• Stephen Callaghan

Xhosa War and India Mutiny Veteran John Houlihan

In today’s blog with look at the life of John Houlihan, whose funeral caused some embarrassment and a bit of a stir in Birr.

John Houlihan was born in Portumna, County Galway around 1823. He attested for service in the 73rd Regiment of Foot in County Waterford on 29 May 1845. At the time of his enlistment he gave his previous trade as a groom. John’s enlistment was at the start of the Great Famine in Ireland and military service would have ensured a roof over John’s head, stable wages and regular meals.

The 73rd Regiment of Foot was raised in 1780, and had won battle honours for the Anglo-Mysore Wars and for Waterloo. Private Houlihan’s service included 8 months in Argentina in 1846 during the Uruguayan Civil War, the 73rd Regiment of Foot was sent there to protect British interests. After, he spent 11 years and 7 months in the Cape of Good Hope, here the 73rd Foot took part in the Seventh Xhosa War (1846-1847), for which he received the South Africa Medal (1853). Private Houlihan was lucky and was not one of the soldiers about the disastrous HMS Birkenhead which sank in 1852, with 450 souls drowned.

After serving in Africa, the regiment moved to India, where they were involved in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858). For his service during the mutiny, Private Houlihan received the India Mutiny medal.

After serving 21 years, Private Houlihan was discharged at his own request on 18 June 1866. Upon his discharge, he was recorded as being 5 foot and 7 ½ inches tall and as having grey coloured eyes and dark brown hair, his intended place of residence was given as Portumna. Despite listing Portumna as his intended place of residence, John moved to Birr and settled in Crinkill village where he lived off his army pension of 1 shilling per day. On 5 August 1867, in St Brendan’s Catholic Church, he married Eliza McDonnell, a widow. While not 100 percent confirmed, Eliza appears to have died in Birr Workhouse in 1892.

The 1901 census records John as living at 40 Newbridge Street, Birr. An army pensioner, widower and boarding with John and Sarah Perkinson. John died in Birr Workhouse Hospital on 21 May 1910 from senile decay and bronchitis which he had for 6 days.

John’s funeral took place on 24 May, where he was interred in Clonoghill Cemetery. The King’s County Chronicle reported on John’s death and the funeral, stating that the he was quite popular and a “natural hero, rather reserved in speaking of his own soldiering”. The article further goes on to state he was proud of his service in Africa and India. The funeral itself left from Birr Workhouse Hospital and was headed by a Major Sharpe and a detachment of soldiers of the Leinster Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Macartney. The regiment’s band played the Death March.

Upon reaching the graveside at Clonoghil Cemetery, it was discovered that no clergyman was present. With some embarrassment to the officer in charge and panic, Lieutenant Macartney offered up a prayer for the soul of the deceased pensioner and three volleys were fired over the grave and the Last Post sounded.

The fact no Catholic priest was present at the burial service caused a bit of a stir, with Assistant Chaplain M. J. Crowe providing a copy of his letter to the Officer Commanding of Birr Barracks to the King’s County Chronicle which stating that the chaplain was not informed of the funeral.

Clonoghill Cemetery, Birr

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