It can often be very easy to view the military forces of any nation as a sterling, professional fighting unit. The uniforms, the guns, the other equipment on display, the impression meant to be experienced is generally one of power, precision and competence, at least if they are doing it right. But militaries are as prone to getting things wrong as much as anyone else really, and for much the same reasons as anyone else: inexperience, bad equipment, a succession of minor faults. The thing is, when militaries make mistakes, the results tend to be more catastrophic. The Irish Army of the Emergency was in many ways a military force having something of an identity crisis, flush with reservists called up to active service, new recruits, new equipment it was unused to using and facing the prospect that they would have to fight off an invasion of their shores by a much larger, better-armed and probably much more experienced military. It is no wonder then that tragedies in training and development occurred. The worst of such things during this period, and one of the worst days in the history of the post-revolutionary period Irish Army, took place in September 1941 in a a field in Co Wicklow.
On the 16th of that month, a group of Irish Army officers and recruits assembled in the Glen of Imaal, a remote part of the Wicklow Mountains that was, then and now, in use by the Defence Forces for training. There were about 60 men there, from artillery, anti-aircraft and engineering units. Some of the officers had only been commissioned that year, in the face of the invasion threat that hovered over Ireland in 1940. The person in charge of the group, whose orders were to receive instructions in the procedure for disarming mines, was a Lt Michael McLoughlin, who was understood to be an experienced instructor in such things.
The explosives that the group were working with that day were so-called “butter boxes”. These were anti-tank mines constructed by the Army Ordnance Corps, that consisted of a sizable wooden box, waterproofed, which contained around 25 pounds of explosive material, usually gelignite. The weapons were designed to be used against tanks and other vehicles of course, but also could have use as a means of destroying bridges and other physical structures. Thousands of such mines had been created over the previous two years in preparation for an invasion that never came. McLoughlin’s class that day was in the set-up and arming of such devices, and three of them were with the group.
In the course of his instruction, McLoughlin had gathered just under 30 of the party around him, with the remainder left a short distance away. McLoughlin had bent over the butter box to demonstrate how detonator should be properly inserted into such a device. According to different accounts McLoughlin may have had an inkling of what was abut to occur, with one remembrance stating that he had suddenly thrown his body over the mine. One survivor later claimed he had heard someone shouting “You have seven seconds!”, allowing him to seek cover. Whatever the circumstances, the device suddenly exploded, creating in the process a crater at least seven feet deep and over 20 feet wide. Given the close proximity of so many men, heavy casualties were inevitable: 15 men were instantly killed by the force of the explosion, with another to die of his wounds within the day, over over a dozen more wounded to some degree. The vast majority of the dead were quite literally blown apart: a handful were lucky enough to be blown clear.
The aftermath was grim. The wounded were driven to the Curragh military hospital, as medical staff and Garda went about the grisly task of collecting the body arts of the deceased, after the remaining two mines were safely detonated. Some of the more seriously injured were operated on during the night, while the local Garda station became crowded with survivors seeking to contact families. Five of the survivors were found to have serious eye damage, with three totally blinded. The long term effects for some of the men involved were severe; those with eye damage were sent to specialist military hospitals in England for treatment, while others developed symptoms of PTSD. One man, Henry Cotton, a Corporal at the time of the incident but later commissioned as an officer with the Ordnance Corps, broke into a Dublin home in 1947 and shot dead two men there. He would later be found guilty but insane, and spent eight years in a psychiatric institution. The funerals for the dead were large affairs, with those in Dublin attended by government officials: for McLoughlin and one other man originally from the North, the military cortege was obliged to stop at the border.
No formal inquest was ever held into the events of that day: one was started by the Curragh military hospital but was ceased at the request of Garda. No formal investigation on the part of the military appears to have ever really took place, though of course it is hard to see how such an affair would have been able to conclusively determine what happened. The device that had exploded was of course gone, and the nearest witnesses were either dead or severely injured. The matter has been left to lie on the not unreasonable assumption that some manner of fault, whether with the explosive in general or with the detonator, resulted in the mine exploding prematurely. The results, in this case, were enormously tragic. Whether it was a badly designed mine or something else, the episode perhaps reflected on the rather unready state of the Irish military in the context of the Emergency.
This is a short entry, as the details for the Glen of Imaal incident are basic, straight-forward and bear little sustained analysis. A mistake was made somewhere, whether it was in the explosive or the manner that it was handled after its creation, and there was little appetite for an in-depth investigation afterwards: all signs of a military that was not entirely at ease with itself. The death toll makes the affair more than worthy of note, even if in the history of Ireland in the Second World War it usually merits little more than a figurative footnote. What happened that day was a tragedy, and constituted one of the worst blows to the Irish Army post-1923: at least some lessons were learned.
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