Alfred Krupp, scion of the eponymous German armaments dynasty and inventor of the first cannon gun made of cast steel, is reputed to have remarked that cannon guns were not manufactured for future generations of children to play upon in town squares.
Successive generations of Irish children have, however, been among those who have defied his prediction by cavorting on the many cannon guns that were transported to Ireland after the Crimean War of 1854-1856.
More than 20 guns captured from the Russians during that war are on display in Irish towns and cities.
Seven are in the grounds of Army barracks, but the remainder are prominently positioned in public parks or in town centres. Galway, Limerick and Waterford each have two Crimean cannons, and others have ended up in Birr, Bunratty, Cobh, Dún Laoghaire, Ennis, Newry, Tralee and Trim.
Most of the guns were captured after the siege of Sevastapol (formerly Sebastopol) in September 1855. They were presented as war trophies to city corporations and town councils in Ireland, Britain, Canada and Australia. The High Sheriff of Galway, PS Comyn, told the local town commissioners that the iron carriages necessary to carry the guns on the last leg of their long journey from the Russian Empire’s main Black Sea port to Europe’s westernmost city would be made “at his own sole expense”, the Galway Mercury reported in June 1857.
“The Sebastopol Trophies”, as they became known in Galway, were taken from the rail terminal to the nearby Square in a procession led by the high sheriff, town commissioners and other local authorities at the beginning of August 1857.
“After the guns were received and placed in position upon the terrace fronting the Railway Hotel, the [army and navy] pensioners and police fired three volleys over the trophies”, reported the Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser.
The chairman of the Town Commissioners, the Rev Peter Daly, said that the cannons would remain in the Square “as perpetual memorials to English and Irish valour”. At a follow-up banquet in the Town Hall “after ample justice had been done to the solids and liquids and the fire of champagne corks had somewhat subsided”, Fr Daly said he “wished to draw no national distinctions” as he proposed toasts to Queen Victoria and her consort, to the army and navy, to the high sheriff and to “the Ladies”.
The Crimean veterans present were toasted by the high sheriff, who had brought the guns from Greenwich. He described the veterans as the “Heroes of Sebastopol” and he said that they “had been often exposed to the deadly fire of those guns they had that day inaugurated”.
More than one-third of the British forces in the Crimean War were Irishmen. The British expeditionary force included eight Irish regiments. An estimated 7,000 of the 30,000 Irishmen who went there were killed. A Sgt Goggins of the Connaught Rangers told a homecoming banquet in his native Tuam that “his regiment landed 800 strong and 85 men only returned alive”, the Tuam Herald recorded in November 1856.
Two Irish journalists, William Howard Russell, from Tallaght, and Edwin Lawrence Godkin, from Co Wicklow, were foremost in highlighting the deaths and carnage in their reporting from Crimea for the London Times and the London Daily News respectively. “At thirty-five minutes past eleven not a British soldier, except the dead and the dying, was left in front of the Muscovite guns”, wrote Russell in his report on the charge of the Light Brigade in the London Times in November 1854. It was this report that inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade.
The reporting of Russell and Godkin prompted the government to ask Florence Nightingale to go to Crimea as head of a new nursing service. She was soon joined there by 15 Irish Sisters of Mercy who worked as volunteer nurses. They were led by Mother Aloysius Doyle, from Carlow, who later founded the order’s convent in Gort, Co Galway.
“Neither pen nor tongue can describe the agony and anguish of this awful crisis”, wrote Mother Doyle. “Many died immediately after being brought in. Their moans would pierce your heart. They may well be called ‘The Martyrs of the Crimea’”.
Alfred Krupp, who was nicknamed “the cannon king”, died in 1887 having sold more than 3,000 guns to Russia.
Crimean cannons are still playthings for children in Ireland, including, perhaps, children who have been displaced from their homes in Ukraine and Crimea by modern Russian guns.