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James Crosby of MacBride’s Irish Brigade

James Durney
Around 500 Irish and Irish-Americans fought against the British in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901. Of these 500 volunteers at least one, James Crosby, was from Co. Kildare. MacBride’s Irish Brigade fought well, but had little impact on the fate of the war. Ten thousand kilometres away in Ireland the impact of MacBride’s Brigade was far more influential. It galvanized nationalist Ireland out of its lethargy created by the Parnellite split and set the nationalist movement on the road which would lead to independence. One Boer War veteran, Tom Byrne, would arrive back in Ireland to help organise Co. Kildare for the Easter rising.
James Crosby was born in 1873 to James and Margaret Crosby, of Richardstown, Kildangan. His address in the roster of the 1st Irish Transvaal Brigade – commonly known as Blake’s commando, the Irish corps, or MacBride’s brigade – was Kildangan, Co. Kildare. Nothing is known of James Crosby’s activities in South Africa, but it is known that he survived the campaign. James Crosby, senior, and Margaret Brohal, or Broughall, were married in the parish of Monasterevan, in 1865. The witnesses were Thomas Talbot and Bridget McGarr. James, junior, was born in 1873; his sponsor’s being James Drennan and Brigid Whelan. When James Crosby left for South Africa is unknown. The census of 1901 reveals that the household was then headed by Patrick Crosby (25). His two brothers, John (20) and Joseph (18), like Patrick gave their occupation as agricultural. There was also a sister, Anne, living at the family home.
Most of the 200 or so Irish of the brigade were born in Ireland. The term ‘brigade’ was not a military reality but a romantic illusion to the Irish Brigade of the Wild Geese, or the Irish Brigade of the Union Army of American Civil War fame. The Irish fighting on the highveld were a commando-sized unit – the Boers referred to them as the Irish corps. They earned the respect and affection of the hard-fighting Boers, perhaps more so than any of the half dozen foreign units in the Boer army. (There was another Irish corps formed in 1900 and hundreds of more Irishmen serving individually in the Boer army. There were also hundreds more Irish serving in the British Army, including dozens from Co. Kildare.) The brigade, or commando, was led by Irish-American John Blake and Mayo-born John MacBride, who would later be executed after the 1916 rising, not for his part in the failed Easter rebellion but for leading an Irish Brigade against the British in the Boer War. Perfidious Albion did not forget.
By the time the Second Boer War broke out in 1899 there were around 20,000 Irish in the subcontinent of Africa, of whom only about 6,000 were first generation. Many were young men lured by the prospect of gold, discovered in 1886 in the Transvaal Republic. The first St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated the following year in Johannesburg and developed into a mini riot. There were plenty of work prospects in South Africa – mining, building railways, and policing the towns and velds. Irish politics also began to rear its head in newly-formed branches of the Irish National Foresters and sojourns by nationalist activists like Arthur Griffith and John MacBride
The Irish, like their Boer counterparts, were to fight on horseback and their lack of experience proved to be a source of merriment to the Afrikaaners. As Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom it was particularly important, too, that the Irish brigadiers be granted citizen status and avoid the certainty of being court-martialled and shot for treason. It was as well for their first battle proved to be against their own countrymen. At the battle of Dundee, on 20 October 1899, 4,000 British soldiers, including the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, met the Boer army, which included the Irish Transvaal Brigade. The news of the Boer victory prompted on anonymous balladeer, in the finest traditions of Christy Moore, to compose one of the best of the Irish Boer verses.
 On the mountain side the battle raged, there was no stop or stay;
Mackin captured Private Burke and Ensign Michael Shea,
Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick, Brannigan found O’Rourke;
Finnigan took a man named Fay – and a couple of lads from Cork.
Suddenly they heard McManus shout, ‘Hands up or I’ll run you through.’
He thought it was a Yorkshire ‘Tyke’ – t’was Corporal Donoghue!
McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee,
That’s how the ‘English fought the Dutch’ at the Battle of Dundee.
After a string of Boer victories the might of Britain became felt. In September 1900 the Transvaal was annexed and the Irish Brigade disbanded, though about twenty-five men stayed on to fight in the guerrilla war. Thirty-one had been killed and thirty-four captured. The peace deal signed in 1902 deemed that ‘Foreigners will not be allowed to return to South Africa,’ and so it was that few members of the former Irish brigade remained there. Most returned to Ireland or America. Whatever happened to James Crosby, of Kildangan, is unknown.

James Durney uncovers a Kildare connection with  MacBride's Irish Brigade in the Boer War.  Our thanks to James.

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