The Irish Militia


By Richard Doherty, military historian, writer and broadcaster.

A Militia is a military force raised from the civilian population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. In 1661, after the Restoration of the monarchy a Militia was raised by the Duke of Ormonde. The force of about 15,000 men was exclusively Protestant and saw service during the Williamite/Jacobite war.

In 1715, the year of a Jacobite rebellion, the Irish parliament passed a Militia Act that led to a new force, including cavalry and infantry, being formed. As before this was a Protestant force, neither Catholics nor Presbyterians being allowed to bear arms, and the legislation was continued from 1719 to 1765 and then extended to 1775. During this period the Militia was ‘called out’ on five occasions, the first three times to meet threats of Jacobite rebellions in 1719, 1739 and 1745; the other two, in 1756 and 1760, were to deal with threats from France.

However, the Irish Militia fell into disarray from 1765 due, probably, to a failure to appoint new ‘commissioners of array’, the men empowered to call out or ‘array’ the force, as serving commissioners retired, died or left Ireland. An attempt was made to revive the Militia through a new Militia Act in 1778 but this was not implemented and there was no militia in Ireland between 1776 and 1793. In the latter year, with the outbreak of war with revolutionary France, it became essential to raise a new Irish Militia since the understrength regular army could not perform the many duties required of it, including defending Ireland. The situation was summarised by the historian of the Royal Longford Militia who wrote:

The State of Ireland in 1792 was most disturbed, midnight marauding to obtain arms, and local risings etc., openly usurped the freedom of the Government, whilst in 1793 the outbreak of war with France and the Country stripped of regular soldiers though in a state of rebellion, brought about a reorganization of the Irish Militia to stop the tide of anarchy.

The new force created in 1793 was formed of 38 regiments, one for each county and county borough (Dublin, Cork, Drogheda and Limerick), with Counties Mayo and Cork each having two regiments. The Royal Assent was received on 9 April and although Lord Hillsborough, who had introduced the Bill, commented that ‘the raising of a militia was a tedious business, of at least two months’ his estimate proved optimistic. The quota for the force was fixed at 21,660 men, which was amended by a further act in 1809 to 30,000 with an additional 15,000 in time of war.

By the end of April proclamations requiring the Militia to be embodied had been issued for only half the units, including Louth (20 April), Antrim, Londonderry (25 April), Down, Donegal and Monaghan (29 April). Others followed in May, including Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone on the 3rd.

Since all were raised at the same time their distinctive numbers were awarded by ballot. The units formed, with their precedence numbers, were:

1st Monaghan Regiment
2nd Tyrone Regiment
3rd Mayo North Battalion
4th Kildare Battalion
5th Louth Battalion
6th Westmeath Battalion
7th Antrim Regiment
8th Armagh Regiment
9th Down Regiment
10th Leitrim Battalion
11th Galway Regiment
12th Dublin City Regiment
13th Limerick City Battalion
14th Kerry Regiment
15th Longford Battalion
16th Londonderry Regiment
17th Meath Regiment
18th Cavan Battalion
19th King’s County Regiment
20th Kilkenny Regiment
21st Limerick County Regiment
22nd Sligo Battalion
23rd Carlow Battalion
24th Drogheda Battalion
25th Queen’s County Battalion
26th Clare Battalion
27th Cork City Regiment
28th Tipperary Regiment
29th Fermanagh Battalion
30th Mayo South Battalion
31st Roscommon Regiment
32nd Cork South Regiment
33rd Waterford Regiment
34th Cork North Regiment
35th Dublin County Battalion
36th Donegal Regiment
37th Wicklow Battalion
38th Wexford Regiment

Units of 8 companies or more were defined as ‘regiments’ and those of fewer than 8 companies ‘battalions’. The Drogheda Battalion, the 24th, with only 3 companies was amalgamated into the Louth Battalion in May 1797, thereby forming the Louth Regiment. With the number 24 free, the Queen’s County Battalion tried to claim it but it was re-assigned when the 12-company Down Regiment was split into North Down and South Down battalions.

Militia units were not to be stationed in their home counties and so between 1793, when they were first embodied, and 1816, when they were stood down, they served in many different stations across Ireland while some served in England. Many men transferred to the Regular Army as the Militia began to be seen as a pool of potential recruits for the Regular Army.

Unlike previous forces the new Militia formed in 1793 included Catholics and Presbyterians in its ranks as well as members of the established church. Many regiments were largely Catholic in composition and, while there was no religious barrier to being commissioned, the majority of officers still came from the Anglican community. They were appointed by the lord lieutenant from wealthy county families with the main qualification being financial: the property qualification of the lieutenant colonel commandant, later redefined as the Colonel, was £2,000 while a lieutenant colonel, appointed by the Colonel, was expected to have £1,200, a major £300, a captain £200, a lieutenant £50 and an ensign £25. Lieutenants and ensigns could also be appointed if their fathers had income of £100 per annum of £50 per annum respectively.

At first militia units experienced difficulty in obtaining arms and recourse was had to buying up private arms ‘from the owners in the province of Ulster’. This meant that units were armed with a motley collection of firearms initially until standardisation could be achieved. However, it was much easier to obtain uniforms, the production of which had a positive effect on the Irish woollen trade, bringing employment for those in the trade as well as to the tailors and hatters who produced the garments. The plethora of documents, including books of instruction, produced must also have been a boon to the printing trade, the principal centres of which were Dublin and Strabane in County Tyrone.

During their first embodiment the Militia units were involved in active service with the first such deployment coming in 1797 when a French fleet sailed to invade Ireland and support the United Irishmen. Although a strong Militia force marched to meet the invaders in Bantry Bay the French fleet was scattered by one of the worst winter storms of the 18th century and the only French soldiers to land in Ireland did so as prisoners of war. The second active deployment was to engage the United Irishmen in their rebellion between 24 May and 12 July 1798 when the Militia was the prime instrument of defeating the rebels. This was followed by a further French intervention when a force under General Jean Humbert landed in Killala Bay and achieved some success, defeating government forces at Castlebar and even declaring a ‘Republic of Connaught’, before being defeated at Ballinamuck. No battle honour was awarded for this brief campaign in contrast to a much smaller French landing at Fishguard in Wales in 1797 for which the battle honour Fishguard was awarded to the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry. This landing was intended as a diversion from that in Ireland.

In 1833 all Militia regiments in the UK were placed on a common roll with new precedence numbers. Under the Childers Reforms of 1881 most became battalions of the new line infantry regiments created that year, but some were re-roled as artillery or engineers. Across the UK these new infantry regiments were to have two line and two militia battalions, except in Ireland where the line regiments would include three militia battalions. As a result, most of the original Irish units became battalions of the eight Irish line regiments with five joining the King’s Royal Rifle Corps or the Rifle Brigade.

Most Ulster units became battalions of the antecedent regiments of the Royal Irish Regiment which reduced from six to three that year under Childers’ reforms. The new line infantry regiments were the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles and Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers). Their Militia battalions were (with 1833 precedence numbers): 71st Fermanagh Militia Regiment, 80th Royal Tyrone Fusiliers, 102nd Prince of Wales’s Own Donegal Militia, 77th Royal North Down Rifles, 79th Queen’s Own Royal Rifles Antrim, 112th Royal South Down Light Infantry, 108th Louth Rifles, 75th Armagh Light Infantry, 101st Cavan Light Infantry and 121st Monaghan Regiment.

In 1881 the Fermanagh Regiment, the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers and the Prince of Wales’s Own Donegal Regiment became the 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions of The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, formed by amalgamation of the 27th (Inniskilling) and 108th (Madras Infantry) Regiments. One other Militia unit, the Londonderry Light Infantry, initially amalgamated with the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers to form 4th Inniskillings but a month later the Londonderry element was removed from the battalion to become an artillery brigade.

The Royal Irish Rifles, an amalgamation of the 83rd (County of Dublin) and 86th (Royal County Down) Regiments, absorbed the Royal North Down Rifles, Queen’s Own Royal Rifles Antrim, Royal South Down Light Infantry and the Louth Rifles as their 3rd, 4th 5th and 6th Battalions.

The Armagh Light Infantry, Cavan Regiment and Monaghan Regiment became the 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions of Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers), formed by amalgamating the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) and 89th (Princess Victoria’s) Regiments.

Following the Second South African, or Boer, War a thorough analysis of the Army’s performance in South Africa was initiated which led to major changes, known as the Haldane Reforms. For the reserve forces, Haldane created the Territorial Force in 1908. This absorbed the Yeomanry and the Volunteers, a much younger element of the reserves dating only to 1859, while the Militia was disbanded, except for a small number of units that were renamed the Special Reserve. Since the legislation did not extend to Ireland, the Irish Militia survived as the Special Reserve with the former Militia battalions of the line infantry regiments becoming Special Reserve battalions, although some were disbanded. Special Reserve battalions played an important role in the First World War as they provided a means of recruiting and training recruits, as well as providing ‘holding’ units for those unfit for active service and for officers too young for the front line; they were also a garrison to defend Ireland against invasion. Some of the first troops deployed to counter the 1916 rebellion were from such battalions.

When the war ended Special Reserve battalions were reduced to cadre and existed in name only on the Army List, although there was another change of title, to Supplementary Reserve, in the 1920s. After the Second World War the title changed yet again, to Army Emergency Reserve, but in 1953 the old Militia battalions were finally struck off the Army List. That they existed on paper to this time explains why the Territorial Army battalions of Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Ulster Rifles and Royal Irish Fusiliers, formed in 1947, were, respectively, 5th, 6th and 5th Battalions as 3rd and 4th Battalions of all three regiments, and a 5th Battalion of Royal Ulster Rifles, still ‘lived’ on the Army List and their numbers could not be re-used until they disappeared finally. Until 1947 no Territorial Army infantry units had been raised in Northern Ireland; the first elements of the TA raised in the province had been sub-units of Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers in 1937 while a full artillery regiment was raised just before war broke out in September 1939.

Richard Doherty