Irish soldier’s Zulu war medal goes under hammer

THE medal awarded to Cork-born Private Michael Minihan — one of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift mission station during the Zulu War in 1879 — comes up at auction in London on December 8.

Irish soldier’s Zulu war medal goes under hammer

He was one of 16 Irishmen known to be among the 150- strong British garrison which fought off an attack by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors.

The 1964 film Zulu was based on this battle, regarded as one of the most epic defences in military history. No less than 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for the defence of the mission station — the former trading post of Irish merchant James Rorke.

Minihan was the right-hand man in the front rank of ‘B’ Company, a soldier who knew his drill and helped maintain the discipline that held the embattled garrison together during the ferocious hand-to-hand fighting at Rorke’s Drift on January 22-23, 1879.

He was highly regarded by his officers and received several testimonials of good character, including one from Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, his company commander, who won the VC at Rorke’s Drift.

“Michael Minihan was the sort of man who every officer wants under his command at moments of crisis,” said Nimrod Dix, a director of auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb, leading specialist salespeople of coins, tokens, medals, militaria, paper money and jewellery.

“He was brave, steady and knew the business of soldiering well. Amid the bloodshed of Rorke’s Drift and the flames that engulfed part of the mission station, he remained calm and focused, at one stage bayoneting a Zulu warrior who had grabbed him by the leg.”

Michael Minihan is the man on the left in the circle.
Michael Minihan is the man on the left in the circle.

Born in Castlehaven, Co Cork, in 1845 Michael Minihan enlisted in the 24th Foot at Bandon in October 1864. He saw service in India, South Africa and the Mediterranean. In 1879 the 2nd Battalion of the 24th Foot was part of the British Army that invaded the then independent kingdom of Zululand. ‘B’ Company was detailed to garrison Rorke’s Drift, which had been turned into a supply depot and hospital. They thus avoided the fate of many regimental comrades who were killed when the Zulus overwhelmed a British force at Isandlwana.

The victorious Zulus then headed for Rorke’s Drift where the tiny garrison, some of whom were hospital patients, found themselves in a desperate battle for survival. Their gallantry was immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. Minehan was posted in the cattle kraal, which formed part of the defensive perimeter and eventually had to be evacuated.

Captain William Penn-Symonds, an officer in the 24th who was part of the force which relieved Rorke’s Drift knew the Irish soldier well and later wrote: “Minihan was a great pal of mine; he was righthand man, front rank of ‘B’ Company, who knew his drill well and had often kept me straight.”

The day after the battle Private Minihan, who was so exhausted that he could not speak, took Penn-Symonds to the corner of the kraal where he had been stationed. He indicated the body of a Zulu, partly hidden under the straw. During the siege, the Zulu had crawled under the straw and grabbed Minihan by the leg. Minihan had thrust his bayonet into the straw killing his assailant.

The South Africa medal awarded to Michael Minihan.
The South Africa medal awarded to Michael Minihan.

After his service in the Zulu War, Michael Minihan was posted back to India. In 1884 he contracted cholera, was sent back to England and discharged as medically unfit. He died in May 1891 and is buried in Castletownsend.

The grave marker, a cross of wrought iron, was inscribed ‘Michael Minihan, Late of the 24th Regiment and one of the gallant defenders of Rorke’s Drift’.

His campaign medal for South Africa, 1877-79 with clasp 1877-8-9 is being sold at Dix Noonan Webb by a private collector and is estimated at £26,000-£30,000 (€30,000-€35,200).

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