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Maryborough to Portlaoise (3): The Barracks

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Maryborough to Portlaoise (3): The Barracks

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

The removal of the British Army was perhaps the most profound transformation following the establishment of the Irish Free State. Today we are accustomed to thinking of the role of the British Army in Ireland in terms of repression. Doubtless this was, at times, the case, and certainly the case in the years of the revolution. The British Army was also a significant employer of Irishmen — and any town with a garrison would have derived significant economic benefit from that presence.  Between 1919 and 1922 there were 20,000 Irishmen in the Irish-based regiments of the British Army.[1] Many of them would have enlisted or re-enlisted in those years, even after the Sinn Féin electoral landslide of 1918 and formation of the first Dáil.

The Leinster Regiment

The British Army barracks in Maryborough was on the Old Abbeyleix Road —it is the Garda station today. This was home to the 4th (Reserve) Battalion of the Leinster Regiment. In the 1914-1918 war a reserve battalion was where new recruits were trained and wounded soldiers reintegrated.[2] But there was also a reserve which, outside of times of major war, comprised of older soldiers who remained in the army on a part-time basis and could be called up for emergencies.  So Maryborough had less of a military presence than the likes of Birr or Naas where regiments were headquartered, but a military presence all the same. The Maryborough barracks was actually older than the Leinster Regiment. The older parts of the barracks date from 1808.[3]  Samuel Lewis called it “a handsome range of buildings” in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.  

The British Army was localised under the Cardwell Reforms (1868 to 1874) and Childers Reform (1881). That meant unit sizes were standardised and each regimental unit was given a home base and recruiting district. In the case of the Leinster Regiment its home depot was in Birr and its recruiting district the King’s County and the Queen’s County as well as Meath, Westmeath and Longford.

Across the Empire, Across the World

In the years between 1919 and 1922 the British Army had massive “overseas” commitments, and not only as the armed forces of a globe-spanning Empire, then at its greatest territorial extent and threatened by revolt in India, Egypt, Iraq and Ireland. The British Army was also kept busy re-ordering post-war Europe and the Near East as well as intervening against the Russian Revolution. So a British soldier in 1919 to 1922 was as much a part of global conflict as a British soldier in 1914 to 1918, if not in fact more so. Albeit global conflict with, for most places at most times, an insignificant death toll in comparison with the Great War (the Russian Civil War was one bloody exception in this grim accounting).

Irish soldiers were in the middle of all this —service in other parts of the Empire was a normal part of what they were about —in fact the Leinster Regiment had an Indian history, formed as it was from an East India Company regiment and a unit raised in Canada for deployment in India. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Munster Fusiliers had similar East India Company origins and the ‘Royal’ in their names was an honour bestowed on them for their role in countering the First Indian War of Independence (or “Mutiny” as it is known in the West). In the early-nineteenth century European-born East India Company troops were disproportionately Irish,[4] and it is perhaps for this reason a number of Irish regiments can be traced back to the sunnier shores of the sub-continent.   

There was a sub-plot though to the story of far-flung stations. In the special circumstances of the revolutionary period there was an effort to keep Irish regiments away from the United Kingdom for fear they would prove open to subversion.[5]  This was the policy of Sir Henry Wilson, the Longford man who was Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the highest position in the British military. Though, perhaps paradoxically, he also had the Irish Guards lined-up for the defence of London in the event of a British revolution.[6]    

Last Posts

In years the 1919 to 1922 the 1st Battalion Leinster Regiment was stationed in southern India —where it was involved in the suppression of the Malabar Revolt from August 1921 through to February 1922.[7] This was the last time any of the southern Irish regiments saw combat. Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion Leinster Regiment was in Upper Silesia, on the frontier of Germany and the new Polish republic, a disputed territory whose future was being settled.  In March 1922 the orders were given to disband the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), to give the unit its full title, as well as the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the South Irish Horse. So ended the history of all the British Army regiments headquartered in the 26 counties of the new Irish Free State.    

The regiments had afterlives though in the form of public memorialisation and veterans’ associations. The 4th Battalion Leinster Regiment Memorial, now on Ridge Road, was unveiled in 1928. Likewise, the military story of the barracks and the revolution didn’t end with the Leinster Regiment. The barracks was occupied by the army of the new Irish Free State and played a role in the Civil War. 

[1] Patrick McCarthy, ‘The twilight years: the Irish regiments, 1919-1922’ in The Irish Sword Vol. 21 1998-1999. Thanks to Brian Hanley for finding this article.  

[2] The Long, Long Trail, ‘What was a Reserve Battalion of Infantry?’

[3] Laois Heritage Society, Portlaoise Heritage Trail,

[4] E. M. Spiers, ‘Army organisation and society in the nineteenth century’ in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery (eds) A Military History of Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 336. 

[5] Ibid, 133.

[6] Keith Jeffery, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006) 245

[7] Terry Dunne, ‘The Leinster Regiment and the Malabar rebellion of 1921 —‘Another Irish Question’’ in History Ireland Vol. 29, July/August 2021.