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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

The Birr Raid

With a major barracks so close to Birr town, interactions with soldiers were daily. For most instances, interactions were uneventful and often the local newspapers would complement regiments on their good behaviour and conduct while stationed in Birr. However, this was not always the case and on Friday night, 16 February 1900, at 10:30 pm six drunken soldiers of the Leinster Regiment depot descended upon the town with the intent of causing mischief and mayhem.

Upon entering Cumberland square the soldiers raided the Ormond and King’s County Club, stealing a large rubber mat which had been on the floor. Rolling it up, they proceeded to use it as a make shift battering ram which they used to smash several windows of houses as the passed. The windows of Mrs Brady’s house on Cumberland Square were smashed, along with several windows of houses on Rosse Row belonging to Mr Archer, Sergeant Johnson, Constable Talbot and William Cully. On St Brendan’s Street, windows and a table lamp were smashed at the house belonging to Mr James Hickey, and windows of the YMCA were also smashed. Several other premises had damage inflicted upon them by the soldiers. Finally, the side window of Mr Samuel’s tobacco shop on John’s Place was smashed and tobacco and pipes were plundered.

John's Place, Birr.

It was at this time, now around 11:30 pm when constables in the police barracks heard windows smashing and came out to investigate what was going on. Constable Hastings saw the soldiers making a hasty retreat and pursed them, catching three of them at the Convent Gate on Wilmer Road; Owen McDonagh, Michael Barry and Jeremiah Sullivan aged between 18 and 19 years old. The latter of the soldiers was found to have a bread and meat basket in his procession which was the property of Mr Denis McGrath of Bridge Street.

The soldiers were held in Birr bridewell and tried at Tullamore before G. H. Shannon B.L., R.M. They offered no defence and were each found guilty of malicious injury and were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour, they were released on 22 April. Two months later the men set sail for service in the Second Boer War in South Africa.

As we are lucky to have the names and details of the soldiers involved in the 'Raid', we can establish the following biographical details about them and their ‘habits’ as soldiers.

Owen McDonagh

Owen was born in Cootehall, County Roscommon. He enlisted in the Leinster Regiment on 15 December 1897. At the time of his enlistment he was serving in the 5th (Militia) Battalion, Connaught Rangers.

After initial posting to the depot, he served with the 3rd Battalion in South Africa and later served with the 2nd Battalion, until he was discharged on 13 October 1911. His statement of service sheet mentions desertion, losing by neglect his equipment, the damage caused during the “Birr Raid”, and drunkenness over the period of his service.

Michael Barry

Born in Killinora, Tralee, County Kerry. He was a shoe marker when he enlisted in the 4th (Militia) Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers at Tralee on 24 November 1898.

He transferred to the Leinster Regiment on 22 February 1899. He served in the Boer War with the 3rd Battalion and was entitled to the Queen’s South Africa medal with the clasps ‘Cape Colony’ and ‘Orange Free State’. He medal roll notes that he ‘deserted’.

Jeremiah Sullivan

Jeremiah was born in Tralee, County Kerry. He enlisted in the 4th (Militia) Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers on at Tralee on 15 November 1897. He was present for 14 days musketry training in 1899, before joining the Leinster Regiment on 14 July 1899.

Joining the Leinster Regiment at Birr he was posted to the depot. He was later attached to the 3rd Battalion and saw service in South Africa from June 1900 and was later posted back to the depot and then the 2nd Battalion. He was discharged with ignominy (disgrace) in March 1903. Like his fellow raiders his conduct was mixed with several accounts of desertion on his record, along with being absent from duty/parades and drunkenness.

*With thanks to Richard Willcocks, for providing some of the newspaper articles about the raid.*

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