Army declared war on sexually transmitted diseases in 1920s

Military Archives reveals battle to combat VD outbreak among soldiers after Civil War

"In my opinion, seven girls out of every 10 in Bray are of ill repute," according to a Lieut A Murphy of the Irish Army's Provost Marshall Staff during a routine inspection of the seaside town in late 1923.

His words would prove to be a telling preamble to one of the most salacious scandals in the force’s history.

Fresh from the ravages of the Civil War, Ireland’s nascent military was embroiled in a very different kind of battle in the mid-1920s – against venereal disease.

Records from the period – released to the public for the first time this year by the Military Archives – show that gonorrhoea and syphilis among troops reached crisis levels by 1924, with more than 300 of the Army’s 15,000 soldiers infected with one or the other.


Official documents and communications from the Army's medical services show that around half of all reported cases were in the Dublin area with barracks such as Collins, Portobello, Griffith and Islandbridge particularly ravaged.

Such was the "state" of the 81st Battalion in the capital, it was suggested to the Army's adjutant general that it be transferred "on account of their misconduct", but troops in other areas of the country were not untouched, with units in Cork, Wexford, Limerick, Galway and others reporting infections around the same time.

‘Menace to the public’

Soldiers with venereal disease had one-quarter of their pay docked while they received treatment.

While the minister for defence’s office had also suggested discharging those infected, this was rejected by the Army as they would then become “a menace to the public”.

Instead, troops stationed in particularly notorious locations had to be disinfected upon their return to the barracks following leave, and the Army hierarchy instituted an official programme of post-exposure prophylactic treatment for those with gonorrhoea and syphilis.

As it was still a devoutly Catholic country in 1924, Army chaplains took strong exception to the latter course of action, describing it in communiqués to the adjutant general as irreverent and immoral.

A memo outlining the head chaplain’s views on the subject, showed he was particularly scandalised by the idea of married men being forced to undergo disinfection, saying 75 per cent of soldiers are “god-fearing” boys while only about 10 per cent were “morally low . . . promiscuous sinners”.

Religious figures within the Army instead suggested that efforts to establish a renewed “moral drive” within the forces be pursued.

“Church parades” and “frequentation of the sacraments” among the troops were put forward as the most viable remedies.

Interference by chaplains became a point of contention for medical experts, with the Army’s director of medical services complaining in a 1924 letter to central command that “the chaplains were left the open field for a moral drive and the medical services were told to stand idly aside”.

He further recommended that doctors be “allowed to attend to the germs with as free a hand as the chaplains have in attending to the souls”.

The severity of the situation dictated that an interdepartmental committee of inquiry comprising representatives from the Army and the departments of justice and public health be formed.


Following a period of investigation, it produced a report in February 1926 and, while it did not direct the Army to discontinue the programme of prophylaxis (treatment to prevent disease), it concluded that the programme could not be officially endorsed “considering the present state of public opinion”.

Every interest group concerned with tackling the epidemic was, however, in agreement that prostitution played a central role in the widespread transmission of venereal disease, along with the “ignorance of country girls coming to Dublin”.

To combat the latter threat, chaplains proposed a system “whereby country girls who come to Dublin be sought out and urged to join sodalities [church groups]” rather than be “left to their own devices”.

Amid this era of heightened paranoia, Army officers were sent out on regular beats to patrol the streets of Dublin and its surrounds to document instances of troops “cavorting with girls of ill repute”.

One such report from the aforementioned Lieut Murphy read: "On the railway station about 20 girls, in my opinion girls of ill repute, were there for the purpose of picking up soldiers as they came off the train.

“In my opinion, seven girls out of every 10 in Bray are of ill repute.”

Another from a Capt M Brophil, following a patrol in the city centre, noted that: “In most of the picture houses I found soldiers and girls in the back seats and in many cases their conduct was none too good.”

A serial report writer, in September 1923 Capt Brophil also said of Dún Laoghaire: "The conduct of troops in Dún Laoghaire has been the subject of several complaints from the acting chaplain there, and certainly from what I have seen myself their conduct with girls along the front and on the pier when it is dark does not by any means give a good impression to the visitors staying there."

The files contained in the Military Archives detail a further outbreak of venereal diseases in 1943, with yet more maps and a correspondence describing Kilkenny as being “famous” for the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.