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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Booby Traps at the Barracks by James Doherty


The entrance to the Artillery Barracks (Poole Collection NLI )
 

As is often the case when researching history, sometimes you find something of interest rather than what you were actually looking for. On a trip to the National Archives in Dublin I asked to see files relating to the history of the military barracks in Waterford. There were two large barracks in the city: an infantry and a cavalry (later artillery) barracks. The time period I was interested in was the early 19th century, but a helpful archivist mentioned there was a record relating to the artillery barracks in declassified Garda files dating from 1938. 

The archivist had my interest at “declassified”, but the date was also interesting. By 1938 the artillery barracks had lain in ruins for over a decade since the Civil War and I wondered what had attracted the attention of An Garda Síochána. The document was brief (only two pages) and it concerned a query from Messrs Hamilton & Co., builders at Thomas Street, stating that they had been awarded the contract for building public housing there and the builder was concerned about the possibility of munitions left on the site. 

Commandant James McGrath of Portebello barracks, a veteran of the Civil War was interviewed and stated that he had removed land mines left at the barracks by retreating Anti-Treaty forces. Commandant McGrath stated that he couldn’t be sure that all were retrieved and the army arranged an inspection of the site. The all-clear was given and building work commenced. 


Free state forces pose in the bar of the Granville hotel with captured explosives, 1922
(Poole Collection NLI)


Often when you read historical documents you can’t help but put yourself in the shoes, or in this case the work boots, of someone else. Joseph O Shea was a builder’s labourer who, on the morning of 10 November 1938, made an alarming discovery. While digging a drain near the old barracks entrance, O Shea unearthed an artillery shell with a wire running from it. The builders alerted the Garda at the Barrack Street station and the scene was immediately sealed off. 

An ordinance officer from the Curragh was dispatched and in total eleven artillery shells and a landmine were discovered buried near the front gate of the barracks. Not all the shells were live, but there were enough to present a considerable threat to the advancing Free State troops in 1922 and to Joseph O Shea the builder sixteen years later. In modern military parlance these shells wired together with a landmine as detonator would be known as Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs for short. The intention was clear: once the occupying Free State soldiers entered the barracks, quite a substantial explosion would occur. 

Although the Garda document is brief, it shows the extent that Anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War were prepared to use scorched earth tactics and it also shows it pays to keep an open mind when visiting the archives. 




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