Ireland’s hidden colours

An Irishman’s Diary about the old Irish regiments in the British army

Windsor Castle: the repository of flags of Irish regiments in the British army which have not been seen in public since 1922. Photograph: Reuters

'Hang up your brightest colours," advised George Bernard Shaw after the death of Michael Collins. Both men would surely have relished this historic day when Ireland's colours hang from every flagpole in royal Windsor. But, deep within the queen's official residence, Windsor Castle, lie other Irish flags which haven't seen the light of day since 1922.

Two years ago, the Court Circular – the official record of engagements undertaken by members of Britain's royal family – for June 8th, 2012 revealed that "The Duke of York this evening attended a Reception at Windsor Castle to mark the Ninetieth Anniversary of the disbandment of the six Southern Irish Regiments of the British Army". The low-key ceremony recalled an event largely forgotten in Ireland. Until now.

Tomorrow's schedule for the continuing Irish State Visit to Britain begins in the morning, when President Higgins and his wife will be escorted by the Duke of York (Prince Andrew) to the Grand Stairs in Windsor Castle to view the colours – regimental flags – of the disbanded Irish regiments. So, how did these precious mementos end up there?

The British army withdrew its troops from the newly-established Irish Free State in 1922 and handed over the various barracks to the new national army headed by chief-of-staff Michael Collins.


A subsequent reorganisation of the British army, ordered by defence chiefs in London, resulted in the disbandment of the six Southern Irish regiments: the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusilers and the South Irish Horse (a cavalry regiment).

King George V hosted a formal ceremony at Windsor Castle on Monday, June 12th, 1922 to mark the disbandment. All six regiments sent detachments to Windsor for the occasion, which prompted an outpouring of nostalgia and affection. The list of names of the soldiers who marched through the town – along the same streets through which President Higgins and Queen Elizabeth will travel by carriage this morning – reads like a roll-call of Ireland: Bergin, Boyd, Burke-Gaffney, Carroll-Leahy, Cullen, Doyle, Dunne, Foley, Kehoe, Malone, Monaghan, O'Brien, Prendergast, Wallace. As they assembled in the castle quadrangle, the band played Auld Lang Syne .

The king, wearing the service uniform of a field-marshall, and Queen Mary, dressed in white, entered St George’s Hall in the castle at 11.30. Among the guests were the Duke of Connaught, the Earl of Athlone; and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. The regimental flags were presented to the king by officers on bended knee.

As reported in the Times , George V's emotional speech to his Irish soldiers ended with this promise: "I fully realise with what grief you relinquish these dearly-prized emblems; and I pledge my word that within these ancient and historic walls your colours will be treasured, honoured, and protected as hallowed memorials of the glorious deeds of brave and loyal regiments."

The king was true to his word and the colours have been kept safely in Windsor Castle ever since.

The British army still has two Irish regiments: a newly constituted Royal Irish Regiment – formed in 1992 by amalgamating various units – which is headquartered in Northern Ireland and whose colonel-in-chief is the Duke of York; and the Irish Guards, founded in 1900, headquartered in England and known affectionately as “the Micks”, whose colonel-in-chief is listed as “HM The Queen” and whose honorary colonels include the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), who wore the uniform on his wedding day.

Both regiments have an Irish wolfhound as mascot: the Royal Irish Regiment's current incumbent is Brian Boru IX who wears, on parade, a green coat trimmed with silver lace and a Tara brooch; the Irish Guards' dog is called Domhnall, whose parade uniform is a splendid scarlet tunic, and who had shamrock pinned to his collar this St Patrick's Day by none other than the Duchess of Cambridge (formerly Kate Middleton).

Far from leading a typical dog’s life, Domhnall has the life of Riley: he is entitled to the services of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps as well as quartering and food at public expense.

The English are mad. About dogs as well as flags.