by jdurney on February 4, 2011

The Curragh story brilliantly depicted in new museum

The new Defence Forces museum about to open on the Curragh will be a much-welcomed addition to the heritage resources of Co. Kildare. A museum on the Curragh has long been hoped for by the local history community in the county. This column can confirm that the long wait has been worthwhile. The compact but attractively configured museum presents the Curragh story in a compelling manner. The focus is on the military presence in the Curragh from the mid-19th century to the present day but there is generous attention given to the community aspect of life at the camp through the generations. As one of the informative story-boards points out, by the time of the Emergency in 1940 camp residents had the services of a hospital, a library, a swimming pool, two cinemas, playing fields, a fire-station, and a full-service post office, putting the Curragh ahead of other small communities in Ireland.
The museum is laid out in a chronological fashion with an ideal balance of original artefacts and interpretive panels featuring the story of the Curragh military presence down through the ages. The environmental background to the unique terrain of the Curragh is given due attention with a display panel focussing on the rare flora of the plain and surveying the imprints which man has made on its soils over the years.
Naturally all eyes will be drawn to the primary military theme of the exhibits. Here the story begins well before the permanent encampment and there is informative visual presentation of episodes such as the Gibbet Rath massacre, a controversial incident from the 1798 rebellion which is imprinted in the folklore of Kildare.
The museum takes the visitor through the evolution of the camp from the tented assemblies of the early 1800s to the nucleus of a permanent installation. The British government, faced with the demand to mobilise large bodies of men for the Crimean war (1855-65), laid out a large camp mainly of wooden billets but with some brick buildings of which the restored clock-tower is a conspicuous survivor. The next stage was the replacement of the wooden huts by the red-brick buildings so synonymous with the Curragh as a military camp. By the early 1900s the camp consisted of seven separate red-brick barracks each echoing to the martial drills of men and horses.
The museum displays small arms from old muskets right through to the modern Steyr rifle in use today by the Defence Forces.  An 1896 Mauser rifle inscribed by a Boer commando in South Africa and possibly brought to Ireland as a war trophy, indicates how soldiers trained in the Curragh found themselves guarding the fringes of Britain’s far-flung empire. It’s an international reach reflected in a very different world order by the Irish Defence Forces service on UN peace-missions in the second half of the 20th century. The fact that the Curragh is regarded internationally as a centre of excellence for peace operations training is reflected in the museum. A notable anniversary in the Irish UN story is depicted through a special display on the Army’s deployment to the Congo sixty years ago.
An earlier seminal moment in the history of the camp – the take-over by the Irish Free State from the British forces in May 1922 is highlighted with the display of a Union Jack flag left by the departing British.  The later phases in the history of the camp are given a compelling exhibition, not least that remarkable period in 20th century Ireland known as ‘the Emergency’ when British and German airman and sailors who made landfall in Ireland were interned in the Curragh. Items of uniform from one of the German airmen who settled in the Newbridge area after the war are a reminder of the human stories that were interweaved with the epic conflicts of the last century. Of course not everything in history is serious and a light-hearted presentation at the museum is a model of a life-sized horse with rider from the Equitation school, an exhibit which cleverly epitomises the intersection of the two great users of the Curragh, the military and the bloodstock industry.  As well as the permanent collections a special temporary exhibition recalls the achievements, sporting and military, of the late Lt. Gen. Dermot Earley including a display of his GAA medals. The new Defence Forces museum (due to open officially later this month) promises to be of enormous education value through its modern presentation of the story of the Curragh in its military, social and environmental dimensions. Series no: 197.

Liam Kenny in his column ‘Nothing New Under the Sun’ from the Leinster Leader of 26th August 2010 reflects on 130 years of the Leinster Leader newspaper. Our thanks to Liam.


Liam Kenny in his column ‘Nothing New Under the Sun’ from the Leinster Leader 6th October 2010, writes on the opening of the new Defence Forces museum on the Curragh. Our thanks to Liam.

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