Soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment have celebrated their Irish heritage with a traditional parade and the presentation of shamrocks. As the only Irish Regiment of the line the Royal Irish celebrate the occasion wherever they are deployed around the world.
The parade was led on by the Regimental Mascot, an Irish Wolfhound called Brian Boru IX, and was accompanied by the Battalions’ Bugles, Pipes and Drums for a distinctly Irish feel. Shamrocks, small Irish plants, were first presented to Irish Soldiers in 1900 by order of Queen Victoria. The Regiment has continued the tradition ever since.
Speaking about the significance of the occasion Ranger Matthew Mitchell, 21, said: “No matter where we are, we celebrate St Patricks Day. It reminds us where we have come from and links us to our future”.
The Shropshire based Battalion have a busy year ahead. They deploy to Germany over the summer to take part in a multination exercise using the Foxhound light armoured vehicle. They are also currently training for a deployment to Spain in the autumn to conduct a NATO training exercise.
The soldiers certainly enjoy being busy. Corporal Robert Lewis, 34, said: “There are many opportunities at the moment for overseas deployments and training. The world is evolving and so are we”.
Talking of the current role of the Battalion, Captain Steve Maguire, 28, said: “We are an operationally busy Battalion at the cutting edge of the Army using the latest equipment. Days like today link us back to our roots and give us an opportunity to celebrate our heritage together”.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ivor Gardiner said: “St Patrick’s Day is a significant event for all Royal Irish Soldiers. It is a chance to both celebrate the Battalion’s Irish roots and bond as a Regimental family. Looking around today I am pleased that so many friends and family of the Battalion have joined us”.
The introduction of the shamrock
On 19 February 1900, Queen Victoria received a fourteen-year old bugler from The Royal Dublin Fusiliers. His name was James Dunne and he had been wounded in the arm and chest at Colenso on 15 December 1899, where he had also lost his bugle in the Tugela river. Victoria thought he was ‘a nice-looking modest boy’ and presented him with a new and inscribed bugle. Shortly after her encounter with Private Dunne, and following news of the bloody battles and heavy losses in the fighting to relieve the Boer siege of Ladysmith, Victoria sent a message to General Sir Redvers Buller. It was published in Natal Army Orders on 5 March 1900 - less the words 'my sympathy and':
I have heard with the deepest concern of the heavy losses sustained by my brave Irish soldiers. I desire to express [my sympathy and] my admiration of the splendid fighting qualities which they have exhibited throughout these trying operations. R.V.I.
On 14 March 1900, Natal Army Orders promulgated an instruction stating:
‘Her Majesty the Queen is pleased to order that in future on Saint Patrick’s Day all ranks in Her Majesty's Irish regiments shall wear as a distinction a sprig of shamrock in their head-dress to commemorate the gallantry of Her Irish soldiers during the recent battles in South Africa.’
This meant that the 17 March 1900 was the first opportunity for Irish soldiers to wear their shamrock with pride, as prior to this date the 'Wearin' of the Green' had been banned. She also directed that an Irish regiment of Foot Guards be raised and the 1st Battalion The Irish Guards was formed on 1 April 1900. Victoria then told her ministers, ‘I have decided to pay a visit to Ireland to thank those brave Irishmen’ and visited from 4 to 25 April 1900. When she arrived in Kingstown Harbour she wore a large sprig of shamrock and carried a parasol edged with embroidered shamrocks.
Queen Victoria’s directive on wearing shamrock was the Countess of Limerick’s inspiration for founding ‘The Countess of Limerick’s Shamrock League’ in 1901. The Countess, reflecting on Victoria's death on 22 January 1901, said:
...I was thinking of the war and the sorrow that it caused to the poor families in Ireland and elsewhere, when an inspiration came to me and I said, why not try, by selling the shamrock, to make a lot of money for them.
Her idea was to pick shamrock, retain as much root as possible, and then wrap and pack consignments in damp moss. These were then posted to arrive for sale in London by St Patrick’s Day. Individually ordered shamrock was posted in tin boxes directly from Limerick. The money raised by the Shamrock League in 1901 amounted to £400 and it went to the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association (formed in 1885 by Major James Kildea, born in Kilmaine, County Mayo).
The League continued long after the Boer War ended in May 1902 and by March 1915, they were selling shamrock from a shop in Bond Street and across London. The League donated funds directly from their local collections to the nearest Red Cross buffets in the railway stations to help pay for tea served to soldiers travelling to the front. The League was also able to send sprigs to all the Irish regiments so that they could wear their shamrock with pride on St Patrick’s Day 1915 - 1918.