by ehistoryadmin on January 9, 2016

Take a quick march to Kildare’s newest museum

Liam Kenny

Armoured cars and tanks and guns … the opening words of a ballad that did the rounds in the 1970s are a good pointer to what visitors to the Curragh Military Museum have in store. Located on the public road through the Curragh Camp the museum — open since 2010 — has expanded with a spectacular display of a range of armoured cars and guns used by the Irish Defence Forces during the tense years of the second world war or “the Emergency” as it was termed in Ireland. The new display is in a vast marquee type structure which affords generous space to accommodate armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and artillery weapons which stood between the Irish Free State and possible invasion between 1939 and 1945. Among the array of weaponry on show is an anti-aircraft gun which fired to warn off German bombers over Dublin in 1941 – the only time that the army fired shots in action during the period of the war.

The marquee display of heavy equipment is just the latest in a series of expansions by this innovative museum which is free of charge and is so anxious to facilitate the public that it opens on Sunday afternoons (thanks to a rota of retired army personnel) as well as an array of opening hours during the week.

The visitor is greeted by a quartet of light guns – which like the rest of the equipment – has been restored to pristine condition but, reassuringly, no longer goes bang. The first phase of the museum covers everything from the ecology of the Curragh to the 20th century businesses and communities who lived within the military atmosphere of the camp. Highlights on the way include a display on the Gibbet Rath massacre on the Curragh where Kildare rebels were cut down by British employed yeomanry. The range of weapons includes a cavalry sabre with which the Monastervan Yeomanry cut swathes through the rebels.

There have been summer military hostings in the Curragh going back to the ancient times of Finn MacCumhaill and the Fianna. The sculpture of Finn the warrior and his hounds, Bran and Sceolan, on the roundabout where the Curragh road links up from the motorway, evokes on a grand scale the mythical association of the Curragh with tales of military endeavour.

The first instalment towards a permanent camp was built by the British in the mid-19th century and the military museum showcases memorabilia for the span of their occupation through the late 19th century. The construction of the acres of red-brick barracks began in the 1890s when the Curragh camp became one of the most important reserves of manpower and of horsepower in the British empire. The military build-up was paralleled on a smaller scale in other Kildare locations. The Curragh museum displays a uniform of the Kildare Militia, a unit associated with Naas barracks since 1814, and a bearskin headdress of the celebrated Royal Dublin Fusiliers who were trained in Naas from the early 1900s. Even more exotically the Curragh museum hosts a newly open room full of the Chester Beatty weapons collection –a fearsome array of spears, daggers, and swords – collected from the native populations of the African and Asian continents. Many of the weapons are highly ornate and the collection represents one of the finest assemblies of exotic weaponry to be found anywhere in the world.

Another addition to the Curragh museum inventory is the “gun room” which hosts examples of firearms used by the armed groups on the island of Ireland in the 20th century. Relevant to the current decade of centenaries are examples of the rifles imported by the Ulster Volunteers in the Larne gun running of April 1914 side by side with the so-called “Howth rifles” imported two months later by the Irish Volunteers. The display of firearms includes almost every weapon fired by the Irish Defence Forces — and some used by less formal military outfits which proliferated on the island in troubled years of the twentieth century. A room full of guns might not be everybody’s idea of a day out but even the most peace-loving cannot fail to be impressed by the adjacent room devoted to beginnings of the army in the early years of the Irish State. There the celebrated Sliabh na mBan, the Rolls Royce armoured car which accompanied Michael Collins on his fatal trip to west Cork in August 1922, takes pride of place following its meticulous restoration to running order. Its military grey livery is off set out by the bright yellow of another stunning Rolls Royce on view. This eye-catching vehicle known as “the moon car” was used in a raid by Cork anti-treaty forces on British sailors in Cobh in 1924. After shooting with fatal effect the car was driven at speed to a farm where it was burned and buried. Over half a century later its wreckage — damaged almost beyond recognition — was re-excavated and, over many years, restored to showroom condition.

The show-stopping and latest extension to the museum is the vast marquee accommodating armoured cars, guns and cannons. Brilliantly presented story boards set out the military context of the weapons on display. Noteworthy among them is a Crimean canon gun which stood on the Newbridge road entrance to the Naas army apprentice school from 1956 to 1998. Armoured cars used during the Emergency (1939-45) and later in the Congo will strike a nostalgic note regarding proud moments in the evolution of the modern Irish Defence Forces.

The Curragh Military Museum must be one of the most accessible of any public museum. It opens daytime Monday to Wednesday, late to 8pm on Thursdays, and most welcome, on Sunday afternoons. For an insight into a huge and central feature of Kildare’s heritage – indeed of the story of Ireland as a nation – a visit to this friendly and fascinating museum is a most. And go early – there are lots to see. Leinster Leader 14 October 2014, Looking Back, Series No: 403.

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