by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence
The final dissolution of the six southern Irish infantry regiments of the British Army took place on the 31st of July 1922. They were the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
The 12th of June 2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the ceremony wherein the regimental colours (flags) of the disbanded southern Irish infantry regiments were deposited in Windsor Castle, England. However, one such flag associated with the Leinster Regiment, the unit recruited from Laois, Offaly, Longford, Westmeath, and Meath, ended up being ‘laid up’ not in Windsor, but in St. Thomas Cathedral, Bombay. This was, as we shall see, a highly appropriate location. These were the old colours of the 2nd Battalion Leinster Regiment in its original form as the 3rd Bombay European Regiment. That ceremony took place on the 28th of January 1923 —the colours were specifically sent there for the purpose. The 3rd Bombay European Regiment was part of the army of the East India Company, the trading company that eventually became the ruler of a large portion of India, before being nationalised in 1858. The Company’s army was disproportionately Irish and its military units formed the basis of a number of the Irish regiments.
A Bloody Beginning
3rd Bombay European Regiment was only established in 1853 so its first involvement in armed conflict was in the 1857-58 rebellion in India. The regimental history relates:
“It was while waiting at Sehore that the 3rd Bombay Europeans experienced, in a gruesome and unusual form, their first taste of war. There was a long list of rebels under guard in Sehore and these were brought to trial before a military court. No fewer than one hundred and forty-nine were found guilty, and those being days when the gloves were off, the culprits were sentenced to death by being shot. The duty of carrying out the extreme sentence of the law fell to the 3rd Europeans. A long trench was dug, and at evening just as the sun was setting the prisoners were brought out and ranged in one long line just in front of the trench. On the signal being given 150 of the 3rd Europeans opened fire and from the shambles only one rebel escaped. Ere the execution was well over the Indian darkness had come on and an officers’ guard from the Regiment had to be posed over the horrid line of dead. So ended the debt against this rebellious contingent and few regiments can have had a grimmer initiation than the 3rd Bombay Europeans . . .”
Just as the first violence this unit was involved in was in India so was the last —the role of the Leinster Regiment in suppressing the Malabar rebellion in south-west India in 1921-22 has already been addressed in these articles and the present article is a continuation of that.
In 1934 Major-General Sir Charles Gwynn published ‘Imperial Policing’ a study of the small wars of Empire of the 1920s, one chapter of which was one of the earliest histories of the Malabar rebellion. Gwynn was a descendant of the Young Ireland leader, William Smith O’Brien, a brother of Irish Parliamentary Party M.P. for Galway, Stephen Gwynn, and from a family so prominent in Trinity College Dublin that the place was dubbed ‘Gwynnity College’.
‘Imperial Policing’ was, for its period, the equivalent of the now better known ‘Low Intensity Operations’, the study of the British Army’s efforts against post-W.W.2 insurgencies, penned by Brigadier Frank Kitson, who had operational command in Belfast from late 1970 to April 1972.
In his chapter on Malabar Gwynn makes plain the necessity for a policy of collective punishment, i.e. for the targeting of the non-combatant, or civilian, population:
“To achieve rapid success, operations must be relentlessly carried out, great activity shown, andthe military authority must have powers to deal with noncombatants abetting the guerrillas.”
“The outstanding lesson of the episode is the danger of limiting the powers of the military authorities under martial law. Long experience has shown what powers it is necessary to give, and the consensus of opinion that a mistake had been made in withholding those powers in the first martial law ordinance is striking.—
Except perhaps in the case of captured leaders, the powers are required, not so much for the purpose of inflicting punishment on those caught in open rebellion-the casualties inflicted by the troops provide for that: they are needed rather to bring home to the people not engaged in active resistance that it is dangerous to aid and abet the enemy, and that they must assist the Government forces.”
We of course remember here the sack of Balbriggan, the burning of Trim, the siege of Tralee and so on. Such so-called reprisals were in fact only aberrations in so far as they were much less violent than what was typical elsewhere in the Empire.
A number of local participants in the counter-insurgency in south-west India in 1921-22 can be identified. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records British Army dead of the period, and their places of interment and memorialisation. Privates Thomas Tormay of Railway Street, Kells, Co. Meath and E. Kennedy (no further details given) are listed as having died on the 26th of August 1921 and are remembered at Malappuram (Christ Church) cemetery. From the date and location they almost certainly died in combat. The small number of other Leinster Regiment graves in the region are, from date and location, suggestive of post-combat deaths, perhaps of wounds received. A Scottish-born officer, Johnstone, also has his grave in the rebellion zone, he was of the Indian Army, but had been seconded to the Leinsters.
Men who served in the campaign received the clasp ‘Malabar
1921-22′ to their India General Service medal. From this it is possible to
locate participants who were Laois-born, or who had their next of kin address
in Laois, in the ‘attestation books’ digitised by the National Army Museum.
There were surprisingly few, twelve in total, possibly because in the
downsizing of the British Army in 1919 a lot of people ended up moving from one
regiment to another. They were: from Mountmellick — Michael Lalor, Thomas
Lawlor, Joseph Fitzpatrick and James Flanagan (though he was born in Clara); from
Maryborough — William Mooney and William Mulhall; from Carlow Graige — Francis
McGrath; from Clonaslee — Denis O’Keefe; from Portarlington — Thomas Murphy,
James Burke and William Blanc; and, from Mountrath — Patrick Butler (though he
was born in Limerick). All of their
occupations prior to enlistment were given as ‘labourer’ or ‘farm labourer’ bar
one ‘messenger’. That is something which highlights the economic conscription
dynamic to military service.
 Patrick McCarthy, ‘The Twilight Years: The Irish Regiments, 1919–1922,’ Irish Sword XXI: 85 (1999), pp. 314–35.
 Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore) – Wednesday 31 January 1923; Freeman’s Journal – Friday 23 February 1923.
 Hiram Morgan, ‘Empire-Building an Uncomfortable Irish Heritage’, The Linen Hall Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 8-11
 Frederick Ernest Whitton, The history of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) (Facsimile edition, Cork, Schull Books, 1998).
 James Hughes, ‘Frank Kitson in Northern Ireland and the ‘British way’ of counterinsurgency’, History Ireland 22:1 (January/February 2014), https://www.historyireland.com/frank-kitson-northern-ireland-british-way-counterinsurgency/
 Charles W. Gwynn, Imperial Policing (London, MacMillan, 1939).