A century on – Tom Burke on the disbandment of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers

An Irishman’s Diary

On January 23rd, 1922, the commanding officer of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Lieut-Col KC Weldon, placed a notice in The Irish Times warning all local businesses that were owed money by the regiment to claim their dues immediately, stating that: “All outstanding claims against the Depot, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Naas, must be presented on or before January 27th 1922, after which date no liabilities can be accepted.”

A little less than two weeks later, the Dublin Fusiliers left their depot in Naas for the last time and went to a military camp in Hampshire on February 8th, 1922. A battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment took their place in Naas. In a petty act of defiance on the day the Leicesters left Naas on Tuesday, May 16th, 1922, they cut down the flagstaff. Because of this act, the barracks, later known as Devoy Barracks, were taken over without ceremony by about 30 IRA men, principally drawn from Celbridge under the command of Commandant Moylan. The same act of cutting down the flagstaff was performed at the handover of British to Irish troops in Victoria/Collins Barracks in Cork on May 18th, 1922. Referring to the flagstaff on which the Union Jack was flown, a disgruntled British officer was reported as saying: "That flag was flown for many a true soldier and it is unbecoming to fly a rebel flag."

On Monday, June 12th, 1922, at a ceremony held in St George's Hall at Windsor Castle attended by King George V, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were disbanded along with four other regiments recruited in southern Ireland, the Royal Irish Regiment (18th Foot), The Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Leinster Regiment and the Connaught Rangers. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, whose depot was in Armagh, although included in the original list for disbandment, were retained owing to political lobbying from Sir James Craig, who wrote to Winston Churchill pleading not to disband the regiment, reminding Churchill that six counties of Ulster were still part of the United Kingdom. The loss of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was, according to Craig, considered to be a "slur upon the people who will consider that they are being classed with the South and West who are only too delighted to get rid of their connection with Great Britain".

In a letter to the Dublin Fusiliers, King George thanked each man who had served in the regiment for their “good service to this Country and the Empire”.

Their colours were handed to the king for safekeeping at Windsor and are there to this day. Addressing the gathering at Windsor, the king stated that the regiments were parting with their colours, “for reasons beyond your control and resistance”.

The reasons beyond the regiment’s control lay in Article 8 of the treaty between Britain and Ireland signed in London on December 6th, 1921, which stated that the Irish Free State could only establish and maintain a “military defence force” in proportion to its population vis-à-vis Great Britain. This statement marked the beginning of the end of the Irish infantry regiments of the British army recruited in southern Ireland.

During the Treaty negotiations, the British had assumed that their Irish regiments would be retained and recruited in Ireland. Moreover, they hoped that the new Irish administration would pay for them. This proposal was rejected by the Irish side. Erskine Childers believed that, if implemented, the effect of the British proposals "would be to retain Ireland in complete strategical, and consequently in complete political, subjection to Britain". He believed the Irish "should stand out against their (ie British) right to have any British forces on Irish soil . . . England should not be allowed recruiting stations on Irish soil". The Irish should have the "full right of course to raise our own army". The formation of an Irish military defence force would reinforce a sense of Irish independence.

The refusal by the Irish to allow British recruitment in Ireland, coupled with the agreed creation of an Irish defence force, along with financial savings to the British exchequer brought about in the 1920s by a Committee on National Expenditure chaired by Sir Eric Geddes, resulted in the disbandment of the Irish regiments.

The origins of these Irish regiments date back to the mid-17th century. Their history and service to the British crown runs parallel with the creation and policing of the British Empire, mainly in India. During the first World War, these regiments suffered a loss of thousands of Irishmen on the Western Front, Gallipoli, Serbia, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine. For example, some 14,187 men served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, of which 4,858 of them lost their lives during that dreadful war. In the immediate years after the first World War, the men came home to a changed and challenging Ireland for British ex-service personnel and their families. Some, like ex-Dublin Fusilier, Emmet Dalton, joined the ranks of the Irish Defence Forces.

To mark the centenary of the disbandment of these Irish regiments, a ceremony will take place in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday June 12th.

To explore what happened to these ex-service personnel and their families who, on return to Ireland after the first World War, were faced with challenges specifically related to them, on topics such as employment, health, housing, pensions, commemoration, and reintegration into Irish society, a seminar will be presented in the National Library of Ireland on Saturday, September 17th, 2022.