Mullingar-based regiment leaves barracks after 200 years

 

AMID THE cheers, flags and banners, Mullingar’s residents could barely conceal their sadness yesterday as the gates of Columb Barracks were shut for the last time.

Almost 200 years of military tradition ended at precisely 11.15am, when Lieut Emmett Gallagher and Sgt Gerry Graham lowered the Tricolour as families, retired soldiers and local representatives looked on.

Among the spectators was Labour TD Willie Penrose, who resigned his Cabinet post last November in protest at the closure.

“It’s the end of an era, centuries of tradition being brought to an end like this,” he said. “It was part of the DNA of the town. There are fifth-generation families here who have served in the military. In that context they have become deeply embedded in terms of community activities here in the town.

“They were an intricate part of the overall community and that’s why it’s a sad day – it’s tearing at the heart of the community,” he added.

“A tremendous military tradition is being brought to an abrupt end based upon a decision which I still think is incorrect.”

Mr Penrose vowed to continue in his efforts to attract a new occupant to the barracks and to lobby the Government in relation to the matter.

Home to nearly 200 troops and Ireland’s only artillery barracks, Columb Barracks in Co Westmeath was earmarked for closure along with facilities in Clonmel, Cavan and Castlebar less than six months ago.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Mullingar yesterday to watch the 4th Field Artillery Regiment parade through the town before departing to their new base at Custume Barracks in Athlone.

Mullingar resident Annie Heraty said: “We are heartbroken.” Her partner, Cpl Ollie McNamee, has served in Columb Barracks for the past 11 years. She said commutes were going to cause added expense to the family and her partner would have less time at home with his two boys.

Outside the front gates, Ms Heraty’s five-year-old son, Ben, proudly displayed a placard wishing good luck to his father and the rest of the soldiers.

Looking on as the gates were locked, a tearful Lily Gibney recalled happier times.

“We came here for everything: births, deaths and marriages,” she said. The mother of 12 has a 60-year connection with the barracks where her husband, sons and grandson have all served: “It’s a disgrace,” she said.

On departing Columb Barracks, Lieut Col Ray Yorke delivered the 10-million-year lease to town council chairman Cllr Peter Burke. “The lease was taken out between the war department and Lord Greville . . . and we hope that this lease will be hung in the library. Mullingar is, was and always will be the home of the 4th Field Artillery Regiment,” said Lieut Col Yorke.

BARRACKS CLOSURES: TO DATE

The closure of the barracks in Mullingar yesterday marks the fourth such decommissioning in the past fortnight, completing a Government costcutting plan.

The Department of Defence estimates the annual saving of the four closures at €5 million.

The Defence Forces believes that it will benefit, because the manpower needed for logistical and administrative purposes to run a barracks has been freed up for operational duties.

“We’re at our lowest manpower levels now since 1969, so anything that frees personnel up is welcome,” said one source.

The four-stage barrack closure programme began on March 17th when O’Neill Army Barracks closed in Co Cavan, with the transfer of 136 personnel to Athlone.

The following day the Reserve Defence Forces facility in Castlebar, Co Mayo, closed with the transfer of 15 permanent staff who ran the facility.

On Monday, Kickham Barracks in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, closed and just over 200 people were transferred to Sarsfield Barracks in Limerick and Curragh Camp in Co Kildare. That was followed by yesterday’s closure in Mullingar.