The origins of the Curragh Camp

With the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1854 a requirement for additional training areas for the British Army was recognised as an urgent necessity by the government in London. Early in the following year it was announced that camps would be established at Aldershot in Hampshire and on the Curragh of Kildare. The 5,000-acre plain in county Kildare had, since the earliest times when the legendary men of the Fianna were believed to have trained there, been a welcoming sward to military men.

From the end of the 16th century onwards there are records of encampment there, and by 1804 the success of the annual summer mustering was confirmed when an extensive panorama by graphic artists of the encampment was put on public display in Dublin "bringing to the eye, as a view, a body of 16,000 troops". The camp was seen as a military and social occasion, bringing together regular and volunteer soldiers from all parts of the country, and attracting thousands of spectators and camp followers. The influx of such great numbers of men into the area brought advantages and disadvantages to the residents of the Curragh and neighbouring towns, and with the announcement of the making of a temporary encampment of 10,000 infantry there in the spring of 1855 the residents would have been conscious of the implications of the establishment.

The timber hutments were designed as temporary structures which could be dismantled when they were no longer required, but a few permanent buildings - the water works, racquet courts and a clock tower, were also erected. During the construction of the encampment the Irish and English contractors employed hundreds of workmen who were accomadated in huts, or might lodge locally. Two men who choose the latter option were the Denvir brothers from Bushmills. They found lodgings with a widow in her cottage nearby, and she provided food which they took with them to the site. John Denvir, who was later to join the Fenians in Liverpool, left an account of his time on the plain in which he commented that amongst the military "whether regulars or militia, they were driven to wear the uniform by stress of circumstances, as good Irishmen as ever I met".

The first huts were completed in record time, and by June they were being occupied. The Lord Lieutenant and the commander of the forces in Ireland General Lord Seaton made the sensible suggestion that the ten squares of hutments should be numbered and lettered as "such arrangement will be more convenient for the soldiers in the camp, and more easily recollected by them, then any system of names that may be devised". But in the following month the men were not too happy in their quarters as "the rain came in torrents through the roofs which had split and rent in places during the earlier warm spell".

The building of the encampment was creating wide public interest. Crowds of people came by rail and road to visit, and one journalist described, "approaching the Curragh the visitor will perceive in the distance a long line of low habitations, which bear a resemblance to what might be supposed to be the city, or principle abode, of some king or chief of an uncivilised race, such as we have seen described by Mungo Park and other African travellers". A soldier's view from the inside was that the camp was "a goodish place sort of in dry weather, very healthy, but after 24 hours rain, why then, it was ankle deep in mud, like Sebastopol".

As the troops mustered on the plain, the camp followers like-wise congregated there. Sutlers displayed their wares, but sometimes these might cause problems: in 1857 the father of a soldier complained t the commanding general that "immoral pictures and jewellery to allure officers into debt" were being hawked in the camp, but he would have been happy to know that a colporteur was permitted to sell religious tracts there.

Denis Barrington O'Sullivan, otherwise known as "the wandering star" also visited the Curragh offering almanacs, song books and holy pictures, and he might entertain the men by composing humourous verse, or giving the solutions to the puzzles in the almanacs which were then popular reading.
Smallholders from the neighbourhood brought their vegetables, poultry and dairy produce to sell in the camp market while farmers found good outlets for their hay and oats, horses and cattle through the army contract system. Business in Newbridge, a town which had developed entirely from the building of the barracks there in 1814, prospered even more from the population in the camp, while the car men who ferried their passengers from the Currragh to the railway stations in Kildare and Kilcullen, or to the nearby villages for recreation, developed a constant trade.

Uncertainty as to the future of the encampment arose when the war in the Crimea ended, but from lessons learned on the battlefields it was decided that training camps should be established at which the three arms - infantry, cavalry and artillery - would train together. The Curragh was so designated, and henceforth it was to be the seasonal training ground for the army in Ireland. Each year thousands of men rotated there during the drill period, while the resident population of all ranks, their families and civilian employees numbered about 4,000. Regular and militia regiments, met there on the squares and on the sward of the plain, and the major exercises which were held became important events in the social calendar of not alone the county, but of a wide area, including Dublin.

The withdrawal of the British army from stations in then 26 counties in 1922 was to have serious consequences for the local economy, and this was especially so in the county of Kildare. Apart from the loss to traders in Newbridge and other towns, the contractors who supplied the barracks with meat, dairy produce, fuel, fodder, and the numerous other requirements of such a substantial and regularly paid number of consumers found themselves without business. Civilian workers, of whom it was estimated there were a thousand during the Great War, and half that number normally, found themselves unemployed. It was estimated that in 1887 the presence of the military in Newbridge and the Curragh was worth £300,000 per annum.

Courtesy of Con Costello and the Leinster Leader
20 July 2006