Visit to Aiken Barracks, Dundalk

There has been a military barracks in Dundalk since 1798 when the British stationed their military here after the failed rebellion. Nowadays, the men and women of the 27th Infantry Battalion serve their country and travel overseas to assist the United Nations on peace keeping duties.The barracks is home to around 330 troops and its here that members of both the Permanent and Reserve Defence Forces receive their training.

A typical day in the barracks begins with the parade at the square at 9am. Following this check parade to ensure that everyone is present, the soldiers join their companies, whether its rifles or support, and go to training.Training can take them out to the Cooley mountains, to Gormanstown or to the Glen of Immal.Fitness training is hugely important as the soldiers have to be able to carry their 90 kilogram pack containing clothing, rations and equipment for long distances. They also learn navigational skills and map reading, as well as weapons training.

 

The site of the barracks started off as a linen mill. There were three main phases to the buildings.The oldest building dates to 1810 with some development in the 1830s and the 1930s but much of the barracks is considerably newer, dating back to the 1970s. The newest addition is €1.8m gym. Men have been posted to both the Crimea War and the First World War from Dundalk Barracks.

 

Dundalk barracks also has a link to the founding of the Boy Scouts Movement by Lord Robert Baden-Powell. He had a distinguished military career in the British army, becoming the youngest ever Major-General before his retirement in 1910. Much of his service was with the cavalry regiments in India and South Africa, but he was stationed in Ireland for short periods in barracks at Ballincollig (Cork), the Curragh, Dundalk, Belfast and Dublin.

Lord Baden-Powell  was stationed in Dundalk barracks between 1894 and 1895. While he was stationed there he would bring the soldiers out to Ravensdale forest and teach them some basic survival skills which he thought would be useful to them.

In 1906 and 1907 Baden-Powell wrote a book for boys about reconnaissance and scouting which he called Scouting for Boys. In the summer of 1907 Baden-Powell held a camp on Brownsea Island in England to test ideas for his book. This camp and the publication of Scouting for Boys are generally regarded as the start of the Scout movement.

Aiken barracks is named after Frank Aiken, commandant of the 4th Northern Division IRA and later government minister.

In April 1922 the 4th North. Div. commanded by Frank Aiken occupied Dundalk barracks as the British forces evacuated Free State territory under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Irish Civil War began in June 1922 and on 16 July 1922 the Pro-Treaty 5th Northern Division led by Dan Hogan occupied Dundalk taking Aiken and 300 of his men prisoner. Just eleven days later on 27 July, some of Aiken’s IRA command under John McCoy blew a hole in the wall of Dundalk Gaol. The operation resulted in the freeing of over 100 republican prisoners, including Aiken himself. Aiken now prepared take back Dundalk barracks from the Free State forces.   Aiken organised for boats to ferry his 300 strong force across the Castletown river onto the Point Rd  Dundalk.

The attack commenced at 4:00am on 14 August. Though several mines failed to explode, one did blast in the back gate. The walls were breached. After the back gate was destroyed by the explosion Frank Aiken and his men got through. A heavy fire was soon directed onto the attacking troops from some of the barrack rooms. However the attackers got the upper hand as prisoners were captured. In the military barracks 350 prisoners were taken. The other posts in town surrendered as soon as they knew that the military barracks had fallen.

The attack had been successful and 400 rifles and a large volume of ammunition was captured. However, Patrick McKenna, a member of Aiken’s Division,  who had captured a Lancia armoured car from pro-Treaty troops elsewhere in Dundalk, was killed when he drove it through the main gate of the barracks after the fighting had ended, his comrades, mistaking it for a Free State counter attack, detonated a mine, killing McKenna.

Five pro-Treaty soldiers were killed with  15 injured. One republican was killed, by their own mine, and up to 30 wounded in the fighting. Reportedly one civilian also died.

Dan Hogan travelled from Dublin to Dundalk with a heavily armed column (including artillery and armoured vehicles) and arrived to find the barracks empty. To cover their retreat back to Ravensdale, the republican forces left behind a car with a bomb strapped beneath it in the town of Dundalk. This is reportedly the first use of the car bomb in Irish military history.

From 1924 onward the Free State forces have been in control of the barracks. During the Second World War Emergency the 3rd & 4th Cyclist Squadron’s were based in Dundalk Barracks.

Following the outbreak of violence in the North of Ireland in 1969, the beginning of the period now known as The Troubles, the Irish Government sent soldiers to the border area. Initially four company sized infantry groups were formed to operate along the border, however as the Troubles escalated and with no end in sight it was decided to establish two infantry battalions as a permanent replacement for the border infantry groups. On 1 September 1973 the 27th Infantry Battalion and 28th Infantry Battalion were established.

From its activation the 27th Infantry Battalion’s Headquarters, Headquarters Company and A Company have been based in Dundalk. B Company are based in Gormanstown, Co. Meath.

27 Infantry Battalion.svg

The flash symbolism of the 27th Infantry Battalion is based on the Irish mythological warrior Cúchulainn, given the relevance to the battalions area of operations and headquarters. The sword and two spears represent those presented to Cúchulainn by King Conchobar Mac Nessa, the King of Ulster based at Emain Macha or Navan Fort (now modern day Armagh City) The shape of the flash incorporates the angular sloped armour of the Panhard M3 armoured personnel carrier used by the battalion. The colours are saffron and purple. The saffron represents the colour of the cloaks worn by Irish mythical warriors the Fianna and purple is the traditional colour of infantry. The battalion march is Clare’s Dragoons chosen by Louis Hogan who was originally from County Clare.

Throughout the Troubles, the 27 Infantry Battalion’s largest commitment was providing checkpoints on border crossings in support to the Garda Síochána.Support to the Gardaí was known as Aid To Civil Powers (ATCP). Other ATCP tasks include escorting large sums of cash, industrial explosives and high security prisoners as well as guarding Portlaoise Prison Ireland’s only high security prison. In 1979 the battalion provided security at Killineer near Drogheda during Pope John Paul II visit to Ireland. In 2011 the battalion secured Islandbridge area in Dublin during the Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit and the secured Dublin airport for US president Barack Obamas’ visit a few days later. 

Many of the soldiers have served overseas on peace-keeping missions with the UN most-notably in Lebanon and Kosovo, Most have seen active service since 1978 where two of the battalions members died in service of peace, Private Patrick Wright in 1988 and Private Michael McNeela who was killed in action in 1989.

The 27 Infantry Battalion celebrated 40 years since its establishment with a parade in Dundalk town on 31 August 2013.

 

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