With the Napoleonic Wars, unrest in the country, failed French Expeditions and the 1798 Rebellion, the British Government authorised the deployment of thousands of troops to Ireland. These new arrivals would require accommodation.
John Anderson saw the economic benefits of such a project for Buttevant and in 1812 made available at no cost 23 acres north west of the town for the building of a military barracks.
An extensive range of buildings, it took almost 3 years to complete. It was divided into three quadrangles with living space for over 800 men. The perimeter walls enclosed a training field, gymnasium, parade ground, church, school, stables, a hospital, administration, dining and sleeping blocks. Above the large central archway stood a Copula with a clock. In the early years of the barracks, a great gong was struck each midnight by a soldier. When the clock was erected in 1875, the gong was removed. The central gateway is made of cut limestone in a neo-classical style. Inside and to the left of the main gate stood the guard house where all seeking access to the barracks had to attend. The Garrison church doubled as a school for the soldier’s children. When the building was demolished after 1922, the windows and stone were used in the construction of Shanballymore RC church. Lighting within the Barracks was by oil. Water was pumped from the town supply.
Marriage for the ordinary soldier was discouraged as suitable facilities within the complex were not available. This issue was resolved in 1896-97 with the construction of 24 married quarters on the Buttevant – Churchtown road. 26 more houses were built in 1906. These houses could be inspected at any time as they were still classed as military accommodation. The Colonel in charge lived in a house within the Barracks while each officer had his own sitting room with two small rooms adjoining. Dinner was a very formal affair, where dress uniform was compulsory. On Sundays, hundreds of soldiers in scarlet and black would provide a colourful spectacle as they marched to Mass in the local churches.
The logistical support required for the smooth running of the barracks was immense. Many enterprising locals made a healthy living from the Garrison. During the Agrarian disturbances of the 1820s, troops from the Barracks were stationed as protection in farmers’ homes for fear of attacks by the Whiteboys. The Garrison took on a peacetime roll for many years until the outbreak of the First World War. From 1914 to 1918, thousands of soldiers passed through the barracks and its support camp at Ballyvonaire, four miles north east of Buttevant, prior to their deployment to the Western Front.
The War of Independence after the 1916 Rising brought savage hostility to the locality with all out attacks on crown forces followed by reprisals by the military on civilians. Many criminal acts were committed by both sides during this period. With the end of the War in 1922 and the departure of the British Army from Ireland, the Barracks was abandoned. It was temporarily occupied by both sides during the Civil War, but was burned down during the conflict.
Integration of Barracks and the Local Community
The army had a very negative public image during and for many years after the Napoleonic Wars. This was mainly due to its harsh treatment of soldiers. The perception at the time was so poor that many young men were discouraged from enlisting. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the army realised it had to attend more carefully to the soldiers’ physical, mental and spiritual welfare. Gymnasiums, schools and chapels were gradually built in all barracks across the country.
Another major problem was the barrack system itself. The barracks of the period segregated soldiers and civilians. Women and children were excluded from military life, with only a tiny percentage of men permitted to marry as suitable quarters were not available. The lifestyle was a lonely one as existing family ties to parents and siblings were severed for many years by service all over the Empire. The army attempted to create a military family focused on Regimental loyalty. They hoped this change in thinking would make a career in the army an appealing one.
The Garrison slowly integrated with the local community and it was a huge part of Buttevant’s social and economic life for over 110 years. Uniformed soldiers were a constant sight in town, from drinking in the pubs to buying provisions in the shops. They would parade to Mass on Sundays. Sports events such as cricket and football (soccer) would be organised with the local community along with military band recitals and other social engagements. The echo of horses’ hooves could be heard on the streets as cavalry units would come and go for training and exercise, while bugles would blast regularly from behind the high walls to bring the men to order.
On occasion, altercations would occur between hot-headed locals and soldiers. This would in turn require the intervention of the Constabulary or an officer from the Barracks.
When a Regiment vacated the Barracks, as was done regularly, it would march through the town with great pomp and colour led by the Regimental Band. All of these sights and sounds must have been a spectacle for curious onlookers.
The economy of the town flourished for many years by providing goods, services, labour (and alcohol) to the Garrison. Almost all buildings on the Main St ran a booming trade, from tailors, drapers, bakers, grocers and other enterprising locals. Over 30 public houses ensured that no soldier would go thirsty. Three hotels provided accommodation to visitors. Carters, plumbers, painters, blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons and farmers provided the remainder of the ancillary series required to enable the correct running of the Barracks.
With the end the War of Independence, the British Army left the country. Buttevant Barracks and Ballyvonaire Camp were handed over to the Free State in February 1922. The Barracks was burned by the anti-Treaty forces a short time later. With its loss, the town went into a recession, as 75% of its income was derived directly from the military. A deputation was sent to Dublin to put a case to the Minister for Home Affairs of the Irish Government, Eamonn Duggan, in the hope that assistance would be given.