Thousands of people have attended the centenary commemoration of the British handing over Collins Barracks, Cork, to the fledgling Irish nation, including descendants of some of the very first National Army soldiers who walked through its gates.
Among the guests were brothers Dick and Stephen Kenny who were there to remember their late father, Michael Kenny, and uncle, John Kenny.
Michael was an IRA intelligence officer who later joined the National Army in a similar role and had a major connection with the barrack’s last British commander, Major General Peter Strickland.
In 1920, John was involved in an IRA ambush on Strickland’s car at Dillon’s Cross. Strickland was on his way to catch a ship to England when the IRA team tried, unsuccessfully, to capture him.
They intended to trade him for Lord Mayor of Cork Terence McSwiney, who at the time was held by the British authorities in Brixton prison.
Both John and Michael, who was a training officer, were among the first Irish troops to take control of the military installation, which was then known as Victoria Barracks.
“It’s a very proud occasion for us to be here. They never really spoke a whole lot about what they did,” said Dick, who lives on nearby Old Youghal Road.
Retired Commandant Richard Kingston, from Clonakilty, came to honour one of his relatives, John Kingston.
As a young captain, John was the first officer to take command of the Irish troops when they took over the barracks and was the first to raise the Tricolour there.
“He lived in Clonakilty, very close to where Michael Collins was from,” Richard said.
Sheila Healy, 91, came along to remember her father, Batt Walsh, from Bweeng, near Mallow, Co Cork.
“He joined as a Volunteer in 1916 and (General) Liam Lynch was one of his friends,” she said proudly.
It was a very busy day for Sergeant Denis McGarry, curator of the barrack's museum.
He explained its unique history to a stream of visitors, which included some of the 700 local school children invited to the event by the General Officer Commanding 1 Brigade, Brigadier General Brian Cleary.
Lots were surprised to learn that several famous British people served in the barracks.
The Duke of Wellington visited the barracks twice, the last time in 1808 when he embarked with troops to fight the ‘Peninsula Wars’ against Napoleon in Spain.
Lord Cardigan — involved in the botched 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War — was also once stationed there, as was August Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, regarded as 'the father of modern archaeology', who served there as an assistant quartermaster general.
Sgt McGarry explained the museum holds no actual memorabilia associated with the British from the time they handed it over in 1922.
“They left nothing behind them. They took everything,” he said.
The museum does display an array of weapons used by the British, some dating back to 1806, and some uniforms, but these were donated by collectors.
He pointed out that at any given time the British could house up to 2,000 soldiers in the barracks. But in times of war, many more could be garrisoned in the area - in guesthouses or in tents in parks.
“The barracks was a staging post for many wars. Troops came through here on their way to the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, Second Boer War, Zulu War and World War One,” Sgt McGarry said.
Soldiers currently stationed at the barracks replicated the march into it, via the Victorian Arch, of the National Army troops.
Unit Chaplain Fr David Murphy conducted prayers for all deceased and living members of the Defence Forces after which a wreath was laid to commemorate all who had served in the barracks.
A minute’s silence, the playing of ‘The last Post’ and the raising of the national flag followed. The ceremony was rounded off with a flypast by two Air Corps PC12s.
A special ceremony will be held at the barracks next Thursday, May 26, to mark the 45th anniversary of the tragic death of five soldiers who were garrisoned there at the time.
They were on a training exercise in the Glen of Imaal, Co Wicklow when killed by an exploding mortar.