Although the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day for centuries it wasn’t formally celebrated by the British Army until 1900, when HM Queen Victoria decreed the wearing of the shamrock as formal recognition of the bravery of her Irish soldiers during the Boer War.
On 19 February 1900, Queen Victoria received a fourteen-year-old bugler, James Dunne, from The Royal Dublin Fusiliers. James had been wounded in the arm and chest at Colenso in December 1899, when he also lost his bugle in the Tugela River. Queen Victoria presented him with a new inscribed bugle as she thought he was ‘a nice-looking modest boy’.
Not long after her encounter with Private (Pte) Dunne, Queen Victoria received news of the bloody battles and heavy losses in the fighting to relieve the Boer siege of Ladysmith. On 28 February, Queen Victoria’s reaction was telegraphed to General Sir Redvers Buller and published in Natal Army Orders on 5 March 1900:
“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 through these trying operations. R.V.I.”
On 14 March 1900, Natal Army Orders issued an instruction: ‘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 headdress to commemorate the gallantry of Her Irish soldiers during the recent battles in South Africa’.
The 17 March 1900 became the first occasion for Irish soldiers to wear their shamrock with pride.
At the same time the Queen directed an Irish regiment of Foot Guards be raised and as a result the 1st Battalion Irish Guards were formed on 1 April 1900.
Queen Victoria also informed her Government: “I have decided to pay a visit to Ireland to thank those brave Irishmen” which she carried out in 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 carried out numerous engagements, including a review of troops, in what turned out to be her final visit to Ireland.
123 years later the presentation of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day remains a proud British Army tradition for all ranks within the Irish regiments, including the Regimental mascots. No matter where in the world they serve they will receive the shamrock on 17 March.