Ireland’s Wars: The Road To The Boer War

Britain’s last great colonial adventure of the 19th century and Victoria’s lengthy reign, as some of the last unclaimed parts of the non-western world were being eyed up and bartered over, took place not in a war against black Africans or Australasians, but against the white descendants of European colonists, as part of a process whereby the modern nation of South Africa came into being, a confederation of British colonies and newly subdued protectorates and client states. This is the conflict of Majuba, the Spion Kop, Ladysmith and Kitchener’s blockhouses, and it was a war where many Irish soldiers and several Irish regiments fought. In this post, I’d like to take the opportunity to explain how this war came about, before future posts look more closely at the Irish experience.

“Boer” is the Dutch and Afrikaans word for “farmer”, and is popularly used as an identifier for the colonists of the southern part of Africa of European, primarily Dutch, background. Since the 17th century, Dutch commercial interests had been colonizing the Cape, but their rule had been resented by the increasing population, who wandered further and further afield. The British, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, gained control of the Cape Colony in the early 19th century, and while their administration of the colony improved some things, the greater equality granted to natives and other black residents rankled with the Boers, already immersed in a racially uneven society that would dominate South African affairs from the first arrival of Europeans to the present day. As a result, more and more Boers trekked out farther afield, eventually founding their own states beyond British control, namely the Southern African Republic, known more commonly as the Transvaal Republic, and the Orange Free State. They also settled in Natal to the east of Cape Colony, but this was a British colony eventually too.

British control and influence in the region increased gradually, in line with the growing European domination of Africa, then fully experiencing the effects of the “Scramble”, wherein the great European powers all tried to grab as much of the continent as they could before somebody else did. The famous Anglo-Zulu War – that of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – was fought in the region from 1879-1880, and had direct relevance to British-Boer relations.

The region might well have remained a little remarked upon colonial frontier, notable only for British efforts to gradually expand northwards and the Boers racist treatment of the African natives – even at the time, regarded as remarkably bad by Britain – but for the discovery of two separate troves of mineral resources, namely the diamonds of Kimberley in the Free State and the gold of the Rand region in the Transvaal, which suddenly turned these areas into some of the richest pieces of real estate on the planet.

This first Boer War stemmed, eventually, from the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley, and British efforts to suddenly incorporate that part of the South African landscape. The British annexed the area in 1877, and then went a step further by annexing the Transvaal the same year. The Zulu War delayed a proper response, but by the end of 1880 the Transvaal Boers, led by the dynamic and popular leader Paul Kruger, were in open rebellion.

This first full-on experience of warfare in the “veld” – the open plains of South Africa, broken by the hilly “kops” – was a tough one for the British, who had spent decades fighting wars against disorganised and easily beaten natives. The Boers excelled as light cavalry, being excellent horseman and distinguished marksmen, and favoured guerrilla tactics of ambush, raid and melting away into the countryside without offering anything close to a pitched battle. Organised into “commandos” with elected officers, they operated as highly mobile columns, not dissimilar to the ASU’s of the Irish War of Independence decades later (who would, indeed, be taking much direct inspiration from the Boers). The British, still wearing redcoats and carrying regimental flags into fights, favoured unit cohesion and massed firepower, and they suffered badly in the course of the three-month conflict, running into a succession of bad defeats, culminating in the terrible reverse at Majuba in February 1881.

A new liberal government in London under Gladstone had no interest in continuing an already expensive war, and a peace agreement that left the Transvaal as a self-governing state under nominal British suzerainty was agreed. The war has little overt connection to Ireland, save for the fact that one of the units engaged there, the 94th Regiment of Foot, would be transformed from its own entity into a battalion of the reconstituted Connacht Rangers, while they were stationed in South Africa. In line with the Childers Reforms, many of the newer Irish regiments cycled through postings in the colonies, and South Africa was no exception. A section of the 94th was badly mauled in the first major engagement of the war, and their experiences, and the experiences of other British regiment, led to significant tactical reforms in the army, not least the long-needed abandonment of the redcoat in favour of khaki.

The Second Boer War took the better part of two decades to come to the boil. The discovery of gold and the continuing rush for diamonds resulted in an explosion of immigration into both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, to the extent that these “uitlanders”, by the end of the century, were actually forming a majority over the “native” Boers (leaving aside the gigantic amount of actual native Africans, who are curiously ignored in much of the history of the period). The uitlanders lacked political rights on the same level as the Boers though, a situation deemed necessary by Paul Kruger, who spent the period after the first war being the Transvaal’s elected President. Kruger wanted to maintain the Boers political control, but the situation was untenable: the cause of the uitlanders was too tempting a one for elements of the British administration in the rest of South Africa, and at home, who saw in such a crusade the opportunity to win a permanent favourable settlement in the area.

An abortive effort to lead an uitlander coup in the Transvaal, financed by local magnates like Cecil Rhodes and secretly approved by political like Secretary for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain, took place in 1895, but was easily defeated by the Boers. It was this incident that started the final path to open warfare, as negotiations between Kruger and British interests over uitlander rights gradually deteriorated, a process aided by hardcore imperialists like Alfred Milner, the Governor-General of the Cape, who wanted to drive forward the dream of a federalised South Africa.

Though significant parties on either side entered the conflict with severe misgivings, on the likelihood of success and the long-term costs of such a fight, war began in the autumn of 1899, with the British Army organising for a field force to be sent to augment the existing units already in the area, with the stated aim of driving into both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Several Irish regiments would be engaged, in a war that the British hoped would be over Christmas, but which would drag on for three miserable years.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Villain Checklist: Defining Statements

The matter of the defining statement is an important one for all characters in any story, and the antagonist is no exception to that. What do I mean when I say defining statement, in the context of the villain? Simply this:

”Defining Statement – During or around the villain’s introduction, he/she should have a defining statement, which sums up their character or line of thinking in a simple way.”

I’ve talked about defining statements on this blog before, namely in regards the pilot episode of Firefly. They should be something straightforward and occur early on in the story. They can be verbal or physical, but they must be understandable to the audience. They can be overt or more subtle, but they can’t be too spelled out or indecipherable. In essence, once you have heard the villain give his/her defining statement, you should understand more about them, what drives them and how we can expect them to try and achieve their goals.

Let’s take a look at some of my favourites, starting with an absolute piece of writing genius. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, our villain is Heath Ledger’s Joker, an antagonist character so perfectly done that I have already looked at him twice. He also has a pitch-perfect defining statement, which we get towards the end of the film’s opening scene, wherein the Joker, incognito, leads a group of backstabbing bank robbers in a raid on a Mafia institution. About to make his getaway, having killed the others, the masked Joker is accosted by the bank manager, who remembers a time when the underworld of Gotham City had a code, and believed in ideals. When he demands to know what the masked man believes in, the Joker whips off his mask – showing his deformed face and ghastly make-up for the very first time – considers for a brief moment and then says:

“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you…stranger”.


Still an amazing performance.

In these few words, we learn so much. The Joker has an eerie confidence that will mark so much of what will follow. His words automatically make us think about his origin – which will be a recurring talking point with the character – and what could have happened to make him the man that he is, adding a sense of mystery to the character almost immediately. And, completely in line with the character who will dominate the movie, it’s a grim but very well placed and well thought-out play on words: in other words, a joke. It’s rare you’ll find a defining statement more perfect than this.

One of my other absolute favourites when it comes to this idea is from the other side of the comic book spectrum, that of Obadiah Stane – aka, the “Ironmonger” – in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Played by Jeff Bridges, the industrial tycoon is introduced at an awards show dedicated to praising the genius of Tony Stark, who just so happens to be absent, choosing to spend his time gambling and womanising. The video package showcasing Tony touches on Stane briefly, as the man who kept Stark Industries going between the death of Howard Stark and Tony’s coming of age, whereupon he had to cede the spotlight. When Tony fails to appear to collect his award, Stane is obliged to step up to the microphone and accept it on his behalf, opening up with the words:

“Well, I’m not Tony Stark”.


An under-rated showing from Bridges.

Stane says these lines in a semi-joking self-deprecating manner, but the layer of meaning underneath them is obvious, in line with what we have been presented about Stane up to this point. He’s a man who kept Stark Industries on the straight and narrow in the face of a catastrophe, and now his role is to accept awards for the younger, flashier boss who can’t be bothered to turn up. Stane isn’t Tony Stark: as far as he’s concerned, he’s better than him, and isn’t acknowledged as such. Stane’s heel turn won’t be tangibly apparent for a while yet, but the motivations behind it are brilliantly foreshadowed in this opening line.

Defining statements don’t have to be verbal of course, they can easily be physical. Darth Vader’s first walk into our lives is a great example, as he exudes both authority and a ruthlessness in the way he arrives after the fighting has been done to get into the Tantive IV, briefly considers the fallen Stormtroopers, and then marches on with air of contempt, as if everything he has witnessed is beneath him. Vader doesn’t really have a verbal defining statement, at least not in his first few scenes, but this suffices to showcase him as someone to be feared.


The breathing helped too.

Defining statements are obviously beyond the scope of just film, and I’d like to look to the interactive medium to talk about one of my favourite examples from one of my favourite games. Dr Wallace Breen is the primary antagonist of Half-Life 2, though you only come face to face with him at the games conclusion. Our main encounters with him come in the form of the “Breencasts”, when his towering head addresses the downtrodden citizens of City 17 from on high. The opening one is our introduction to the new and changed world where Breen is a Quisling puppet of alien overlords, where this administrator outlines his philosophy. I would put his defining statement as three simple little words at the end:

“Welcome. Welcome, to City 17. You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers. I thought so much of City 17, that I elected to establish my administration, here, in the citadel, so thoughtfully provided by our benefactors. I am proud to call City 17 my home. And so, whether you are here to stay, or passing through to parts unknown, welcome, to City 17. It’s safer here.”


Still one of the best video game introductions ever.

The delivery is important here as well – Breen smiles just a fraction with that last sentence, as if thinking the best about the best way to get across his meaning as effectively as possible. Volumes are said with those three words, both about Breen himself and what Breen thinks of his actions. “It’s safer here”: for humanity, subservience to the Combine is safer than resistance, or being alone in a hostile universe. “It’s safer here”: for Breen himself, being the King of a world under the boot of an all-powerful oppressor is better than being just under the boot with everyone else. “It’s safer here”: Humanity is better off with Breen in charge. It is at once a statement of argument, explanation and justification, and it tells us much of what we need to know about Breen immediately.

It’s hard to find an example of this being executed badly: usually, a bad defining statement is just the absence of one. But there are a few examples I would think of negatively.

Let’s harp back to Quantum of Solace’s Dominic Green. I’ve already outlined how I think his introductory scene is one of the weakest in the history of Bond villains, and what I would deem to be his defining statement is part of that. Bear in mind that this is James Bond we’re talking about here: the introduction to the villain needs to set him up as a threat, both to the main character and in a larger sense as well. Dr No, Goldfinger, Alec Trevelyan, these were all people who were both a physical match for Bond, either themselves or through intermediaries, and a threat to the stability of the world at large. And you know that right from the moment that you met them. But not Dominic Green who, having botched an ill-considered assassination of Camille and then seen her stroll right into his headquarters to berate him for it (why is she doing this?), proceeds to start being a bit creepy and threatening at the same time in his lines, but all to little purpose:

“I knew we shouldn’t have slept together. I think I’m starting to like you…Please don’t talk to me like I’m stupid. It’s unattractive…There’s nothing that makes more uncomfortable…than friends talking behind my back. It feels like…ants under my skin. It’s been that way forever. I remember when I was 15. I had a crush on one of my mother’s piano students. Somehow I overheard her saying very nasty things about me. I got so angry…”



And on and on. See, this is all well and good, but there’s no point to it. So Green is a bit of a leech, alright, but that has little bearing on his plans or his relationship with the hero. So he has an anger problem: this is counter-acted by his generally unimpressive physical appearance. So he doesn’t bear betrayal very well: who does, and this doesn’t really come up again in the movie. Everything about Green is dull, predictable and plodding.

Also, consider the character of Dennis Nedry, in the otherwise breath-taking triumph that is Jurassic Park. We meet Nedry first as he goes over the details of his ill-fated mission for “Dodgson”, over breakfast in some tropical eatery. As things wind down, Nedry gets the bill for his food, and essentially suggests Dodgson pay it:

“Don’t get cheap on me now Dodgson”.

Which would be perfectly fine as a defining statement, encapsulating Nedry’s greed, arrogance and over-confidence, all things that will trip him up later. But Jurassic Park can’t leave it at that, putting the following line in after:

“That was Hammond’s mistake.”



Something about that addition always bothered me. Jurassic Park’s script is otherwise sublime in terms of nuance and subtly, but here Nedry just seems to blurt out his primary motivation for screwing over InGen.

And in terms of non-verbal failure, contrast Vader with our introduction to Darth Maul, also non-verbal, which I’m sure was an intentional choice to draw the comparison with Vader. But this falls short in terms of being a defining statement. Maul is just a flickery image on a hologram, introduced at the end of a meeting between Sidious and the Trade Federation, as a sort of vague threat. Maul steps into the holoimage when called by Sidious, but aside from his somewhat fearsome appearance – though, we don’t see the nice colouring that really marked him out – he’s a non-entity. We learn nothing about him here, in terms of genuine character, just that he is Sidious’ lackey. He doesn’t have a sense of authority, ruthlessness or contempt, he just looks tough. That’s not enough.


I wonder if Maul really was just standing a bit away from the holoreader.

So, through the villains introduction, distinctness of physical form and defining statement to outline themselves and their motivations, we have the picture of an effective antagonist formed. But we do need something more from the early stages, that little extra kick to mark the villain out as the person they are in the story being told. And I mean that in a semi-literal way.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Childers Reforms

By the later part of the 19th century, the British Army had grown from a glorified part-time militia into a professional cross-continental behemoth, at the forefront of military tactics and technology. But with this expansion came problems, namely a messy organisational structure, tied into the sheer volume of regiments that existed on the books, exacerbated by the absorption of the British East India Company military in the aftermath of the Indian Revolt.

The British government spent a lot of time on the problem, as no great power could be so if their military was not in the best shape possible (or, at the very least, looked like it was in the best shape possible). To that end a series of reforms were launched, most notably those of Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, and Hugh Childers, in the same position, in 1881, the latter having the bigger impact. Throughout the scope of the British Army, regiments and battalions were merged together to form new regiments, tied to specific geographical operating and recruiting areas.

Ireland was no exception to this process, and from the Childers Reforms came some of the most famous of the named Irish regiments, that would serve in the remaining British colonial wars and then the storm of World War One, as well as for some of the Irish revolutionary period. I’d like to take the opportunity to go through who came out on the other side of the reforms, tied to Ireland in whatever way. And yes, if you were wondering, this edition of Ireland’s Wars is going to be about military reorganization. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

The new regiments were to be organised on a battalion basis, with those based in Ireland to consist of two “Line” battalions – professional regulars – and three militia regiments of various types, occasionally light infantry, who could form a third battalion at need. Direct threats to the British mainland were at a low ebb in this period, and so the local militia were more about being a reservist force for the regulars than a pro-active home defence.

The new merging and renamings did away with the previous number systems that had characterised so many regiments, but unofficially many of the new entities would continue to use old designations. The idea with having two regular battalions was for the possibility of switching off to become the common method of practise: every time one battalion was on overseas service, the other would be based at home. This made sense in an era of colonial wars, but of course much of this would go out the window in 1914.

We’ll start with the Royal Irish Regiment, with the two battalions of the 18th Foot now officially recognised as such. The militia of Wexford, North Tipperary and Kilkenny would join them in the newly constituted entity, establishing the RIR’s primary recruitment ground as the south-east of the country.

The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment was joined with one of the Company regiments, the 108th Madras Infantry, to form the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Joining them would be the Tyrone, Donegal, Londonderry and Fermanagh militia, their recruiting area to be the north and north-west, criss-crossing through a mix of Catholic and Protestant areas.

The 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment and the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment became the Royal Irish Rifles, joined by the militia of Down, South Down, Antrim and Louth, with an operational area in the north-east. This regiment is perhaps better known by its later, post-1922 title of the Royal Ulster Rifles: despite the fact that it began with half of its “line” battalions being from Dublin, it is most strongly associated with Belfast.

The 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment and the 89th (Princess Victoria’s) Regiment formed the Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s). They were joined by the militia of Armagh and Cavan and had their recruiting area extend into Monaghan, at least until 1922. This regiment would become known as the Faughs or Fogs, after the traditional Irish battle-cry of “Faugh a Ballagh” (Clear the way).

The Connacht Rangers we are already well familiar with: this regiment, the 88th, would keep its title when merged with the less illustrious 94th, nominally a Scottish unit. Combined with the Mayo, Galway and Roscommon militias, it naturally occupied the western province as its operational area. Both parts of this new regiment happened to be on foreign service when the union came – the 88th in India, the 94th in South Africa – and they both barely missed a beat amid continuing colonial expeditions and military operations far outside their native Connacht.

Two Company regiments with a largely Irish make-up – the 101st Royal Bengal Fusiliers and the 103rd Bengal Fusiliers – would come together to form the Royal Munster Fusiliers. In line with the Cork, Kerry and Limerick militia, its operational area was obviously Munster, taking in the county of Clare as well. The RMF would be based in Tralee: in 1898, my great-grandfather would join them.

Similarly two other Company regiments – the 102nd Royal Madras Fusiliers and the 103rd Royal Bengal Fusiliers – would form the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. In combination with the Dublin and Kildare militia, this regiment would cover the capital and its surrounding area, up to and including the Curragh military camp, though its HQ was actually in the nearby Naas.

We must also mention the Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment, with the somewhat confusing addendum of “Royal Canadians”, formed from the 100th Royal Canadians and the 109th Bombay Infantry. It would include the militias of King’s County (Offaly), Queens County (Laois) and Meath. Despite the name, the regiment was largely recruited from the Irish midlands, and would be based in Birr.

These eight regiments thus formed the basis for British military command in Ireland, in combination with the existing cavalry units that were not reorganised or amalgamated in a similar fashion: the 8th Hussars and the 6th Dragoons for example, would continue to exist as they had before. This reorganisation neatens things up a bit, but it is only temporary: when the time came for the Great War, the British Divisional system would once again confuse things when it comes to the Irish regiments.

For now, we will take things as they are and look at how the Irish regiments were sent on the last great British colonial adventure of the 19th century. In the nascent South Africa, British expansion was being resisted, and not just by the usually easily handled natives. It was time for for the word “Boer” to become part and parcel with Irish military history.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Get Out

Get Out


Run, run, run, run, run


Right off the top: as a rule, I hate horror movies, and nearly always have. Some people get off on being thrilled in a cinema seat, by having their worst nightmares played out in front of them, but I am certainly not one of those people. I will go out of my way to avoid horror films whenever I can. So, how did I end up seeing this then, Jordan Peele’s first directorial feature? Blame the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, that had Get Out as its surprise film on its final day. Not unlike a standard horror premise, I was the one trapped in an experience I initially was worried about as the first scene unfolded: was Get Out a darkly comedic tour de force that the director is usually associated with, or the kind of off-putting jump scare fest that so marks the genre?

African-American photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) travels upstate to visit the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) for the first time. Mild awkwardness abounds as Chris deals with the reaction to the inter-racial relationship, until a succession of increasingly disturbing incidents unveils a sinister side to Rose’s family.

Get Out is a singular experience, at once making me quite scared and at others moments making me laugh out loud, and quite loud too. It’s unique twist on the standard horror set-up – this time, it’s the black guy who is the stranger in an increasingly strange land – seems like the kind of thing ripe for a Key and Peele send-up, but Get Out is firstly and primarily a very effective chiller, that manages to offer pertinent commentary on the current state of race relations in America in a very engaging manner.

Horror often works best when it takes an issue and maximizes it, exaggerates, blows it up to ridiculous proportion, making the genre a grim sort of satirical platform. Fear of violent street crime in The Purge, STI’s in It Follows, the lingering effects of depression in The Babadook, the list goes on and on. Get Out chooses for its issue the way that white people approach black people and black culture in predominantly white surrounds, and why the evident behaviour is a problem, and it does it in a spectacular way.

It’s a slippery but inevitable slope. A local cop demands to see Chris’ ID for no reason after Rose hits a deer. Chris arrives and deals with the inevitable “My man” from Rose’s very white bread family, who happen to have a black maid and a black groundskeeper. The father (Bradley Whitford) very unsubtly talks about how much he admires Barack Obama, the epitome of a middle-class liberal trying to showcase his progressive credentials. Later, her drunk brother talks about how Chris’ “genetics” make him built for a UFC career. In a family re-union, the comments on Chris are about the size of his muscles (and other body parts), how “cool” it is to be black and awkwardly shaking hands with an offered fist bump. Perverse objectification, gradual de-humanisation, it’s all here, and the beauty of Get Out in its depiction of this is how it allows the audience to experience it as if we were Chris.

This is all good enough, but it’s in the way that Peele ups the ante at a constant level that Get Out finds its strength. The black “staff” are stand-offish and creepy. Rose’s mother is a psychiatrist with a penchant for invasive hypnotherapy. One of the family’s friends has a black husband 30 years younger than her who acts strangely. And bit by bit, scene by scene, the tension is ratcheted up as Chris slowly begins to think that he’s at the centre of a very warped situation, where white appropriation of black culture and white comfortableness with black people being dependent on black people acting like white people is taken to a horrifying extreme. And, like the deer he hits on the car journey to Rose’s home, maybe Chris should be running away as fast as he can. Early on Whitford’s character muses happily, on his varied travels, ““It’s such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture.” Later it becomes clear that this was a chilling preamble. Like all horror movies, Get Out is at its best when setting up and presenting its central mystery, and maybe not so good once the big reveal is made, but the journey to get there is still one I was surprisingly enthralled with.


Kaluuya is a true revelation.

Daniel Kaluuya isn’t someone I’m all that familiar with, but I’m impressed by him on the basis of Get Out, where he has to channel the kind of energy James Stewart had in Vertigo or more recently with Leonardo Di Caprio in Shutter Island: that of a man trying to convince others, and maybe himself, that he isn’t going crazy and that bad things really are happening all around him. After all, he’s the black guy in a horror movie, traditionally slated to die first: Kaluuya takes that trope and applies it to the African-American experience in general, giving off a nervousness from his very first scene, positing that he might be chased off with a shotgun when he arrives at his girlfriend’s house (if only, as it turns out). Playing the odd man out in a story with heavy racial allegories is a big task, but Kaluuya rises to it very well, giving Chris a suitable initial meekness that gradually changes into something else, saying volumes in every moment of silent reaction to the racism of others. Sequences where he remembers his deceased mother or the third act revelations allow him to chance to emote more traditionally: he does a great job, ably playing off William’s more reserved Rose or the other denizens of the upstate surrounds, most notably Whitford’s Dad (channelling more than a little of The Cabin In The Woods) or Stephen Root as a blind relative of Rose’s.

What makes Get Out especially interesting are the extra steps it takes in its faux-demonisation of white people, as if to playfully mock the predominantly white audience that will be viewing the film. Jump scare strings erupt when black characters walk into frame in the background doing nothing especially scary. At a family reunion, everyone arrives in a black Merc. Rose’s Dad reveals her grandfather missed out on going to the 1936 Olympics because of Jesse Owens, taking the opportunity for another bit of overcompensation in his treatment of Chris (and setting up something very important for later). Chris’ friend repeatedly posits that the strange behaviour of Rose’s family probably means they are in the sex slave trade. But when the film wants to get scary, boy does it scary, most seriously in a set of sequences set in the suitably described “Sunken Place”, where Peele demonstrates his understanding that abstract concepts are more chilling than direct physical danger.

Less subtle is the violence that encapsulates the films conclusion, that calls to mind the likes of Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight in its efforts to act as a cipher for black anger at white oppression, a revenge fantasy you cheer on because of the unreality of it, a far-cry from a Trayvon Martin-esque encounter in the opening scene that seems all too real: an innocent young black man waylaid on a suburban footpath for no other reason than he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps a worse horror than anything Peele can come up with.

Where Get Out somewhat goes off the rails is in its efforts to be both a horror and a comedy, mainly through the aforementioned friend, TSA agent Rod (Lil Rey Howley), so black as to be a black stereotype. Rod is removed from the majority of the action but provides entertaining and hilarious asides in phone calls to Chris, and when he enacts his own investigation of what’s going on later (that culminates in a truly special trip to the local police station)). The problem is that, while funny, these cutaways serve to drain some of the tension from the primary part of the story. This might well have been Peele’s mission, and the point of his script, but I do feel like Get Out isn’t all it could have been in the horror stakes because of the constant need to insert those laughs, as funny as they frequently are. This isn’t like the quip problem that a lot of Hollywood blockbusters have nowadays, but more likely a case of a comedic artist like Peele being unable to seperate himself entirely from his base.

His script is still quite intelligently written though. The Rod stuff is pure comedy, from the moment he first opines that the lack of frisking for elderly people at the airport means that the next 9/11 will be carried out by an OAP, all the way to his stumbling attempts to explain his radical theories on sex slavery to a Police detective. There’s an intelligence to it all as well though, namely in how Rod anchors Chris in the world he came from even as he gets drawn deeper into the dangerous world of the Armitage family. In this house, there’s a distinctiveness to all of the characters: the overcompensating father, the intense mother, the disturbed brother and the sweetly naïve Rose, with Chris right at the centre of it all. The scripts commentary on race is meshed so well with the chills that you find yourself surprised at how the film is engaging your brain even as it does the same with your “Fight or Flight” reflex.

Peele directs his debut simply enough: in terms of the visual direction and pacing, I was most impressed with his skill in melding the appropriate moments with the appropriate musical beats from a score that is as horror-centric as it comes. Get Out has a fixation on faces, and especially on eyes, that frequently get intense close-ups at crucial moments. This kind of fixed point framing, in line with the jaunting music and the increasing creepiness of the premise, successfully imbues a lot of frames with this disconcerting, discombobulated feeling, that Get Out needs to rise above the inherent zaniness of its plot. The production is restrained enough, as you would expect from a Blumhouse film. Low-budget horror with almost no extras or frills is their bread and butter (a fascinating piece here on how they work) and Get Out is more likely to follow the path of Insidious and Sinister than the host of forgotten efforts they routinely roll the dice on.

Get Out then subverted and exceeded my expectations in almost every way. It’s a horror film that I actually enjoyed for one thing, but much more importantly, it’s a horror film that made me think. I’ve rarely seen the issue of race in American approached with this much aplomb and inventiveness in film, and all from a debut director as well. Perhaps it should have just picked one of comedy and horror to focus on as occasionally the blending is counter-productive, but that’s forgivable in a film that so evocatively tackles the issue of race relations, and dares to paint a picture where black and white may not end up hand in hand in the end, and may indeed be intrinsically divided by our prejudices. It’s a good cast, a good script and Peele has the chops to make a fine director. It made me, someone who shies away from this genre as a rule, quite satisfied. It’s due for general release this month, and you should help make sure it becomes the hit it deserves to be. Highly recommended.


Already one of the years best.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Indian Revolt

Having looked at the history of the Royal Irish Regiment through most of the 19th century, we must take some time to have a look at the experience of some other “named” Irish regiments, with a particular focus on one of the most famous upheavals in the British Empire.

India had gradually come under a greater and greater amount of British control throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, through both the efforts of their own military and the immensely powerful semi-state actors epitomised by the British East India Company, corporations that had their own armies. By 1857, the Company had control over a huge proportion of what we would recognise as India today, either directly or through client states and Kingdoms. The rebellion of 1857 saw its genesis from multiple issues, mostly based around local “sepoys” recruited into the Company’s  military.

Concerns over the mixing of castes, the loss of privileges as Company domination advanced and requirements that Indian soldiers be available to serve overseas all caused resentment, until the final pivotal spark was caused by a flagrant piece of disrespect showed to the religious beliefs of India’s Hindu and Muslim populations. New rifles distributed to troops came with balls wrapped in greased paper, derived from cattle and pigs. Though some British commanders recognized the problem this would cause to Hindu and Muslim soldiers, and made moves to change things, the act inflamed rumours that the British were out to destroy India’s dominant religions and force Christian conversion. In late April and early May of 1857, open revolt broke out around Meerut and Delhi, by Bengal Army troops in Company service.

The rebels seized towns and besieged others, with the conflict springing up throughout India, taking in Company client Kingdoms and other states. The initial British response was muddled, owing to their limited military capability – once you discounted potentially treacherous sepoys – and the large size of the land they had to try and re-take. The British government, stepping in when it was clear the Company was incapable of dealing with the problem alone, was soon sending a sizable force to put down the rebellion, most of which arrived in 1858. The campaign to re-take the parts of India in revolt mostly consisted then of small battles, brief sieges and the occasional assault, with the advanced co-ordinated forces of the British mostly riding roughshod over the rebels, with a few exceptions. With the main centres of the revolt confined to just a few territories, the British victory was more a matter of time than anything else. In line with some units already stationed in India, this effort drew in a surprisingly large amount of named Irish regiments. Some, like the 86th Royal County Down Regiment of Foot or the 27th Inniskilling would have unexceptional service that is largely forgotten, but others would make their mark.

The two most notable named Irish units to be engaged in India during this time were probably the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars, a cavalry force, and the 83rd Regiment of Foot, mostly recruited from around the Irish capital, and soon to carry Dublin’s name. The 83rd was already in India on garrison duty when the rebellion started, its various companies scattered across a wide area. In the face of the sepoy revolt, they soon coalesced into a more cohesive unit, stationed around the Mount Aroo area, spending their time disarming Indian soldiers and resisting piecemeal attacks. Reinforced in mid-September, they struck out offensively, with mixed results.

A larger group, backed by local horse artillery, advanced towards the town of Awah. They were met by unexpectedly fierce resistance from locals and sepoys, and fell back after an unsuccessful attack on 18 September. Clearly, the rebels were not going to be as big a pushover as the British would have hoped, at least in certain areas. The 83rd refocused and successfully attacked the rebel held village of Nimbhera on the 20 September before breaking into the rebel held fort at Jeerun the following month. Unfortunately, the isolation of the 83d again became a problem at this point, as they were themselves besieged by Indian troops. The siege lasted just over two weeks, from the ninth to the 23rd of November, before the garrison was relieved by a force sent from Mhow.

Secured, the regiment concentrated at Nusseerabad, and after further reinforcements had arrived, it moved to once again attack the fortress at Awah. The 83rd began a siege operation there on the 19th January 1858, and the defenders were obliged to abandon the fortress just four days later, whereupon the 83rd destroyed what defences still existed, lest counter-attacking rebels were able to retake it. The regiment then joined the two newly arrived British brigades brought together to attack the town of Kotah; this operation took in the latter part of March, when the city was finally captured after a three-pronged assault, one part of which was led directly by the 83rd.

The 83rd’s final significant act in the rebellion ties into the experience of the 8th Hussars, and their role in the significant fighting at Gwalior. Lakshmibai, a queen of Jahnsi State, had become one of the most notable leader of rebel groups fighting the British, until an expeditionary force under Sir Henry Rose seized Jahnsi and forced the queen to flee. A serious of failed engagements with British forces followed, culminating in the fighting at Gwalior, a city and fort of great strategic significance, that the rebels were unable to adequately defended from British attack. The 8th Hussars were engaged directly against a force of Indians commanded by Lakshmibai, in a brutal cavalry attack that left thousands of Indians dead, among them Lakshmibai herself. She has become somewhat of a mythical figure for Indian nationalists. A European equivalent would perhaps be someone like Joan of Arc or Boudicca. And it is likely that she was shot down by an Irish cavalryman.

In June and July sections of the 83rd was sent to protect towns from rebel forces retreating from Gwalior, with battles fought at Sanganer on 8 August and Kotharia on 14 August. Another detachment was sent east fighting at Seekur and Koshana during the close of the campaign, that ended in a total British victory.

Gwalior was one of the more spectacular moments of an otherwise confusing morass of military operations that equate to the British put-down of the rebellion. By the middle of 1859, the fighting was essentially done, though, as in so many places in the British Empire, the lingering resentments that birthed the revolt and were exacerbated by the counter-attack would only ferment more unrest down the line.

The Irish experience in the revolt is, as demonstrated, somewhat limited in terms of historical and popular remembrance: there were few moments of epic clashes or glorious victory to be found in the fighting and the Irish, whether in British or Company uniform, have seen their service ion the sub-continent mostly forgotten in the larger historical context of the 19th century. But the revolt did have one very important consequence for the named Irish regiments and other units. In the aftermath, and continuing for the next few decades, the British Army began the process of absorbing the Company regiments, and then combining them with pre-existing units. For many of them, this would mean standardizing their names based on their primary recruiting areas. Ireland was about to get some new regiments.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Their Finest

Their Finest



Oh what a lovely war

And back into the Blitz we go. After the somewhat underwhelming Allied of last year failed to really get the heart racing with its depiction of wartime London, I was bit more interested in this, a look at British efforts to craft engaging, morale-raising, American enticing films during the Second World War, and all through a sort of dramedy lens. While the director, Lone Scherfig, isn’t a mainstream name (mostly Danish work, then the Oscar nominated An Education, and 2014’s forgettable The Riot Club), she’s a woman directing a World War Two film, a rarity that deserves consideration. Backed by the BBC, she’s gathered an impressive cast too: the continually under-rated Gemma Arterton, rising star Sam Claflin and the ever-great Bill Nighy, along with a host of others in minor roles. So, was Their Finest everything it potentially could be, or another dour trek through the grim surrounds of broken mortar and bland sentiment? I saw an advanced screening of Their Finest during the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.

In the darkest hours of the Blitz, Catrin Cole (Arterton) takes a job at the Ministry of Information writing “slop”: women’s dialogue for propaganda films, under the supervision of cynical Tom Buckley (Claflin). The two are soon the driving force behind the Ministry’s most ambitious project yet: a film about civilians rescuing soldiers from Dunkirk, that reluctantly draws in a past-his-prime veteran Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy). While dealing with their own burgeoning relationship, Catrin and Tom must deal with a host of different pressures: the government that wants their film to be a rallying cry to an American audience, Catrin’s struggling artist husband (Jack Huston) and the constant chance that the next bomb is for them.

It’s not rare that I see a film that is trying to be many different things at once, with differing plotlines, themes and messages attempting, and more often than not failing, to have all of the cake and eat it too. But what is rare is a film that does this, and actually pulls it off, for the most part. Their Finest, to my surprise and delight, is one of those rare films, a film about the war, about filmmaking, about women, about death, about getting older, about comedy, and about romance, that manages to pull it all off, mostly. Adapted from the novel by Lissa Evans, Their Finest is a sleeper hit in the making.

In terms of being about the war, and this mostly well-explored little section of it, Their Finest is an engaging success. Scherfig eschews showing any actual fighting on distant fronts, in favour of an almost exclusively civilian focused framing. It would be east for Their Finest to turn into a maudlin, sentimental portrayal of the “Blitz spirit”, but instead we get a film that focuses mostly on the randomness of the violence, where one never knows if the building they are in is going to be rubble in a moment. The bombs go off and people just have to pick up the pieces, literally, in a film of subdued colours and restrictive lighting. The “C’est la guerre” spirit of sexual liberality and gallows humour abounds, in line with awful tragedy: a particularly striking moment sees Catrin start laughing when the bodies she sees after a bombing turn out to be shopfront mannequins, until she happens upon the one real corpse.

In terms of being about film-making, it’s a really fascinating tale. Catrin starts off re-dubbing short films urging the citizens of Britain to grow their own carrots, but soon jumps into The Nancy Starling, a romantic tale about twin sisters who steal their uncles boat to go and rescue a boyfriend and an American journalist at Dunkirk. It’s supposedly based on a true story, but the real sisters broke down halfway there (and there was no American): when the obvious untruth is pointed out, Tom retorts that instead it will be based on 338’000 true stories, making the prescient comment that you should never let “facts get in the way of truth, and truth in the way of a good story”: a phrase that makes one think of more than one current news story.

Catrin is caught up in a game of constant re-writes to accommodate every need: a love story, an American in Dunkirk, a comedically drunk uncle with a serious side, a rescued dog, a British boat that isn’t allowed to breakdown (bad for morale): watching her and Tom jump through the hoops and square the circles is an entertaining movie in itself, helped by the multitude of supporting players, not least Bill Nighy’s magnetic Hilliard, once a legendary screen detective, and now a deadbeat seemingly out of decent roles: when he finds out he’s tapped to play the drunken uncle he despairingly reads the description in an hilariously horrified tone: “A shipwreck of a man; Sixties, looks older!”

But there’s heart aplenty and the creation of a film I sort of wanted to watch: when Catrin transforms Uncle Frank into a tragic figure, who, dying, thinks the male leads are his sons lost in World War One, I actually felt sad for the fictional creation inside a fictional creation, Their Finest capturing how something as rigmarole and straightforward as scriptwriting can conjure up audience emotions from words on a page. Tom gets to the heart of why it is so, commenting that stories with structure narrative and a (usually happy) ending are preferable to the complicatedness of reality. The film isn’t so much a love letter to that era of film-making in the same vein as Hail, Caesar! or La La Land, but is content to showcase both the power and the pitfalls of propaganda in a free society, combined with a lot of laughter and tears. Scherfig delights in shining a light on production details, like matte paintings, windowed backgrounds and basic miniatures, that give you a nice feel of what film-making at the time was like, without ever becoming overly-praising.

In terms of being a film about women, Their Finest also succeeds admirably. It never turns into a soap opera in its portrayal of female characters taking on male jobs, but makes its point briefly and succinctly about how the role of women in wartime isn’t something that could be altered easily once the fighting stopped: as one character puts it, men are worried women “will refuse to go back into our box” after the guns cease firing. The crisis over The Nancy Starling comes down to who will be the hero who saves the day at the end: the reliable British Tommy, the chiselled handsome American, or, as Catrin wants, the twin sisters. The argument flows back and forth, about gender roles in film, in line with the balance of power in the Catrin/Tom relationship. In the end, the power of women in Their Finest is ever present: from making bullets in the opening scene to making movies by the end.

Their Finest Hour and A HalfDirected by Lone Sherfig

Nighy’s Hilliard is a real scene-stealer.

At the heart of all of this is that romance plot between Catrin and Tom, which, if the film has a significant weakpoint, might just be it. It isn’t that the romantic element is unwelcome in the surrounds of this narrative, but it is a little forced, and it is a little by-the-books: until it spectacularly isn’t, in a third act swerve you might not see coming but that is utterly fitting in the kind of story Their Finest is trying to tell. Gemma Arterton has yet to really grasp the kind of role that will elevate her beyond drek like Hansel And Gretel or the beauty-centric stuff that saw her get an extended cameo in Quantum Of Solace. But she can act: Byzantium showed that spectacularly, and she’s done some Shakespeare in her time too. Here, she really imbues Catrin with this aching sense of struggle. She isn’t the kind of feminist icon to make big speeches (the films look called to mind the disappointing Suffragette, but there is a large contrast between the two otherwise), but has a quieter assertiveness to her. Her mission is to make a film both accurate and optimistic, and she’s trying to be ever-optimistic in her private life too, despite the struggles of her distant wounded husband. Trying to be a doting housewife and the feminist forefront, Atherton’s Catrin is torn in two, and she portrays that division with aplomb.

The romance equation is completed by the surprisingly enjoyable Claflin, moving beyond his Hunger Games heartthrob phase and the sickly sweet You Before Me in a charmingly cynical role that displays real maturity, the downbeat but irrepressible Buckley, who struggles with growing feelings for Catrin. It could ruin the feminist leanings the film portrays at times, but Their Finest manages, just about, to make it fit: the romance between Catrin and Buckley is an addendum to the drive for greater female parts to play in society, not a replacement for it.

Nighy’s part deserves some attention all of its own. He gives the film some of its very best humour as the bombastic, arrogant and utterly charming Ambrose Hilliard, still caught thinking he’s the same man who wowed audiences decades previously when he’s becoming just another also-ran. It would be easy for him to just be another comic foil to more serious characters, but Their Finest, in line with a general tone of mixing bleak reality with black comedy, makes him a much more interesting figure, who faces of choice between irrelevancy and evolving himself into something more than just a pompous artist. A striking scene occurs when he is obligated to identify a friend killed in a bombing: his duty done, another air raid starts, and the morgue nurses invite him to stay: “We have plenty of room” they gently offer, to his horror. Hilliard’s story is of getting older in a world where the young are dying at a more frequent rate: it’s effectively tinged with melancholy, but not without some British-style optimism, brought brilliantly to the screen by the ever capable Nighy, not too far-off his Love, Actually turn here, enjoying a nice back-and-forth with Helen McCrory’s Polish agent.

Most importantly, the film is largely about death: how it happens, how we approach it, and how we move beyond it, both its immediate effects and the crippling fear of it. Tom outlines his belief, upon hearing that a college has suffered a loss, that death is never “for anything”, it’s just something that happens, a sentiment that flies in the face of the propaganda message he’s trying to instil onscreen. Their Finest takes that idea and runs with it, George R.R. Martin style, showcasing instances of death and loss as randomly as possible, be it from German bombs or random misfortunes. But where with Martin it frequently comes off as hackneyed and lazy, in the world of Their Finest that of Blitz and of bombs, it fits, and ties in with the general tone of C’est la guerre I discussed earlier.

Gaby Chiappe’s script is a fine one: full of dry British wit mixed with suitable amounts of wartime drama, dramedy in the finest sense. A special treat is Jake Lacy’s enthusiastic but artistically deaf Carl Lundbeck, the American RAF pilot conscripted into being The Nancy Starling’s resident Yank, who delivers his dialogue in run-on sentences while smiling directly at the camera, but there’s also recurring scenes with a dog (both in the film and without), Nighy’s loquacious sneering and Richard E. Grant’s baffled expression as Jeremy Irons’ Minister of War (two brief, but effective, cameos), rambles out Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech in a secret briefing. There’s a warmth amid all the black humour, that exemplifies the reaction of a people under fire.

While Scherfig lacks great panache in her visual direction, Their Finest is still a good-looking production, bridging the gap between humdrum reality with its bombed-out buildings, grey skies and brown offices and the world of film with its sepia tones, soft light and production fakery. Catrin’s reaction to a recent bomb detonation is an inspired sequence, as is her finally taking the time top watch her creation towards the end. It’s interesting to look at how the world of film closer to the event treated Dunkirk, now that we are only a few months away from Christopher Nolan’s modern take on the subject matter (stay tuned): Scherfig maintains her distance from the event in question, satisfied with Devon coastline recreations.

Their Finest has relegated itself to the festival circuit thus far, and apparently will see a wider release soon enough. I don’t know how much of a success I can reasonably expect it to be. But it really does deserve a bigger audience than the kind of numbers festival darlings usually get. It shines a light on an interesting portion of the British World War Two experience, and resonates with effective sub-plots and overall themes. The cast is uniformly great, the script is wonderful and the visual direction does what is required. This should be next step in the ladder of Arterton’s career, a suitable lifting-off point for Claflin and another feather in the cap of Nighy. For Scherfig, it’s something that should give her a lot more mainstream attention, if there’s any justice. Highly recommended.


Well worth watching.

(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Royal Irish Regiment In The 19th Century

We’ve rapidly run out of expressly Irish topics to talk about when it comes to the 19th century, and the next time we turn back to the island of Ireland, we will be on the approach to the twin conflicts of the revolutionary period and the First World War. But in terms of the last two dozen or so entries, one thing we haven’t really touched on is the Irish experience within the British military. As noted here, I’m fairly selective when it comes to the study of the “named” regiments and divisions, because it’s all too easy to get lost in the confusing morass of defunct units, merged units, split battalions, name changes, government reforms and a truly epic succession of colonial wars of different sizes. Before we take a look at the way things stood with the named regiments post 1881, I thought it instructive to take a look at a few examples of what Irish regiments were up in British service, from before and after the end of the Crimean War to the last decades of the 19th century, an approach that will take a great deal less time than if we were going war by war.

Service in the British military still had all of the attractions it previously had, and for a country that suffered so terribly during the famine, the choice to “take the shilling” could be as much a matter of survival as actually engaging in combat on the battlefield. Aside from that, military service offered (somewhat) steady pay, the lure of adventure and, in the case of some, the possibility of social advancement denied in other areas of life. Irish would have joined up to get experience in warfare so they could fight the British for Irish freedom in the future, as much as they would have joined up to expand and solidify the great Empire of Queen Victoria, that took in Canada, large sections of southern Africa, Egypt, India, Australia and New Zealand.

When we last mentioned the Royal Irish Regiment (better known at the time as the 18th Regiment of Foot) they had taken part in the defence of Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, though they failed to gain the same renown or merit as entities like the Connacht Rangers. Service in Canada meant they had missed the opportunity to be at Waterloo, and they would have to wait nearly 30 years for the chance to march into battle again, in very different circumstances. That conflict provides a decent example of the kind of conflicts the British military found itself fighting throughout the 19th century.

What we call the “First Opium War” today is a classic instance of British imperial reach and “gunboat diplomacy”: namely how having a strong, modern navy could allow a European power the chance to throw its weight to great effect halfway round the world, in conflicts based around trade and commerce. As the name suggest, the Opium Wars between Britain and China were primarily about the drug trade in and out of China and the Qing Dynasty’s efforts to dispel it by clamping down on commercial trade routes, something the British government decided to overturn by force. In a larger sense, the war was about showing the Chinese who was boss, and inflicting the kind of decisive military defeat that would lead to preferential trade agreements in the future.

The war was mostly fought at the mouths of several of China’s great rivers, most notably the Pearl – the area of Hong Kong and Canton (today Guangzhou) -, the Qiantang and the Yangtze. British fleets roamed the Chinese coasts, attacking enemy ships, bombarding enemy ports and landing troops sailed from British India: among them was the 18th Foot.

The ground combat of the Opium War was what you would mostly expect if you had any passing knowledge of the colonial wars of the 19th century. The British were organised, relatively well-led and armed with the most up-to-date guns, namely rifles, while the Chinese forces they faced were the opposite in most respects, if not lacking in courage, lacking in everything else.

The British regulars, including the Royal Irish Regiment, were engaged in multiple confrontations and assaults. At the Battle of Canton in May 1841 the 18th was placed on the right flank of the force that took the city, pushing through limited resistance from the Qing forces and greater tenacity from armed locals. Three months later they were part of the successful effort to storm the city of Amoy, from which a famous painting of the regiment was made, a standard seaborne assault carried off with few casualties sustained.

From there, the 18th worked its way up the coast with the fleet, helping to take Chauzun and Tzeki, and winning battles at Ningpo, Woosung and, in the last act of the war, Chinkiang. Everywhere they went, the poor-quality defenders were overwhelmed. Of the 19’000 or so British military personnel committed, only 69 would die in combat, while the Chinese were dying in their thousands. The Treaty Of Nanking, that ceded Hong Kong to the British, was the first in a series of diplomatic agreements that radically re-altered the Chinese strategic position after the First Opium War was concluded.

From there the 18th was briefly engaged during the Crimean War, assisting during the brutal Siege of Sevastopol, before its 2nd Battalion was sent back into the service of British colonial pursuits, this time even further afield than China: in the British efforts to grab more and more of New Zealand from the native Maori tribes. In the 1860’s the local colonial government, backed by newly arrived British regulars, was pushing out from the Auckland. The campaign had its difficulties – operating on the forefront of the British Empire, in the rugged terrain of New Zealand’s North Island, meant that supply problems and the slim chances of reinforcement were issues – but eventually the 18th, in line with other regiments, was able to force Maori opposition back, grabbing 12’000 square kilometres of extra land for the British colonial government in New Zealand.

Brief service in the Second Anglo-Afghan War and the Anglo-Egyptian War brought the 18th up to the latter part of the 19th century, and its official name change to that of the Royal Irish Regiment. It’s experience of the 19th century is fairly typical – small campaigns against mostly under-developed opponents, where British technology, leadership and experience all proved key. At no point, save maybe in the Crimea, did the RIR come up against an opponent that truly threatened its existence. There would come a time soon enough though, when British regiments, the Riyal Irish included, would face the maelstrom.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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