Despite occurring so far from home, the Second Boer War (1899-1902) had an incredible effect on Irish society, with huge demonstrations in the city of Dublin and widespread coverage of the war in the Irish media. GAA clubs around the country were renamed in honour of Boer Generals and political leaders, while William Butler Yeats would comment that “the war has made the air electrical just now.”
While this war has been largely forgotten in Ireland today, the Fusiliers’ Arch memorial at the entrance to St Stephen’s Green is a reminder of the Irish participation in this foreign conflict. Irishmen, Dubliners among them, would fight on both sides of the conflict. A small band of Irish nationalists, under the command of Irish-American military leader John Blake and Westport native John MacBride, fought alongside the Boers in opposition to what they saw as British colonial aggression in the Transvaal. On the other side of the conflict, about 28,000 Irishmen fought within the ranks of the British Army during the war. On occasion, these two very different bands of Irishmen found themselves in direct conflict in the Transvaal.The manner in which Irishmen were firing upon Irishmen was commented upon and joked about at the time, with a 1902 song noting:
On the mountain side the battle raged, there was no stop or stay;
Mackin captured Private Burke and Ensign Michael Shea,
Fitzgerald got Fitzpatrick, Brannigan found O’Rourke;
Finnigan took a man named Fay and a couple of lads from Cork.
Sudden they heard McManus shout ‘Hands up or I’ll run you through’
He thought he had a Yorkshire ‘Tyke’ – twas Corporal Donoghue
McGarry took O’Leary, O’Brien got McNamee
That’s how the English fought the Dutch at the Battle of Dundee!
Five years on from the war, the Fusiliers’ Arch was unveiled in the heart of Dublin, as a testament to the actions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in South Africa. While the war ended in a British victory, it was a bloody and costly one. In financial terms, a war that would supposedly be over by Christmas 1899 by 1902 had cost the British taxpayer in excess of £200 million, while in excess of twenty thousand British soldiers died in South Africa. One of the leading historians of the war,Thomas Pakenham, would write that “in money and lives, no British war since 1815 had been so prodigal.”
At the time of the unveiling of the Arch in August 1907, The Freeman’s Journal newspaper poured scorn on the monument, condemning its “false dedication, to the dead Fusiliers, while the living are left to starve.” The paper commented that “From first to last Dublin believed, and believes, the war in which those men were engaged to be unjust and disgraceful. From such a war no glory is to be gained; such a war deserves no memorial.” While the Freeman’s Journal may have felt that “from first to last” Dubliners were unified in their objection to the war, the huge crowd that gathered at the monuments unveiling would suggest otherwise. The monument was inaugurated by the Duke of Connacht, and in the aftermath of this a luncheon was held in the nearby Shelbourne Hotel. There, the following (very enthusiastic!) speech was delivered by the Earl of Meath, one of those who subscribed to the memorial fund:
The toast list to-day is short, and contains but one toast, that of The King (applause). His Majesty King Edward occupies a position amongst rulers which is absolutely unique. He not only rules over twelve million square miles, one-sixth of the earth’s surface, and governs four hundred millions of subjects of all races, colours, creeds, and conditions of civilisation, from the most advanced to the most backward, but he is a Monarch whose personal qualities are of so distinguished an order that he has come to be regarded as a statesman of the first rank (applause). The world watches His Majesty’s movements with breathless interest. Under his masterful touch international difficulties which seem insuperable are solved, political sores are healed. His presence seems to breathe the spirit of peace and of goodwill, so that when he undertakes a journey it needs no strong imagination to picture to oneself the Angel of Peace hovering over his footsteps with healing in her wings (applause). King Edward is no stranger to Ireland; certainly not to Dublin. (renewed applause)
Walking around the Arch today, a few things will be observed. Firstly, it lists the battles in South Africa at which the Royal Dublin Fusiliers participated. Colenso, Talana and Ladysmith all feature. Ladysmith was a brutal affair, where British forces under Field Marshal Sir George Stuart White were besieged for several months by Boer forces. White’s son, Jack, was also fighting in the Boer War in a British Army uniform, though he would later become a republican-socialist and a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army, quite the transformation! The Arch is loosely based on the Arch of Titus in Rome, and within it one finds the names of the two hundred plus members of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who ultimately gave their lives in the conflict. Notice also the presence of the elephant and tiger, emblems of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers which appeared on the regimental cap badge.
The Arch was damaged during the Easter Rising, as a result of the use of machine guns by British armed forces. The monument is peppered, as machine guns on the rooftop of the Shelbourne Hotel and the United Services Club were utilised to shift a garrison of Irish Citizen Army volunteers from the Green, which was occupied under the command of Michael Mallin, himself a British Army veteran who had served in both India and Afghanistan. The ICA retreated from the park to the Royal College of Surgeons early in the insurrection, meaning the bullet marks today most likely came from the machine guns at the United Services Club, as the Arch was in its line of sight towards the Royal College of Surgeons.
That the monument became popularly known in the city as Traitors Gate is not particularly surprising, owing to the strong anti Boer War sentiment that existed in nationalist circles. One nationalist would recall that:
In the last years of the last century the Boer War dominated every other topic. Outside town and country politics, the Boer War provided the only other excitement that then stirred citizens in any degree. In that issue the populace was divided into pro-Boer and anti-Boer, the divisions, of course, corresponding to those on either side of the traditional gulf – Catholic and Nationalist, and Protestant and Unionist.
Donal Fallon’s ‘John MacBride’ will be published later in 2015 by O’Brien Press as part of their Sixteen Lives series. For more on the Irish involvement in the Boer War see Donal P. McCracken’s excellent Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War