A walk through Fermoy’s garrison past

The small gravestone still reads “Sacred to the memory of Jane, daughter of Edwd. and Maria Jennings, 39th Regt, who died Jan 31st 1869 aged 2.”

Across Fermoy’s military cemetery – behind Fermoy Soccer Club and the Famine graveyard – other children are remembered. “Bertie Gordon, Died 28th July 1898, aged 2. Thy will be done.”

“Sacred to the memory of William James The beloved son of Emily and Willm. Babbington 2nd Connt. Rangers Died 15th March 1885 Aged 16 months.”

“Emily Helena (indecipherable) Daughter. But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand.”

“Infant mortality would have been astronomical then,” says Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, “but what is doubly tragic is that a military family might bury a child here and then be posted to the other side of the Empire.”

Bhreatnach is a historian specialising in garrison towns and she shares a wealth of knowledge as we walk what was once Fermoy’s British Army barracks, and what is now sports grounds.

Fermoy’s modern history dates from 1791, when Scots businessman John Anderson purchased lands once belonging to the old Cistercian Abbey.

France’s failed 1796 invasion of Ireland terrified the British Government, and it sought land for military bases. Fermoy was an ideal location and Anderson offered them a free site.

In 1807 Rev J. Hall described Fermoy as “rising fast into importance and containing about two thousand inhabitants, besides barracks for as many soldiers. A few years ago, Fermoy consisted of only a few miserable huts.” At the height of Fermoy’s time as a garrison town, 3,300 troops were stationed there.

Bhreatnach paints a fascinating picture of life in a garrison town, with uniformed soldiers part of everyday street life. Troops paraded to Sunday religious services, marched to and from train stations and performed manoeuvres and reviews in public parks.

The British army was a vital part of the town’s economy. Barrack quartermasters purchased wholesale alcohol for the officers’ and soldiers’ messes, where copious amounts of wine, beer and spirits were served.

“Approximately half the accounts of McAuliffe’s public house on Barrack Hill were with the military,” Bhreatnach says.

Bhreatnach notes that from 1893 to 1903, 30% of the customers in Hickey’s, Fermoy, were military officers and senior NCOs. Hickey’s also supplied garrisons in Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Kerry. The laundry of those clothes also proved a valuable source of income for charitable institutions such as Fermoy’s Presentation Convent.

In recent years, Fermoy Sub-Aqua Club recovered from the O’Neill Crowley Quay riverbed a quantity of pocket watches. They date back to an incident during the War of Independence. In September 1919, Liam Lynch and a column of Cork No. 2 Brigade I.R.A. – including Michael Fitzgerald – ambushed a group of British soldiers on their way to Fermoy’s Wesleyan Church (Now Avondhu Motor Factors).

One soldier, 20 year old Private William Jones, was killed, and another, Private Lloyd, was injured.

Private Jones was – reputedly – the first British soldier killed in the War of Independence.

Today, there is a monument where Private Jones died. It remembers Mick Fitzgerald, who died a year later on hunger strike in Cork Gaol. Fitzgerald’s death – and the subsequent deaths of his fellow prisoners, Joe Murphy and Terence McSwiney – brought global attention to the cause of Irish independence.

British forces sacked the town in retaliation and in reaction to the coroner’s inquest, which recorded a verdict of ‘Accidental death, unpremeditated’. The soldiers’ actions were highly co-ordinated but it was claimed “the men” had acted spontaneously.

Lieutenant Colonel Hughes-Hallett, posted in Fermoy at the time, recalled: (They) “proceeded to every shop or place of business of the coroner and the members of the jury… the jeweller’s (Barber’s), the Boot Shop (Tyler’s) and (Lombard’s) and the foreman of the Jury, etc, were all faithfully dealt with. Trays of rings and watches were soon being flung into the river. A chain of men… smashed bottles on the pavement, and drink flowed in a stream down the gutter.”

The Irish Times reported a later town meeting and a bitter exchange between Colonel Dobbs – representing the British army – and Mr Kelleher, vice-chairman of the Urban Council. Dobbs agreed to a request that he confine the troops to quarters, but – angered by the jury’s verdict – warned that he would not be responsible if they got “out of hand” again.

Dobbs: “You have not the pluck to say that (Private Jones) was murdered.”

Kelleher: “There is pluck enough in the town.”

Dobbs: “Why didn’t you come forward to assist, when the men were shot? Not a man, woman or child had the pluck to come forward and give assistance.”

Kelleher: “No one came near us when our windows were broken.”

Dobbs: “Damn the windows! You have got no industry, you are simply living on the army and but for them you would be taking in each other’s washing. When this thing happens and you lose a few hundred or a few thousand pounds, you come and cry for protection.”

The British army left Fermoy in Spring 1922. In August, in the midst of the Civil War, the Barracks were torched. Afterward, a member of the Urban District Council complained that the local authority lost £3,400 in rates and an additional £450 in special water rates. The financial loss devastated the town, especially in the first economically-depressed decades of the new State.

Post-Independence, Bhreatnach says, Fermoy used street names to put its garrison past behind it. “Barrack Hill became Oliver Plunkett Hill, Mess House Lane was dubbed Colmcille Street; New Barrack Street became Sheares Street and West Barrack Street was renamed Bridget’s Street.

“Erasing the military associations gave the town an opportunity to assert a particular form of cultural nationalism, prudently focusing on uncontroversial early revolutionaries (the Sheares from 1798) and ancient saints. Erasing one past allowed local communities to pay homage to another image of Ireland.”

Almost a century later, walking with Dr Bhreatnach across Michael Fitzgerald Park, Fermoy’s GAA grounds, formerly the British Army New Barracks, I’m struck how close to us and yet how far away our history remains.

Dr Aoife Bhreatnach tweets as @GarrisonTowns. irishgarrisontowns.com

Originally published in the Evening Echo, 29th December 2016