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Leinster Leader 16 August 2007
Lilywhites in far foreign fields – recalling the Boer war
Readers who are familiar with St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin will know the memorial arch which gives access to the Green from the top of Grafton Street . This arch was erected 100 years ago this year to commemorate members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF) who had fallen in the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). The actual centenary of the unveiling of the Arch will be marked at lunchtime on Sunday, 19 August 2007 by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association and the Office of Public Works.
Many of the men listed on the Arch passed through Naas where the RDF depot barracks was located (now the Aras Cill Dara campus). Names of battles like Ladysmith, Mafeking and Spion Kop (think of Liverpool’s stadium nickname ‘the Kop’) became household names in the Britain and Ireland of the late years of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Many Church of Ireland churches in Kildare bear plaques marking the death of members of the county gentry who answered the Empire’s call and galloped off to do battle on the plains or veldts of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Troops of yeomanry were formed from the hunting classes in Ireland and the volunteers were expected to provide their own horse, rifle and contribute £100 to the unit’s expenses – an unusual case of paying to go to war! Among those to volunteer were Colonel T J de Burgh of Oldtown in Naas who, although wounded ,rose to the rank of Battalion commander. However tragedy was to strike the Oldtown family as Colonel de Burgh’s brother Hugo was killed at the battle of Jammersberg Drift in the Orange River Colony on 11 April 1900. In a poignant sequel Col. De Burgh visited his brother’s battlefield grave and erected a wooden cross improvised from a window frame. Later, the wooden cross was replaced by a proper headstone and the original  was brought the long way back to Ireland to the de Burgh plot in Maudlings cemetery, Naas where it survived the Irish weather for some years.
A local survivor of the Boer War was Samuel Lyons of Kill who was attached to a  Canadian mounted unit. In his letters home he clearly relished the opportunity to display his equine skills tending for the vast numbers of horses in the Imperial forces.
However it is a reflection of the complexity of Irish sentiments in 1900 that a number of Irish also ended up fighting on the side of the Boers – Major John McBride, later a 1916 hero, mobilised a brigade of Irish volunteers for the Boers, while Arthur Griffith, later founder of Sinn Fein , went to South Africa and edited newspapers championing the Boer cause . In Ireland resistance to British recruiting  rekindled the dormant nationalist movement and sowed the seeds for the militant nationalism which was to culminate in 1916.
The Boers were descendents of Dutch settlers who had landed in the south of the African continent in the 17th century. They had a strong calvinist mentality with  key traits being self-sufficiency and ability to live close to the land. Like all colonists they were motivated by acquisiton – first of land and later of diamonds and gold when these were discovered in the African subsoil.
The British had also occupied parts of South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope. Their initial interest was to secure the trade routes from India but soon the British settlers discovered the riches beneath the parched terrain and began to excavate. Their hunt for diamonds inevitably brought them into collision with the Boers and the colonising greed on both sides erupted into vicious war. The propaganda fall-out from this war had long term consequences for Ireland, remote as it was from the battlefield, by reigniting determination among Irish political activists to emulate the Boers and take on the British Empire.
  • My thanks to Brian McCabe, Johnstown, for inspiring reflections on Kildare and the Boer war.
Series no. 28

An article by Liam Kenny from his regular feature, 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' on Co. Kildare connections with the Borer War - Leinster Leader 16 August 2007. Our thanks to Liam

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