Home Page







Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Eighteen

                         The Armed Forces

Summary of chapter. The armed forces of Ireland, like those of the United Kingdom as a whole came under the Crown, but was paid for by Parliament. When Ireland had an independent Parliament certain units were designated the Irish Army and were a charge in peacetime on the Irish Parliament. After the Union all were charged on the same Parliament but the organisation did not immediately change. Gradually, the various Offices concerned with military affairs were amalgamated.

(i) History of the Armed Forces

(ii) The Military Offices

(iii) The Regular Army

(iv)Militia and Yeomanry

(v) The Royal Navy


(i) History of the Armed Forces 

            The Irish army originated in the Middle Ages when the Irish Government began to maintain a small body of cavalry and archers. In 1535 in a time of peace this amounted to 380 horsemen and 160 footmen. Under Elizabeth I the number came to 2,000. Strafford under Charles I raised an army of 6,000 men. Charles II raised the establishment to 7,000. The Stuart kings did not need all those troops to govern Ireland. Most of these troops left Ireland after the battle of Aughrim and were replaced by the Protestant volunteer regiments from the north of Ireland who had joined William. The two Irish armies existed side by side and fought each other for the next twenty years. A hundred years after Aughrim the Irish Brigade in the French army joined the British Army. 

            Regiments were mostly raised as they were needed, and disbanded as soon as the need for them ceased. Exceptions were the sovereign's (or Lord Lieutenant's bodyguard), and the garrisons of castles. In England, after the Restoration in 1660 King Charles II began the custom of maintaining standing regiments. William III used Irish, Scottish, and English regiments indiscriminately so there was really only one royal army.  

            An army was a charge on the country in which it was raised, so for fiscal reasons there had to be three separate armies, one English, one Scottish, and one Irish. As regiments were moved around the British Isles and the colonies and garrisons abroad regardless of origin, it came about that all regiments of horse, foot, and guns, stationed in Ireland were called the Irish army. As the Irish, unlike the English, had no strong objections to a royal standing army, the king was able to station regiments in Ireland, and so maintain an army about 50% larger than it would otherwise have been. From about 1770 onwards there were objections from the 'patriots' to the size of the army. All recruits to the army in the eighteenth century were supposed to be Protestants but no inquisition was made regarding the recruits’ religion from mid-century onwards. Difficulties arose only when church parades became customary. [Top] 

(ii) The Military Offices 

            The part of the army in Ireland was under its own Commander-in-Chief, who was subject to the Lord Lieutenant if any operations in Ireland were to be undertaken. The Irish army had its own Adjutant General, Paymaster General, and Quartermaster General. Until the Act of Union there was a separate Royal Irish Artillery, and a separate Engineers-in-Ireland. Towards the end of the century the Irish Army, like the Irish Parliament, liked to stress its separateness, and ignored instructions from the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in England unless these were issued in the king's name.  The Irish Commander-in-Chief and Irish Adjutant General issued their own instructions. 

            The non-operational affairs of the Irish army were directed by the Lord Lieutenant through three Military Offices under the supervision of the Military Under-secretary. As noted elsewhere the Military Under-secretary was actually the Secretary at War. These offices were the Ordnance Board, the Barrack Board, and the Military Department. By the Act of Union the largely fictitious division of the army was abolished, but the structure of command was virtually unchanged. From 1793 until 1815 these three Offices did an enormous volume of work. 

            For military operations the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland was placed formally under the Commander-in-Chief in Whitehall, and the Irish Offices under the corresponding British ones, but little was changed. The Royal Irish Artillery and the Irish Engineers ceased to exist, the units just being counted as part of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. There never was a separate Irish navy, or nominal distinction between ships on the Irish station and those elsewhere. 

            The Board of Ordnance or commissioners for ordnance, at the Irish Ordnance Office, was responsible for procuring all military supplies except food and forage. It employed very few people, the equipment being manufactured and supplied by private firms. The Board would for example ask gun-makers to tender for the supply of parts of the Land pattern or Tower musket, to be delivered to His Majesty's castle at Dublin or other designated spot. During the War Athlone was made the great central depôt for Ireland. When a regiment needed supplies, for example, when a new issue of muskets was to be made, tenders were invited from local gunsmiths to assemble the guns from parts supplied from stores. (Until well into the nineteenth century this always involved considerable use of a file.) Besides guns there were stores of iron and copper goods, tents, ropes, harness, wheels, carts, and so on (Houlding). 

            The Barrack Board, after 1799 the Board of Works, but the old name long persisted, was responsible for providing barracks for troops. By the word barracks could be meant small wooden huts, but more usually it meant large buildings of masonry or brick. From the 1740's onward Ireland had been well supplied with barracks, but the quality of them was often poor. The actual building was done by local contractors under the direction of officers of the Engineers. During the War the Barrack Board provided accommodation for 90,000 men but the buildings were so designed that they could be sold off after the war for such uses as warehousing. Great fortifications were built around the coasts and along the Shannon. The Martello towers are the most famous but not the most impressive of these. 

            The Military Department was responsible for the movement of troops both within the island and between Britain and Ireland. Within Ireland, units were shifted each year from Dublin to the provincial towns, and then out into small detached units along the coast. This latter was to assist the Customs and Excise Boards in their efforts against smuggling and illicit distillation. The dispersal of the troops was notorious for its ill effects on discipline. On the other hand Dublin had one of the largest garrisons in the Empire, and large-scale manoeuvres with horse, foot, and guns, were possible there as nowhere else in the British Isles. In a garrison town the Town Major was responsible for the allocation of accommodation, and for the discipline of the troops in general. In 1798 the only effective police force was that under the direction of Major Sirr, the Town Major. As he was aiding the civil power he was under the direction of the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and sheriffs of Dublin. 

            There was no separate Irish Admiralty. After the Act of Union, as before it, the office of Lord High Admiral of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland was discharged by commissioners popularly known as the Lords of the Admiralty. In the nineteenth century a naval officer of flag rank was always stationed in Dublin. [Top] 

(iii) The Regular Army 

            The Commander-in-Chief was responsible for directing all purely military affairs, and his office paralleled that of the Commander-in-Chief in Scotland. He was always subject to the Lord Lieutenant even if martial law was in force. The offices of Paymaster General and Quartermaster General require no further description. To obtain supplies the Quartermaster General placed advertisements in local newspapers asking for tenders for the supply of food, firewood, coal, and forage to the local garrisons. 

             The Adjutant General and his staff were responsible for drill and discipline. By the end of the eighteenth century training in the Irish army had reached a high standard under the then Adjutant General, Sir David Dundas. His Irish Drill Regulations of 1789 were adopted for the whole army in 1792 and were used to train all regiments up to the battle of Waterloo. Wellington's victories were all built round the steadiness of the regiments spread out in line of battle. (Sir Ralph Abercromby's famous criticism of the army in Ireland was made when the well-drilled troops were overseas, and the half-trained recruits were further demoralised by being dispersed in aid of the civil power.) The Drill Regulations of 1789 replaced those of Humphrey Bland of 1727 which in turn replaced those of the Earl of Orrery which were then about fifty years old. Both these were private collections compiled by Irishmen. 

            The army was divided into various regiments of cavalry like guards and dragoons, the Royal Artillery, the Engineers or Sappers, and the infantry. The artillery was used either to make breaches in the walls of cities, or to pound regiments of infantry in the field. The cavalry was launched only when the lines of infantry had been partially shattered as no cavalry charge could break a well-drilled line of infantry. The Engineers or Sappers were used in siege works both as attackers and defenders. The infantry, armed with a muzzle-loading musket to which a bayonet could be attached, formed the principal arm in every army. 

            The infantry were divided into numbered regiments of the line, each numbering several hundred men. Some regiments, like the Scottish Highland regiments, habitually recruited in particular localities.  But most regiments just recruited locally, wherever they happened to be stationed. Regiments that were stationed in Ireland for any length of time became virtually Irish as far as the rank-and-file were concerned. (Officers purchased their commissions.) This was particularly true of regiments, which had spent a long time in the unhealthy West Indies and were sent to Ireland to make up their strength. In the nineteenth century the regiments of the line were numbered from one to about one hundred. Regiments of the line, or line of battle, formed the regular army, and were distinguished from the militia regiments. Some regiments had official names, and nicknames as well. The 87th regiment that was raised in the west of Ireland was called the Prince of Wales's Own regiment. Its nickname was the Faughs, from its regimental motto, Fag an ballach Get out of my way. The 88th was the Connaught Rangers, the Devil's Own. (The Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were East India Company regiments and were not incorporated into the regular army until the second half of the century.) 

            From 1793 onwards Catholics could freely join regiments in Ireland and hold any rank up to that of colonel, or even a general if he was not on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief. But in practice no gentleman in the nineteenth century was asked to state his religion. Protestant soldiers were paraded to church on Sundays, but Catholic soldiers were allowed to go to Mass privately if they wished. Various circulars were issued from the Adjutant General's office in Dublin, and even from the Commander-in-Chief in London, making this plain. (Legally, these rules applied only within Ireland, but in practice they were applied everywhere both in the army and navy.) In addition the wearing of any Orange badges or insignia on the uniform was forbidden. Though originally orange favours indicated support for the House of Orange, after 1793 the colour was associated with those who opposed further concessions to Catholics. (Obviously, after 1798 no attempt was made to wear green badges, the symbol of revolution.) This does not mean that army commanders like the Duke of York or the Duke of Wellington favoured furthered concessions to the Catholics; they were unwilling to see the army dragged into a political quarrel. Most Irish officers, including Wellington, were Protestants. One explanation for the low recruitment among Irish Catholics of officer rank was the poor quality of Irish Catholic education. On the other hand many Catholics may just have changed their religion when they purchased a commission. 

            There was no conscription, so the army relied on a system of bounties for new recruits. Increasingly the army relied on persuading militiamen to transfer to the line regiments. So long as an Irishman stayed in the militia his wife and children were provided for but this provision ceased when they transferred. Wellington was rather disgusted at the readiness with which they transferred, but did not prevent them. When a regiment was going abroad it took with it five or six women chosen by ballot from among the wives of the enlisted men to act as cooks and washerwomen. These were added to the strength of the regiment and were allowed to ride on the carts carrying the regimental pots. Other wives (and camp followers) followed as best they could or stayed at home and tried to support themselves (Bamfield). 

            Military officers normally had to purchase their commissions from an existing holders, commissions being regarded as a property that could be bought and sold. There was a Military Agency Office that dealt with purchases and exchanges of commissions. When the commission was purchased the Military Office had to issue a new commission to act as an officer in the king's forces. Commissions almost without exception were reserved for gentlemen. The newly commissioned officer was expected to instruct himself in his duties by purchasing a manual but boys could be sent to schools which gave a general instruction in matters an officer needed to know, fencing for example, and horse-riding. 

            The army was popular in Ireland and it was said that during the War virtually every family had a member in the army, the navy, the militia, the yeomanry, or the revenue service. Up to 1815 Ireland was a hive of military activities, with many people engaged in the building of barracks or fortifications or in supplying contracts especially of provisions to the army and navy. 

            In 1922 the regiments with Irish connections were disbanded except those connected with Northern Ireland and the Irish Guards. Irishmen from both parts of Ireland continued to serve in all ranks and all branches of the armed forces. Nor did the Irish Free State despite its neutrality in the Second World War impose a ban on enlistment in foreign armies. [Top] 

(iv) The Militia and Yeomanry 

            At the beginning of the nineteenth century the militia in Ireland was in a healthy state. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Government was rather distrustful of the militia especially after the revolt of the American colonies. But it was reorganised by the Militia Acts of 1778 and 1793 and it was the militia regiments that put down the disturbances in 1798. 

            The militia was a local defence body, much more ancient than the army, for it dated from the Middle Ages. It was re-organised under Charles II and made a national body in 1778, though no Irish militia was at that date raised because of lack of funds. Defence for the nearly bankrupt country was supplied by Volunteer companies. Originally it was raised in the counties, was under the control of the County Governors, was a charge on the county cess, and the regiments were given county names. The Governors controlled the militia in the name of the king, not of Parliament. But the Militia Acts made it a national militia and organised it more like the regular army, though the regiments were strictly county regiments. 

            Its arms were supplied by the Board of Ordnance, and included some pieces of field artillery. It was organised, armed and drilled exactly like the regular army. In times of peace only a skeleton staff was retained in the county regiments, but when the Lord Lieutenant called out the militia the ranks had to be filled up by recruiting. In England, service in the militia was regarded as a public duty and lists of men eligible for service were maintained from which a sufficient number was drawn by ballot. In Ireland the parish officers were ordered to draw up militia lists but the ballot was unpopular so the Irish Government was allowed to offer bounties to recruits even if this conflicted directly with recruitment for the army. Eventually balloting had to be resorted to again, and in the nineteenth century the counties were warned more than once to keep their militia lists up to date. The Government issued commissions to suitable gentlemen in the counties. 

            The militia served only within its own country, the Irish militia in Ireland and the British militia in Britain. Regiments could volunteer to serve in the other country. By the Militia Interchange Act (1811) such transfers could be made compulsory. 

            A great expansion of the militia took place after the outbreak of war with France in 1793. The authorised strength of the Irish militia was set at 21,660 by the Militia Act of 1795, but that number could be varied. Supply for 26,634 was voted in 1798. . Recruitment of Catholics was on the same basis as in the regular army. The law required that militiamen should served for some time after peace was signed, so when the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1801 the militia was not immediately dispersed. The Government in Westminster soon ordered that the strength of the militias should be built up again. It thus came about that some Irish militia regiments were under arms and away from their families for nearly twenty years when they were finally disbanded in 1815 (MacAnally).

            After 1815 the regiments were placed on a peace-footing and the enlisted men were sent home. The Government hoped that most of the officers would leave the service voluntarily, so that the establishment could be reduced to a more normal size. This did not happen so various Acts were passed successively reducing the establishment. The organisation and the militia lists were retained but the regiments were never called together even for training up to 1850. (After 1850 the militia was re-organised, and became in effect reserve battalions for the line regiments, and served in all major campaigns overseas up to 1918.)

            The yeomanry were volunteer companies who lived at home and served only in their own districts, normally as far as the first baronies in the neighbouring counties. As late as the 1740's the guilds in the towns could be called on for local defence. During the American War of Independence numerous Volunteer companies sprang up, though the legal basis for them was unclear. The Irish Government, after its experience with the volunteer companies that had virtually taken control of Ireland when it was denuded of regular troops by the War, disliked them. William Pitt however in England decided that volunteer companies could be safely recruited from among the strong farmers or yeomanry of England, hence the name. Ireland had relatively few yeomen farmers, but gentlemen in the counties and in the professions demanded to be allowed to form volunteer companies. They began to assemble themselves in 1796 though the Irish Yeomanry Act was not passed until 1797. The yeomanry companies were strictly under the control of the Commander-in-Chief and the Adjutant General and were subject to full military discipline. The Government totally refused to allow self-appointed Volunteer companies such as sprang up in 1782. Cavalry was preferred but infantry companies were accepted. They could volunteer to serve outside their own districts at Government expense. 

            The yeomanry always had a bad name among Catholic nationalists, and the Irish Government too was at times suspicious of it. On its formation, and for many years afterwards, many extreme Protestants regarded it as their personal defence against 'papist rebels', and some even expressed wishes to be allowed to exterminate them. It is true of course that whatever were the origins of the disturbances in 1798, and these were varied, it did in places degenerate into a fight between Catholic rebels and the Protestant population represented by the yeomanry. The Irish Government under Cornwallis preferred to overlook atrocities and irregularities on either side, and only a few of the more noteworthy leaders were prosecuted. An Indemnity Act was passed to cover crimes or irregularities committed by members of the armed forces in 1798, but this did not mean that the Government had forgotten them. Some yeomanry companies tried at first to exclude Catholics, but others admitted them. The gentlemen attached to the bar in Dublin formed the most famous, if hardly the most effective, of the volunteer companies, the Lawyers' Corps. Catholic lawyers like Daniel O’Connell and Purcell O’Gorman, afterwards Secretary of the Catholic Association, belonged to this company and patrolled the streets in 1803. 

            Those who belonged to volunteer companies were excused from serving in the militia, so the option was a popular one.  Training and discipline were supposed to be the same as in the militia. Companies could volunteer to serve outside their counties, but never seem to have been joined into regiments. For internal security they, and the militia, proved very effective. Much has been made of a single instance at Castlebar when they broke, but they had been posted too far in advance against very experienced French troops. Almost without exception the other units fought hard and well even against the French regulars. The rebels in 1798 usually underestimated them and rushed at them en masse and were cut down in their hundreds.  

            In 1808 there were 3,212 yeomanry sergeants, 964 drummers, 7,234 cavalry, and 49,612 infantry. The companies were called after their own areas and served in those areas. In county Meath, the Earl of Fingall, a Catholic nobleman, was captain of the Skreen cavalry, one of the seven cavalry companies in the county. He was also a captain in the Dunshaughlin infantry. 

            In the post-War period the Government tried to reduce the numbers of the yeomanry. In 1828 there were still 13,440 yeomen in the companies in Ulster, 3,513 in Leinster, 1,507 in Munster, and 1,393 in Connaught. The Government always refused offers of assistance from the yeomanry even during the worst periods of civil disturbances, and reminded the county authorities of the Act of 1802 that restricted the calling out of the yeomanry to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. 

            Besides the yeomanry there were some fencible companies. These were volunteer companies recruited from among particular groups or trades like boatmen. (In England the word was also used to describe certain temporary regiments in the army, usually Scottish militia regiments not recruited on a county basis.) [Top] 

(v) The Royal Navy 

            There never was any distinction made between a British and an Irish navy. The Admiralty in Britain appointed admirals to commands in Ireland as elsewhere in the world. The same Lords of the Admiralty appointed captains to ships. Although officers in the army purchased their commissions and taught themselves officers in the navy were apprenticed when still boys as midshipmen to captains who taught them what they needed to know to pass an examination before being accepted as officers. A boy's family had therefore to find a captain willing to undertake the duty. Irishmen could be appointed even to the most senior ranks. 

            For the rest of the crew the Royal Navy relied on volunteers and on the pressgang. Irishmen volunteered as freely for the navy as they did for the army. No bounties were paid to recruits in wartime as the navy had powers to press men into its service. It had indeed been proposed in Ireland in the eighteenth century that lists of eligible men should be kept the same as militia lists but this was rejected because it would prevent men in the designated categories from moving around to find work. In Ireland, 'men used to the sea or worked in navigable waters' even inland waters were liable to impressment. Among these were included turfboatmen, fishermen, lightermen, sandbargemen, ferrymen, pilots, and pleasureboat operators. Those in these categories had to supply one experienced man in ten, or two if landsmen were included. If volunteers were not forthcoming the captain was empowered to impress even married men. Landsmen could not be legally impressed, and had to be released on the order of a magistrate. 

            Up until the battle of Trafalgar there was an ever-present danger of a French invasion. The navy concentrated its efforts on a close blockade of the French ports.  In 1796 during the storms of mid-winter a large French fleet succeeded in evading the blockade, but the same storms that dispersed the Royal Navy also dispersed the French fleet. The French fleet had in any case to try to land the troops in some remote spot before a superior British force could come upon it. When the French commander reached Ireland it became clear to him that stories told by the United Irishmen about the readiness of the Irish for revolt were false, and that if he landed his troops he would never be able to take them off again. French privateers and between 1812 and 1815 American privateers proved a greater problem. Irish trade, not only with Britain, but also with the Baltic, and the Americas, had to be kept going.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.