The Cork hero of Zulu – the war not the film

Minehan ‘remained calm . . . at one stage bayoneting a warrior who had grabbed him by the leg’

 

Spare a thought for those Irish heroes of the British Empire who were consigned to the footnotes of history after Independence in 1922. Private Michael Minehan of Co Cork was one of 16 Irishmen among the 150-strong British garrison at Rorke’s Drift, during the late 19th century Anglo-Zulu War, which fought off an attack by up to 4,000 Zulu warriors in one of the most epic defences in military history. Although the event is well-remembered – thanks to the 1964 film Zulu starring Michael Caine – Minehan has largely been forgotten. But not quite.

Last week in London, the ‘South Africa 1877-79 Medal won by Private Michael Minehan’’ sold for £84,000 (approximately €100,000) – way above the top estimate of £30,000 – in an auction at Dix Noonan Webb, the international medals specialists. [see photograph of medal]

Minehan was born at Castlehaven, Co Cork in 1845, enlisted in the British Army at Bandon when he was aged 19 and served in India and South Africa.

In 1879, he was in South Africa with the British Army when it invaded the independent kingdom of Zululand. According to Nimrod Dix, a director of the auction house: “Michael Minehan was the sort of man who every officer wants under his command at moments of crisis. He was brave, steady and knew the business of soldiering well. Amid the bloodshed of Rorke’s Drift and the flames that engulfed part of the mission station, he remained calm and focused, at one stage bayoneting a Zulu warrior who had grabbed him by the leg.” [see photograph of Minehan in South Africa with B Company, 2/24th Regiment]

Minehan survived the South Africa campaign and was later posted back to India where, in 1884, he contracted cholera. He was sent back to England and discharged as medically unfit in September 1884.

He died on May 26th, 1891 and is buried in a churchyard at Castletownsend, Co Cork. According to the auctioneers: “The grave marker, a cross of wrought iron, was inscribed ‘Michael Minihan (sic). Late of the 24th Regiment and one of the gallant defenders of Rorke’s Drift’”. It seems likely, however, that the inscription on the grave may well have been correct and the spelling of his surname may indeed have been ‘Minihan’ but that an error in the spelling occurred when he enlisted in the army.

This is not the first time that memorabilia of the Zulu war with an Irish interest has turned up at auction. In 2012, at Sotheby’s in London, an album of watercolours and sketches of the Anglo-Zulu war by the Co Waterford soldier William Whitelocke Lloyd sold for £49,250. Lloyd was not an official war artist but had packed a sketchbook and watercolour box in his kit bag. During the invasion of Zululand he painted the sites of famous battles including Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana and Ulundi. Some of his sketches were used to illustrate reports of the war in the Illustrated London News. Lloyd also survived and returned to Ireland where he died, at the age of 41 in 1897, after falling from a tree he was pruning.

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