matters at a time when the world was facing into another great war.
A STATE OF EMERGENCY – 1939 – 1959
‘They also serve, who only stand and wait ‘ and waiting they were, ….soldiers of the First Southern Division were watching for German paratroopers to drop out of the night sky. Implausible as it might seem to us to-day, it was considered a very real probability when the Second World War broke out.
Constant coastal watch was kept along the southern shores for any signs on the horizon of a German invading armada. Despite all this vigilance, Ireland was a long, long way from being able to defend itself. It was simply militarily unable to resist an invasion. The Defence Forces were hopelessly under strength and supplies were infinitesimal, with a chronic shortage of armaments, ammunition, anti-tank weapons, and accommodation.
With war looming the Defence Forces pleas for resources were not granted. Hitler’s army was advancing across Europe but the threatening international situation did not yield the necessary vital spending on the means to shape a successful national defence. Declarations of neutrality mattered little to a rampaging German army. It was nine months (7th June 1940) before a state of ‘Emergency’ was declared.
Along with ‘Operation Sea Lion,’ the German plan to invade Britain, there was known to exist ‘Operation Green’ an actual real-life, fully prepared and printed out plan to invade Ireland. This planning involved a series of landings near Youghal Co.Cork. Troops from Collins Barracks were to be at the forefront of the effort to resist, by engaging in retrograde operations.
This involved a series of defensive lines set along appropriate geographical natural features like rivers with the bridges over them to be destroyed, obstacles constructed and covered by troops in prepared fire positions, and decoys erected. All this would, theoretically, hinder the progress of the German advance out of the bridgehead established on landing, thereby trading space for time.
The time used by the Irish retreating forces to regroup, falling back on the next pre-prepared defensive line, all the while moving away from the stronger enemy force, thereby preserving the integrity of its force, controlling the confusion, and intended to thwart, frustrate, and delay the enemy, especially when the combat ratio was going to be enormously unfavourable. They might even succeed by these and other means in ‘canalising’ the German advance, drawing them into more suitably defendable terrain, enabling the prudent employment of our own scarce resources.
It was a time of crisis, of very real fear, but also of a very real willingness to courageously stand and fight, were an invasion to happen. This is all too easily forgotten and glossed over. Nine months earlier the German army had overrun Poland, and since then invaded Norway and Denmark, defeated the Dutch, Belgians, and French, and had forced the British into a hasty withdrawal at Dunkirk.
Only the English Channel had prevented a beleaguered Britain and a defenceless Ireland from a similar fate. The British air victory at the subsequent ‘Battle of Britain’ gave Britain air superiority and made a German invasion unlikely if not impossible.
The ‘Call to Arms’ to help defend Ireland, meant huge training demands were made on Collins Barracks and outline alternatives had to be found. The largest test of our combat efficiency took place from 17 August to 27 September 1942 during the now famous ‘Crossing of the Blackwater’ exercise. As these ‘Blackwater Manoeuvres’ were ending, the Battle of Stalingrad was reaching its decisive moments.
This battle marked a turning point in the war against Germany, the Russians inflicting a defeat on the Wehrmacht, the heretofore seemingly invincible German war machine. There was a lot of fighting to be done yet however and Ireland only declared its state of ‘Emergency’ over in 1946, a year after the war officially ended.
Since 1960 soldiers from Collins Barracks have served the cause of peace, through United Nations mandated peace support operations, on behalf of Ireland and the Irish people, all over the world. The transformation of the old colonial empires into new states had sometimes proved fraught with difficulty and danger and for over half a century Cork soldiers as peacekeepers, in different continents, conflicts and contexts have been required to venture into often unstable, volatile and not infrequently hostile places.
It was only in February 2000 that the first White Paper on Defence was published. Its publication was a long-awaited official announcement on the government’s programme on defence for the first decade of the new millennium ( in the event, the first decade and a half , as the second White Paper was produced in August 2015 ).
A programme of nation- wide barrack closures included the consequent relocation of the First Artillery Regiment (Ballincollig) and the First Cavalry Squadron (Fermoy) into Collins Barracks.
These closures and other formation reorganisations did result in investment in barrack infrastructure and the biggest building project since its restoration in the 1930’s including a new Transport Workshop, Dining Complex, Gymnasium, Armoury and N.C.O.’s Mess for Collins Barracks. A more recent ‘reorganisation’ however saw the disestablishment of the 4th Infantry Battalion as the Barrack’s Lead Unit, for many Collins Barracks garrison members an entirely regrettable and sad occurrence.
The history of Collins Barrack Cork has been more than a story of bricks and mortar, of its art and artifacts, of its patriots and peacekeepers, it has been the story of all the men and women who garrisoned the barracks, its soldiers. The garrison’s involvement in historic events, locally, nationally and internationally, is likely to be as interesting and fulsome in the future as it has been in the past.