Donal Fallon


1916 lives: John MacBride’s South African war

The Irishman was a major figure in the Second Boer War, and one of the 16 men executed after the 1916 Rising, writes Donal Fallon

1916 lives: John MacBride’s South African war

Many of the leading figures of the Easter Rising were relatively unknown in the years leading up to the event, owing to their own youth or late political development.

This certainly wasn’t the case with Major John MacBride (1868-1916) however, as he was something of a household name in Ireland thanks to his participation in the Second Boer War (1899 -1902). He was part of a small band of uitlanders (Afrikaans for foreigners) which militarily-aligned with the Boers as they fought the British Empire, becoming known popularly as the ‘Irish Brigade’.

For many participants in the Irish revolutionary period, the war in South Africa was an important influence. Seamus Robinson, who would fight in the Easter Rising, recalled: “Heavens! What thrills we got out of that great struggle. Bonfires in the streets on the news of a Boer victory, complete disbelief in Boer reverses! The Irish Boer Brigade! How we wished we were old enough to be with them.”

John MacBride left Ireland in 1896 and travelled to South Africa, but it should be noted by that stage he was already a hardened Fenian, having taken the secret oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood at only 15.

By the late 19th century, there were some Irishmen travelling to South Africa in search of work, drawn to the goldmines and the tales of prosperity. MacBride himself claimed years later however the central factor in his decision to leave Ireland for South Africa was political, writing that “shortly after the Jameson Raid, I resolved to go to the South African Republic as I knew that England had her mind made up to take the country, and I wanted to organise my countrymen there, so as to be in a position to strike a blow at England’s power abroad when we could not, unfortunately, do so at home.”

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The Jameson Raid that MacBride referenced was an ill-fated and botched raid on the Boer Transvaal Republic orchestrated by mining magnate and governor of the Cape, Cecil Rhodes.

The Second Boer War formally broke out on October 11, 1899, following an ultimatum issued two days earlier to the British government by Paul Kruger, the Boer president, who had given the British 48-hours to withdraw from the borders of both Boer Republics, stating that failure to comply would result in a declaration of war.

In Ireland, an ‘Anti-War’ movement quickly emerged, though in reality it could better be described as ‘Anti-British.’ At one meeting in October 1899, a crowd of 20,000 listened as a letter was read from the mayor of Kilkenny, who proposed that two maxim guns be sent to the Boers with which they could defend themselves. One could be called ‘Parnell’, and the other ‘Wolfe Tone’.

By September 1899, a proposal for an Irish Transvaal Brigade was put to the Boer government and accepted. This Brigade was, in reality, led by John Blake, a maverick Irish American who had military experience in the US armed forces. Mayo radical Michael Davitt, who travelled to South Africa, remembered that Blake had “a slight suggestion of Buffalo Bill in his general appearances.”

MacBride was a hugely important figure in the Brigade however, and would assume control for a period when Blake was wounded in fighting. The idea of it being ‘MacBride’s Brigade’ is something that was fostered by the nationalist press in Ireland, in particular Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman.

Griffith, a close friend of MacBride who had himself spent some time in South Africa, published poems and songs loaded with praise for MacBride, with one noting:

“Revenge! Remember 98! And how our fathers died! We’ll pay the English back today, cried fearless John MacBride.”

Another man who took his place in the Brigade was Tom Byrne, who would later fight in the Easter Rising.

While the Irish Brigade was numerically small, consisting of circa 300 men, it should be noted that in the region of 28,000 Irishmen fought in South Africa as members of the British forces. From time to time, these two bands encountered one another, for example at the brutal Battle of Dundee.

The participation of Irishmen on both sides of a foreign conflict led to some ridicule. One contemporary song joked that:

“McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee,

That’s how the English fought the Dutch at the Battle of Dundee!”

Ultimately, the Boers were defeated, and their two Republics subsumed by the Empire. One reminder of Irish participation in the war today is the Fusiliers’ Arch memorial at Dublin’s Stephen’s Green, erected to the memory of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in the conflict.

It is telling that the monument was quickly rechristened ‘Traitors Gate’ by some nationalist voices, giving insight into the divisive nature of the Second Boer War.

Donal Fallon is a lecturer and historian, and co-founder of the social history website Come Here To Me. He is the author of John MacBride in the 16 Lives series from O’Brien Press, biographies of the 16 men executed after the Easter Rising.

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