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Ireland and the Crimean War


Jim Beatty was an Enniskillen man, born in the Fermanagh town in 1820. His father was a doctor who later became Superintendent of the Enniskillen Cholera Hospital. The young Beatty had an interest in engineering from early days and his father encouraged that interest. In 1842 Jim Beatty joined a civil engineering firm and was employed first on the construction of the railway from Norwich to Lowestoft. In the latter part of 1853 Beatty went to Nova Scotia to survey the route for the European and North American Railway, a series of lines connecting the port of Halifax - the closest to Europe - with points in the interior of Canada and the United States. He returned to Britain in time to take on another overseas task as chief engineer for the projected military railway in the Crimea.

War had begun in the Crimea and had caught the British Army largely unprepared. The troops in the Crimean peninsula had a poor support service and with the onset of the Crimean winter the few tracks that existed became unusable. A railway was seen as the answer, linking the port of Balaclava with the allied siege-works at Sevastapol.

But first a labour force had to be recruited and transported to the Crimea. Recruitment proved no problem and many of the navvies were Irish. Beatty's employers had such confidence in him that they told the War Office that the railway would be operational three weeks after the labour force arrived at Balaclava. And Beatty did not disappoint them: less than three weeks after his navvies disembarked the first wagons rolled on the double-track line from Balaclava, where a railway yard had also been built. From a point near the siege-works, single-track spurs led to the various batteries thus allowing ammunition and other supplies to be moved easily and speedily.

At first the wagons were hauled uphill by teams of horses and allowed to run freely down to Balaclava but a stationary winding engines were planned and, later, steam locomotives. In seven weeks seven miles of railway were laid but Beatty had not finished his task and additional track was laid, including a branch to a newly constructed wharf at Balaclava harbour. On 2 April 1855 the first-ever hospital train ran on Beatty's railway as wounded were evacuated to the harbour.

Jim Beatty is one of many Irish men and women to feature in David Murphy's new book Ireland and the Crimean War. Remembered today, if at all, for a series of tableaux - the Charge of the Light Brigade, the 93rd Highlanders' 'Thin Red Line' and Florence Nightingale with her lamp - there is little appreciation of just how many Irish served in the Crimea and the degree to which the public in Ireland supported the war and took an interest in its progress.

One reason why there was so much public interest in the war was the large number of Irish sailors and soldiers who were involved. At a time when Irishmen accounted for almost two of every five soldiers in the Army and about one in five sailors in the Royal Navy, this is hardly surprising. Nor should it be surprising that the first soldier ever to win the Victoria Cross - instituted by Queen Victoria to mark the gallantry of her servicemen in the war - was Irish. Sergeant Luke O'Connor, from Elphin in County Roscommon, was serving in the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers) Foot when he earned his VC. O'Connor was later commissioned, rose to become a major-general and was also knighted.

The Royal Navy played a major role in the war and, as David Murphy points out, was instrumental in bringing the conflict to an end. Part of the Navy's work was far from the Crimea and involved operations in the Baltic. It was there that Charles Davis Lucas, from Poyntzpass, earned the very first Victoria Cross for throwing a burning shell from the deck of his ship during the bombardment of a Russian fortress. By doing so, Lucas saved many lives. He, too, was to rise to high rank, retiring from the Royal Navy as an admiral.

Murphy points out the terrible losses suffered by a number of parishes in County Cork. These parishes had men serving in the Royal Navy and lost many of them in action in the Crimea. Two parishes, Upper Aghada and Farsid lost about half of their 1841 male populations in the war. There seems to be scope for much more research on casualties of the many wars of the nineteenth century as a factor in the reduction of the Irish male population, something that is generally ascribed to emigration.

But there were many Irish other than servicemen in the Crimea. Some were nuns from the Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity who worked as nurses and were much more effective at their role than was Florence Nightingale. 'The Lady with the Lamp' was very much the author of her own legend but objective research shows that soldiers in Nightingale's hospital at Scutari had less chance of survival than those ministered to by the Irish nuns of Sister Mary Francis Bridgeman.

And there were Irish surgeons to treat the wounded and the sick. Many men died from cholera and Murphy includes an account written by Margaret Kirwin, the wife of a soldier of the 19th Foot, of the death of Sergeant Murphy who had returned from a day's marching and 'before his wife fried his beefsteak he was dead', one of many who were 'dying fast of the cholera and black fever'.

Some Irish policemen also went to the Crimea. With no regular corps of military police the Army recruited men from the various forces in the UK for provost duties and the temporary force included members of both the Constabulary of Ireland and the Dublin Metropolitan Police. They did their job effectively and in the aftermath of the war a permanent Corps of Mounted Military Police was created.

Public interest in the war was served by journalists who accompanied the allied force to the Crimea and among them were three Irishmen. One of the Irish journalists was the famous Times' correspondent William Howard Russell, who did much to make the public at home aware of the shortcomings of the military administration in the Crimea. Edwin Lawrence Godkin, born in County Wicklow, was the son of a Presbyterian minister who was also the editor of the Derry Standard and Dublin correspondent of the Times. Godkin's stories were much more human and told of the soldier on the ground. Godkin worked for the Daily News, as did a third Irish journalist. James Carlile McCoan, from County Tyrone.

In the aftermath of the war, many Irish towns and cities had tangible reminders. Not only were there crippled veterans but there were also Crimean guns, displayed in public places throughout the land. And streets and roads were named for battles and personalities. Dublin had Raglan Road and Raglan Lane, Belfast streets named for the battles of the Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and Londonderry an Alma Place.

The Crimean war was one of the major events of the mid-nineteenth century but in Ireland its memory was overshadowed by the political developments of the later decades of the century. David Murphy's book is a timely reminder of a war that was significant to Irish society and that cost many Irish lives.

Ireland and the Crimean War is an important addition to Irish historical writings and rescues a period of this island's history from obscurity' Richard Doherty, Belfast Telegraph, 27 July 2002.

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