The news that the military barracks in Castlebar is to be repurposed as a public space for outdoor events, among other uses, has been warmly welcomed in the town, where the landmark site has lain fallow for over 20 years. Local history students are equally excited that the work may uncover the footprint of the original Barry’s Castle, from which the town gets its name.
Many may be unaware that the historic site is more properly the Castlebar Infantry Barracks, the other wing of British administration being the cavalry barracks, situated across the Green where the Garda station now stands. To judge by its size, the equine complement of the Castlebar garrison must have been fairly limited, but the cavalry barracks was most notable as the base for the staff of the 3rd Battalion, the Connaught Rangers.
While the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Rangers were trained, battle-hardened, fighting men, they were known as Battalions of the Line, as they were liable for active service in any part of the British Empire.
The 3rd Battalion, however, was called the ‘militia battalion’, consisting of militiamen from all over south Mayo who had volunteered for home service only. These men would be called into Castlebar once a year to live in and undergo a six-week course of training at the Infantry Barracks, not unlike the practice in the FCA up to some years ago. The colonel of the 3rd Battalion had been Maurice Blake of Towerhill, Ballyglass, who was succeeded by Col Jordan of Thornhill, Kiltimagh.
The staff at the cavalry barracks were permanent appointees, there on a full time basis, and numbered close on 50, including the regimental brass band. They all resided locally, and their workload was none too taxing for the greater part of the year.
Their busiest time came when the militia battalion was called in each year for training. A thousand men had to be accommodated at the infantry barracks, catered for, uniformed, and rifled. The six weeks’ training would be preceded by six weeks’ preparation, and on their departure, it would take a further six weeks to disinfect all bedding, check and repair the rifles, and leave the barracks clean and spotless. It was only then that the permanent staff could return to the cavalry barracks and take things easy until the call to training came the following year.
The entire training of the militia usually took place on the barrack square, the exception being that each of the eight companies would march on different days for rifle practice at the firing range at Raheenbar, close to the road now leading to the Booster Station.
Occasionally, the militia would be drafted to Oranmore for intensive exercises under canvass. This was a big occasion of pomp and ceremony, when the eight companies, each under a colour sergeant, would march down the barracks avenue and through Spencer Street to the station, led by marching bands, colour parties and mounted officers. The streets would be lined with relations, girlfriends and townspeople, all bidding farewell ‘as if they were bound for India’, in the words of one wag.
In the early 1900s, the Battalion was disbanded, and the cavalry barracks gave way to the Office of Public Works. But it left the townspeople with fond memories. One local recorded, as an example of the cordial relations between town and barracks, that when word would get out of the police planning a Sunday raid on the public houses, ‘the sergeant’s mess in the barracks became the Mecca of thirsty locals, where the company and atmosphere were most convivial’.