The Charge of the Light Brigade, the infamous battle that took place in the midst of the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) remains one of the worst displays of military recklessness ever recorded. We’ve talked briefly about Dublin’s link to the fateful event before, in that not only was the bugle that sounded the charge made here, but the bugle call was given by a Dubliner, William ‘Billy’ Brittain of the 17th Lancers, Orderly Bugler to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Of the 673 horsemen involved in the charge, it is believed over 100 of those were Irish.
But the Charge of the Light Brigade was only one of many tactical and military errors committed in a conflict lasting more than three years. David Murphy, in History Ireland (Vol 11, Issue 1) estimated that at the time of the war, approximately 30-35% of the British army was made up of Irish troops, and that somewhere in the region of 30, 000 of those Irish troops served in the Crimea. They left Dublin with a fanfare bordering on the hysteric, with the departure of the 50th Foot regiment on 24 February 1854 as recorded in the same article
The bands of three other regiments of the garrison led them along the line of route, one of the finest in Europe; and vast crowds accompanied them, vociferously cheering, while from the windows handkerchiefs and scarves were waved, and every token of a ‘God Speed’ displayed.
Irish involvement in the war wasn’t confined to belligerents though. Civilian medics tended to the wounded, and in a war where “frontline correspondants” arguably played a role for the first time, Irishman William Howard Russell’s first hand reports on troop welfare led Trinity College to award him an honorary degree on his return. As the war drew on, and casualties mounted (albeit mainly through disease, as cholera and malaria were rampant) the support that was granted to it as troops left the country diminished.
That is not to say that, returning victorous, the regiments were not treated to same the pomp and occasion they received as they left. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, at the suggestion of the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, called together a committee to organise a National Banquet to pay tribute to Crimean veterans stationed in Ireland. A subscription list was established, and over £2, 000 was collected within the first nine days of it’s inception. An Irish Times report on the centenary of the event claimed that the merchants and the traders of Dublin showed great interest in the project, with offers of assistance coming from different patrons including
…a gentleman, styling himself the Wizard of the North who offered to give a performance for the benefit of the National Banquet Fund.
His offer was kindly declined. Over 3, 500 guests were invited to the banquet, (3, 628 sat down for dinner) along with over 1,000 paying spectators and such numbers caused large problems with regards finding a location.
The Rotunda, the Mansion House and several halls in Dublin Castle were examined but deemed too small to fit the purpose. There was a proposal to raise a purpose built marquee in the grounds of the Castle or Leinster House, but this plan too was dismissed. Finally, a Mr. Scovell offered the use of his bonding warehouse near the Customs House (the modern CHQ building in the IFSC.) Built as a “fireproof” tobacco warehouse in 1821, it remains to this day one of the oldest iron-frame buildings in Ireland. The date was set for October 22nd, and preparations for the Banquet were set underway.
The hall itself, which can still be seen almost in its original state, measures 260 feet long and 150 feet wide, with rows of pillars supporting a magnificent roof of iron framework painted in bright coloursfor the occasion. During the banquet, the walls of the building were covered in numerous national flags, some bearing the names of the major Battles of the War- Alma, Sevestopol, and Balaclava amongst others and decorative field guns on platforms guarded the entrance to the building.
The report continued
…the total length of the tables was 6, 172 feet. The viands supplied included 250 hams, 230 legs of mutton, 500 meet pies, 100 venison pasties, 100 rice puddings, 260 plum puddings, 200 turkeys, 200 geese, 250 pieces of beef weighing in all 3,000 lbs.; 3 tons of potatoes, 2, 000 half pound loafs, 100 capons and chickens and six ox tongues…. Each man was supplied a quart of porter and a pint of choice port wine.
There were guests from every regiment stationed in Ireland, along with “500 pensioners, constabulary and marines, and 60 gentlemen of the press.” Given that Ireland was in the grips of famine not a decade previously, it is surprising to read of the joy and excitement that the banquet generated. For while across the country people had starved, here you had the gentry feasting at what must be the largest number of people to have ever sat down to dinner together in this country; and yet there are several accounts of the vans containing the steaming food being cheered and applauded as they careened down Dublin’s North Quays!
The building of course was recently redeveloped at a cost of €50 million. It has gone on the market at a price a mere fraction of that… But that’s another story!