The site of Magee barracks had been a British Army barracks since the early 1900s and subsequently was the first depot of An Garda Síochana following Independence. Magee Artillery Barracks was built in the 1930’s, and was one of the first military barracks to be built by the newly independent Irish Free State.
The decision to construct an artillery barracks at Kildare in 1900 was one of the most important events in the development of the town. The site of the barracks was on a farm called Broadhook Farm. It was the site of the Lock Hospital which was built in 1868 on lands leased from the Duke of Leinster and remained open for approximately 20 years. However the road it was built on is still called Hospital Street today.
The 1901 Census records the barracks as the Lock Hospital consisting of four camp hutments with 65 carpenters and joiners, Irish and English involved in the construction of the barracks. Living in the canteen were 26 English plasterers and painters. The foreman was a Thomas Ryan from Kildare and a Thomas McLoughlin from Kildare operated a public house on site.
The Leinster Leader recorded a social night in January 1901:-
“On Saturday night last the Irish foremen and timekeepers employed at the military barracks in course of erection in Kildare, entertained their English friends in the same employment. A number of guests were invited, and when supper was served at twelve o’clock about fifty sat to table. The health of the strangers was proposed and Mr. Oram foreman, responded in suitable terms. Dancing commenced after supper, the music being supplied by the employes [sic]. Songs were also rendered by Mr. Oram, Mr. White, Mrs. O’Brien, Mrs. Studley, Miss Dollard, Miss Farrelly, and Mr. McLoughlin. Proceedings were kept up until the small hours, when the party separated well pleased with their night’s pleasure. Messrs Behan, Hickey, and Murphy, who organised the entertainment, are to be congratulated on the success of their efforts.”
The barracks was occupied some time in 1901 and the first units stationed in the barracks were the 31st and 33rd Brigades, Royal Field Artillery – which consisted of five batteries of artillery.
The opening of the barracks provided a period of prosperity for Kildare because by the time of the census of 1911, the population had increased to 2,639 persons which included the 808 men stationed in the Barracks.
The onset of the First World War of course brought great excitement to the town – Military leave was cancelled and military intelligence took over Kildare Railway Station. Kildare Barracks was virtually emptied as the men in Kildare (15th Brigade RFA) were part of the Fifth Division which went to France in August 1914.
Following the war of Independence and signing of the treaty, the British made plans to vacate the barracks in April 1922. However on 10th February 1922 Lieutenant John Wogan Browne, a member of a well known family from Naas at the time, went to the Hibernian Bank to collect the regimental pay. At the corner of Infirmary Road a car pulled up and one of the occupants grabbed the bag which contained £135. Wogan-Browne attempted to recover the bag and was shot in the head. The car was driven by a Tom Graham from Kildare who hired the car out to three men who held him at gunpoint. Three men, who were all local, were arrested for the murder but were released a few months later. All passes for traders to the Barracks were cancelled and on the night of the funeral there was some trouble by British soldiers in the town.
Following the withdrawal of the British army, the barracks was selected as the site for the training of the new Civic Police and 800 men were sent to the new Civic Police headquarters on 25th April 1922. where the new recruits engaged in drill instruction and route marches to Newbridge and Monasterevin. Within a week of arriving the civic police were attacked by anti-treaty forces and soldiers were put on the gate to protect the barracks. There were simmering tensions in the barracks when the new recruits arrived as they found themselves being instructed by former RIC men. These experienced policemen were appointed over former republicans and tensions came to a head on 15 May 1922 when a former Cork IRA man, Thomas Daly presented an ultimatum to the Commissioner of the Civic Police demanding the expulsion of five named former RIC men. Commissioner Staines ordered a full parade of the barracks and when he ordered the signatories to step forward, a shouting match ensued and the parade was abandoned. The next day, Newbridge Barracks was handed over to the Civic Guard and while the commissioner was there, the mutineers raided the armory and seized rifles, revolvers and ammunition. Meanwhile, Staines had called for soldiers who had just taken over the Curragh from the British to assist the Civic Guard. They arrived in Kildare but were prevented by armed civic guards from entering the barracks and a stand off ensued. The situation was so serious that Michael Collins came to Kildare and agreed to set up an inquiry provided that Staines and other senior Civic police be allowed back to Kildare.
However, when Staines arrived at the gates, he was refused entry and when two former RIC men, Sergeant Patrick McAvinia and Superintendant John Byrne arrived at the gates, the mutineers drew weapons and Byrne was narrowly missed by a shot. The two ex RIC men fled while being chased by a mob and fled to the Railway Arms where they tried to make a phone call. A crowd gathered outside and threatened to burn the place down. They escaped out the back door and hid in the Carmelite house before escaping back to Dublin the next day.
The overall impact of these events were that the new police force was reconstituted as an unarmed police force which aimed to have closer links to the wider community and much less like a colonial police force in the way the RIC was perceived.
In March 1925. the Garda Siochana moved out and the Artillery Corps which was formed in 1923 moved from Dublin to Kildare. On 20th March 1925, the Artillery Corps arrived at Kildare railway station and the two batteries consisting of eight guns in total were each linked and harnessed to six horses and travelled to the barracks with outriders on the lead horses. Artillery requires specialist knowledge and accordingly, the new army gathered together men with previous experience of artillery and horsemanship to create the new unit. Thus you had men like Sgt Major Downey who had seen active service during the war at Vimy Ridge, Bertie Thompson, formerly of the Royal Canadian Artillery and my own grandfather James McLoughlin of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Kildare initially had one battery consisting of 5 Officers, 18 NCOs and 93 gunners (116 in total).
Like the British army, the Irish army battery included 1 farrier, 2 shoeing smiths, 2 saddlers, 5 signallers, 2 Trumpeters, 3 cooks, 2 clerks, 4 sergeants, 40 gunners and 29 drivers. Each battery had 4 18 pounder guns. The smiths and farriers would have been busy as two batteries of artillery required a regulation 125 horses.
The Artillery Corps was renowned for its strict discipline which was far stricter than other army units – with the highest standard of training, drill and dress.
The Artillery Corps carried out their first shoot in the Glen of Imaal in September 1925 with the men having to haul the guns over Table Top mountain. At the time with the formation of new batteries, each battery was assigned to a particular Battalion of the army. So, the 1st Battery was assigned to the 4th Battalion in Cork and when they held their exercises in Kilworth, the battery had to organize a special train to transport all the horses and equipment. This would take from 4 am to 8 am that evening to get the battery to Cork whereas the 2nd Battery only had to travel to the Glen of Imaal although this would in itself be an endurance as all movement was by horse. During the 1920s and 1930s, the entire artillery corps was based in Kildare so a number of Officers were sent to America and to England for Artillery training which they in turn passed on to others on their return to Kildare.
The replacement of the hutted artillery lines with a proper barracks commenced in 1938 when Sisk were given the contract to construct a new barracks and the artillery corps transferred temporarily to Plunkett Barracks in the Curragh. This was the first purpose built barracks built by the Irish State. The barracks was named Magee Barracks after Gunner James Magee who bravely handled a six pounder gun at the battle of Ballinamuck in September 1798.
The biggest change for the Artillery Corps in Kildare was the changeover to a mechanized artillery corps. In March 1939, most of the horses were sold at public auction in Dublin and the remainder given to other units in the army.
With the reorganisation the army in the 1990s, the days of Kildare Barracks were finally numbered and it closed in 1998. Yet again the business community and people of Kildare wanted to know what would become of the barracks. After a number of years as a home for Kosovan refugees and asylum seekers from around the world, the barracks will shortly make way for the needs of an expanding town.
(Courtesy Mark McLoughlin – Cill Dara Historical Society)