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Historic excavation of WWI training trenches underway

Story by Olga Aughey

Friday, 10th August, 2018 8:00am

Historic excavation of WWI training trenches underway

Shell casings dating from the 1850s and a silver three pence from 1918 were among the finds in the topsoil during the excavation of Birr Barracks this week.

Locally known as Crinkill Barracks on the Fourteen Acres, the dig has been ongoing since Monday and comes to an end today, Friday August 10.

Led by Stephen Callaghan, one unusual discovery is a trench deeper than 5ft, which is "pretty impressive" he says because usually training trenches uncovered are often only a foot deep. It also has revealed a gaspipe to the barracks in perfect condition.

"This dig is of huge interest locally and nationally. It's first community dig in Offaly where amateurs from all walks of life can come along and receive training and take part. As well as locals, we have people here from Donegal, Kilkenny and Dublin, all willing to help," he tells the Offaly Independent.

The Dublin native whose mum is from Birr is about to start a Master's Degree on the history of the barracks in September and hopes to become a historian. 

Ahead of the dig, a licence was secured from the State through Dr Denis Shine of the Irish Archeology Field School to allow the dig to proceed, while Ashley Greene of Bournemouth University carried out a geophysical survey that highlighted hotspot areas for investigation. 

"It's the first dig of mock trenches in the Republic of Ireland. Very little investigation has taken place nationwide into these training systems and we will be preserving all the information and documenting on these training trenches. The 5ft trench is not something you would often come across and it shows how seriously they took their training here," continues Stephen.

"Soldiers would have gone from here to the Western Front and it's great to find a silver three pence coin dating back to 1918 that was lost."

Hosted by the Irish Archaeology Field School is in partnership with Offaly County Council as part of the 50th celebrations of Birr Vintage Week, Brian Kennedy of Birr Historical Society said the dig to uncover WW1 training trenches is "going fantastically".

"They have discovered a gas pipe from the gasworks directly into the barracks. It is about 30cms below ground and in perfect condition after more than 100 years," Brian begins.

"Bullet casings, tunic and cap buttons, and belt buckles would be what you would expect to find, every detail will help in dating the trenches.  

"Birr Historical Society are delighted to see the dig taking place. More than 100 people from Birr died in the First World War and over 6,000 people enlisted at Crinkill Barracks, which is how it was locally known as opposed to its official name of Birr Barracks."

The trenches are located beside the remains of Birr Barracks on the garrison’s former training grounds, the Fourteen Acres.

Trenches are arguably the most iconic imagery when people think of the Great War. By excavating these trenches it is hoped to better understand how they were constructed, used and how realistic they were.

"It is probably safe to assume they were used to prepare soldiers stationed in Birr Barracks for what life on the Western Front was like," continued Stephen.

"Once the initial momentum of the war ceased, soldiers on both sides dug in for a gruelling conflict of attrition where huge losses of life resulted in little ground gained.

"Birr Barracks and the Fourteen Acres have themselves had a long and colourful history. The barracks was built between 1809 – 1812 by Birr architect Bernard Mullins, and was large enough to house around 1,200 soldiers. Over time the complex developed with a church, cemetery, married quarters, a gas works and other facilities added.

"The adjoining training ground facilitated the barracks and was used for marching, annual militia training camps, sports and games. In 1843 the brutal murder of an Adjutant Robertson Mackay took place here and later in 1877 the third son of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Connaught presented the 53rd Regiment of Foot with a set of new colours. 

"From 1881 until 1922 the barracks acted as the depot of the Leinster Regiment. The barracks was handed over to the IRA in February 1922 and later burned on 14 July by anti-treaty members of the IRA during the Irish Civil War so the National Army couldn’t reoccupy it."

During the Great War some 6,000 men answered Kitchener’s call at Birr Barracks. Many joining the ranks of the newly created 16th Irish Division. While the trenches at Birr are not on a large a scale as those at Curragh Camp, County Kildare or Finner Camp County Cork, they do however indicate the importance of having a set for training these new recruits in aspects of trench life and warfare.

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