BEYOND the mouth of Cork Harbour lie dotted a number of historical outposts formerly operated by the British Armed Forces, and utilised in their time to defend the city’s port.
Spike Island, Fort Davis in Whitegate, and Templebreedy Battery, in Crosshaven, all served as strategic points for the forces’ activities in Cork, prior to the invocation of sympathies for the republican movement and subsequent support for the creation of the modern Irish state.
After being handed over to the Irish Defense Forces, these installations were retired from active duty and eventually obtained their current status as landmarks in the county.
Another such outpost was the former Fort Camden, a coastal defence in the village of Crosshaven, renamed Fort Meagher after being handed to the Irish authorities in 1938. Lying disused and overgrown after being handed to Cork County Council in 1989, it wasn’t until 2010 that local volunteers undertook a clean-up and restoration of the building with a view to developing a heritage and tourism amenity. For the past few years it has opened seasonally, operating under the name Camden Fort Meagher.
This Sunday, November 4, the Fort hosts the opening of a memorial room for the Irish soldiers that served in 18 regiments of the British Armed Forces, including during World War I. Each regiment’s flag hangs in the room, alongside a memorial book for the families of those that served, and a newly-restored model of the landmark battlefronts of WWI.
Volunteer committee chairman Noel Condon speaks about the effort that’s gone into the location’s new centrepiece.
“The most important thing is that it’s telling the story of the regiments that fought in World War I. It’s the only room of this kind in the Republic of Ireland.
“In 2013, the Camden Fort Meagher Committee had the idea that the centenary of the war was coming up, and we had nothing in the fort. We engaged with a historian, Gerry Conroy, who developed the room, right up to the present day. In the room is all of the stories of the regiments, developed and researched by Gerry. Then a year-and-a-half ago, under the guidance of a master modeller called Brendan Buckley, we developed the World War I model.”
The memorial room, as well as the adjacent Garden of Remembrance, seek to present in a historical context the fort’s military history, and maintain a record of the lives of those who enlisted with the British army.
One part of bringing the circumstances home for visitors is the creation of a restored model of key battlefronts and locations of WWI.
“What happened was, we got a model from a man by the name of Eugene Pallor. When we got it, we restored it, and over the last year-and-a-half, we developed the model (into something new).
“On it are Paschendale, The Somme, and the fronts — the German trenches and the Allied trenches. The model is split in half, so at the opposite end, then, is the hospital side of it, how soldiers were treated, triage, and all of that.
“Lots of soldiers would have been based in Camden that would have gone to the front, like Stanley Holloway, the actor. It’s one of the best models of this kind that you’ll find anywhere.”
In addition to historical preservation and memorialising the Irish of WWI, the room also functions as a home for research on those memorialised. With the assistance of leading researchers in the area and local historians, families of those who fought in WWI can get a deeper insight to the lives and times of their relatives, drawing from official records and reports from the time. The research is then added to the room’s Book of Remembrance, with a certificate issued to the family.
“We have two researchers, one by the name of Tom Burnell from Tipperary. He’s an author, and the only man that has research and documentation on everyone that fought and died in WWI from all 32 counties. He has written books on it. That’s incredible.
“He comes into the fort, and if you have a relative that died in WWI, he’ll research that as best he can.
“And through the work of Gerry Conroy, we have over 300 families from all over Cork that are attached to the room.”
Of course, at the moment, the milestones that marked the formation of the Irish state are being remembered throughout this decade, as a “decade of centenaries” provides cause for thought on the faultlines that emerged in Irish society and the state that has been built along them.
Condon is careful to acknowledge the sensitivities that are raised around marking the history of British military service in Ireland, but maintains the historical value of the initiative, pointing to the families of those who enlisted when the topic is brought up.
“It’s a sensitive subject in Ireland. We feel we can tell the story of WWI in Camden because soldiers served from Camden in WWI. We’re not trying to knock republicanism. If you had someone who fought and died in WWI, it was a story that you couldn’t really tell, but with the centenary in 2013, we felt it was a story to tell, but we’re not trying to knock it down people’s throats.”
A launch event for the Memorial Room is set for this Sunday, November 4, the culmination of years of volunteer-driven work to restore, develop and improve the historic fort.
A high-powered delegation of international dignitaries will be in attendance, which, for Noel Condon, validates the effort and consideration that has accompanied the initiative.
“It’s a high-powered delegation we have coming to Crosshaven. We have the British ambassador, the French ambassador, the German ambassador all attending, alongside representatives of the Belgian consulate and the Indian embassy. The Flag Officer of the Navy is attending, and of course, the Tánaiste will be opening the event.”
For more information about the Fort, which is now closed for the winter season, see camdenfortmeagher.ie.