Cavan Militia


Although officially raised in 1793, as with the other Militia units, the 18th or Cavan Battalion of Militia did not start recruiting until 1794. One of two units, the other being the Kildare Battalion, described as ‘defective’ in an Irish House of Lords debate on 1 March 1794, the Cavans were ordered to ‘complete their number with convenient speed’.

Lord Bellamont had been appointed Colonel and it seems that disturbances in the county made it impossible to recruit the men required. However, the battalion, of six companies totalling 350 men, was embodied on 25 March 1794, after the House of Lords debate. As with other units there was difficulty in obtaining enough arms although uniforms did not present a problem. Baron Farnham was one of the county families whose sons took commissions in the battalion.

Once embodied the Cavans remained as such until 13 March 1816 although there were two brief periods of eight and ten months when the battalion was stood down. The first hint of action for the battalion was the threatened French invasion at Bantry Bay in 1796 when the Cavans formed part of the force that marched south-west to oppose the invaders. However, winter storms, the worst of the 18th century, meant that no Frenchmen landed in Ireland except as prisoners.

The French intention was to support the United Irishmen who rose in rebellion in 1798. The rebellion began on 24 May in Counties Wicklow and Kildare but was a series of skirmishes that rarely became major battles. The Cavan Militia fought at the Battle of Arklow on 9 June and, on the 21st, at the Battle of Vinegar Hill, two of the principal engagements of the rebellion in Leinster. At Arklow six men of the Cavans were killed in action.

The first phase of the rebellion in Leinster and Ulster ended on 12 July and there was a short spell of peace until a French force under General Jean Humbert landed in Connaught at Killala Bay on 22 August. The French quickly captured Killala and Ballina before marching towards Castlebar. Using a circuitous route gave Humbert the advantage of surprise allowing him to defeat the force that awaited him at Castlebar after a short but vicious fight that saw many of the defenders break and flee in what became known as the ‘Castlebar Races’.

With about 5,000 Irish rebels joining his force, Humbert struck towards Dublin, believing that rebellion was breaking out in both Longford and Westmeath. However, the United Irishmen in both counties had been defeated and a strong government force, deployed by Lord Cornwallis, was marching to meet the French. Although Humbert overcame more government forces at Collooney, six miles south-east of Sligo, the delay was a setback to his plans.

The Cavan Battalion was included in the force marching to meet Humbert’s army which had crossed the Shannon at Ballintra and was making for Dublin. About eight miles east of the Shannon, the campaign’s final battle was fought at Ballinamuck. Following a short fight Humbert surrendered. His pistol was taken from him and is on display in the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in Armagh.

Following the rebellion the Cavan Battalion remained mobilised, with only the two short breaks mentioned, until 1816, performing garrison duties in Ireland. During that period three soldiers of the battalion, Privates Joseph Cook, Thomas Hamilton and William Stacey, murdered a husband and wife, John and Margaret McCarthy, at their home in Ballinvostig, Aghada, County Cork, close to where the battalion was stationed at Fort Carlisle. The men were tried by court martial, found guilty and executed on 3 December 1800.

In contrast the Cavans’ officers raised funds to provide a school for the children of militiamen. The pupils wore uniforms made by the battalion tailor and were taught by two teachers, both sergeants in the battalion. They learned to read, write, spell and do arithmetic and were also taught catechism. The teachers used the ‘monitor’ system whereby pupils who had gained a certain level of proficiency could pass their knowledge on to others. Some 70 boys, both Catholic and Protestant, were enrolled. The cost to the officers was £121.50 per month.

The Irish Militia began a 39-year period of disembodiment in 1816 with units reduced to cadre strength. In 1833, with the harmonising of the Militia across the UK, the Cavans became the 101st Regiment and by 1850 had been granted a new title as the 101st, or Cavan Light Infantry Regiment of Militia.

The Crimean War broke out in 1853 and led to the embodiment of militia regiments, including the Cavans who were mobilised from January 1855 to August 1856. Having recruited to full strength, the regiment sent a draft of volunteers to the Crimea. Following the end of hostilities the Militia was again disembodied and units were reduced to cadre until 1881 when the Childers’ reforms linked them with line infantry regiments. The Cavan Militia became the 4th Battalion of Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment. In their new guise the Cavans were embodied for the Second South African War, the Boer War, on 5 December 1899 and remained so until 19 October 1900, sending a number of volunteers to South Africa.

In 1908 the Haldane reforms brought another major change with the creation of the Territorial Force in Great Britain. This legislation was not extended to Ireland where the Militia remained but was renamed the Special Reserve. Elsewhere in the UK the Militia ceased to exist, except for some small elements, also known as the Special Reserve. As a result the Cavans became the 4th (Special Reserve) Battalion of Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers).

With the outbreak of war in August 1914 the 4th Special Reserve Battalion was assigned the task of recruiting and training drafts, ‘holding’ those unfit for front-line service, holding officers too young for such service and helping to guard Ireland against the possibility of invasion. This unglamorous role was carried out with characteristic cheerfulness and professionalism. When the war ended the 4th Battalion was again reduced to cadre and to a title in the Army List which remained until their disappearance in 1953 with the final disbandment of the Militia.

Richard Doherty