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The Irish in South Africa

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The Irish in South Africa

Nineteenth-century South Africa did not attract mass Irish migration, but Irish communities were to be found in Cape town, port Elizabeth, Kimberley, and Johannesburg, with smaller communities in Pretoria, Barberton, Durban and East London. As one would expect, a fair number of those in British colonial service in the sub-continent were Irish. A third of the Cape's governors were Irish, as were many of the judges and politicians. Both the Cape Colony and the colony of Natal had Irish prime ministers: Sir Thomas Upington , "The Afrikaner from Cork"; and Sir Albert Hime , from Kilcoole in County Wicklow. Place names such as Upington, Porteville, Caledon, Cradock, sir Henry Lowry's Pass, the Biggarsberg Mountains, Donnybrook and Belfast reflect Irish impact on the development of the subcontinent.

One of the reasons for the prominence of the Irish was the fact that, while a few in numbers, they tended to be concentrated in specific occupations. Excluding the Irish administrators who could be found in any part of the British Empire, there were several professions and trades in South Africa which attracted the Irish.

There were the professional men: the lawyers, dentists and doctors. Though part of middle-class society in the colonies, they retained their attachment to Ireland There were the Irish Catholic priests, led initially by the Wexford-born Bishop Griffith, and especially strong in Eastern Cape. There were the retailers, their profession dominated by Ulster Protestant-owned chain stores such as John Orr , William Cuthbert and R. H. Henderson - well-known names even today. Irish journalists worked on major newspapers and often edited them, the most important being Frederick St. Leger, founder and editor of the Cape Times. In the 1890's the railways and the diamond and gold mines absorbed numbers of Irishmen as well. And finally there were the Irish in British Colonial police forces.


The aim of this project is to create a collection of profiles and family-trees of all Irish in South Africa, in order to add profiles you will need to join this project first by clicking on the Action button on the top right corner of this page and select join project.

Notable Irish in South Africa

Irish regiments, organisations and other Irish groups in South Africa

// An Irish Regiment leaving Johannesburg Aug/Sept 1914

Irish Regiments in the British Army Serving in South Africa

All the regular units of Irish origin in the British Army have served for a period of time in South Africa. Other formations, such as Militia, Volunteers and Yeomanry have also seen service in South Africa either as units or as reinforcements for the regular forces, especially during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Although the first record of British Army units serving in South Africa cites the 78th Regiment of Foot (later 2 Bn Gordon Highlanders), who were landed at Simons Bay on 10 June 1795, the Irish were not far behind.(1) The 86th Regiment of Foot (later 2 Bn Royal Irish Rifles, to be reconstituted as the Royal Ulster Rifles, who were to be affiliated to the South African Irish Regiment after World War 2) arrived at the Cape on 22 September 1795, one week after the Dutch surrender. One authority states that: 'Until the 20th February 1799 when it embarked for India, it is recorded that the appearance of the men was especially commented on. Well grown, well set up, and 1 300 strong, the regiment excited universal admiration and, its regimental records add, it was perhaps the finest body of men that ever came to this country.'(2) They carried out field and garrison duties and had as a companion Irish unit the 8th Dragoons (Kings Royal Irish Dragoons, later the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars). The unit also made a name for itself, to which the same authority bears witness 'Frequent reference has been made to the service rendered by this regiment in the disturbances at the Cape during 1796-1803. General Dundas repeatedly declared that without the Dragoons he could not have held the colony. These men had a thorough knowledge gained from experience of all the roads, mountain passes, fords through rivers as well as a knowledge of the dialects spoken in the country. Farmers trusted them to such a degree that they would leave their houses and cattle in their charge whilst they set out with their produce for Cape Town. These relay Dragoons protected their houses from runaway slaves and their cattle from beasts of prey.'(3)

At a later point in South African history, the 27th Regiment of Foot (later 1 Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) was involved in the campaign on the Eastern Cape frontier in 1835. Subsequently, after the Battle of Congella (1842), the regiment served in the relieving force in Durban, where a detachment of the regiment, under Capt Charlton Smith, had been under siege for a month under extremely adverse conditions. He was rewarded by promotion and received a testimonial expressing 'appreciation of his indomitable bravery in maintaining his post at Port Natal.'(4)

Hence, the 27th Regiment laid the foundations of the British colony in Natal. Indeed, they provided its first Magistrate, Capt Durnford, and many years afterwards supplied the Governor, Col MacLean. In 1843 two companies of the 45th and one of the 27th Regiment of Foot pitched camp on Maritzburg Hill, naming the hill Fort Napier after Sir George Napier, the Governor of the Cape. At the beginning of 1845 the detachment from the 27th rejoined the remainder of the regiment at Fort Peddie on the Eastern frontier of the Cape. A soldier of the 45th has supplied some interesting reminiscences of this time and mentions that the Grenadier Company of the 27th was 'the finest in the army, the tallest man being 'Long Hines' who stood 6 feet 8 inches, whilst the shortest was 6 foot.'

During the Zulu War of 1879, the 88th Regiment of Foot (Connaught Rangers) was involved, whilst the 94th Regiment of Foot (later 2 Bn Connaught Rangers) served in the First South African War of Independence of 1880-1881. Garrisoning four towns besieged by the Boers, the regiment also incurred many casualties in the course of the battle of Bronkhorstspruit. The 27th Regiment of Foot discussed earlier, reappears during the Basuto War of the mid-1880s, together with the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons.

The roll of Irish regiments who participated in the South African War is almost a complete embodiment of the Irish contribution to the British military establishment. The following Irish units served:

1 Bn Connaught Rangers 1 and 2 Bns Royal Dublin Fusiliers 1 Bn Royal Irish Regiment 1 Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers 1 and 2 Bns Royal Irish Fusiliers 2 Bn Royal Irish Rifles 1 and 2 Bns Leinster Regiment 1 Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers 8th (Kings Royal Irish) Hussars 6th Inniskilling Dragoons 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers 45th (R Irish Hunt) Imperial Yeomanry 46th (Ulster) Imperial Yeomanry Corps support units (Artillery, Engineers, Medical) In 1900 Queen Victoria duly authorized the wearing of the shamrock on St Patrick's day, due to the tremendous public sentiment generated by the gallantry of the Irish troops in the war. However, a greater mark of appreciation of the bravery of Irish troops in South Africa was accorded when, a short while later, the Queen also deemed it appropriate that an Irish regiment of Foot Guards be formed, to be designated the 'Irish Guards'. Elements of the Irish Guards were to participate in the latter phases of the Anglo-Boer War, as components of a composite Guards Mounted Infantry unit.(5)

Autonomous South African Units shaped by Irish Influences

The first South African unit with a truly Irish background was the Cape Town Irish Rifles, raised by Maj O'Reilly in 1885. In 1891 the unit was absorbed into the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Volunteer Rifles as 'H' (Irish) Company. Regrettably, there is very little information available concerning the Cape Town Irish Rifles specifically, but it is hoped that further research will produce additional information. The helmet plate of the regiment is a magnificent specimen and closely resembles that of the Connaught Rangers who were contemporary. The Cape Town Irish Rifles may be said to represent the first predecessor of the South African Irish Regiment, in so far as it was the first indigenous South African unit with a distinct ethnic Irish component.

During the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, the second predecessor of The South African Irish Regiment was formed. Driscoll's Scouts was founded by Capt D.P. Driscoll, who had previously served in Burma during the earlier part of the Anglo-Boer War and who decided to come to South Africa with the specific intention of forming an Irish unit. This was motivated by the losses suffered by Irish units within the British Army during the early battles of the War. Eventually totalling a strength of just under 500 men of all ranks, it first served with the Colonial Division and was present at the siege of Wepener and operations around Lindley and Fouriesburg. In one particular action at Wepener, in which Driscoll's Scouts assisted the Cape Mounted Riflemen, the Scouts had an adventurous and hazardous ride across open ground from their bivouac, being exposed to the concentrated fire of two Maxim machine guns, a pom-pom, small arms fire and, at the end, to a barrage of shells from a field gun, during their entire four kilometre ride. Their action helped to stabilize the British position(6). Later the Scouts formed part of 8 Division and were part of the force concentrated to oppose the incursions into the Cape Colony by the forces of Gen Smuts. Driscoll's Scouts also took part in the final operations directed against Gen de la Rey in the Western Transvaal. Major D.P. Driscoll, DSO, commander of Driscoll's Scouts during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902.

Irishmen in the Service of the Boer Republics

Up to this point, the Irish contribution to the British military effort in South Africa had been discussed, whether this contribution was in the form of Irish units forming part of the regular British military establishment or autonomous ('colonial') units, as in the case of Driscoll's Scouts. However, it should be remembered that the Irish military tradition with regard to the British was in the shape of a two-edged sword. Whereas many Irishmen served in units composed of their countrymen which were to found distinguished records in the annals of the British Army, others remained bitter opponents of the Protestant monarchy. This was particularly true of those Catholics who, during the course of the 18th century served as 'soldiers of fortune' (the 'wild geese'), and were particularly prominent in the 'Irish Brigade' of the French Army. This tradition of mercenary service in foreign armies, conjoined with opposition to Britain, reappeared in the Anglo-Boer War in the form of the Irish Brigade, which served with the forces of the Boer Republics. Divided into two sections of 100 men each, led by Cols Blake and Lynch, it comprised mainly Irish Americans, whose motives varied widely. Col. J.Y.F. Blake

They either loved fighting, hated the British, or had high hopes of future rewards from their employers (and frequently all these motives were present at once). In common with the other foreign corps serving with the Boers, the Irish Brigade adopted Boer tactics. Generally speaking, they were courageous but inferior to the Boers in skill, and more than on one occasion, (e.g., at Elandslaagte and Magersfontein) allowed themselves to be surrounded, captured or destroyed. Relations between the Irish Brigade and the Boers were often strained (as were relations between other foreign volunteers and the Boers). The former invariably expected more than they were either accorded or received(7). Blake's section distinguished itself at Pepworth, near Ladysmith, where it stood its ground under a hail of British shrapnel, dragging a great deal of ammunition up the hill. This unit was later engaged in the operations at Brandfort and in the surrounding regions. The Section under Col Lynch was also involved in the fighting around Ladysmith and was particularly acclaimed following its stand near Dundee in the general Boer withdrawal. Indeed, it was said to be the one Foreign Corps in the general confusion of the time that achieved some distinction. By resisting the British advance for over an hour it gained valuable time for the remainder of the force engaged. Towards the end of the War Lynch's section was in action in the Barberton and neighbouring regions. Officers of the Irish Brigade outside Ladysmith in 1899.

The South African Irish Regiment

At the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914 three officers met at the Irish Club in Johannesburg with a view to raising an Irish regiment from among the citizens of Johannesburg and its environs. They were Maj George Twomey, Capt J. Jeoffreys, and a Capt MacDonald. Authority was granted by Defence Headquarters and Lt Col Brennan, VD (Volunteer Decoration), was appointed as Commanding Officer, with Maj Twomey as Recruiting Officer. Recruits were quickly found and the battalion formed up at Booysens Camp, Johannesburg, on 9 September 1914, its establishment consisting of six companies. The Honorary Colonel was Mrs Louis Botha, who was an Irish girl (formerly named Emmett), and the wife of the General.

According to Military Archives, the date of the formation of the unit is 1 December 1914. This date, however, is disputed and it would appear that the claim to have been established on 9 September 1914 is recognized as valid. The South African Irish Regiment was a unit within 4 South African Infantry Brigade in Col Skinner's Northern Force and embarked from Cape Town on 21 December 1914. The Force landed at Walvis Bay on the morning of 25 December 1914 and was immediately in action. On 26 December 1914 outposts of the South African Irish came into contact, and conflict, with German patrols. Hence, the unit was in action three months after it was raised. On 11 February 1915, the Northern Force came under the command of Gen Louis Botha. South African Irish Officers in Pretoria 1914. Lt.Col. F.H. Brennan seated in chair and Capt (later Major) G.Twomey standing right.

With the close of the SWA Campaign Active Citizen Force regiments were not permitted to proceed, as such, to other theatres of war. War service units were created for East Africa and Europe, and the South African Irish Regiment was formed, together with elements from other units, into the composite 9 South African Infantry ('Sportsmen's') Battalion. 9 Battalion campaigned in East Africa, where it earned the Honours 'Kilimanjaro' and 'East Africa 1916-17'. Maj Twomey became a double Company Commander with 9 Battalion. It is of interest to note that the appellation 'Sportsmen's Battalion' was largely due to the influence of Maj Twomey, who was extremely active in South African sport and prominent in the South African Amateur Boxing Association, the South African Athletics Association, and the South African Olympic Games Association. He also won the first road race between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Maj Twomey naturally attracted to the South African Irish many prominent sportsmen from Johannesburg and elsewhere. It is a matter of some pride to the Regiment that Maj Twomey's son, Cmdt C.A. Twomey, SM, JCD, commanded the unit for many years and later became its Honorary Colonel.

The dress for the South African Irish in 1914-15 shared the common features of the uniform of South African military forces, and as with many other units on active service, the slouch hat or sun helmet was worn. However, a green shamrock cloth patch was worn on the left-hand side of the hat or helmet. The badge was produced locally and worn on the cloth patch, and also as collar badges, this comprised a brass shamrock upon which was stamped 'S.A. IRISH'. 6 Coy South African Irish in Pretoria 1914. Presentation photograph to Mrs Louis Botha, Honorary Colonel of the Regiment

On Saturday, 29 January 1921, at Milner Park, Johannesburg, the South African Irish Regiment was presented with the King's Colour by Prince Arthur of Connaught, the (then) Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, in recognition of its service in German South West Africa. The Colour was hung in the old St Mary's Cathedral, Johannesburg, but was, most regrettably, lost when the Cathedral moved from what is now Darragh House to its present site; and, despite the most intensive inquiries, cannot now be traced.

In 1939 the First South African Irish Regiment was reformed through the efforts of Maj Twomey, Capt Jeoffreys and Capt Cullinan (son of Sir Thomas Cullinan, of diamond fame). Cullinan was the Transport Officer in East Africa and later the Honorary Colonel of the Regiment. The unit was designated as the First South African Irish but, in fact, a Second Battalion was never formed, for men intended for this Second Battalion were drafted to the First. Thus, the usual designation was simply 'South African Irish'.

HQ, Support Company and 'A' Company were recruited in Central Johannesburg, 'B' Company on the East Rand and 'C' Company on the West Rand. A pipe band was formed, the pipes and music being obtained in Eire and the personnel wearing saffron kilts and green stockings. The regimental mascot was, predictably, an Irish terrier.

In November 1939 the Union Defence Forces had approved of the formation of the unit and two months later parades were held and details forwarded to the South African Military College at Roberts Heights concerning courses of instruction.

In April 1940 the regiment, under Lt Col J.A. Moreland, MC, trained at Premier Mine, being brigaded with the Imperial Light Horse and Pretoria Regiment. On 16 June the South African Irish was mobilized under the command of Lt Col D.I. Somerset, MC, and, together with 2 Botha Regiment and 3 Transvaal Scottish, formed 5 South African Infantry Brigade. In July the Brigade moved to Barberton for further training and, after being fully motorized, proceeded via Durban to Kilindini on the Llanstephan Castle. After concentrating at Gilgil in Kenya, the South African Irish took part in the invasion of Southern Abyssinia (1 February 1941) and distinguished itself at El Gumu, Hobok, and Banno early in February 1941. The regiment also participated in the capture of Mega (18 February 1941). Among the casualties resulting from this action was the Second-in-Command, Maj Ward Clare. The South African Irish then returned with other units of 5 Brigade to Kenya and, embarking at Mombasa on 18 April, reached Suez on 1 May 1941. After some time at Amirya, the unit proceeded to Mersa Matruh on 23 May and remained in the vicinity until October. At the end of August, a number of members of the unit were granted leave to South Africa, their places being filled by reinforcements from other units; e.g., 2 Witwatersrand Rifles. Morale at this time was excellent. After the capture of Mega in 1941. Sergeant Majors Brehem, Foster and Owen with Italian prisoners.

In November the long-awaited invasion of Libya and the relief of Tobruk was scheduled. The South African Irish, with its sister units, the 2 Botha and 3 Transvaal Scottish, together with the Transvaal Horse Artillery, was enmeshed in the defeat at Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941, when the German panzers overwhelmed 5 Brigade and 'plunged straight into Egypt.' The casualties of the South African Irish were heavy, and included among its number the OC, Lt Col Dobbs; only 140 men escaped the disaster. Maj C. McN. Cochran, who succeeded Lt Col Dobbs, was wounded. Several members of the unit were drowned whilst en route to Italy by ship, as prisoners-of-war. Until the end of November the survivors served with New Zealand forces; after this date, they rejoined the decimated Brigade at Mersa Matruh.

In February 1942 the South African Irish and 3 Transvaal Scottish ceased to exist as independent infantry units and the remnants were drafted either to the Regiment Botha or to the South African Artillery. As 11 Battery, 4 Field Regiment, South African Artillery, the Irish were once again in action at El Alamein, and fired their first shot in the engagement on 24 September 1942, at 22h00. In 1943 the unit returned to the Union of South Africa, to become 4/22 Field Regiment, South African Artillery. In this form it returned to North Africa as a component of 6 South African Armoured Division, later serving in Italy.

In recognition of its services during World War 2 the Battalion received the following battle honours:

  • EAST AFRICA 1940-1941
  • MEGA
  • WESTERN DESERT 1941-1943

These honours were not awarded immediately upon publication of the official order, as was the case with other infantry battalions, because, at the time of publication, the unit was an artillery regiment and, as such, did not carry any Honours. However, with its reconversion to an infantry unit, it became entitled to Honours that had previously been earned by it and they are now incorporated in the colour of the Regiment presented to them by the State President in 1968. At the end of World War 2, in view of the resurrection of Active Citizen Force units, Col Cullinan requested that the Regiment be reformed as an infantry unit. As there was no intention at that time to establish additional Active Citizen Force infantry battalions, the request for the re-establishment of the South African Irish in the form of an infantry regiment was refused. Nevertheless, authority was granted for the formation of an artillery unit, to be designated 22 Field Regiment (South African Irish) South African Artillery. Such a unit was formed in June 1946 and operated until 31 December 1959 as an artillery regiment, its members (drawn from ballots residing in Johannesburg) wearing the gunners' insignia. On 1 January 1960, the Regiment reverted to its original infantry role and regained its old title, 'The South African Irish Regiment.' In this form, it was involved in controlling the disturbances of 1960-1961 in South Africa. The Freedom of the City has been conferred upon the South African Irish Regiment by both the Johannesburg and Barberton Municipalities, in the former case cementing the long and close ties between the city and the Regiment. A group of officers who returned to Mersa Matruh after the battle of Sidi Rezegh.

Traditions and Curios of the South African Irish Regiment

Upon the re-formation of the Regiment in 1939, a Pipe Band was raised, under Pipe Major Foster, remaining with the Regiment until 1949, after which it became the South African Irish Regimental Association Pipe Band. The Regimental march was 'The County Down Militia 'but it has now been changed to 'Killaloe'. Upon its reconversion, to an Infantry regiment, the only change in dress resulting was the return of the original cap badge, the crowned harp and motto, to all non-commissioned ranks. In 1961, following the institution of the Republic, the crown was removed from the badge. At a later date, a new badge minus the crown was produced in Pretoria, to be worn by all non-commissioned ranks, officers continuing to wear the original badge, minus the crown, which was of silver. At this time the caubeen (a headdress exclusive to Irish regiments) was replaced by the green beret. Between the accession of Queen Elizabeth II(1952) and the institution of the Republic, the St Edward's Crown was worn by Majors and Warrant Officers on the shoulder straps and sleeves. Chrome South African infantry buttons continued to be worn, but with one unusual distinction. Cmdt Twomey decided that, in remembrance of the time when the Regiment was an Artillery unit, the top left handcuff button on the khaki jacket should be a chrome South African Artillery button. As a further memento of the time when the Regiment was an Artillery unit, Sam Browne belts were not worn for walking out.(9)

The South African Irish Regiment was allied in 1940 to the London Irish Rifles, and after the war, former prisoners-of-war met their comrades in London. In 1949 the affiliation between the two Regiments was announced.

The Regiment at present stands 16th in order of precedence amongst the infantry battalions of the Citizen Force. This precedence, however, may be elevated if a claim to an earlier date of establishment is officially recognized. The original motto of the Regiment in 1914 was that of the Royal Irish Rifles (later the Royal Ulster Rifles), 'QUIS SEPARABIT?') ('Who will separate us?'). During World War 2 it changed to 'FAUGH-A-BALLAGH' ('Clear the way'), which has remained to the present time. The motto echoes the history of the Royal Irish Fusiliers the First Battalion of which were known as the 'Faugh-a-Ballaghs', an honorary title conferred upon them during the Peninsular War (1809-1812). Indeed, until their amalgamation in the 1960s (with other regiments of the North Irish Brigade, the Royal Irish Rangers), they were still commonly referred to as the 'Faughs'.


With some justification, perhaps the South African Irish Regiment may be referred to as 'the elusive regiment' in two major respects. Firstly, one has its recurring characteristic of disbandment and re-establishment; its disappearance following the close of World War 1, and reformation in 1939. Secondly, one notes the chameleon-like character of the Regiment, changing from an infantry to an artillery unit, and then reconverting to an infantry unit once again. However, despite this constantly changing complexion (which now, one assumes, has ended, with the firm establishment of the Regiment as an infantry unit in 1960) the echoes of the Irish tradition in South African military history remain a consistent feature of the Regiment's history. Those echoes may be defined in terms of tenacity and daring, which nobody could deny to the South African Irish.


	                                                '''Award	                                       Recipient	                               Unit	                     Gazetted'''
       Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902	Distinguished Service Order	       Driscoll D.P. Capt	               Driscoll's Scouts	19/4/01;
	 	                                                                                               Smith C.F. Capt	               Driscoll's Scouts	31/10/02;

World War I Military Cross Montgomery H. QM/Capt SA Irish 22/8/18;

	 	                                                                                               Taylor R. McG. Capt	               SA Irish	                22/8/18;
	 	                                                                                               Woon E.W. Capt	               SA Irish	                22/8/18;

Distinguished Conduct Medal 659 Murray J. RSM SA Irish 22/8/18;
World War II Distinguished Service Order 87602 Cochran C. McN. Maj 2 RB and SA Irish 24/2/42;

	                                                 Military Cross	                                87602 Cochran C.	                SA Irish	                30/12/41;
	                                                 British Empire Medal	                88646 Mulder A.H. L/Cpl	        SA Irish;
	 	                                                                                                88567 Ritchie J.A. Pte	        SA Irish;
	                                                 Distinguished Conduct Medal	11231 Thayer H.H. Pte	        1st SA Irish;
	                                                 Military Medal	                                88805 Brand J.B. Pte	         SA Irish	                24/2/42;
	 	                                                                                                82214 Brislin J.J. Pte	         SA Irish	                24/2/42;
	 	                                                                                                87641 Burton R.V. Pte	         SA Irish	                24/2/42;
	 	                                                                                                88792 Buys L.J. Pte	         SA Irish	                24/2/42;
	 	                                                                                                87642 Callaghan D.J. Pte	 SA Irish	                30/12/41;
	 	                                                                                                87990 Kirk J.R. Cpl	                 SA Irish	                21/10/41;
	 	                                                                                                16481 Lubbe J.H.B. Sgt	         1st SA Irish;
	 	                                                                                                88344 Macaulay J.I.E. Cpl	 1st SA Irish;
	 	                                                                                                89049 Muller F. Pte	                  SA Irish;
	 	                                                                                                88941 Shaw J.C. Pte	          SA Irish	                 3/8/44;
	 	                                                                                                88320 West R.M. Pte	          SA Irish	                 24/2/42;
	 	                                                                                                89022 Winterbach B.	          SA Irish	                 24/2/42;

Major George Twomey co-founder of the S.A. Irish in 1914 and 1939.

Col. C.A. Twomey, son of Major George Twomey commanded the Regiment between 1956 and 1965 and became Honorary Colonel in 1977.


   Col (Mrs) Louis Botha	                        1914-1915
   Col T.W. Cullinan	                                1945-1953
   Col W.J. Busschau	                        1966-1976
   [Col. Cyril Alexander Twomey, SM, JCD Col C.A. Twomey, SM, JCD]	        1977-1978 Commanding Officers
   Lt-Col F.H. Brennan, VD	                1914-1915
   Lt-Col J.A.M. Moreland, MC	        1939-1940
   Lt-Col D.I. Somerset, MC	                1940
   Lt-Col J.F.K. Dobbs, MC	                1940-1942
   Lt-Col C. McN. Cochran, DSO, MC	1942
   Lt-Col F.H.G. Cochran, OBE, ED	1945-1951
   Lt-Col J. Geber, DSO	                        1951-1956
   [Col. Cyril Alexander Twomey, SM, JCD Cmdt C.A. Twomey, SM, JCD]	        1956-1964
   Cmdt G. van Kerckhoven SM, JCD	1965-1969
   Cmdt E.M. Kristal, JCD	                1970-1972
   Maj (T/Cmdt) C.I. Steyn	                1972-1975
   Cmdt S.W.J. Kotze	                        1975
   Cmdt J.C. Bosch	                                1975-1980
   Cmdt J.H. Swanepoel	                        1980-1982
   Cmdt S.H. Moir	                                1982- Regimental Sergeant Majors
   WOl J. Murray, DCM	                        1914-1915
   WOl R. Bowker	                                1939-1940
   WOl E. Owen	                                1940
   WOl A.H. Brehem	                        1940-1941
   WOl C.E. Whillier, MM, EM	                1946-1955
   WOl A. du Preez	                                1955-1960
   WOl J. Bartman	                                1960-1961
   WOl R. Parks	                                1961-1962
   WOl P. Halroyd	                                1962-1964
   WOl F. Ferreira	                                1964-1966
   WOl J.L. Fitzhenry	                        1967-1977
   WOl A.L. Day	                                1977-


MacBride's Brigade and the Anglo-Boer War

At the top of Dublin’s Grafton Street, at the corner of Stephen’s Green, stands a handsome triumphal arch—still referred to by some locals as ‘traitors’ gate’—which commemorates the ‘officers, non-commissioned officers and men’ of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who fell in the second Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902). One will search Ireland in vain to find a counterpart: a memorial to those Irish soldiers who died fighting in the two Irish commandos in the Boer army. It is a strange omission since at the time ‘pro-Boer fever’ engulfed nationalist Ireland. Pro-Boer demonstrations were held, pro-Boer rioting occurred, the flag of the Transvaal Republic—the vierkleur—was to be seen in Dublin, where for a period there even existed a no-go area at night for forces of the crown.

South Africa had not witnessed mass Irish immigration, nonetheless, in the mid-1890s, Dublin Castle officials noticed that numbers of advanced Irish nationalists were making for the unsettled South African, or Transvaal, Republic. These included Celtic Literary Society members John MacBride and Arthur Griffith. By 1896 there were about 1,000 Irish living in the mining settlement of Johannesburg as well as others in Pretoria and in more far-flung dorps, such as Middelburg where Griffith edited the precursor to the United Irishman. Unlike the English ‘uitlanders’, these Irish settlers supported Kruger’s government and in turn when a 1798 celebration was held in Johannesburg—an event which eclipsed that in Dublin—Afrikaners were prominent at both the march and banquet.

The organisation of the Irish commando

For reasons unclear, Griffith returned to Dublin in October 1898, but there were more new arrivals in the Transvaal from Ireland by the day. When it became clear that the South African Republic would go to war with Britain, clandestine Irish meetings were held in John Mitchell’s clothes cleaning shop in Johannesburg and by September 1899, with the help of a South African-Irishman named Solomon Gillingham, a proposal for a 700-strong Irish Transvaal Brigade was accepted by the Boer government. This was one of a handful of foreign commandos raised to support the Transvaal and its sister republic, the Orange Free State. ‘Foxy Jack’ MacBride from Mayo declined the command so instead, the Irish lads turned to a colourful American called John Blake. Tall and broad-shouldered, he looked like Buffalo Bill and had spent many years in the 6th US cavalry in the wild west fighting the Apache and the Navaho.

In all, some 300 men joined the Irish brigade, including a Catholic chaplain, some Gaelic speakers and about forty Protestants. There were two sets of fathers and sons. Only a few men, however, had fighting experience. Little if any thought was given to the prospect of joining a Calvinist army and, as in Ireland, the plight of the black population was not an issue; hatred of the English and the prospect of the rebirth of the wild geese were the simple rationales. Despite the attraction of the new brigade, some Irish, in the words of the Irish pro-Boer campaigner Michael Davitt, ‘have the good sense to remain with their Boer officers’. These Irishmen were to be found in at least six other Boer commandos.

On 6 October 1899, the Irish Transvaal Brigade mobilised and boarded trains for the Transvaal-Natal frontier. Issued at first with single-shot Martini rifles, soon most of the Irish commando had acquired captured Lee Enfield and Lee Metford rifles. They were also issued with horses and had to spend several painful days on the highveld learning to ride. On Wednesday 11 October, in a severe thunderstorm, the brigade crossed into British territory. Ahead lay the colony of Natal with its Irish governor, its Irish prime minister and several Irish regiments of the British army.

The siege of Ladysmith

The Irish commando was in the van of the Boer army when the town of Newcastle was occupied and looted. The dividing line between commandeering and looting is fine and the Irish corps were sometimes accused of crossing it. Perhaps because of this they were initially assigned to accompany and guard one of the great French Creusot fortress guns, or ‘Long Toms’, of Commandant Trichardt’s Transvaal State Artillery.

At the battle of Talana Hill on 20 October 1899 the Irish commando played a small part and it was here they first came up against Irish regiments. Throughout the war, great animosity existed between the Irish who opposed each other from either side. Soon the Irish commando was ensconced on Pepworth Hill overlooking the besieged garrison town of Ladysmith, where there were members of the Irish Fusiliers, the Irish Regiment, the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and some of the Dublin Fusiliers, all of whom were very eager to get their hands on the ‘flying Fenians’ of MacBride’s Brigade.

At the battle of Modderspruit, the Irish commando lost several men, including the eighteen-year-old Tommy Oates from Killarney, whose father was also in the unit. ‘To get my guns, the English will have to kill my Irish troops’, proclaimed Trichardt. And he was correct. The Irish commando protected the guns on Pepworth Hill but also indulged in some fairly foolhardy horse-rustling activities on the British perimeter. Some of the brigade’s members also fought opposite the Dublin Fusiliers at the battle of Colenso on 15 December. Here MacBride had his horse shot from under him, but the major survived. The Irish were among the first to cross the Tugela River and capture Captain Long’s field-artillery pieces.

That Christmas Day 1899, under the flag sent out by Maud Gonne and the Dublin-based Irish Transvaal Committee, the Irish held a horse race behind Pepworth Hill and then a banquet was laid on for Commandant General Joubert and many Boer officers and their wives. The event was, however, ‘painfully dry’.

Irish commando members fought in the battles of Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz, as well as in the final battle of Tugela Heights when Buller’s army, with its 5th (Irish) Brigade, broke through and relieved Antrim-born General Sir George White in Ladysmith. The Irish commando fought well and indeed for a while in the driving rain held the road to the north against Lord Dundonald’s cavalry, allowing the Boers to bring up their oxen to drag out the artillery. Soon the Irish lads were safe, but bored, in the mountains of the nearby Biggarsberg.

Rivalry and reinforcements

There had also been a certain amount of dissension in Irish ranks. This was not helped by the Boer army’s democratic structure and cavalier attitude to military discipline. As the months progressed, disunity spread in Irish ranks. Colonel Blake became more distant from the unit and Major MacBride, his number two, increasingly became the de facto leader. But MacBride had enemies and when news reached camp that a second and rival Irish Transvaal Brigade was being formed in Johannesburg by a newly arrived Irish-Australian called Arthur Lynch, some members of the original Irish commando went over to the new unit. This was at most 150-strong and soon only about fifty in number. It was denounced by one member of MacBride’s outfit as ‘fifty or sixty soreheads, greasers, half-breeds and dagos…a gang of hobos’. It is as well they did not fight alongside each other.

The second Irish Transvaal Brigade was posted to the Helpmekaar Pass on the Biggarsberg where they fought well during the Boer retreat up to Laing’s Nek on the Natal border. MacBride and Blake took their unit to Johannesburg, where they were joined by fifty-eight members of an Irish-American ‘ambulance corps’ from Chicago and New York. Though there were seven American doctors among them, the rest of the men under Captain O’Connor flagrantly used their Red Cross accreditation to get out of America to Africa to fight for the Boers. The new combined Irish force now moved to the front line in the Orange Free State. Here they faced Lord Roberts’ army of 45,000 men.

A cat-and-mouse game with the British cavalry began—with the Irish as the mouse. Some of MacBride’s men were formed into a ‘dynamite squad’ or ‘wreckers’ corps’, blowing up railway bridges and facilities as the Boer army retreated. This, done with their daredevil tactics, made the Irish very valuable to the Boers. But the British advance was not halted and on 23 May 1900 the Irish brigade crossed the Vaal River and entered the Transvaal.

Retreat and ‘bitter end

Lynch’s commando survived only a couple of months and by the time the British army was south of Johannesburg, it had disintegrated and Lynch was thinking of clearing out of South Africa. Johannesburg had been the home of many of the Irish gold miners in the two commandos and some were reluctant to leave, preferring to disappear into the side streets of the Fordsburg suburb.

Others, however, were determined not to vacate the town without a struggle and one of the fiercest firefights was in Orange Grove as the British army pressed the retreating Irish from street to street. Just after this, Lynch and MacBride came upon each other—both covered in dust, exhausted and battle weary. They exchanged greetings and parted forever.

Soon Colonel Blake had to vacate his comfortable surroundings in Pretoria’s Grand Hotel. The retreat across the eastern Transvaal highveld had begun. Before long Blake had left the Irish commando altogether to fight elsewhere and for the last two months of its existence, MacBride was in sole command.

Back in Ireland, of course, it had always been ‘MacBride’s Brigade’ in any case.
A campaign there against recruitment to the British army met with some success. Then Maud Gonne had involved herself in intrigues with the Boer representative in Europe, unaware that he was already in cahoots with the IRB. The visit to Ireland in April 1900 of Queen Victoria had for a while dampened the Irish pro-Boer cause, but by mid-summer, the Boer colours were to be seen all over Dublin. Also by then, reports of Michael Davitt’s much-publicised visit to the Boer front lines had appeared in the Freeman’s Journal.

Back in the eastern Transvaal, the Irish brigaders were suffering. Food was short, as were horses and clothes. Tempers frayed. There were those with horses under Major MacBride and Captain McCallum and there were the ‘foot sloggers’ under Captain O’Connor and Lieutenant Ryan. MacBride was in overall command. The Irish fought at the battles of Diamond Hill on 12 June and Dalmanutha on 27 August, but most of the time they harassed the British advance, most notably when they held the town of Belfast for several hours under heavy fire. But the game was up and by mid-September 1900 MacBride could hardly control his men as they moved over the great escarpment and down into the hot and humid lowveld. But still, they fought on, now under the overall command of General Viljoen. Finally on Sunday, 23 September 1900, they reached Komatipoort and the Mozambique border. With testimonials from State Secretary Reitz and General Botha in his pocket, Major MacBride said farewell to his horse, Fenian Boy, and, with what was left of his brigade, boarded a train which clattered across the great iron bridge over the Komati River and into Portuguese territory.

But not all the Irish brigaders had left. Blake and some of the lads remained and for the next eighteen months, these Irish ‘bitter-enders’ harassed the British army along the line of the Pretoria-Delagoa railway line through the Transvaal, on one occasion, 7 January 1901, defeating a unit of the Royal Irish Regiment at Monument Hill.


When peace came in May 1902, most of the Irish had little choice but to make their way to Europe or America, where MacBride’s men had preceded them. In 1901 Lynch had got himself elected to an Irish seat in parliament, something MacBride had not achieved; but returning from Paris to England, he had been arrested, tried and convicted of high treason. Unlike MacBride and his men, Lynch had taken out Transvaal citizenship only after the war had broken out, thus laying himself open to this treason charge. But lucky as ever, and much to the regret of many of MacBride’s men, Lynch escaped the hangman’s noose and was eventually pardoned.

The Irish had fought well in the war. Accusations that they were more fond of the bottle than the battle are false: they were fond of both. We know the names of ninety-one casualties in the Irish commandos, thirty-one of whom were killed, twenty-three wounded and twenty-seven made prisoners-of-war. Compared with the 4,452 casualties in the war from Irish regiments this is insignificant, but it was the activities of ‘MacBride’s Brigade’ which had caused excitement in Ireland.

The publication of Blake’s war memoir, Davitt’s The Boer Fight for Freedom, and later of a series of thirteen articles by MacBride in the Freeman’s Journal kept this memory alive. So, too, did the 1903 Paris wedding of MacBride and Maud Gonne, who were married under the brigade’s flag by the brigade’s chaplain. Reports of a son born in the Transvaal to MacBride would emerge only eighty years later. In Dublin, 1899 was a dry run for 1916. When the rising finally came, though, MacBride stumbled on it by accident—but was soon once again number two in a fighting unit. Elsewhere in the city other former Irish Transvaal brigaders also fought the English again. When the British army was mopping up after the insurrection, they found rifles with Boer carvings on their butts. Shortly before Major MacBride was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham, he is reported to have said: ‘I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African war to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence’.