Duncannon Fort and the Waterford militia

April’s guest blog comes from a page regular, my cousin, James Doherty. Today he’s talking about a topic that was very much part of some recent blogs and presentations I gave on the Paddle Steamer service that ran between the city and Duncannon.  In this piece James gives us an insight into the history of Duncannon fort on the Wexford side of Waterford Harbour and the use of the facility by, amongst others, the Waterford Militia.

The concept of militia is certainly nothing new, at its core lies the citizen soldier a man ready to take up arms in defence of his country when called upon. The militia movement in Ireland remains relatively obscure and the idea that thousands of these citizen soldiers would drill and assemble each year may come as a surprise to many. 

Following the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 in Scotland, an act of parliament decreed the raising of a part time force of able bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60[1]. The proviso that this force was exclusively protestant ensured their loyalty to the crown. It would be the end of the 18th century before Catholics were allowed to join. In 1793 the British Army sent a large force to Holland to fight the French as the regular army was on the continent.  It created a dilemma however as there was no protection of the home front.  The solution was an expanded militia. Catholics were allowed join and numbers quickly increased[2]
The militia and cannon pose for the camera, Waterford Barracks
Between 1793 and 1815 the 33rd Light Infantry Regiment assembled in Waterford for a month’s training each year with the reservists being paid over this period. The concept was simple if there was a landing by a foreign force these men could be called upon to defend the country. Following the defeat of France in the Napoleonic wars this threat diminished and the militia was disbanded. 
By 1854 the drums of war were sounding again, however this time the foe wasn’t the French but the Russian Empire. The militia was reformed in November 1854 and by January they had 175 men elisted with this number doubling by the summer. When assembled the men were based in the Infantry Barracks in Waterford city (officers, seeking better quarters, stayed in the Adelphi Hotel). 
Army high command decreed that some militia units should receive training with Artillery and 1855 saw the Waterford Light Infantry Militia become artillery militia. Wasting no time the unit were sent to Duncannon fort to train with artillery pieces there. This visit downriver would become a regular occurrence for the city men of Waterford. As a state of war existed the Militia stayed called up and spent nearly six months at Duncannon
a 24 pound cannon typical of the type used by the militia
The presence of the militia men in the fort continued a long military tradition at Duncannon Fort. A fortification stood there since medieval times with large parts of the stone fort that stands today dating from 1588 when the modern fort was built to withstand the threat of the Spanish invasion. It took a 6 week siege for the fort to be captured during the Cromwellian wars and later in that same conflict the fort, having being retaken, withstood the attempts of Cromwell’s army to recapture it. 
In July of 1855 the militia men were asked to volunteer for the regular army with over 90 men agreeing to service in the Crimea. The remainder of the regiment would be dismissed for the rest of the year. The practice of summer training for the militia units continued between 1855 and 1860 with the Waterford Militia being sent throughout the British Isles. The benefits of using coastal forts for artillery training needs little explanation with the fort being a popular destination for training purposes with militia units from all over Ireland. However the local Waterford unit would not return until 1860. Over the next two decades the Waterford men would use the fort nearly twenty times. 
In June of 1871 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Earl Spencer, inspected the Irish Militia and announced in Duncannon Fort that he was most pleased in how the batteries were manned and the proficiency of the men firing at floating targets in the estuary at ranges up to 2000 yards[3]
It wasn’t all hard work for the militia of course, or at least some of them!. The officers of the regiment occasionally organised receptions at the fort for friends and guests. The Waterford papers of 1883 reporting that a special steamer was hired to convey members of Waterford society to the fort where dancing continued late into the night before the steamer returned to the city[4]
An engraving of the fort from the late 18th C

For the rank and file of the militia though life in the fort would have been more mundane. Duncannon had little accommodation with room for officers only. Men would have slept in tents on the fort glacis with some training accounts mentioning anything up to 600 men in attendance. Large metal pots were used to boil hunks of meat that was served with potatoes for dinner. Sanitary conditions were extremely basic.

A curious factor of how the militia was treated was related to their pay; in this respect the Waterford unit was very lucky. As the regimental office was back in Waterford when the summer training was over the men would return to the city and be given their back pay. Other militia units were not so fortunate and when their training was over they would be paid and expected to make their own way home, often with disastrous results. In June of 1863 the Tipperary Militia fresh from a summer at Duncannon were disbanded on the quayside in Waterford. The Waterford News described the ensuing chaos in colourful terms. A warm patronage of our public houses was displayed by the Tipp’s, The city was filled with men made boisterous by deep potations and by no means coveted by any respectable community[5]. A few years later “The Tipp’s” were at it again although this time they started trouble on their way to Duncannon. The normal chartered steamer wasn’t available so the Tipp’s had to wait for the public steamer. Many of the Tipp’s spent their time in pubs on the quayside and when some of them were arrested a serious riot ensued when their comrades tried to affect their release[6]
1883 would see a re-organisation of the Army with the Waterford Artillery Militia becoming the 6th Brigade , South Irish Division of the Royal Artillery[7] with further army reforms in 1908 seeing the Militia being designated as reserve units. 
The military function of the fort waned at the end of the 19th century and adverts ran in national newspapers in 1915 offering the grassy area in front of the fort for rent [8] and the buildings known as the Artillery Stores offered up for rent in 1916[9]. The fort was burnt during the Irish Civil War but restored for use during the Emergency. After the Emergency the only military function of the fort was to be used for summer camps by members of the Irish Reserve Forces. 
So the next time you visit Duncannon Fort try and imagine the smoke and noise of the 19th century with artillery batteries blazing away at targets floating in the middle of the estuary as the gun crews scrambled to man the massive guns under the watchful eyes of their commanding officers. 

Having spent a number of weekends at Duncannon fort when a member of Civil Defence, I can only say it was always a wonderful place to visit and explore.  Its not our first trip to Duncannon of course, as my good pal and fellow blogger Bob, recalled a Duncannon beach family holiday in the 60’s previously. And armed with this extra insight into its history and occupation, hopefully you will make your way down to visit this summer.  It opens in June and more details are here.

If you would like to contribute a piece to any of my guest blog Friday’s (last Friday of each month) please get in touch to russianside@gmail.com.  All I ask is that the subject matter be linked in some way to the maritime heritage of the area, and 1200 words approx.

I publish a blog about Waterford harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
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[1] The Records of the Waterford Militia by Major Otway Wheeler Cuffe 1885
[2] The Irish Militia 1793- 1802 , Ivan Nelson
[3] The Records of the Waterford Militia by Major Otway Wheeler Cuffe 1885
[4] Waterford News June 8th 1883
[5] Waterford News June 6th 1863
[6] The Manchester Guardian June 28th 1871.
[7] The Records of the Waterford Militia by Major Otway Wheeler Cuffe 1885
[8] Irish Examiner 8th of May 1915
[9] Irish Independent 13th of Sepetember 1916

One Reply to “Duncannon Fort and the Waterford militia”

  1. Can anyone tell me if there are any military records kept for Duncannon fort during the approx years 1660 – 1800?
    My 5 x and 6 x gt grandfathers (surname Nicolls) served as keepers of HM stores there during that time – and I wondered where records might possibly be kept if any relating to them and their families?
    Would much appreciate any information

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