Cork's Army museum looks ahead to centenaries

Every year, hundreds of people go through the Military Museum at Collins Barracks to make history come alive. Ann Murphy visits the museum and sees some of Cork's most historic artefacts.
Cork's Army museum looks ahead to centenaries
The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A revolver carried by Michael Collins. Picture Dan Linehan

WITH the centenaries of major events like the burning of Cork, and the deaths of Michael Collins, Terence MacSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain, looming, the Military Museum at Collins Barracks is likely to be one of the major attractions in the city for history buffs.

The staff at the museum are looking ahead to 2020, 2021 and 2022 when several high profile events that occurred in Cork during the War of Independence and the Civil War will be commemorated. One room of the museum will be dedicated entirely to the era, which was one of the most difficult periods of Irish history.

The room is currently home to an exhibition of artefacts from the 1917 and 1918 period, and its contents have been laboriously put together by UCC students with the help of staff at the museum.

Among the displays is a chart on the wall, outlining the international events which were occurring as Cork played a central role in Ireland’s fight for independence. They included Armistice Day in France in November 1918 and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A key from the old Cork City Gaol. Picture Dan Linehan
The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A key from the old Cork City Gaol. Picture Dan Linehan

The exhibition is called “An Awakening Spirit” and includes references to local well-known members of Cumann na mBan, including Mary MacSwiney, who was Terence’s sister.

The paraphernalia in the museum also features biographies of Terence MacSwiney, Tomás MacCurtain and Thomas Kent.

The remains of Thomas Kent were exhumed from the grounds of the nearby prison in 2016 and were re-interred in his native Castlelyons during a State funeral.

There is also information on the first female members of the army being sent to Collins Barracks in 1981.

One of the museum staff, Sergeant Denis McGarry, said that humidity in the museum has to be tightly controlled to ensure that none of the artefacts get damaged by moisture — especially documents, diaries and letters.

The museum is viewed as a treasure trove for families who are looking into their past.

Sgt McGarry said: “We get a lot of overseas visitors, some of whom had relatives in the British army. They would be looking for genealogical stuff. We would not have that here in Collins Barracks but we direct them to the military archives in Dublin.”

Individuals visiting the museum are not allowed around other areas of the site.

Quartermaster Mick Coughlan explained: “This is an active barracks so it has to be controlled. People are left in and out of the gate and cannot walk around the barracks.”

The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A German spy radio. Picture Dan Linehan
The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A German spy radio. Picture Dan Linehan

During the summer, the museum is busy with visitors to Cork but once the schools return in September, students are also regulars, as teachers bring them to hear all about Cork’s military history.

And the history is rich.

It incorporates Ireland’s colonial past from when Britain ruled the country, the evolution of Ireland from a colony to a Republic, the visit of John F Kennedy to Cork and participation in peacekeeping in the Congo.

For Ireland’s future soldiers, it gives them a chance to hear how to join the Defence Forces, and it also helps instil a love of the country’s heritage in the history lovers among the students.

Given that the barracks is now named in honour of General Michael Collins, there is one room in the museum dedicated to him.

In there are various artefacts connected to him — including a diary showing entries in the days before he was killed at Béal na Bláth on August 22, 1922. The small book was found on him after his death.

There are letters that he wrote to Kitty Kiernan in the months before his death, including one written on January 31, 1922.

In that letter, he tells her: “I am writing this while all my government are waiting for me.”

He added: “Was at the Requiem Mass for the Holy Father today. Said a full rosary for you alone.”

He signed the letter: “Fondest love, Micheal.”

That letter was in response to a letter from Kitty, dated January 27, in which she wrote: “It is a mistake to love anyone too much. But it cannot be undone.”

The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. Emergency Medals. Picture Dan Linehan
The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. Emergency Medals. Picture Dan Linehan

This room is of particular interest to student groups as many of them are studying the era in projects. And given his worldwide notoriety, the room is also popular with all visitors.

Among the other items in it is the first cross erected at Béal na Bláth, where he was shot.

A rifle held by Roger Casement on board the Aud gun running vessel is also among the artillery on display, along with a revolver used by Collins.

The barracks itself was built between 1801 and 1806 when Ireland was controlled by Britain. When built, it was used as a location where British troops were trained to fight against France. Built on 37 acres, the development incorporated accommodation for more than 2,000 soldiers of all ranks, as well as more than 200 horses.

After France’s defeat at Waterloo, the barracks on Rathmore Road was used for troops who were en route to different parts of the British Empire, to protect the empire. And when World War I broke out in 1914, troops left the barracks to fight in what was also known as the Great War.

However, when World War II broke out in 1939, British troops were no longer in the barracks, as it had been handed over to Ireland after the War of Independence.

There are references in the tour of the museum to major military figures in the British army who served at the Barracks, including Lord Cardigan in the 1830s and Colonel Pitt Rivers in the 1840s.

They served at the barracks when it was called Cork Barracks – having first been known as the New Barracks when it opened in 1806.

The site became Victoria Barracks after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and Michael Collins Barracks in the early years after the killing of Michael Collins. The Michael was later dropped and it became Collins Barracks.

The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A letter from Michael Collins to Kitty Kiernan. Picture Dan Linehan
The Military Museum at Collins Barracks, Cork. A letter from Michael Collins to Kitty Kiernan. Picture Dan Linehan

It was changed from Michael Collins to Collins to ease the emotions of army members serving there who had worked alongside the slain general.

The barracks was one of the key locations for British troops in Ireland and the Union Jack was lowered for the last time there on May 18, 1922.

Another landmark year for the barracks was 1958 when the first group travelled to Lebanon to serve as observers with the United Nations — less than four decades after Ireland gained its independence.

Sgt McGarry explained that Irish troops travelled there because of concern about “communist agitation” there.

Two years later, one of the most memorable engagements ever undertaken by the Irish Army took place — the deployment of troops to the Congo with the United Nations.

During that deployment, the siege of Jadotville took place, in which 150 Irish soldiers defeated an army of 3,000. It was the inspiration for the film called The Siege of Jadotville, starring Jamie Dornan.

For the soldiers, even leaving Ireland was a big event. Quartermaster Coughlan elaborated that the soldiers had never been on a plane before embarking on the mission and had never been outside Ireland.

Sgt McGarry added that there was a sense of adventure in the air but the reality of war hit them during the deployment.The foyer of the museum displays a photo of John F Kennedy leaving the barracks during his triumphant Irish visit in 1963, not long before he was shot in Dallas. It was one of the most memorable days of the barracks history because Kennedy’s strong Irish roots made him hugely popular in Ireland.

Both Sgt McGarry and Quartermaster Coughlan are looking forward to other memorable days at the barracks in the coming years, as they prepare to meet the public’s demand for information and exhibitions on the period of Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War.

  • The Military Museum is open on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10am-1pm, and on Fridays from 10am-1pm and 2pm-3.30pm. It is closed on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays.

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