One of my interests, besides cricket and rugby and football and drinking and eating moderately and archaeology and fair play and all things Irish and history generally and especially Irish history and First World War history, is the Irish regiments fighting in that awful conflict and in particular detail, the Connaught Rangers. One of the finest regiments of the British Army and the town of Boyle’s raison d’ etre. A regiment I learnt about at my grandfather’s knee and later improved on by my father-in-law, two sons of the west of Ireland who acknowleged the great economic benefit this regiment gave to a lot of families of Connaught, in times a damn sight harder than these oppressed times.
Raised around 1790 as the 88th Foot with the British Government’s worry that the philosophy of the French Revolution would transfer itself across the Channel, the Connaughts immediately distinguished themselves in the Napoleonic Wars, where they were used as shock troops, being the first into battle, scaring the daylights out of seasoned French and Spanish troops with their blood-curdling screams. Quis Separabit (who will divide us) was their motto and earning their nickname as The Devil’s Own.
The regiment recruited from Ireland’s western counties of Galway, Roscommon,Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim with their main garrison at Renmore in Galway and sattelite garrisons at Athlone, Castlebar and Boyle. They helped defend the British Empire throughout the 19th century serving in Egypt, Spain, Canada, The Crimea, India, Cyprus, Malta, South Africa and the Sudan. In fact anywhere the London government considered was a hot spot. Today reading their history of postings is like looking in a travel agents window but ordinary times were tough in those days. In their 13 year stint in India, 1857-1870, nine officers and 407 other ranks died, mainly from disease.
The 88th Foot joined with the 94th Foot in 1881 during the strategic army reforms of that time and the 88th became the 1st Battalion, and the 94th, the 2nd Battalion, Connaught Rangers. The 1st Battalion stayed in India and the 2nd returned from Africa, to Galway, then to England and Malta, Cyprus and Egypt in quick sucession before helping Kitchener to recapture the Sudan in 1896. By the turn of the century, the 1st Battalion was fighting in the Boer War under some very poor leadership whilst the 2nd were in India. In 1908 the 1st changed places in India and the 2nd came back to Ireland.
During the First World War this West of Ireland influence was diluted somewhat as the regiment had to quickly build itself up into six battalions, this dilution showed itself markedly in the 5th Battalion, which had to form itself up from just over 100 trainees in Galway to a 1000 men of battalion strength in a couple of weeks in August 1914. This battalion went to war proper as part of Kitchener’s first new army when they landed at Anzac in Gallipoli on 6th August 1915 with approximately half their force being English men born and bred and especially 350 born and bred Yorkshire men.
The 2nd Battalion were based in England when war broke out in August 1914 and became part of the British Expeditionary Force which landed in Northern France and made their way to Mons for their first encounter with their German foe. As they descended the gangway on the 13th August 1914 and marched through the town of Boulogne, they started to sing a new music hall song It’s a long, long way to Tipperary. The song had been written by a fried fish hawker, Jack Judge, from Stalybridge in Cheshire, two years previously and had little response. A stranded English journalist, George Churnock, who had been on holiday in France reported back to his paper, The Daily Mail, and told its readers of the impact the Connaught Rangers singing this song had on the local disheartened population and how the song had put blood back in their veins. Within two weeks it was selling over 10,000 copies of sheet music a day. It became probably the most famous marching song ever and was taken up by armies around the world in both world wars and made a small fortune for Mr Judge, who had written the song in a few minutes for a five shilling bet.
The Connaught Rangers fought in all campaigns of that first war, continuing their history of travel, fighting in France and Belgium, in Turkey and Salonika, Bulgaria and Mesopotamia and in the process losing some 2500 men. The glorious history of this regiment was swiftly brought to an end with the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 following the treaty signed by England and the Irish representatives on 6th December 1921 and on 31st July 1922 the regiment was formally disbanded with many of the Irish officers and men being co-opted into Western Command of the new National Army of Ireland.
The name of the Connaught Rangers lives on with the Connaught Rangers Association, an organization created to formulate a data base of information on members of the regiment and to advance the name of The Devil’s Own whenever and wherever possible. The Association is based in King House in Boyle but has members world wide.
King House is a beautiful restored palladian mansion house built by the King family in about 1680 and home to the 4th (Special Reserve) Battalion Connaught Rangers since their inception in 1793. Amongst other things it contains a museum of artefacts of the regiment which any visitor to North Roscommon should avail themselves of. Go to www.connaughtrangersassoc.com and come to Boyle and enjoy the old world hospitality of a former garrison town.