History | Culture | Ancestry
A little known fact about the British Army is that at particular points during the 18th century there were many more Irishmen serving under the colors than Englishmen. Like the highlands of Scotland, Ireland became an important source of manpower for the British Army during a period of rapid imperial expansion. Events in the 20th century linked to Irish nationalism and Irish independence have led many to overlook the large contributions Irishmen played in forming the British Empire. It could be argued that like their Scottish cousins, Ireland became both the colonised and the coloniser.
This historical fact is uncomfortable reading for those who are eager to portray simplistic interpretations of history, particularly for contemporary political motives. Like any place in which the British Empire was firmly established there were those who remained staunchly opposed to outside interference, and those who accepted political realities and worked within the established system. Motivations for this cooperation varied and some assisted the empire for principled or political reasons, while others cooperated with the established order simply as a means of survival.
I have my own connection to Ireland’s complicated past, namely through my 4x Great Grandfather John Lunney, an Irish Protestant who helped to secure British colonial rule in Ireland and India as a soldier in the British Army.
John Lunney was born in the village of Belturbet, County Cavan in 1797. On the 14th of March 1813, at the age of 16, John Lunney enlisted with the 26th Regiment of Foot (Cameronians) in his home town of Belturbet. To provide some context, Europe at this time had been more or less at war since 1789 and Napoleon had subsequently gone on to conquer most of Europe. 1813 was very much the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars as just three months prior to John Lunney’s enlistment the French had retreated from Russia in disarray following a disastrous invasion attempt.
The 26th or Cameronian Regiment was a Scottish regiment, with strong traditional associations with Presbyterianism. In 1813 the Cameronians consisted of two battalions, the 1st battalion was on garrison duty in British occupied Gibraltar, while the 2nd battalion was quartered in Scotland to seek new recruits. Lunney, a member of the 2nd battalion*, appears to have first joined the battalion when it was at Dumfries at the beginning of 1813. On the 3rd of September 1813, the 2nd battalion proceeded to Kilmarnock, where it stayed for three weeks before marching on to Dumbarton. In March 1814 they then moved from Dumbarton to Glasgow where the 2nd battalion was disbanded on the 24th of October. This downsizing of the regiment was part of military reductions in consequence of the surrender of Napoleon and his exile to Elba.
Meanwhile in Gibraltar, the 1st battalion had suffered a steady decrease in manpower due to deaths and illness as a result of disease, 77 died and 440 were treated for fever between 1813 and 1814. In early 1815 the remnants of the now disbanded 2nd battalion began leaving Dumbarton to join the 1st battalion in Gibraltar. In December 1815, John Lunney, who was no longer “under age” and now a fully enlisted private, arrived in Gibraltar with the remaining 150 men of the late 2nd battalion. They soon took up barracks in the south of the rock in order to avoid contact with the townsfolk and the potential spread of disease. In 1816 the regiment moved into the town itself as the fears of infectious disease decreased.
Garrison duty on Gibraltar was certainly not the worst posting for a regiment of foot at this time. Although in saying this, recreational pursuits were limited and the men were often trapped on the rock when the border with Spain was periodically shut due to disease. It was recorded that supplies of food from Spain were often hard to come by on account of the poor soil and poor agricultural techniques. Food supply was varied, the meat was said to have been of “indifferent quality” although it was noted that the men had an abundance of oranges, melons, figs and grapes. The selling of spirits to soldiers was illegal, but wine was available, which according to the regimental history made drunkenness “generally less fatal.” The regimental history, written in 1867, also dutifully reports that the Cameronians were “comparatively free” of the vice of drunkenness.
In January 1821, Lunney was promoted and became one of the Cameronian’s 22 regimental drummers, with the rest of the regiment consisting of 35 sergeants and 650 rank and file. A drummer in a regiment of this era played an important role in the communication of orders, whether in peace time or on the battlefield. For example, a drummer could help to maneuver the regiment on the battlefield by playing various orders referring to line of battle, pivot of the line, speed of the advance etc. Drummers also accompanied the routine peace time duties of the regiment and their music would have been a normal accompaniment to every day life for a soldier.
After 7 years in Gibraltar, the order arrived that the 26th Regiment would be transferred to Ireland. On the 28th of September, 1821 the regiment left Gibraltar on board the ship ‘Success’, travelling around the Cape of St. Vincent before arriving at the Cove of Cork on the 16th of October, 1822. Following a tedious period of quarantine, the regiment moved on to Fermoy Barracks where they remained until 1823 when they moved to Cork Barracks.
In 1823, Ireland was still politically unstable and the potential for wide spread unrest was still very high. It had only been 25 years since the last major uprising and significant religious and political tensions still existed. A quick look through contemporary newspapers of the time show that rioting, murders and sectarian violence were common place across Ireland and this localised discontent could easily have spiraled out of control to become a major armed insurrection against the government.
A little known rebellion taking place in South West Ireland at this time was by an agrarian movement known as the ‘Rockites’. This Catholic insurrection hoped to challenge the Anglo-Irish domination of Ireland, particularly in regards to the accumulation of land and power with a small Protestant elite. Small land owners had become increasingly destitute due to apathetic landlords and as a result of the crippling inflation that emerged after the Napoleonic Wars. In 1822, wealthy Anglo-Irish landowners sent 7 million pounds of grain and livestock to England, all the while around 125,000 Irish were on the brink of mass starvation. Over 300 attacks took place to seize this material accumulated by wealthy land owners so that it could be distributed to the starving population and anything that could not be carried away was destroyed to prevent it from being sent to England.
The 26th Regiment and 71st Highland Regiment were part of a flood of Protestant soldiers who entered the area to prevent the Rockite uprising spreading to other parts of Ireland. John Lunney’s duties at this time included being part of the nightly patrols which traversed the roads around Fermoy. Together with the 71st and local police, the Cameronians also monitored local villages for Rockite activity. The insurrection was not as large as the 1798 uprising and did not result in any major pitched battles, but it still resulted in hundreds of deaths and perhaps thousands of injuries. The historian James Donnelly Jnr estimates that over 400 massacres took place, with recorded incidences of murder, mutilation, rape and arson. The rebellion became serious enough that at one point in early 1822, Cork was cut off for two days by up to 5,000 rebels before soldiers fought their way through to the city. The Government responded strongly with curfews, executions and deportations, with as many as 330 people per year being transported to Australia as convicts. Donnelly argues that the most telling symptoms of the breakdown of Irish society at this time was the 50,000 applications for a scheme of assisted emigration to Canada.
Interestingly, Thomas Carter’s history of the 26th Regiment, written in 1867, does not record any specific contact with the Rockites, but does explain that in undertaking patrols the soldiers were operating legally within the powers allocated to them under the Insurrection Act. It was also noted that while there were rare occasions in which soldiers were “ill used” against the people, there were no such examples with the Cameronians, who were said to have been of good discipline. While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the account, I am certainly suspicious as to why an account written only 45 years after the event does not believe a rebellion of this scale warranted a larger mention in the record. Lunney and the 26th Regiment would have undoubtedly been central to the events taking place, particularly as in 1822 they were based just outside of Cork at the town of Fermoy only a few months after 5,000 rebels were supposedly on the outskirts of Cork itself. To the west of Cork at Deshure, British forces engaged over 2,000 rebels with minor losses on both sides. I consider these curious omissions from Carter’s historical account which instead tries to create a narrative of an army acting legally and in benign and amicable partnership with the local population. The near break down of society in Southern Ireland at this time is only alluded to as a “period of violent domestic agitation” in which the regiment was “firm, but conciliatory” in its approach to restoring order. In part to these military actions, the Rockite Rebellion would come to an end in 1824.
In January 1824, the 26th Regiment was spread across a large part of Southern Ireland from Kinsale to Bere Island. The regiment was so dispersed that when it was time for the regiment’s half-yearly inspection, less than 100 men were present at headquarters in Kinsale. It is difficult to know which one of these particular postings John Lunney was a member of given the fragmentation of the regiment’s manpower amongst so many areas. It was noted that in these “wild and unfrequented” parts of Ireland, the people lived mostly tranquil lives, and the regiment was rarely called upon for duties. These postings were considered very favourable by the soldiers, although there was concern from the officers that the small, dispersed groups were detrimental to discipline as it led to idleness and encouraged “too free an intercourse with the people.”
On the return of the regiment to Ireland from Gibraltar, discipline had started to become a problem. In Gibraltar, the population did not speak English and the interactions between the army and civilians were limited. There was also little to do, and the men were cramped on a small stretch of land surrounded by ocean. In Ireland however the population and soldiers spoke the same language, freely mixed and this led to a level of freedom that was absent from being based at an isolated military posting like Gibraltar. A breakdown of discipline and an increase in military infractions started to become a problem for the regimental authorities, exacerbated by the “wretched moral condition of the lower orders in the towns, whose ignorance and profligacy rendered their society ruinous to all who kept it.” Drunkenness was of course blamed on the ‘common intemperance’ of the Irish peasants, rather than the soldiers themselves, who it was said were brought back to the path of duty without “sever coercion” by the “excellent moral education which distinguishes their country”.
Soldiers like John Lunney were the general exception to the rule that the Cameronian’s avoided having to recruit men from Ireland whenever possible. I recently contacted a historical society in Beltubet, who found other Lunneys on their records and suggested that they were probably an Ulster-Scots family that had settled there sometime after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Therefore as Lunney probably had Ulster-Scots heritage and was a Protestant, he wouldn’t have been thought of as very different from a Presbyterian from Ayrshire or Lanarkshire. This idea of Irish Protestants as being ‘not quite Irish’ was an idea re-enforced by politicians like Daniel O’Connell who said in 1843 that “being born in a farm does not make a man a horse” when referring to the Duke of Wellington, a Dublin-born Anglo-Irish lord. When the regiment was expanded to 10 companies in March 1825, recruiting parties were immediately sent to Scotland, rather than drawing upon the existing manpower of their current location in Ireland. The rationale behind this was to maintain the Scottish character of the regiment despite the fact that the regiment had not been in Scotland for 11 years.
On the 1st of August 1825, the 26th received the order that they were to be transferred to the East of Ireland. Leaving from Limerick, they set out for their new headquarters at Naas, just west of Dublin. From Naas, the 26th was divided up into many smaller detachments across a wide area. In early 1826, rioting in Lancashire had forced the 73rd and 58th regiments to be sent to England from Dublin. John Lunney and the 26th were therefore sent to Dublin in May 1826 to occupy the Royal Barracks on account of these departures. In January 1827, the 26th remained in Dublin, but were moved from the Royal Barracks to nearby Richmond Barracks.
Again, desertion became a serious problem for the regiment when it moved into Dublin. At Naas 13 men had deserted, while in Dublin this rose to 21 between May and November 1826. The regimental history attributes the desertions to demoralisation caused by exposure to “places depressed by poverty.”
In July 1827 the regiment moved to Waterford before receiving orders at the end of September that they would be removed to England in preparation for colonial service in India. After being gradually relieved of their garrison duties, the regiment assembled in Cork where it was decided that 12 women for each 100 men would be able to accompany their husbands to India. This meant that all but 14 of the wives of soldiers were allowed to travel with the regiment. John Lunney was by this time married and although the place and time of the marriage is unknown, it is known that in 1827 he had a daughter named Catherine Lunney to his wife Mary, who’s maiden name is not recorded. Mary was one of the small number of women that were allowed to accompany their husbands on the voyage to India. Military life was a difficult path for a soldier’s wife during this period of time. The army provided next to nothing in the way of basic welfare for wives and families and in addition to the regular duties of raising the children, wives were expected to be able to provide services within the camps such as washing or cooking. If their husband died from disease or in battle, it was usually expected that the woman would remarry another soldier from his unit.
There was little comfort for those that were separated as a result of these overseas postings. Colonial service could be allocated for an indefinite period of time and in the Cameronian’s case it would be 16 years before they returned to the British Isles. The 26th had the minor consolation that because their destination was to be far flung India, they were allowed to take a higher proportion of women than what would otherwise be allowed.
From Cork the regiment sailed to Gravesend in England, before encamping at Chatham Barracks in November 1827. During the stay at Chatham, older soldiers deemed unfit for duty in the difficult conditions of the Indian subcontinent were removed from the regiment. In 1828 the regiment was told that they would be leaving in the spring and that their destination would be Fort St George in Madras, modern day Chennai, on the South East coast of India. In May 1828, the 38 officers, 39 sergeants, 20 drummers, 714 rank and file together with their wives and families were boarded on to four ships, the Prince Regent, Rose, Asia and Marchioness of Ely.
After 15 years of service in Gibraltar, Scotland, Ireland and England, John Lunney would be leaving Europe and beginning a new chapter in his service by becoming a small part of Britain’s colonial rule in India. Together with his wife Mary, and his young daughter Catherine, he left England on board the ship ‘Asia’ on the 23rd of May 1828.
*I was able to figure this out using the following information. John Lunney’s regimental discharge record states that he was in Gibraltar for 7 years and 9 months. Knowing that the whole regiment left Gibraltar on the 28th of September 1821, I detracted 7 years and 9 months, which takes it back to the date of December 1814. December 1814 is the date listed in the regimental history of when the 150 men of the disbanded second battalion arrived with the rest of the regiment in Gibraltar.