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Brits out! … recalling the British Army’s departure 90 years ago

With impeccable if coincidental timing Newbridge Local History Group last week marked the 90th anniversary of the day on which the British Army pulled out of barracks occupied by them for generations in Co. Kildare. The occasion was a visit last Thursday to the Bord na Mona corporate headquarters which occupies the site and some of the buildings preserved from the days of the British barracks in Newbridge. While the focus of the evening was on the story of Bord na Mona in the town, Newbridge historians recalled that the 16th May also marked the 90th anniversary to the day of the departure of the last remaining units of the British Army from Newbridge and, simultaneously, from Naas, Kildare and the Curragh.
Newbridge Barracks had, at its peak, accommodated 1,000 troopers, their horses and accoutrements. Add another 16,000 personnel at the seven barracks within the Curragh complex, and include the artillery camp at Kildare town and the infantry barracks at Naas, and at one stage the British presence in the county numbered an astonishing 20,000 troops or more making it one of the biggest clusters of military might anywhere in the far flung British Empire.
The withdrawal of the British military machine from Ireland had been made inevitable following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 bringing to an end the War of Independence which had raged since 1919 and which in turn had been inspired by the Rising of 1916.
The departure of the British although fulfilling a long-held ambition of Irish nationalists was had consequences for local people who had made livelihoods serving the needs of the enormous army presence in the county. Shopkeepers in Kildare, hotel owners in Newbridge, and bakers in Naas were among those in the local economy who had benefited from the abundant sterling spend from the soldiers’ payroll.
There were other regrets too as the soldiers moved out. The Kildare Observer newspaper remarked that the only decent fire-engine in the county was that operated by the British Army in the Curragh Camp. The writer lamented: “ It’s removal leaves the entire district – Kildare, Newbridge, Naas – without anything in the nature of a an effective fire-fighting apparatus”. Residents would now be left to the mercies of Newbridge Town Commission and Naas Urban Council whose appliances were described as being “obsolete and of little use in the event of an outbreak.”
Apart from such losses to public services and the local economy arising from the British exit the circumstances of the departure day itself were recorded in the Kildare Observer as befitted a low-key but momentous transfer of power from the 800-year old Dublin Castle administration to that of an independent Irish Free State. The Observer correspondent stressed the significance of the occasion: “Tuesday of the present week (16 May 1922) marked an epoch in the life of Co. Kildare when there was a complete evacuation from the posts which have never previously been unoccupied.” Local people watched as from Monday a constant stream of lorries passed through Newbridge and Naas bringing the troops and their paraphernalia from the Curragh to Dublin Port. The final packing-up was completed on the Tuesday morning and by noon the last lorry of British personnel was leaving the Curragh. As one army moved out, another moved in. The Observer reported: “ At the same time large bodies of the Irish Free State army, marched on the Curragh … the General-Officer Commanding of the Free State Army Lieut-General O’Connell and members of his Headquarters staff formally took over possession from the departing troops.” The handover was low-key and devoid of the sort of ceremonial which usually accompanies military occasions. The only excitement reported was when Lt-General O’Connell climbed the Curragh water tower to raise the tricolour of the new Irish Free State, he found that the British had sawn down the flagpole. Apparently this was not a begrudging act but a customary protocol of a departing army. When a make-shift pole was improvised a “huge tricolour was floated in the breeze to the accompaniment of cheers of the new forces drawn from Irish Army camps in Kilkenny, Dublin and Celbridge”.
The cheer for the tricolour was perhaps the only cheer to be felt on what otherwise should have been a celebratory occasion: the day was wet, the new Irish army too small to fill the vast barrack squares, and the Camp, devoid of the bustle of thousands of men and horses, must have looked somewhat bereft and miserable.

About the same time the handover took place in Newbridge where the last British gunners left for Dublin port and their place was taken by the Free State troops under the command of Comdt. Cronin.  Newbridge barracks was only occupied for a short time into the life of the Irish Free State and its vast property was soon parcelled out to a variety of users – from 1927 the Garrison Chapel was given to Newbridge Town Commission,  from 1931 a large site was transferred to the GAA for St. Conleth’s Park and later in the 1930s sites on the western end of the barracks were provided to accommodate two fledgling industries – Newbridge Cutlery and Irish Ropes – which helped fill the gap in employment left by the departure of the British troops on a momentous day 90 years ago this month. Today the last remaining red-brick building of the Victorian barracks is maintained as a working office by Bord na Mona which in its own way has been central to the twentieth century history of Co. Kildare. But that’s a story for another day. Series no: 281.

On 16 May 1922 the British Army left Co. Kildare forever, so writes Liam Kenny in his Leinster Leader Looking Back article no. 281

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