Artefacts: Irish VCs and the Indian Mutiny

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18

The 1st Madras Fusiliers in action during the Mutiny

The 1st Madras Fusiliers in action during the Mutiny

Instituted in 1856 to reward members of the British army and navy for ‘single acts of valour’, the Victoria Cross has been awarded to over 200 Irishmen, born both here and overseas, representing about 16% of the 1,356 medals awarded. The dates of the awards to Irish soldiers span 90 years, from the Crimean War to the dying days of World War II, when James Magennis of Belfast won the medal for a daring attack on a Japanese warship in a midget submarine. The majority of the medals were awarded to Irish soldiers in the nineteenth century and highlight the large number of Irishmen in the British Army during this time.

 

79_small_1279641821The first Victoria Cross (VC) was awarded to Armagh-born Charles Lucas, a young Royal Navy officer during the Crimean War. Seeing a live shell on deck that was about to explode, Lucas threw it overboard. The medal is now held by the National Maritime Museum in London and until recently was on display at the National Museum in Collins Barracks. The second VC and the first army medal was also awarded to a Irishman, Sergeant Luke O’Connor of Elphin, Co. Roscommon, who joined the 23rd (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) Regiment at the age of seventeen. After winning the VC during the Crimean War, he was made an officer and two years later fought in the Indian Mutiny (1857–9). The Indian Mutiny (or, as it is more commonly known by Indians today, the First War of Liberation) began after the introduction by the East India Company of the new Enfield rifle to its military units. Company regiments of Hindu and Muslim soldiers were offended by the new bullet that was greased with a mixture of pig and cow fat.

 

Added to other grievances, a mutiny of these units finally broke on 10 May at Meerut, a town near Delhi. The East India Company, caught off guard, spent the next eighteen months fighting to regain control of India. During this period the British Army sent many Irish regiments to India, while Company units such as the Madras Fusiliers and the Bengal Europeans, which consisted mainly of Irish recruits, were quickly involved. The British Library has recently lent the National Museum of Ireland the VC of Sergeant Patrick Mahoney of the 1st Madras Fusiliers, awarded for capturing the flag of a unit of mutineers, the 1st Native Infantry, on 21 September 1857. Mahoney, who was born in Waterford in 1827, was never to receive his VC, however, as he was killed a month later at Lucknow. By the end of the Mutiny 183 VCs had been awarded, of which over 50 went to Irish-born soldiers. The ending of the Mutiny also saw the end of the East India Company: after 258 years the governing of India passed from the company directly to the British government on 1 November 1858. Many of the regiments of the East India Company then transferred to the British Army, and the Madras Fusiliers were eventually to be renamed the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1881.  HI

Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland (Decorative Arts and History).
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